Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby was in Egypt last week to launch a new province of the Anglican Church in North Africa and the Horn of Africa.
He led the faithful in prayers, inspected charities, and met with the Coptic Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Coptic Orthodox patriarchs of Alexandria during the visit.
Welby, a modest but articulate and precise man, spoke firmly of the need for fairness and justice to prevail across the world, particularly in North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and the Middle East.
He called for a negotiated settlement to disagreements over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and the Palestinian-Israeli struggle and for an end to all forms of discrimination by the followers of one faith against another.
He also met with the grand imam of Al-Azhar in Cairo.
Welby arrived in Egypt last Thursday after attending a conference at the Vatican in Rome where he also had a meeting with the grand imam among other spiritual leaders.
In recent years, he had visited Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories to provide support to the Anglican communities.
During his visit to Cairo, the 105th archbishop of Canterbury told Al-Ahram Weekly that the decision to inaugurate a new province of the Anglican Church with Alexandria as its seat to cover 10 countries in North Africa and the Horn of Africa was not only designed to serve the followers of the Anglican Church in these countries.
Most Christians in these 10 countries, which include Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Mauritania, Chad, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia, are not followers of the Anglican Church.
But Welby said the inauguration of the new province was not necessarily about having a lot of followers of the Church in this part of the world, but instead was about “a vision to show the love of Jesus” through reaching out to those needing support.
The visit and the inauguration of the new province comes against the backdrop of a drop in the numbers of Christians in this part of the world, often due to emigration. Welby said he was aware of this “sad” and “deeply disturbing” fact, which he said was often a function of “persecution and oppression”.
He shared his particular concern over the situation of Christians in Syria and Iraq.
He is hoping that the presence of more clergy in the countries of the region will allow “much more locally based encouragement” to those who might need it.
The need to lend support to believers was a topic of concern that the head of the Anglican Church shared with his counterparts in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, not just in Egypt and the rest of the countries on his itinerary, but also in the Vatican.
He joined over 70 spiritual leaders “who represent over 70 per cent of the people of the world” and a group of international scientists to call on world leaders meeting in Glasgow in the UK in November for the COP26 Climate Change Conference to act to reduce global warming that is having devastating impacts on agriculture and health, among other areas.
Participants in the Vatican meeting, led by Roman Catholic Pope Francis alongside Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, issued an appeal to the leaders meeting in Glasgow to act. “Climate change is a grave threat,” it said. “We advocate for common but differentiated climate action at all levels.”
Speaking to the Weekly at the Anglican All Saints Cathedral in Zamalek, Welby said that a participating bishop from the Global South at the meeting had told him that for citizens of the North the issue of climate change was a reason for worry for the coming generations, but for those in the South it was a very pressing concern already.
“He told me that for you it is something for your children or grandchildren [to worry about], but for us it is a matter of life or death today,” he stressed.
This soft-mannered but vocal clergyman could not be more articulate on the need for world leaders to act now to address the issue of climate change, which if left inadequately attended to will add to world levels of hunger, he said.
These had started to show a decrease during the past few years before rising as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. “Spiritual leaders need to be clear about how [wrong] it is for people to go hungry,” Welby said.
Hunger, he added, might be more of a problem for the Global South than it is for the North, but it is also something for the people of the North to worry about. He said that in the UK today there are close to one million children who have to deal with issues related to food security.
Spiritual leaders, he said, have to “keep nagging” world leaders to act promptly on this and other issues. They have to make sure that their voices are heard and that their contributions to resolve such issues are clear.
“I have to pray and to say that I am willing to do something,” he stressed.
According to the archbishop of Canterbury, attending to issues like global warming, development, education and hunger falls squarely within the mandate of religious institutions.
He complemented the work that some churches in Egypt are doing to equip people to earn their own living. “[One] can hand out food, but human dignity is best served if people earn their own meals,” he said.
Meanwhile, he acknowledged the need for spiritual leaders to consider the receding influence of religious institutions among the younger generations, whose take on faith may be sceptical. This situation, he suggested, is a function of insufficient contact between the religious institutions and the young in a modern way.
“We need to act as Jesus told us to act: to love one another in the same way I [Jesus] loved you,” Welby said.
He said that “a church that does not lead by example, a church that is obsessed by hierarchy,” is a church that is bound to fail the expectations of its followers, particularly the young who are looking for a faith that is “challenging and amazing” and not one that is “boring and pompous”.
“It is a very big challenge,” he agreed.
Another challenge that Welby said was facing spiritual leaders and religious institutions in the world today is standing up against suffering caused by multiple reasons, including political oppression.
He said he was convinced that the joint work of all those who believe in doing good, including spiritual leaders, was essential to face up to the reasons for suffering, including “bad governance,” whereby the best interests of the people are compromised in favour of that of tyrannical rulers.
“Democracy reflects the dignity of human beings… God created people with intrinsic dignity,” he said. “Rich or poor… billionaire or beggar on the street,” everyone is brought into equality through the process of democratic voting in which all have the right to vote.
Welby said that this equality should include all people irrespective of faith. This, he added, should be the main purpose of the dialogue of leaders of different faiths.
“We need to accept that people are different… but [at the same time] people are mixed up,” he said. There needs to be mutual accommodation, as the followers of every faith end up interacting every day.
For spiritual leaders to be able to encourage such mutual acceptance, Welby said, they “need to avoid tea-and-cake dialogue” that does not issue in serious conversation on the harmonious co-existence of the followers of often diverging faiths.
Dialogue, he said, should be “on how we can disagree well.”
The present failure of mutual acceptance might be best summed up in the hatred that is emerging in some European countries against the waves of migration that are causing tens of thousands of people from the south to go to the north of the Mediterranean region.
Welby is unequivocal in stressing the humanitarian responsibility of caring for “aliens and exiles.” However, he adds that at the same time “we must care for the receiving communities as well,” especially since many immigrants may end up in poorer areas where resources are already over-stretched.
For the archbishop of Canterbury, however, it all comes down to the power of loving the other and wanting to act upon this love, just as Christ preached.
It is all about “the need for a vision to show love.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly