The archbishop of Canterbury was raised by an alcoholic and answered God’s call ‘kicking and screaming’. Now, his unorthodox views are at odds with many in his Anglican church. Here he talks about his demons and his mission
Lambeth Palace, mucked about with down the centuries and later badly damaged by German bombs, is something of a muddle, architecturally speaking. Its looming gatehouse, for instance, is early Tudor, built of the same blood-red brick as Hampton Court; while the Great Hall, ransacked by Cromwell’s men during the civil war, is 17th-century gothic (“a new old-fashion hall”, as Pepys had it). As for the building in which the archbishop of Canterbury lives, it is 19th-century neo-gothic, and resembles an Oxford college complete with quadrangle – except, that is, for a few older remains, among them Lollard’s Tower, which dates from 1435 and once housed ecclesiastical prisoners whom the authorities hoped to persuade to renounce their heresy.
Justin Welby’s study, the room where he “reads and works and thinks and prays”, is in yet another tower, also Tudor: a gloomy, somewhat cell-like, wood-panelled affair with – pull back the heavy velvet curtain – a view over the chapel below, where services are held three times a day. It’s unexpectedly touching to be invited to interview him here. There is something so intimate about the sight of his desk, on which there stands not much more than a crucifix, an icon and a Bible, open at Psalm 73 (“My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever”), though we’ve been talking for almost half an hour before he reveals that it was in this room that Thomas Cranmer is reputed to have written The Book of Common Prayer. How does that make him feel, I ask, picturing his long ago predecessor thrusting his right hand into the pyre that would kill him. (Cranmer was executed by Queen Mary, to whose half-sister, Elizabeth, he was godfather, and whose father, Henry VIII… well, you know the rest.)