by Josephine Livingstone
The Archbishop of Canterbury’s website is coded a restful purple, soothing to those in need. The layout is basic, but in the top right-hand corner there is a box. SEARCH, it says. ADVANCED SEARCH, reads the option below. Alas, there was no advanced search needed for those looking to discover the true paternity of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, earlier this month. In a statement issued by the Church of England on April 8 in response to pressure from the media, the Archbishop revealed that his biological father was not whisky salesman Gavin Welby “but, in fact, the late Sir Anthony Montague Browne. This comes as a complete surprise.”
I was at work when my phone buzzed. My parents live in England, and they don’t ring me up at unexpected times. Buzz buzz! It was my dad, trying to find out whether Americans knew the name of the celebrity protected by the high court’s super-injunction. I hung up. Buzz buzz, again! This time it was my mum. Could it be that she, too, was hunting the identity of the super-injunctioned celebrity? Disappointing, if so. But no: “I’m sorry I couldn’t ring earlier,” she said. “The Archbishop of Canterbury has turned out to be illegitimate and Granny is very, very upset.”
For people of my grandmother’s generation, this is a scandal of unbelievable proportions. High-ranking clergy, the royal family, and the aristocratic political dynasties of Britain aren’t just meaningful for her. They’re Michael Jackson-level famous — so distant from her ordinary life that they might as well be creatures of a different species.
Though the younger generation doesn’t give two hoots about the Church, the papers spun this story into real news. If you’re not British, you may not be familiar with the torrential attentions paid by the tabloids to every move and machination made by this slice of old-school British society. They report on the university antics of children of the gentry like the Post reports on fringe Kardashian players. But news it was, and the story came from the Telegraph, the conservative but legitimate-ish newspaper. The paper was proud of having “pieced together the evidence” (which seems to have its roots in longstanding rumor) and then having taken that evidence to the Archbishop. They got him to do a DNA test. In the article announcing their findings, we can see a photograph of the hairbrush that provided the key evidence, captioned “Hairbrush of Anthony Montague Browne.”
Nobody apart from Archbishop Welby seems terribly interested in his mother, Jane. She used to be an alcoholic. She married again, and now holds the rather good title Lady William of Elvers. The news seemed as much a shock to her as to anybody. She told the Telegraph that her relations with Sir Anthony were “fuelled by a large amount of alcohol on both sides.” She raised the Archbishop chaotically, but he stressed in his official statement that he is very proud of his mother’s recovery. When the Daily Mail re-reported her comment, they took out the “on both sides” part, making it sound like she was the drunken initiator. Sir Anthony and Jane slept together “in the days leading up to [Jane’s] very sudden marriage” to Gavin Welby, the man the Archbishop still calls his father.
Sir Anthony, however, was an Important Man. He was of a notable military family, himself earning distinction as a pilot in the Royal Air Force during World War II. He went to work for Winston Churchill in 1952, and remained in his employ until Churchill’s death in 1965. Like Justin Welby, he had mournful eyes under sensitive eyebrows, set in a medium-nice face. According to the Telegraph, Sir Anthony had hinted to his wife over the years that he had a son. But he confirmed the fact to a stepson “when he was shown a picture” of Welby in, conveniently enough, “the Telegraph.” The Telegraph also reported that Sir Anthony and his stepson “spoke in French to avoid being overheard.”
Sir Anthony was part of a scene of power that is interesting to precisely the same generation of British people that cares about whether or not the Archbishop of Canterbury is illegitimate or not. But the Archbishop himself has a bit of a target painted on his back: in 2013, he himself got into a slight media pickle. Archbishop Welby naturally cares a lot about poverty and the lives of ordinary people, so he came out against high-interest loan providers, specifically a company called Wonga (British slang for cash). Wonga advertised to the vulnerable, he said, and “once the loan has been taken out, it is difficult to get out of the cycle.” This is true, of course, but it also happened that the Church of England was financially connected not merely to moneylending, but to Wonga itself (a venture capital firm controlling Church money had invested in it).
Aside from the Wonga snag, Justin Welby has been a pretty good Archbishop. He strongly supports women in the Anglican Church and thinks they should be eligible for consecration as bishops. He does not like Islamophobes and he encouraged the people of Britain to care for rather than fear asylum seekers. He speaks French and likes France. I read on his Wikipedia page that when he was appointed to an earlier bishopric, he said in his speech that his hobbies were “most things French and sailing.”
So, a nice man has been embroiled in scandal here. Or, rather, a sad story has been thrust upon him, but one with a happy ending. Archbishop Welby’s parents raised him drunk: he spoke publicly once about a Christmas day he spent hungry and alone. This change in paternity is clearly a great shock, but not, one gets the feeling, the least likely thing ever to have happened.
The Archbishop of Canterbury hasn’t been plunged into crisis, however, because the kind of man who becomes Archbishop of Canterbury has to be made of very stern spiritual stuff indeed. After that push from the Telegraph, Archbishop’s Welby’s public statement makes it clear that, for him, this is really a story about God’s grace:
Although there are elements of sadness, and even tragedy in my father’s (Gavin Welby’s) case, this is a story of redemption and hope from a place of tumultuous difficulty and near despair in several lives. It is a testimony to the grace and power of Christ to liberate and redeem us, grace and power which is offered to every human being.
My grandmother was a nurse in the war, in London. She’s lived a difficult life. She believes in God, even though he has been kind to her in fits and starts only. Has this scandal shaken her belief in a beloved establishment, or does my grandmother perhaps see a little more humanity flowing through her idols? I cannot know. I was going to interview her for this piece, but I didn’t want to make it seem like the way she felt was funny. The associates of Winston Churchill and the Archbishop of Canterbury are not people she wants to see knocked off their pedestals, and I can respect her reasons for that. I suspect that, beneath her outrage, she might be enjoying the whole thing just a tiny bit. But you’d never know it to hear her — she’ll only let on to being very, very upset.