In full: Julie Etchingham sits down with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby
With four days to go, the deserted, draughty crypt of Canterbury Cathedral feels an apt spot to contemplate another pandemic Christmas. It’s where I meet the Archbishop Justin Welby - mask on, metres apart - to talk about turbulent politicians rather than priests, and to try to look for hope when it feels scant.
Although he’s clearly trying to choose his words carefully on some of the subjects we discuss, he isn’t holding back. The crypt is a far cry from the sun-kissed terrace of Downing Street we are all so suddenly familiar with. What did the Archbishop think when he saw the picture? There’s a big sigh. “I thought about the many people who’ll look at that and remember what they were doing on that day - and the sorrow and sadness they felt because of not being able to see someone or a bereavement of the last time they saw someone they loved", the Archbishop told me.
"I felt a whole lot of emotions - but I’m not quick to judge people - I want to wait for the outcome of the investigation”, he added.
Archbishop Justin Welby said he thought about "the sorrow and sadness" many will have felt at seeing the picture of Downing Street staff drinking wine on the No10 terrace during lockdown
He says he has some sympathy for the Cabinet - and “the enormous weight of responsibility” he says they carry. “There’s not one of those people who don’t know they are holding lives in their hands” But nothing surely to that felt by those working in our ICUs? Isn’t this a question about the moral authority to lead? That it costs lives not to have that moral authority - and these are the people making the rules? He agrees.
“It costs lives not to have it.
“There needs to be truth and integrity and the cost of leadership is that you set an example. You lead from the front which means you obey the rules”.
Downing Street has insisted the image shows a work meeting, the Prime Minister on Monday said: "Those were meetings of people at work talking about work."
So what about the vaccines then? He tweeted recently that getting the booster is how you love your neighbour. Is being vaccinated a moral issue? “I’m going to step out on thin ice here and say yes, I think it is. A lot of people won’t like that - but I think it is because it’s not about me and my rights.
"Obviously there are some who for health reasons can’t be vaccinated - but it’s not about me and my rights to choose.
"Reducing my chances of getting ill reduces my chances of infecting others. It’s very simple." So is it a sin - is it immoral - not to get vaccinated if you can? “I’m not going to get lured into this because I can see this going back at me for years to come. But I would say - go and get boosted - get vaccinated. It’s how we love our neighbour”
"Get vaccinated, get boosted"
And what of the anti-vaccination protestors? “I'm really puzzled by it. I do know some of the scientists who are working on this - they’re not evil people. It’s not a conspiracy. It’s not a plot.
"They are not bad people - they are in really difficult circumstances and giving us their best advice. Trust them. They know what they are doing better than we do." Just a few miles away from where we are sitting is the port of Dover. And just a few weeks ago, 27 people drowned in the English Channel trying to make their way to England. The emotion is clear when I ask Justin Welby what he thought of how that was dealt with by Britain and France. “Tragedy. Anger. Grief. These are people who - driven by the utmost desperation set out in freezing seas and drowned. One can’t begin to imagine their last moments. “For this to be dealt with by governments as though it were some sort of political football, part of our negotiation of our future relationship with Europe - is a tragedy- and it’s a shame” He isn’t holding back. While he understands the pressure on the government to act - he is clear in his condemnation. “The government has got this one wrong on moral terms. It can get it right - but it’s got it wrong on this. Of course we need proper controls. Of course we need to go for the traffickers. “But many Afghans are now coming through on these boats. There was a program promised when Kabul fell (to resettle Afghan migrants) 20,000 people over five years. When I last looked a few days ago - that hadn’t even really started…..where’s the urgency? This is about the dignity of human beings.”
We rewind to April to reflect on of the biggest events he was involved in this year - presiding at the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral. The key image for many was the widowed Queen sitting alone. What was it like to be near her - to see how she coped? It obviously affected the Archbishop deeply - there are tears in his eyes as he remembers. “I remember the Queen by herself. I remember the moments of silence. “For me, like so much that I see with Her Majesty it’s her personal example. I know that after the service, she was meant to go and rest - she’s in her nineties of course - but she saw some distant cousins who’d come from a long way away.
"So before she went to rest, she insisted on going to talk to them to make them feel welcome. This is a person whose whole life says - and it’s such a message in this crisis - 'It’s not about me, it’s about others'. “It is a very emotional memory. It still is because I look at that and I think what an extraordinary gift Her Majesty is to this world, particularly at times of crisis. The humour. The generosity. The selflessness. "She’s just curtailed her own wishes for Christmas and she’ll have just done it because it’s the right thing to do."
Justin Welby praised the "humour, generosity, and selflessness" of the Queen
And finally - what about Christmas? With Omicron spreading so fast, does he really want this cathedral packed to the rafters? “Of course I want that. We will do what is safe. We’ve worked out how to do this safely. The first priority is the care of people who come. "It’s not just theatre. This is about the worship of a living God who came as the most vulnerable of human beings, a baby in Jesus, to be with us in all the mess and to create a most extraordinary global community of two billion people. "When people come together at Christmas, and when they worship and are lead out of themselves, they find hope. They find stability. They find resilience. "And if there’s one thing we need more than anything in the years to come, it’s resilience."