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Welby and his biological father, Anthony Montague Browne.

Not sure if you’ve been following the story unfolding around Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby this past week, but it is truly extraordinary, both in its details and in what it reveals about the Archbishop himself. In a nutshell, at the age of 60, it has been discovered via a DNA test that Welby’s parentage is quite different than he had always been told/assumed. It turns out that his father was not Gavin Welby (a first generation Jewish immigrant to the UK, described by The Telegraph as an “alcoholic trickster”) after all but Anthony Montague Browne, who served as Winston Churchill’s final private secretary. In other words, instead of the legitimate son of a ‘whiskey salesman’, he’s the illegitimate son of a double-barrelled English aristocrat. You can read more about the details, which are fascinating, in The Telegraph’s principal write-up.

So not only does the story expose something salacious about the buttoned up post-war UK Establishment, it does so in a place where the news might be seen as doubly embarrassing, i.e. the church. Welby’s ‘earthly’ identity, it would appear, is up for grabs at the deepest of levels. Again, as remarkable as the news is, what’s most heartening about the story is Welby’s response, which The Telegraph described as “better than a thousand sermons”:

Welby’s response was extraordinary for its unabashed acceptance of the compromises that decorate most human relationships, and for his insistence that the news could not define him. “Although there are elements of sadness,” he said in a statement, “and even tragedy in my father’s case, this is a story of redemption and hope from a place of tumultuous difficulty and near despair in several lives … I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes.”

The above comes from Archie Bland’s remarkable avowal that appeared in The Guardian on Monday. Bland reflects on the extraordinary (and let’s face it, at this point highly unexpected) humility and grace we are seeing from church leaders like Welby and Pope Francis. Against all odds, these men’s money appears to be where their mouths are, and the power is undeniable:

Both [Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby] seem to have recognised that they need to do more to show that Christianity is not a magisterial rulebook designed to tell you why you’re a monster, but rather a merciful companion in life’s hardest times… [This] could hardly be more powerfully presented than in Welby’s testimony.

He has, after all, been through very much worse than this: when one considers the tragic death of his baby daughter in a car crash in 1983, the idea that anyone could view something so relatively trivial as a sexual indiscretion as a catastrophe begins to seem absurd. His personal generosity – to his flock and to his family – reminds us that, while personal troubles aren’t exactly a qualification for moral leadership, they are bound to make its practice more meaningful to the people who need it most.

Religious leaders are too often comfortable with being presented as the voice of God; infallible messengers of a ludicrously absolute truth that may bring misery to those who seek to follow it. Justin Welby’s story, messy and ordinary as it is, also gives Anglicans, Catholics, and other faiths alike a glimpse of a model that is surely more likely to sustain their relevance in an ever-more sceptical world: one which understands that, in the end, the influence of their commandments will always be dictated by the voice in which they are spoken.