Justin Portal Welby’s actions in Jallianwala Bagh must spur his sphere of influence to go beyond pulpit pontifications
Sometimes, you can fall flat to take a stand. Sometimes, it can just fall flat and only hurt your body. Capping a 10-day India religious tour on September 10th, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Most Rev Justin Portal Welby, made pictorial news around the world when the paparazzi captured the 63-year-old father of six children prostrating at the JallianwalaBagh memorial site, extremely sorry for the April 1919 massacre of nearly 300 innocent adults and children there.
In one of the worst ever brutal killings of innocent people, Gurkha troops under the command of a recently posted brigadier-general, Reginald Dyer, fired more than 1,600 bullets that felled hundreds in just 10 minutes. A shocked Welby expressed his remorse at Jallandhar: “Learning of what happened, I recognise the sins of my British colonial history, the ideology that too often subjugated and dehumanised other races and cultures. Jesus Christ calls us to turn away from sin… we have a great responsibility to not just lament this horrific massacre, but most importantly, to learn from it in a way that changes our actions.”
The head of the Church of England and the chief of nearly 100 million Anglicans worldwide said he was speaking as a religious figure in his individual capacity and not on behalf of the British government that has refused to apologise or say sorry for the last hundred years. Visiting heads of the government have only expressed “deep regret” but have never felt ashamed the way Welby felt.
That Dyer was an Anglican like him injected another dose of pain for the visiting padre. The lieutenant-governor of the Punjab at that time, Sir Michael Francis O’Dwyer, termed Dyer’s brutality as “correct action”. Even the 1919 William Hunter Commission that conducted the inquiry into the massacre didn’t punish Dyer enough. The army relieved him from his post while a conservative newspaper crowdfunded a hefty fund for him back home in Britain where he died in 1927 of an illness. Thirteen years later, an Indian freedom fighter Udham Singh would shoot dead O’Dwyer at Westminster in London in retaliation for the 1919 massacre.
Queen Elizabeth II laid a wreath of flowers at the memorial that she visited in 1997 while on a visit to India and Pakistan, and mentioned it was a “distressing example” of “some difficult episodes in our past”. There was no full-fledged apology from the British monarch although the killings were carried out in the name of her grandfather, George V.
Years after the Queen’s visit, British Prime Minister David Cameron visited the site and said it was a “deeply shameful event in British history”. Again, no apology. In April 1919, British Prime Minister Theresa May, speaking in the British parliament, expressed “deep regret” for the 1919 JallianwalaBagh massacre, carried out by British colonial troops in India, but did not offer an absolute apology. May called the massacre as “a shameful scar on British Indian history… We deeply regret what happened and the suffering caused.” Again, no apology.
That no British leader, whether political or religious or even from the industry, has chosen to show remorse—forget falling at the JallianwalaBagh site—or has chosen to express a deep sense of shame or ask forgiveness from India for almost a century, says a lot about how the brutality is conspicuous by its absence from the British historical metanarrative.
So how does the dramatic action of Welby, a French-speaking music-loving finance executive in an oil company who left his secular job to embrace a priestly calling 30 years ago, dovetail into the public penitence stand that he hopes will be adopted by leaders in The Establishment in London. Although the Cambridge-educated padre made it clear that his actions were in his individual capacity as a religious figure, his office as the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury that he assumed in 2013 holds major significance. His seat at the Lambeth Palace, southwest of the Thames in the vicinity of Westminster and Royal Court, goes back 1,400 years to the first Catholic bishop sent from Rome to evangelise the English. The Pope sent a Catholic priest, a Benedictine monk called Augustine, as the apostle to the English empire when Rome (that is, the papacy) still held sway over the royal household. The Catholic hold from Rome continued all the way to 1559 except for a short break in the previous year when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, defied the Catholic teachings to embrace the Protestant stand when the first waves of the Protestant Reformation engulfed the English landscape.
By convention, the Archbishop of Canterbury is the chief religious figure for the dominant Church of England whose communicant members are called Anglicans (in India, the Church of South India, the Church of North India, or in the US, known as Episcopal), numbering nearly about 90 million worldwide. (Most founding fathers and signers of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the US Constitution were Episcopal, including well-known names like James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington; film director Cecil B DeMille, poets William Wordsworth, TS Eliot, essayist Jonathan Swift, philosopher Francis Bacon, dancer Fred Astaire, to name a few.)
Cranmer was so powerful that he even threatened the then British king, Henry VIII, of excommunication if he did not divorce his Spanish wife, Catherine of Aragon, who he had married in 1509. Upset that she had produced no sons, he sought his marriage annulled much against the wishes of Pope Clement VII who refused to do so. Henry defied him by assuming supremacy over religious affairs and with the Canterbury archbishop’s blessings, tied the knot with Anne Boleyn, maid of honour to Catherine, with whom he was infatuated with. This also caused a big schism between the Church of England and Rome, while the daughter of Henry and Catherine, Mary I, would remain a Catholic and eventually settle scores with the archbishop in March 1556 for marrying off her father with Anne Boleyn. (By the time he died aged 55 in 1547, the initiator of the English Reformation had married six times.)
A staunch Catholic, Mary aka Mary Tudor or Bloody Mary, unleashed her reign of terror against Protestants, including the Catholic-turned-Protestant bishop Cranmer, by simply burning him alive three years after she came to the throne after overthrowing and beheading Lady Jane Grey. In her five-year reign, nearly more than 200 Protestants were burned at the stake, including two prominent bishops, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer (the three were called the Oxford martyrs.)
Cranmer’s legacy lives in the liturgy that he wrote for the church, The Book of Common Prayer, although he had to pay for his faith at the hands of a cruel queen. Taking a stand comes at a cost.
Therefore, the actions of Welby must resonate with the political class in London. In fact, the bishop must take one step further and use his good offices to ask the leaders to positively respond to what the Indians have been hoping for several decades. Juxtapose this against Congress MP Shashi Tharoor’s 2015 Oxford call for British reparations. Welby, assisted by a tech-savvy media team that operates at the 10-acre Lambeth Palace, has expressed his opinions on a range of issues from LGBTQ to Brexit or other current issues. Asking the leaders there to say sorry for British brutalities on Indian soil or towards Indians should be a top priority following the JallianwalaBagh photo-op.
As it is, many MPs have written to England’s most senior cleric to chair a citizens’ forum on pro-EU Brexit. The Revd, wading into political controversy, has agreed to oversee the citizens’ assemblies. Post the 2016 referendum, the archbishop flagged the House of Lords why it was “essential… for leaders of both sides and throughout our society to challenge the attacks, the xenophobia and the racism” stemming from that decision. He was quick to open the road to appointments of female bishops.
The sooner he can leverage his ‘Advantage’ Amritsar position the better it is for us to cement the Indo-British cultural ties. When he assumed charge at Lambeth in 2013 to become, as he said in an interview, “an instrument of communion and a focus of unity”,Welby knew that he would have to mount climbing gear to trek up rough, rugged mountains of challenges his way. As a key shepherd in the Corpus Christi, the ‘body of Christ’, he must forcefully and effectively interpret biblical truths that will speak truth to power, whether it is palatable or not. His homilies must stay relevant in a multipolar, pluralistic and highly political ecosystem, whether it is Europe, Asia, Africa, Americas or Australia. In his 320-page 2018 book Reimagining Britain, the archbishop has dwelt at length on the building blocks that are needed today to reinvigorate the nation. The building blocks of any society: housing, health, finance, education and the family.
Welby’s ecumenical leanings are well known too: not only does he have a Roman Catholic priest as his spiritual director, he also draws deeply from the rich reservoir of Catholic social teachings (in one interview, he said he was inspired by Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical RerumNovarum and incumbent Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si.) He might as well pick up community-centric queues from Christ’s interactive discourse with his close followers on the hills of Jerusalem some 2,000 years ago (we know those teachings as Sermon on the Mount recorded by New Testament gospel writers.)
Welby’s spiritual formation took place when he was a congregant at the evangelical HTB (Holy Trinity Brompton) when Sandy Millar was the key pastor. Millar’s successor Nicky Gumbel helped disciple him to view life from a biblical worldview although Welby credits his “born-again” experience to his Cambridge university days.
As the Church of England pontiff, Welby could draw from the example of prophet Nathan in the Old Testament almost 3,000 years ago. Nathan was a seer who just didn’t sit and watch when King David didn’t do the right thing. As a prophet, he exercised his rights over the king even if it meant delivering a bitter truth to swallow. David had watched a stunning beauty Bathsheba, wife of his army officer Uriah, and conspired to sleep with her after engineering his murder at the hands of his army general Joab. Prophet Nathan didn’t waste a minute to rebuke the king by narrating a hard-hitting oracle: there were two men, he told David. One rich, one poor. The rich man had many sheep and cattle, but the poor man had just one small ewe. He tended it with much care and love. He reared it like his own daughter.
One day, he continued with his story, a guest landed in the rich man’s palatial bungalow. The miser that he was, he grabbed the poor man’s only ewe and butchered it to make a meal for his visitor. Singed, David expressed outrage at the rich man’s impudence and proceeded to issue a deadly verdict even before prophet Nathan could deliver his punch line. Nathan delivered his wordy blow in just four words to David: “You are that man!”
Nathan didn’t speak politically correct language. He just hit the nail on the head in a prophetic oracle eventually forcing David to pen a poetic lament in Psalms 51. For Nathan, however, intent was all that mattered rather than the technicalities. Gangsters, for example, gloat about bumping their rivals off and not serving time because witnesses don’t show up on time. Or don’t show up at all. On technicalities, they get off from serving time.
It may be unfair to compare Nathan to Welby. But it may not be equally unfair to ask him to leverage his ecclesiastical position to force the powers that be to do the right thing—whether saying sorry for the JallianwalaBagh massacre or for other brutalities or misdemeanours that may be far too many to list out here.
On the flip side, Welby’s actions must spur his own peers in India—CSI, CNI or other key Protestant church leaders—to practice in letter and spirit the lifestyle of the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose lifestyle is worth emulating. Welby is known to travel around London by bus and tube, visiting galleries or popping into a coffee bar, just merging with the common folk without making any big show of his dog collar or the high office that entitles him to perks that most common folk cannot dream of. He joked to an English news reporter that he has an unforgettable face. In some ways, he has emulated current Catholic pontiff Pope Francis, who also is known to be abstemious in his food and living habits.
Outside a 200-year old cathedral in the Indian Silicon Valley Bengaluru, where the British elite would attend Sunday services while turning away Indians and Anglo-Indians from entering its gates, is a makeshift kiosk for traffic police that can blow off with one heavy gust of wind. When not manning the busy traffic at the corner of this British Raj landmark that overlooks the statues of Queen Victoria and Mahatma Gandhi, the traffic police constables sometimes take small breaks sitting below the brightly painted neon-lit church signboard that runs very comforting Bible verses.
I have often wondered could the Anglican followers, who count Welby as their prime pontiff, do something more concrete and comfortable as part of their CSR (Church Social Responsibility) to make these traffic policemen more comfortable there?
End of the day, just falling flat at a memorial site must not rest at photo ops for a hungry press. Welby’s actions must spur his sphere of influence to go beyond pulpit pontifications. The occupants of Lambeth Palace have had long staying power: between 1903 and 2013, there have been only nine archbishops of Canterbury, with Randal Thomas Davidson and William Lang particularly having long years at office; Randal from 1903-1928, and Lang from 1928-1942.
Rev Welby, for one, can always look to inspiration from a fellow Anglican bishop in distant Africa and one of the world’s most prominent religious icons: Desmond Mpilo Tutu, 87, the first Black Archbishop of Cape Town in South Africa, the 1984 Nobel Peace laureate and one of the key players along with Nelson Mandela in the smooth transition of a White-dominated apartheid South Africa to a free nation for Blacks today. Around the time Welby decided to hang up his corporate boots to don his purple—and often black—priestly cassock in 1989, Tutu defied orders from the apartheid government and led hundreds of protesters to picnic at segregated Whites-only beaches at The Strand outside Cape Town. Africa’s great voice for freedom, justice and democracy, the social rights activist thundered that day, “It is incredible that the [White government] is prepared to use arms on people who wish to have a picnic… instead of getting rid of beach apartheid, they protect it with policemen, dogs and guns.”
We are not asking Justin Welby to transform British politics today. Only, that he speedily leverages his good offices and the goodwill of Lambeth Palace to evoke a flurry of “sorrys” and “sincere apologies” from The Establishment to ensure that his noble gesture of falling flat at JallianwalaBagh just doesn’t go in vain.