The Secret Parentage of the Archbishop of Canterbury

In events that seem inspired by the script of a B-grade film from the 1950s, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the spiritual head of the world's Anglicans, has, at the age of 60, discovered that he is not who he thought he was.

After taking a DNA test to dispel rumours about his paternity, he learned that the rumours were true. His real father was the last private secretary of Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Montague Browne.

His mother, Jane Gillian Portal, who also worked for Churchill, had a brief liaison with Sir Anthony shortly before she eloped with Gavin Welby and came to the United States in 1955. She never suspected that her son Justin, who was born nine months after her wedding, was Sir Anthony's child.

Unhappily, her marriage was short-lived. Welby was, to borrow from the stilted diction of upper-crust British society, a cad and a bounder. The son of German-Jewish immigrants, he was briefly involved in selling bootleg whiskey during Prohibition in the United States. He married and divorced, served in the War, stood as a losing Tory candidate twice, swanned around in high society, and swept Jane Portal off her feet. Their marriage lasted only three years. He then almost married Vanessa Redgrave. From then on it was downhill for Mr Welby. He died alone, of alcoholism in 1977. But he was, as far as the archbishop knew, his father.

His mother remarried in 1975, eventually becoming Lady Williams of Elvel.

The succession of marriages and liaisons of Justin Welby's real father is just as complicated. Sir Anthony, who was married at the time, met Jane when they both were working for Churchill. Only days before her wedding to Welby, she had an alcohol-fuelled tryst with her colleague in which Justin was conceived. Sir Anthony was divorced in 1970 because of his adultery with the personal secretary of Churchill's wife, whom he later married. He went on to have a successful career as a liaison officer between Buckingham Palace and the media and as a director in London's financial world.

This messy mix of divorces, workplace romance, alcohol, class distinctions, and money was the soil in which Justin Welby flowered.

Identity in Christ

Thanks to his deep religious faith, the archbishop seems to have received the news with calm. He told The Telegraph (London), "There is no existential crisis, and no resentment against anyone. My identity is founded in who I am in Christ."1

He is obviously a strong and self-confident man who surmounted a difficult childhood with alcoholic parents to become a father of six children, a successful oil executive, and then an Anglican priest. He had no idea that his ne'er-do-well, estranged father was not his father at all. In a statement to the press he said:

My own experience is typical of many people. To find that one's father is other than imagined is not unusual. To be the child of families with great difficulties in relationships, with substance abuse or other matters, is far too normal. . . .

This revelation has, of course, been a surprise, but in my life and in our marriage Caroline and I have had far worse. I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes. . . .

At the very outset of my inauguration service three years ago, Evangeline Kanagasooriam, a young member of the Canterbury Cathedral congregation, said: "We greet you in the name of Christ. Who are you, and why do you request entry?" To which I responded: "I am Justin, a servant of Jesus Christ, and I come as one seeking the grace of God to travel with you in His service together." What has changed? Nothing!2

A Profound Connection

Although this extraordinary story is just an anecdote, it engages one of the most important issues in contemporary bioethics: the natural desire of every child to know his or her biological parents. It's a fundamental concern. There will always be circumstances in which this is not possible and children have to be raised with adoptive parents. But written into our DNA is a longing to know, or at least to connect with, the man and the woman whose blood runs in our veins.

By virtue of his character and religious faith, Archbishop Welby was superbly prepared to survive a personal earthquake like this, but an earthquake it was nonetheless.

To know who we are, to have a secure personal identity grounded in the facts of our biology, can be an important dimension of our autonomy.

That's why Justin Welby's experience is relevant to the debate over the wisdom of same-sex "marriage," a relationship that wilfully deprives any child brought into it of that connection with either his father or his mother. That intimate bond is not something to be whisked away. It goes too deep. Who knows what storms will rage in the hearts of children who learn as they grow up that their genetic parents had been deliberately excluded from their lives?

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #38, Winter 2018 Copyright © 2019 Salvo |