Justin Welby Reimagining Britain

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby’s second book, Reimagining Britain has attracted considerable media discussion in the run up to its publication, much of it centered on what is in fact a very small part of the main discussion. In what follows I will outline the content of the book in some detail before offering a few observations of my own. Reimagining Britain is divided into three parts: a single chapter on why and how to reimagine; five chapters on the basic building blocks and five more on values amid global change.

Part One: Why and How to Reimagine

1. Building on our history

The key point of chapter one is that history shapes us but we do not currently have a shared story that the country can live by. Welby sets out three key values that could shape that story. First, community: we are in this together. Founded on the universal destination of goods (all that is given is given by God for the good of all) and on gratuity, which he expounds as love given freely, an abundance of generosity without hope of return. Core building blocks are focus on the common good and on solidarity, as in John Donne’s “No man is an island.” A further key principle is subsidiarity, that is handle actions and decisions on as local a level as is practically possible. Second, courage, built on the three values of aspiration, creativity and competition. Aspiration is the desire to make a mark, to achieve something. It is tempered by creativity, a necessity in a world that does not work on a zero-sum model. Competition is natural, and must be balanced and appropriate. Third, stability, which he argues is built on reconciliation, resilience and sustainability. Reconciliation is defined as “the transformation of destructive conflict into creative and dynamic diversity which encourages growth and development” (p.48). Everyone must give up something, and everyone must gain something. Resilience is not just an individual, but a societal need. It should be grounded in hope, otherwise is becomes mere obstinacy. Sustainability underpins everything else, and is itself rooted in the narrative we live by and the company we keep. Welby is clear that values must be practised to be lived; it is not enough just to state them. He criticises the Government’s “British Values” agenda for reliance on stating not enacting values.

Part Two: The Basic Building Blocks

2. Family – Caring for the Core

Welby regards the family as both complex and the basic building block of human flourishing and of society. “The good family is the foundational intermediate institution in society” (p.65). The chapter briefly discusses equal marriage and the complexities of the issue from a global perspective before turning to the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) stressing the open-ended nature of the story and the messy complexity of family life. Welby suggests, accurately in my view, that “isolation is one of the great evils of our land” (p.74) which can be combatted via the extended family as well as wider society and intermediate institutions. The chapter also argues for the importance of support and protection for children and vulnerable adults, noting the sad reality that families are not always the safe spaces they ought to be. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the diversity of traditions around family. It is this short section that has attracted the most controversy in media discussions of Reimagining Britain, as it includes a brief discussion about sharia. Welby states:

Sharia is more than a system of law. For some Islamic scholars it is the mark of an Islamic society that it lives within the Sharia, although exactly what that means is not universally agreed within Islam. Other Islamic scholars have argued variously that Western legal systems already reflect many aspects of Sharia law and that Sharia cannot be enforced by the state because it must be voluntarily adhered to in order to retain its religious character. Under such views, Muslim minorities in non-Islamic states are permitted to live without Sharia being legally institutionalised (p.81).

He goes on to explain his reasoning for preferring the second of these two alternatives:

Sharia, which has a powerful and ancient cultural narrative of its own, deeply embedded in a system of faith and understanding of God, and thus especially powerful in forming identity, cannot become part of another narrative. It is either formative or different. Accepting it in part implies accepting its values around the nature of the human person, attitudes to outsiders, the revelation of God, and a basis for life in law, rather than grace, the formative word of Christian culture. Household and family, and the expressions of love within them, are the basic foundational communities of society. They face enormous pressures and need one legal basis of oversight and one philosophical foundation of understanding. For these reasons, I am especially sympathetic towards those Islamic groups that do not seek the application of Sharia law into the family and inheritance law of this country (p.82).

His argument is not, therefore against the possibility of sharia courts existing in the UK, but against their having formal, legal status. This is a complex area, and the recent Independent Review into the application of sharia law in England and Wales illustrated that in some depth. Welby is not entering into the detail of this argument; rather his point is that we must have one common system of law for all if all are to flourish.

3. Education – Life in all its Fullness

The chapter begins by noting the complexity of education as an issue, and the fact that it has remained a repeated challenge for successive governments. The discussion initially focuses on universities before turning to the school sector, noting that perhaps we can see “white British from poor backgrounds as among the least well equipped for integration into a rapidly changing world where skills in science, technology, numeracy, literacy and IT will be essential” (p.92). Welby is against selective education, arguing that education is about enabling all to flourish, regardless of their ability. He challenges a utilitarian approach to education, arguing in favour of one rooted in the Christian meta-narrative. Welby argues that the loss of this foundation has been disastrous for education. There are plenty of rebukes to different government policies, including the decision to introduce tuition fees, to centralise a one-size-fits-all approach to sex education and the failure to embed education in appropriate values. The account of the Jerusalem Church in Acts 4 is used to illustrate fullness of life.

4. Health – and healing our brokenness

Caring for the health of all is a sign of our values. The parable of judgement in Matthew 25, where humanity is divided into those who have cared for or neglected the needy forms the Christian motivation for how to respond to the issues. Welby notes the three crises of our time: social care, public health and mental health. All three must, he argues, receive adequate investment and development if we are to flourish as a society. The current situation, he suggests, is that all are ignored because no one champions them. Public health is, Welby proposes, a problem to be tackled in a cross-disciplinary fashion. Regarding mental health, the cultural change presently underway, whereby talking about the issue is normalised, should be encouraged, enabling earlier diagnosis and more effective treatment. Finally, social care should not become a last-resort, but for creativity and aspirational approach to a challenging problem.

5. Housing – the Architecture of Community

The discussion of housing begins with the tragedy at Grenfell but focuses first on the changing trends in housing ownership, such that houses have become “as much, or even more, a store of value than a home” (p.132). This is problematic for Welby, since he argues that increases in house values are only of benefit to those who regard them as assets to be disposed of rather than as homes to live in. He argues that we should be building houses that create communities where people can flourish, and advocates for the power of housing associations in achieving this goal. Welby also challenges second home ownership, the NIMBY attitude of some to development and the need for developers to build estates that have facilities, not just houses. He champions Housing Associations for their ability to foster community and suggests their good practice could be followed by others. 

6. Economics and Finance – Serving and Inspiring

Welby’s key point in this chapter is that “the economy either enables an agenda, blocks it, or sets it” (p.149). Thus, the values of our reimagined Britain will be seen in the way the economy works. He argues that individuals should be both economically active, but also accountable, showing courage, creativity and innovation, basing his argument on the behaviour of the three servants in the parable of the talents in Matthew 25. He argues against monopolies, but in favour of a vibrant economy which provides “just, responsible and sustainable growth” (p.157). He is critical of excessive pay in the finance industry, positive about the development of free markets but negative about the over-reliance of the UK economy on the finance industry. We must, Welby argues, reimagine our economy to respond to the changes that are coming, but do so in a way that also ensures wealth is more evenly distributed and thus avoid the dangers of unrest that will come from an imbalanced economy.

Part Three: Values Amid Global Change

7. The World Around Us

Welby opens his discussion by focusing on the migrant crisis, noting that the nature of modern communications is such that a resident of the poorest part of the world can window shop in London’s Knightsbridge via the internet, being reminded all too starkly of what she does not, and cannot ever, have. He then introduces the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). He notes the Samaritan gives generously for the care of his enemy, but also does so in partnership with the innkeeper, on a business basis. The challenge of the parable, to care for those in need, is as stark today as it was then, and we cannot use the excuse of ignorance of how others are suffering. Welby uses the parable to argue for recognition of our global interdependence and also “for a leap of imagination to see that active love in pursuit of our common humanity is achievable and transformative” (p.185). The practical steps necessary to realise this include maintaining the current aid budget, encouraging reconciliation, and participating in efforts to tackle human trafficking and modern slavery amongst other issues.

8. Immigration and Integration

This chapter argues that we must distinguish between immigration and integration. Immigration will always happen, to a greater or lesser extent, but integration requires imagination, effort and skill. The Biblical story of Ruth guides the discussion here. Welby argues that the values he set out in chapter one, of community, courage and stability are all in play in the way in which the immigrant Ruth is integrated into society. Shifting towards our context, he argues that integration must be resourced both for those coming in and for those receiving them, enabling migrants to not only attain the necessary functional skills but also understand the stories that have shaped the British Isles and enabling communities to have the resource they need to truly welcome the new arrivals. He is especially keen that religion is discussed and that competing stories are brought into conversation with each other, allowing understanding and trust to flourish.

9. For those yet unborn – Solidarity with the future

Chapter nine focuses on climate change, initially approaching the argument both from the perspective of the planet and from that of human flourishing. The key Biblical passage is the creation narrative in Genesis 1, especially the command to fill the earth and subdue/steward it. The bulk of the chapter concentrates on the threat to humanity. He does so by contrasting the radical approach of Lord Stern, who argues for a complete realignment of the economy into a new, decarbonized mode with the more cautious route advocated by Lord Lawson. Welby notes that climate change is seen as important, but it is not urgent in British political or daily life. He suggests it must become so, and that we must develop appropriately resilient and sustainable ways of living in a changing climate.

10. The Key Actors

Welby begins with Burke’s well-known observation that for evil to triumph all is needed is for good people to do nothing. The point of this observation, he explains, is that we need a common effort, people putting in hard graft together for the good of all. If we want to reimagine Britain so all can flourish, we cannot just look out for our own interests and those like us. He notes that inequality has a long history, discussing the story of Rehoboam, son of Solomon, from 1 Kings 12 to illustrate his point. The focus of his argument is on how to embed the principles he had outlined throughout the book into social reality. He challenges all intermediate institutions, including companies and businesses, to rise to the task of enabling human flourishing.

11. The Churches and Other Faith Groups – Healthy Disruptors

The focus of this chapter is on the Anglican Church, but does also mention other groups, primarily because it is the Anglican Church with which the author is most familiar. Welby argues that the Church of England does not have a significant level of power, and has not for some considerable time, since the medieval period. While the Anglican Church may not have formal power, its members, as well as other Christian groups, are hugely active in volunteering and social action, creating a different meta-narrative which challenges the nihilism and self-interest that dominates much of society. Two examples, of assisted suicide and LGBTQI+ rights, are discussed briefly to illustrate the importance of freedom to provide “challenge to a liberal hegemony that is dominated by the rule that there is no absolute except for the statement that there are no absolutes” (p.262). The point is not that of argument for argument’s sake, but that while people of faith may be active in all levels of society, they are also able to provide an alternative vision for how that society should operate. Welby also challenges faith institutions to remain outward focused and not be seduced into introspection. Jeremiah’s instructions to the Babylonian exiles to “seek the welfare of the city” (Jeremiah 29:5-7) are foundational to his argument here.


Welby recaps the changes that have faced Britain over the few hundred years and the scale of the challenge we currently face. He argues five things are needed. First, we must create a sense of reasonable but positive expectation, which we base on values not just self-interest. Second, we must define the type of education, housing and health system we want, looking at the values that undergird these things. Third, practices must be related to values and virtues, as public and institutional life are based on what is implied more than what is said. Fourth, we must feed intermediate institutions of all shapes and sizes, ensuring business is responsible and the voluntary sector can flourish. Fifth, we must have a narrative of the UK that captures the imagination and provides coherent foundations for action.

Some brief thoughts on Reimagining Britain

Welby’s purpose in writing Reimagining Britain was, in part, to start a conversation about the type of country we want Britain to be. He writes from his personal position and perspective as Archbishop of Canterbury and does so with candour and eloquence. The process of writing a book to speak to a present moment is fraught with danger as political events move faster than publisher’s schedules. At times Reimagining Britain suffers from this, with the publication of the aforementioned review into shariah law being perhaps one of the most obvious examples. Welby rightly avoids offering neat solutions or political instruction; he is well-aware of the limitations of his position and the scale of influence he is able to have. He has made a stimulating and provocative intervention into a debate that has, in the main, been heavy on soundbite and short on substance. It is neither the first, nor the last, word in this debate, but it is nevertheless, a helpful one that deserves a wide audience and thoughtful and detailed responses. 

Tom Wilson

1st March 2018.