Issue date
12 Sep 2018
With the TUC looking forward to its next 150 years and the Anglican Church in a period of transition, it’s the right moment to restate common values. Justin Welby shares his thoughts in advance of his speech at TUC Congress 2018

Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby spoke Congress Wednesday 12 September. Watch video

The Archbishop of Canterbury has views that can be described as of the progressive left. He has a distaste for the trappings of his position, and according to interviews in The Guardian, he speaks of disgusting misuses of power that have to be challenged.

Wrong behaviour must be confronted. It needs to be called out. #MeToo is very necessary. And homophobia is wrong, utterly wrong.

He has a strong advocacy for gender equality in the Church, and there are now 13 female bishops in England. And as a former business executive he has experienced first-hand the benefits of unions collectively representing employees.

So how does he see the parallels between the Church and the trade union movement?

In your book Reimagining Britain: Foundations for hope you identify values that will see the country through the difficult times ahead. To what extent do you think these coincide with trade union values?

Christian faith starts with knowing that each of us is loved by God and are of infinite value to God. Therefore, the value of every human being is the same. Jesus was very practical about applying these values. He describes the last judgement (in Matthew’s Gospel chapter 25) as being based on whether we care for those who are most vulnerable or neglect them. 

The TUC grew out of the need to come together to defend vulnerable and oppressed workers against overmighty and cruel employers. It is one expression amongst many of what it means to value human beings and care for human dignity.

Trade unions are one of the civil society institutions essential to the aim of solidarity, the common good and fully valuing all people regardless of differences in nature and capacity.


Membership of the Anglican church is declining. Trade unions are faced with a similar situation. How can both institutions make themselves relevant to new generations?

Within the Anglican Communion worldwide we are seeing areas of huge growth. By contrast, in England there has been a steady decline since the 1950s. The message of the church is simple and is unchanged for 2000 years. It is to call all people to know that they are loved by God through Jesus Christ.

So, our message doesn’t change. But how we act does change – are we flexible and responsive to change around us?

As far as parallels with the TUC go, I would say – return to your founding values frequently. What are you here to do? But don’t be afraid to change the strategy. How effective are you being? Like us you also have to let new generations come in and shape the way you do things. This might sound obvious, but it’s amazing how much we struggle with it.

If you grow and new members join, you are inviting people in. And they will shape things in a different way. Don’t expect to grow and stay exactly the same.

One of the TUC’s ‘red lines’ is full equality for LGBT+ workers. The Anglican church has taken steps in this direction, but full equality seems distant. 

We’re all loved equally by God and the invitation to follow Jesus Christ is for all – whoever you are and whatever you have done. That is an absolute. 

Discrimination happens and is wrong. It occurs because we’re all governed by self-interest, and we’re all guilty of putting ourselves before our neighbor (we call this sin). And because of this tendency, people are marginalised and oppressed, for historical reasons, and because of our own personal prejudices. We see this in wider society and we see it in the church.

The Church’s teaching globally has been that Christian marriage should be for life, and between a man and a woman. But now there are different views. The Church of England was one of the key supporters of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the 1960s. In 2015, the Episcopal Church in the US voted to support same-sex weddings. So we are divided, like all global churches.

However, we are in the middle of looking again at our every aspect of understanding of identity, including especially sexuality.

Your background as an oil industry executive gave you top level experience of the business world. Do you believe business can work well with unions?

I worked in the oil industry for 11 years and was very reluctant to leave! It was hard work but immensely satisfying. Holding businesses to account and making sure the needs of people are put at the centre is vital.Many of us have a role to play here – and unions are an integral part of this.

Employers in every sector need unions, to keep them doing justice. And unions need employers who are just.

As you see in the contribution that Christian Socialists made to the development of the trade union, labour, and cooperative movements, the church at its best has been a passionate supporter of those who are oppressed. God cares for those in need and expects those who claim to act in his name to do the same. No wing of politics – left or right – can claim God as being on its side. 

At the same time, as followers of Jesus we are – as he was – sceptical of accumulations of power, wherever they are found. That applies to all institutions: it is essential to stay connected and stay accountable.

Are you looking forward to coming to Manchester on the TUC’s 150th birthday? How do you expect to be received?

It’s a great honour to be invited, especially to mark this important moment in the life of the TUC.

I expect to be received with a certain amount of skepticism by some. But I hope that the enduring message of the Gospel, together with what the Church is doing today, will be recognised, through such things as food banks and night shelters (which we long to see become unnecessary), debt counselling, and family support. My prayer is that as we seek to follow Christ faithfully and humbly, we will form new partnerships – with the TUC and with other areas of national life right across the political spectrum.

The extraordinary Archbishop Campbell Tait was the first Archbishop of Canterbury to meet formally with the TUC, not long after it began. That meeting in 1879 was prompted by a group of forward-thinking clergy and bishops who were pressing the Church of England to do more to engage with working class communities and trade unions. I’m looking forward to exploring together how we can inform the kind of fair and prosperous society we want to live in.