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‘It brings it home’: Archbishop of Canterbury highlights climate crisis in Australia with visit to Lismore | NSW and Queensland floods 2022

The archbishop of Canterbury has popped in to a cushion shop. His entourage, which includes at least three excited Anglican archdeacons, comes to an unscheduled halt in the muggy heat of a Lismore street that has a huge hole running down the middle.

The last thing Matthew Healy, the owner of Daley Homewares, was expecting on a Friday morning was an impromptu visit from the archbishop of Canterbury. Well you wouldn’t, would you? But he recognises the importance of the assorted clergy surrounding the small, friendly man.

“Excuse me,” asks a curious customer in the shop, “have I seen you on television?”

“I’m just a middle-aged English clergyman,” Justin Welby replies. “You might be talking about a little service I did.”

That service was at Westminster Abbey and it was the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. The archbishop is the spiritual leader of 85 million Anglicans in 165 countries and is one of the highest-ranking non-royals in the UK’s order of precedence.

“There were two things that stick in my memory,” he later tells the Guardian of the Queen’s funeral. “One, there was a family in the middle of it grieving desperately. It was a family funeral. The second was that there were x billion people around the world watching and 100 or something heads of state in front of me who could learn from her example. Putting it in a clear Christian context and calling on people to respond to that was the privilege of a lifetime. I couldn’t believe I was doing it, I got up into the pulpit and thought, ‘I’m going to have to wake up. Am I really here?’”

The Guardian wonders if he had a kind of out body experience. “No,” he says, “I was just terrified.”

The archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby visits Lismore’s St Andrew’s Anglican church
The archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby visits Lismore’s St Andrew’s Anglican church. Photograph: David Maurice Smith/Oculi

And now he is chatting to Matthew Healy about his insurance claim, telling him not to give up.

The archbishop’s visit to Australia is, says the venerable Tiffany Sparks, diocesan archdeacon, “massively historical”. It has been 75 years since an archbishop of Canterbury visited this far-flung parish. But they are, she says, under “strict instructions” not to call him “your grace”, which is his official title. In fact there is so little pomp and ceremony on this episcopal visit to a people who do not know how to fawn, that the sign on the pre-booked table at the hotel where we stop for lunch simply says “church”. And evidently even religious royalty can get haphazard table service in an Australian country town. He laughs when during grace his chaplain accidentally says “self-interest” instead of “self-sacrifice” describing the Rev Christian Ford and his pastoral work during the floods.

As we continue along the broken streets of Lismore, with the boarded-up, empty shops, the vestiges of the mud and water that engulfed the town last February, you could be forgiven for thinking that God has forsaken them.

But the archbishop has long been active and vocal on climate change.

Last August he, Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew issued a joint statement urging “everyone to play their part in ‘choosing life’ for the future of the planet”.

And now he is seeing the impact close up. “Seeing the devastation here … just brings it home,” he says. “Let alone what it will be in a few years.”

It is no accident that he chose to visit Lismore; this place of flood and fire. This is a spiritual leader with two feet firmly in the temporal world. The archbishop has a long history of on-the-ground peace-building in places of conflict. “It’s not just the Anglicans, but often it’s the Anglicans in the lead. South Sudan would be an example where they’ve been hugely courageous in challenging issues of warlordism and corruption. That has made a very significant difference at times.”

He has personally negotiated between homicidal warring tribes. “The church takes a wider view of what sticks society together. I mean look at Lismore. This is a very well-functioning society in which the church is not the key element but plays a major role amongst many of enabling people, regardless of their faith or no faith to care for and support each other.”

His climate change epiphany came five years ago, he says. “I was in Fiji and the then Anglican archbishop of Polynesia said, it was one of those quick comments that changes your perspective, ‘you need to realise that for many of you in the west climate change is an existential threat for the 30s or 40s, but for us here it is life and death today’.”

Jenna and Shannon Breeze’s house still has no walls. They sleep in a caravan outside. There is washing on the line when the archbishop comes to visit.

Shannon was huddled on the roof under a Driza-Bone when a boat came to rescue him on 28 February. “Australians are gutsy,” the archbishop says.

Ray Nichols is waiting on the verandah of the still mud-encrusted house he can no longer live in when the entourage arrives. There is a danger sign on the destroyed building. He is carrying his oxygen tank as he tells the archbishop about the lung surgery he is waiting for, how high the water came, and how much the church has meant to him. It takes a while to tell his story, but the archbishop listens closely even though the schedule is now running behind.

Asked why he thinks the world isn’t moving fast enough on climate change, he says “because it’s so easy for short-term issues to displace long-term ones. Urgent and immensely important short-term issues relative to climate change, for instance the Ukraine war, they have to be faced, they have to be dealt with, but there’s only so much bandwidth and governments run out of bandwidth to deal with the long term. And governments in democratic countries change regularly, so they don’t have a long-term view.” A major war like Ukraine, he says, “displaces equally threatening but less visible problems. Their big question is are we going to be alive in three months? Not what’s going to happen in 2050.”

The archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby prays with Ray Nichols at his home that was damaged in the floods
The archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby prays with Ray Nichols at his home that was damaged in the floods. Photograph: David Maurice Smith/Oculi

The ecclesiastical bus pulls into the great edifice that is the Catholic St Carthage’s cathedral. Its bells haven’t rung out since February when it went under in the floods and took the bells with it. But they did manage to get one bell to ring when the Queen died. It is an honour, Bishop Gregory Homeing tells him, “and an extraordinary ecumenical gesture for you to come to us as a friend”.

Here at midday prayers the archbishop goes off-piste again and delivers a homily no one was expecting at the pulpit. He speaks of the ecumenism of suffering.

“Climate change does not respect demarcation of churches, it affects everyone. We have so much to learn from you, we seek to emulate you.”

Finally we are back at the great brick Anglican St Andrew’s church high on a hill with a God’s eye view of the district, and where the obligatory scones with jam and cream and pots of tea are waiting.

When asked whether the church should be doing more to encourage followers to take direct action on climate change he is unequivocal.

“Yes. Yes, they definitely should,” he says. “An awful lot of people are. And they should be encouraging. And you know, they are, we are collectively doing as much as we can.

“People take it very, very seriously in England. It’s right across the spectrum of churches. It’s taken very seriously, from the black Pentecostal to the Roman Catholic. It’s taken very, very seriously. And yes, because climate change is a top down, middle out, bottom up stuff.

“You can make significant differences in your local area, at the grassroots, in a parish, a diocese can do an awful lot and the church nationally can do a lot for itself. But in the end for society to change it has to be an overall partnership between civil society, government, local government, companies, schools, universities, really tackling it from every side at once.”

And then under a turbulent grey subtropical sky the archbishop of Canterbury gets on his bus and is gone.


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