‘It was utterly isolating’: Archbishop of Canterbury recalls harrowing childhood with alcoholic father

29 March 2024, 07:28 | Updated: 29 March 2024, 10:23

Justin Welby on his father

By Jenny Medlicott

The Archbishop of Canterbury has opened up about the struggle he experienced growing up with an alcoholic father.

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Speaking to James O’Brien on the Full Disclosure podcast, the Most Rev Justin Welby recalled growing up with an alcoholic father as a teenager and how it left him feeling lonely.

He told James: “In my teens, when my father's drinking became very serious, much worse, I remember, he'd sometimes drink and shout and yell at me about my mother and what a useless person I was.

“I remember the worst was three days of it, until he staggered off to bed late at night, and then he'd start again the next morning. And it was more than just lonely. It was utterly isolating.

"And what I did in those days was just close down. I'd sit on the sofa and listen, and he did that. And he'd pace around and shout and drink and I'd just sit and long to be somewhere else.”

Listen to the full episode on @GlobalPlayer

The Archbishop spoke of one particularly “lonely” experience at Christmas when he was around the age of 14 or 15, as he likened his behaviour at the time to “pursuing numbness”.

He said: “Just trying to think of anything that wasn't this. And I remember a Christmas of being very lonely when… there was nothing in the fridge.

Read more: Archbishop of Canterbury backs shake-up to 'broken' asylum system ahead of showdown over Rwanda Bill

Read more: Downing Street declares 'migrant emergency' after record day of crossings - but no fresh Rwanda vote before Easter

The Archbishop spoke to James O'Brien on the Full Disclosure podcast.
The Archbishop spoke to James O'Brien on the Full Disclosure podcast. Picture: Alamy

“He [his father] was drunk and in bed all day. It was Christmas Day. There was no one to talk to. There was nowhere to go. No shops to go and get something.

“And I just looked out the window and watched people go past in their family groups and I was pretty sad.”

The Archbishop also discussed his involvement in politics, as he admitted he is often "reluctant" to weigh in on political discourse.

Previously, he has spoken out on several occassions about the government's Rwanda bill, and just earlier this month he stressed the need for an asylum system built with "compassion, dignity and fairness at the centre".

Asked if he takes time before deciding to weigh in on politics, he told James: “Yes, very much so, not least because I don't like doing it.

“My job is to worship God and to witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ. You have to be reluctant to take a political part. I could never imagine myself in secular politics. I wouldn't know which party to belong to, if any.

“But when I intervene, or any of the rest of the bishops, it is always after long thought and advice, and talking to people, but most of all, with other people, praying and thinking and seeing what the Bible teaches us about the situation.”

And on his thoughts on the Rwanda bill, which he has previously criticised, he said: “My arguments with Rwanda have got nothing to do with it being Rwanda. If it was Sweden, I'd have the same problem. It's three things.

“What we've been arguing, and many people in the Lords arguing, is we need a better system that shares out this burden in a way that is fair to the countries that get the most refugees.

“72% of refugees end up in the country next to the one they come from, which is almost certainly going to be really poor.

“Now it's fine they stay there, if the country can manage it. How do we make sure that country has the resources to do that in a way that enables the people to go home, or to build new lives, rather than having to travel at great risk halfway around the world?”