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Like St Patrick, Dr Welby is a leader with great vision

By Alf McCreary

The participation by the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Justin Welby in next Tuesday's St Patrick's Day celebrations in Saul and Downpatrick will provide a higher than usual profile for these annual ceremonies in honour of our patron saint.

It is not often that a Church figure such as the Archbishop of Canterbury comes to Northern Ireland, and this will be Dr Welby's second visit in just a few months - which must be something of an ecclesiastical record.

He will preach in Down Cathedral and lay a wreath at St Patrick's grave near the church, though some historians are not sure that this site is authentic. However, why let facts spoil a good story in this part of the world where symbolism is so potent.

Dr Welby has not exactly cut a dashing figure as Archbishop, and he comes across as a somewhat low-key figure in his television and pulpit appearances. However, he appears to have the quiet authority of a leader, and that is a vital quality for the head of every Church.

He comes from the tough world of business and he has shown the management skills to guide his Church through the tortured maze it created for itself in the long-delayed decision to ordain women bishops.

Dr Welby has also marshalled his House of Bishops into an effective lobbying force, so he must be doing something right when he rouses the ire of The Times which recently claimed - wrongly - that the Church's main business should only be the saving of souls.

It is so annoying when serious opinion-makers try to confine the Church to the stereotype of Sunday worship, and then complain when these pesky Christian values spill over into the rest of the week, and pose awkward questions to those who try to run the country.

Dr Welby is a deeply committed believer whose first duty is to the Gospel and not to any particular political party or any section within the Church at large. To this extent he reminds me of one of my heroes, St Patrick himself. I spent several years writing a book about St Patrick and Armagh city, the centre of the Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions in Ireland.

During my research I read the English translation of St Patrick's very revealing Latin Confession and I found it a most inspiring document.

St Patrick comes across as a deeply spiritual man with wide knowledge of the Bible, and also as a humble and faithful Christian.

As most people know, he spent some of his youth in Ireland as a slave, and managed to escape back to his home in Roman Britain.

Instead of wisely staying there, he followed a vision which came to him in a dramatic dream, and he returned to the land and to the people of his island of captivity. In a sense he was one of our first immigrants.

In bringing the Gospel to Ireland he showed great faith, great courage and also considerable 'people skills' in establishing the Christian faith in a sceptical society. It was a lonely mission, but he faced it unflinchingly, which is why the people of both main Christian traditions in Ireland still pay tribute to his memory.

Leadership is always lonely. St Patrick knew that, so does Justin Welby and so does everyone who has to lead and stick out his or her neck in a cynical world, when Christianity is under such a sustained attack.

I do wish that there were more people like them today.

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