Justin Welby and his biological father Anthony Montague Browne     

In events which seem inspired by the script of a B-grade potboiler, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the spiritual head of the world’s Anglicans, has, at the age of 60, discovered that he is not who he thought he was.

After taking a DNA test to disprove rumours about his paternity, he learned that the rumours were true. His real father was the last private secretary of Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Montague Browne.

His mother, Jane Gillian Portal, who also worked for Churchill, had a brief liaison with Sir Anthony, shortly before she eloped with Gavin Welby to the United States. She never suspected that her son Justin, who was born nine months after her wedding, was Sir Anthony’s child. Her marriage to Welby was short-lived and she remarried in 1975, eventually becoming Lady Williams of Elvel. Welby died in 1977 of alcoholism.

Thanks to his deep religious faith, the Archbishop seems to have received the news with calm. He told The Telegraph (London) that “There is no existential crisis, and no resentment against anyone. My identity is founded in who I am in Christ.”

He is obviously a strong and self-confident man who surmounted a difficult childhood with alcoholic parents to become a father of six children, a successful oil executive and then an Anglican priest. He had no idea that the ne’er-do-well whom he regarded as his estranged father was not. In a statement to the press he said:

My own experience is typical of many people. To find that one’s father is other than imagined is not unusual. To be the child of families with great difficulties in relationships, with substance abuse or other matters, is far too normal …

This revelation has, of course, been a surprise, but in my life and in our marriage Caroline and I have had far worse. I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes …

At the very outset of my inauguration service three years ago, Evangeline Kanagasooriam, a young member of the Canterbury Cathedral congregation, said: “We greet you in the name of Christ. Who are you, and why do you request entry?” To which I responded: “I am Justin, a servant of Jesus Christ, and I come as one seeking the grace of God to travel with you in His service together.” What has changed? Nothing!

Although this extraordinary story is just an anecdote, it confirms what I’ve always thought should be one of the most important principles in contemporary bioethics: that every child deserves to know his or her biological parents.

Archbishop Welby was superbly prepared to survive a personal earthquake like this by virtue of his character and religious faith, but it was an earthquake nonetheless. That is perfectly understandable. People who discover late in life that they had been adopted are also deeply shaken.

To know who we are, to have a secure personal identity grounded in the facts of our biology, is an important dimension of our autonomy.

That’s why Justin Welby’s experience is relevant to the debate over the wisdom of same-sex marriage, a relationship which deprives a child of that connection with either a father or a mother. That intimate bond is not something which can be whisked away. It is a foundational part of our identity. Who knows what storms will rage in the hearts of children who learn as they grow up that their genetic parents had been deliberately excluded from their lives?

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet. He lives in Sydney, Australia.