LONDON – The father of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, kept many secrets. Gavin Welby never told his son that he had an estranged older sister, or a first wife. He never told him his real birthdate, or the name under which he was born. And, it has emerged, he never told him that he was born a Jew.

“He told lots of stories but one was never really sure what was true and what wasn’t,” Archbishop Justin told The Daily Telegraph, which broke the news to him just days after he was appointed head of the Church of England in November 2012. “He drank quite heavily and, you know, he would say things sometimes when he had been drinking and you did not know what was true or not.

“He wouldn’t talk about his family at all,” he said.

Naturally, the bombshell that the leader of 80 million Anglicans worldwide is a half-Jew has captured the imagination of Britain’s Jewish community. The Anglican Church, by contrast, has so far reacted apathetically, perhaps inured by previous examples of Jewish-Christian clerics such as Giles Fraser, until 2011 Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, who had a Jewish father; and Hugh Montefiore, a well-known bishop in the 1970s and ‘80s, who converted from Judaism in his teens.

But beyond the gossip element lie serious questions. Will Archbishop Justin be able to improve Jewish-Anglican relations, which have gone through a rocky patch over the last few months? And how will the revelations about his heritage affect his attitudes and worldviews?

With little track record to go on, observers are reluctant jump to any conclusions: “It’s very early days,” says Rev. David Gifford, CEO of the Council of Christians and Jews, noting that Welby was only installed in March.

Archbishop Welby, whose decade-long rise in the church is considered meteoric, has had limited experience working with Jewish groups, but activists speak positively of his relations with Jews in his former parishes and in the interfaith world.

They point to two hopeful early signs. The first is that the archbishop has chosen to visit Israel next week, which is considered very early in his tenure (he will also be visiting Egypt, the Palestinian territories and, briefly, Jordan). A visit to Yad Vashem may be particularly poignant as he recently discovered that he has relatives who perished in the Shoah. He will also engage with as-yet-unnamed “communities and leaders” and pay his respects to the patriarchs of the Jerusalem churches, in particular Jerusalem’s Anglican bishop, Suheil Duwani.

The Prince of Wales speaks with the Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Reverend Justin Welby following his Enthronement at Canterbury Cathedral. (photo credit: AP Photo/Chris Ison, Pool)

The Prince of Wales speaks with the Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Reverend Justin Welby following his Enthronement at Canterbury Cathedral. (photo credit: AP Photo/Chris Ison, Pool)

The other is that, completely regardless of his Jewish background, he appears to have long had an affinity for, and interest in, Jewish issues and in Israel.

According to the philo-Semitic Canon Andrew White, “Israel has no fear with him, nor does the Jewish community. He’s a friend, not an enemy.”

In 2002, as the director of the International Centre for Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral in England, Canon White asked Welby to join him on a trip to Israel to talk to other faith leaders about the peace process. Welby was then “just a normal vicar,” albeit “the best vicar I’d ever seen,” says White, who is nowadays famous as “the vicar of Baghdad” for his work in Iraq.

The hunch paid off.

“It was very obvious immediately that here in this man was someone who totally understood the need for reconciliation and what we were working for – trying to bring Israelis and Palestinians together,” White says. “So many in the church are so anti-Israel. He was really positive, and understood the history and negativity between Christians and Jews over the years. The biggest thing in my life is how to relate to Jewish people. He took that and understood it immediately, and that is when I decided I wanted this person to work with me.”

Within a year, Welby had become co-director at the International Centre for Reconciliation, and was also promoted to a position at Coventry Cathedral.

“It was his first senior appointment,” says Canon White. “It all started in Israel.”

‘It was very obvious immediately that here in this man was someone who totally understood the need for reconciliation and what we were working for – trying to bring Israelis and Palestinians together’

At that time, Welby’s Jewish heritage was a secret he was apparently not party to.

Laura Sykes, editor of the Lay Anglicana blog, started researching Welby’s family history when his name was first raised as a serious candidate for Archbishop of Canterbury last summer. According to her, Welby’s Jewish grandfather, Bernard Weiler, came to England from Germany in 1886, possibly to escape anti-Semitism. Together with three of his brothers, he set up a successful company trading in ostrich feathers, which were then a fashion item, and considered a particularly Jewish business.

In 1909, Bernard married London-born Edith James. On an overseas trip he described them both as “Hebrews” on the ship register, and Tim Welby, Archbishop Justin’s son, says she was Jewish. Sykes says that she has not managed to find their marriage certificate and that it is unlikely. (If she were a gentile, this would make the Archbishop a quarter- rather than half-Jewish.)

The couple settled down in the tony London neighbourhood of Hampstead with two children, Peggy and Gavin, changing their Germanic-sounding surname to Welby a month after Britain declared war on Germany in 1914. But at some point – either in 1914, when the value of feathers plummeted, or in 1929, in the stock market crash – they lost all their money.

In 1929, aged just 19, Gavin was sent to America to restore the family fortunes, which he promptly did, first by bootlegging alcohol with the Italian mafia during prohibition, and later by working as an import manager at a large alcohol company. But, with dark good looks and an English accent, he also took the opportunity to re-invent himself, entering into a short-lived marriage with a New Jersey heiress and becoming a fixture in Manhattan high society.

‘He is thinking about it – he is a thoughtful man – but it would be hard enough for anyone to grapple with; as Archbishop of Canterbury he has no freedom to explore this’

He introduced John F. Kennedy to one of his mistresses just weeks before he married Jacqueline Bouvier, while Gavin’s own romantic conquests over the years included JFK’s younger sister Patricia, socialite Doris Duke — known as “the world’s richest girl” — and, later in life, actress Vanessa Redgrave, to whom he was briefly engaged.

After World War II, in which he served in the British army in a non-combat role, he returned to Manhattan, giving himself a promotion to captain. He also seems to have invented a British aristocratic background.

Eventually he settled back in London, standing for Parliament but losing heavily, and marrying the non-Jewish Jane Portal, a former personal secretary to Winston Churchill, against the wishes of her parents. They divorced when Justin was three and the future Archbishop of Canterbury reportedly continued to live with his father, attending Britain’s top private school, Eton, and the University of Cambridge.

Throughout his life, says Sykes, Gavin “went to great lengths to obscure everything about himself.” He talked little of his time in America and when he died in 1977, Justin Welby – then a 21-year-old student — could not even provide the correct birth name and birth date on his death certificate, apparently unaware that he had been born a Weiler, that he had a sibling or had been married before. In interviews he has expressed anxiety over whether his father may have had other children he never disclosed.

Justin Welby, right, poses for photographers with his wife Caroline following the announcement he will become the next archbishop of Canterbury, Nov. 9, 2012. (photo credit: AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Justin Welby, right, poses for photographers with his wife Caroline following the announcement he will become the next archbishop of Canterbury, Nov. 9, 2012. (photo credit: AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

The revelation that his father was born Jewish, therefore, was just one of many family surprises. According to Tim Welby, who now works for Canon White, the Archbishop was “interested,” but “it did not have a great deal of impact”. Another source familiar with the Archbishop’s thinking, who would only speak off the record, said that “he is thinking about it – he is a thoughtful man – but it would be hard enough for anyone to grapple with; as Archbishop of Canterbury he has no freedom to explore this.”

Nevertheless, he has expressed interest in visiting the grave of his great-grandmother Amalie – Bernard’s mother – in a Jewish cemetery in London, as well as meeting “new” cousins on his father’s side. One, who recently wrote to him, is a rabbi, “one of the senior teachers at a Jewish college in London,” he told The Jewish News.

Welby himself “found religion” relatively late in life. After graduating from Cambridge, he spent 11 years working as an executive in the oil industry, but retired in 1989 when he felt a calling from God to be ordained. This was six years after the death of his first-born daughter, Johanna, in a car crash in France – a tragedy which, he has said, “in a strange way… actually brought us closer to God” — and several years after he joined the Church of Holy Trinity in Brompton, London, a highly influential evangelical institution.

This affiliation as a conservative evangelical – much rarer in the UK than in America – helps explain why Archbishop Welby has always been perceived as “genuinely sensitive to Jews and Judaism. He sees them as integral to Christian formation,” says Ed Kessler, executive director of the Woolf Institute, Cambridge, and a leading expert in interfaith relations. “He is also open to Israel as a Jewish state. The concept of Zionism isn’t alien to him.”

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury (photo credit: CC BY-SA Kimse/Wikimedia Commons)

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury (photo credit: CC BY-SA Kimse/Wikimedia Commons)

His appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury, less than a year after he was first appointed a bishop, comes after a difficult period for the two faith groups. Welby’s predecessor, Rowan Williams, was knowledgeable about Judaism and keen on interfaith work — setting up a forum for dialogue with the Israeli chief rabbinate and forming a good relationship with British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks — but was perceived by the Jewish community as unsympathetic on Israel, reflecting a much more left-wing, liberal political and theological disposition. In 2006, he supported disinvestment from the Jewish state, provoking open criticism from Lord Sacks.

Last summer, the Church’s highest legislative body, the Synod, endorsed the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), which brings international church members to the West Bank to “experience life under occupation,” to the open disgust of the British-Jewish leadership. Although Welby abstained at the time, he has since said he should have voted against, as the motion did not “adequately [reflect] the complexity” of the situation and the vote “clearly” damaged Jewish-Anglican relations – statements that were welcomed by the Jewish community.

In October 2012, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the community’s representative organization, formally complained to the Church about the anti-Israel material posted online by one of its clergymen, Stephen Sizer. The parties are currently appointing mediators.

‘Welby’s Jewish background is not going to be his calling card when his meets with the Palestinian archbishops’

For all his influence, Archbishop Welby cannot control the votes of the Synod, nor is it clear where he stands on specific Israeli political issues, or how much of a priority Israel is going to be for him. Some say that his Jewish background could even be a disadvantage.

“It is not going to be his calling card when his meets with the Palestinian archbishops,” said one Jewish community leader wryly.

But if anyone can navigate these choppy political waters, it is Archbishop Welby. While Archbishop Williams was a sophisticated thinker who had difficulty communicating and connecting to the masses, Welby is a calm, practical peace-maker, who honed his skills as a facilitator and negotiator during his years in the corporate world.

Since his time in Coventry he has made it his mission to bring opposite parties together, taking to wearing the Cross of Nails, a symbol of Coventry Cathedral’s ministry of reconciliation.

During several years working in Africa for the Centre for Reconciliation (while Canon White concentrated on the Middle East), he negotiated with al-Qaeda terrorists and mediated between warring Christian and Muslim communities in Nigeria. On one of occasion, notes Sykes, he was kidnapped, but talked his own way out of the predicament.

“He reconciled himself,” she laughs.

His greatest task as Archbishop of Canterbury will be to avert schism within the Church over the consecration of women bishops (which he is for) and gay marriage (which he is against)

His greatest task as Archbishop of Canterbury will be to avert schism within the Church over the consecration of women bishops (which he is for) and gay marriage (which he is against).

When it comes to relations with the Jewish community and potential disagreements over the Middle East, says Rev Gifford, “he will want to see those strains released. He will find areas of commonality and be a good listener.

“He realizes that the issue of Israel-Palestine is very difficult between Christians and Jews and will see how we can still talk despite what’s going on. He has the empathy to listen to every side, and listens to people of faith – that’s where he will connect to them, as people of faith.”

And if he doesn’t succeed, the father-of-five can always retire to Israel – where, as a descendent of a Jewish father and grandfather, he is entitled to citizenship under the Law of Return. For an Archbishop of Canterbury, this is surely a first.