Archbishop of Canterbury holds Q&A with young peacemakers in New York as UN General Assembly meets

By ENS Staff
Posted Sep 22, 2023

Layne Davis, an intern with the Ecumenical Office to the United Nations, poses a question to Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby during a Sept. 22 Q&A he held with young peacemakers in New York. Photo: Lynette Wilson

[Episcopal News Service] How are peacemakers of any age likely to engage people in what some describe as an era marked by global disinterest? This was one of the questions young people posed to Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby – or put another way, how are they to foster hope in hearts and minds without ignoring the geopolitical realities?

A peacemaker is someone who works for peace by reconciling variant parties.

Welby hosted a question-and-answer session with young peacemakers – including United Nations interns, junior political officers, and ecumenical and interfaith representatives – in The Episcopal Church Center’s chapel on Second Avenue near U.N. Headquarters in New York on Sept. 22. His aim was to hear from young peacemakers’ insights and hopes and share some of his own, to raise the profile of “reverse mentoring,” whereby older generations learn from younger ones.

Welby has decades of experience working in political peacebuilding and interfaith dialogue globally. He is the only faith leader on the U.N. Secretary-General’s High-Level Advisory Board on Mediation. In the past, he has addressed the Security Council on the future of mediation and reconciliation.

The General Assembly’s 78th annual meeting is underway this week with high-level discussion on topics ranging from climate change, financing for development, a Sustainable Development Goals summit and pandemic prevention, among others.

Last weekend, protestors, most of them young, many of them women, marched in New York calling for the energy industry to stop using fossil fuels ahead of this week’s U.N. climate action summit.

For people of faith, including young people, prayer is a part of peacemaking, Nick Gordon, an Episcopalian, told Episcopal News Service, following the Q&A.

“Young people are most activated by prayer when they can connect it to something that is very real and close to their heart,” Gordon said.  “You know, we had 75,000 people here in New York marching for climate justice just a short while ago; we have people marching in the streets for racial justice here in the city all the time.”

Prayer on its own, however, is insufficient and must involve grassroots community involvement and taking to the streets.

“Prayer has to be held in hand with putting our feet to the ground. How a lot of young people would respond is that, you know, prayer is important, and we see that with gun violence in the country,” he said. “Thoughts and prayers are great, but we have to put our feet to the ground to make that prayer actionable, and to bring the kingdom of God closer.”

To put today’s political and economic realities in context, Welby read from the text of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres’ Sept. 19 address to the General Assembly.

“Our world is becoming unhinged,” Guterres said. “Geopolitical tensions are rising. Global challenges are mounting. And we seem incapable of coming together to respond. We confront a host of existential threats – from the climate crisis to disruptive technologies – and we do so at a time of chaotic transition.”

The “great fracture,” as Guterres describes it, involves the world’s economic and financial systems and trade relations; threats to a single, open internet; diverging technology and artificial intelligence strategies; and potentially clashing security frameworks.

To that, Welby added what the world is facing is different to what it faced in 1914 and 1939. What’s coming will involve “war between democracy and totalitarians, between states that believe in control and states that believe in some kind of freedom, however badly expressed.”

The challenge will be how institutions like the church, particularly, in his case, the Anglican Communion, respond “at a time when our differences are in our face, through our telephones and on the internet and communication in a way they’ve never been.”

“How do we change so we reflect the modern world and accept cultural differences, whether we agree with it or not?”

One way, he said, is by empowering young people, who are not to be regarded as the leaders of the future but as the citizens of today. And to young people, he added women.

“Everyone must be involved in peacemaking, not just professionals,” Welby said. “Everyone is involved in war-making and horror if they are not involved in peacemaking.”

There also can be no “lone rangers,” he said, and engagement needs to happen at the top, in the middle and come up from the bottom.

The Rev. Michelle Howard, a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of New York who serves as a prison chaplain on Riker’s Island, appreciated the archbishop’s emphasis on including everyone in peacemaking.

“Every single person needs to be involved in peacemaking and it has to come from all directions in order to be effective,” Howard said.

Liliane Nkunzimana, the Bahá’í International Community’s Representative to the U.N. appreciated the point the archbishop made about the power faith leaders have to bring community members together regardless of members’ faith affiliation.

“I thought it was very powerful because of the convening power that faith leaders have to bring people together for a common cause,” she said. “And something else that I thought that was really hoped for was he talks about how hope is contagious, and how the future of leadership is community oriented.”

People feel increasingly isolated, at least in the Global North, she said, so the idea of creating community around shared interests and things people care about is crucial.

“I think it’s not that people are not interested in helping one another, but maybe sometimes they don’t know where to start. If there are groups of individuals who have common interest, and a desire to be of service to one another, that’s where faith leaders come in to create space for consultation and for service.”