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When Justin Welby met John Cleese

In BBC Radio 4’s Archbishop Interviews, the unlikely pair talk about faith, forgiveness, cancel culture – and whether Jesus is funny.

By Rachel Cunliffe

If someone was to propose a parody of a BBC Radio 4 programme, it’s hard to imagine them devising anything better than this. The Archbishop Interviews (a title that can be read two ways) is exactly what is sounds like: interviews conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Why? Why not! And why not start the latest series with John Cleese, while we’re at it?

What follows is an exceedingly surreal yet utterly absorbing half-hour of radio. The head of the Church of England wants to quiz one of the most famous comedians of all time about God. Cleese begins by admitting he is “completely unconvinced but very deeply interested” in religion. “I always wonder,” he says, when asked about Jesus, “why did he have to get crucified? It reminds me of my mother, trying to get me to believe things out of guilt.” Welby is quick to jump to Christianity’s defence. “It’s nothing to do with guilt!” he insists. “It looks an awful lot like it sometimes,” comes the response, with perfect comic timing. A few minutes later, Welby mentions in passing that he has five children. “I’m so sorry,” Cleese interjects. “Oh, it’s all right,” Welby counters, “after that we discovered what caused it.” I nearly spat out my tea laughing.

I’m not doing it justice, I know. You’ll just have to listen to it to grasp the humour: these two gargantuan public figures happily debating subjects of deep importance – mental health struggles, reparations for slavery, the nature of forgiveness – as if they were sat together in a pub. For the most part, it’s Welby interviewing himself, with the occasional aside from Cleese, although it gets a bit more even-handed when they move on to cancel culture and the theological lessons one can learn from The Life of Brian. A key point of disagreement seems to be: is there anything funny about Jesus? It’s wonderfully irreverent, while at the same time raising some really quite thought-provoking questions. “I’ve no idea what we’ve been talking about,” Cleese admits at the end. Me neither, but I’d happily listen again.

The Archbishop Interviews
BBC Radio 4, 4 June, 1.30pm

[See also: How John Cleese became a hero of the right]

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This article appears in the 31 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise of Greedflation