The Anglican Church has chosen a leader who supports female ordination and, while backing the church’s opposition to gay marriage, appears willing to re-assess his own views.
“I am always averse to the language of exclusion,” the Right Reverend Justin Welby, a fast-rising priest ordained only two decades ago and named Bishop of Durham last year, said in a press conference Friday after the announcement was made.
By going with Bishop Welby – who will be enthroned in March as Archbishop of Canterbury of a church increasingly reliant on conservative congregations overseas to fill its ranks – the selection committee is playing a delicate balancing act.
The 56-year-old is known for a traditionalist approach to interpreting the Bible and represents an evangelical tradition, both of which should appeal to the church’s conservative members. Through his former life as an oil executive he has extensive knowledge of Nigeria, a stronghold for the church.
But the choice also runs the risk of worrying those uncomfortable with the church’s liberal drift. He made clear that being elevated from the fourth most senior role in the church to the top job wouldn’t cause him to water down his views on the rights of women in the church, pledging to vote in favour of female bishops and urging others to do the same.
The Anglican Church has struggled to balance the competing desires of dwindling congregations in its country of birth and growth spots in more conservative countries overseas, where some adherents feel the leadership doesn’t adequately reflect their views. One early favourite for the top job was the Archbishop of York, Uganda-born John Sentamu, who said Friday that Bishop Welby could count on his support.
The Anglican Church had been reported to have been grappling with the decision of who should replace Archbishop Rowan Williams, who will finish a 10-year term next month. But British Prime Minister David Cameron, who announced the appointment with a brief statement, later told reporters that the new candidate was the overwhelming favourite.
At his press conference after the announcement, Bishop Welby said it was “astonishing and exciting” to be chosen to lead the church. He will become the 105th leader of the Anglican Church and will be taking over in what he called “a time of spiritual hunger, when… we are facing the toughest issues.”
One of those issues – a vote on the ordination of women – will comes to a head later this month.
“In 10 days or so the General Synod will vote on the ordination of women as bishops. I will be voting in favour, and join my voice to many others in urging the Synod to go forward with this change,” Bishop Welby said. “I want the church to be a place where we can disagree in love, respecting each other deeply as those who belong to Christ.”
On another divisive issue within the faith, he said that there must be “no truck with any form of homophobia, in any part of the church” while seeming to acknowledge the difficulty that view causes foreign adherents.
“What the church does here deeply affects the already greatly suffering churches in places I’ve mentioned like Nigeria,” he said. “I support the House of Bishops’ statement in the summer in answer to the government’s consultation on same-sex marriage. But I also know I need to listen very attentively to the LGBT communities, and examine my own thinking carefully and prayerfully.”
Bishop Welby is an Old Etonian who studied at Cambridge and began a career in the oil industry. In his 30s he felt the pull of the church, telling one interviewer that he went “kicking and screaming but I couldn’t escape it.”
In 1987 he gave up his career and trained to be a priest. He finished a theology degree at Cranmer Hall, in Durham, in 1992 and began his fast rise through the church, which included a stint in foreign conflict resolution. He has written on ethics and finance and his dissertation on whether companies can sin was published in the form of a 24-page booklet in 1992.
An outside candidate when the process of selecting a new archbishop began, he increasingly emerged as a contender. The bookmaker Ladbrokes raised the odds on his candidacy to 1-2 earlier this week before suspending betting on Tuesday, tweeting that “Money suggests that @Bishopofdurham has got the job.”