The Church of England has chosen its next leader in Justin Welby, a former oil executive who has been Bishop of Durham for just over a year.
Justin Welby’s appointment, made by the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, the Queen, was confirmed by Downing Street early Friday morning after a week of speculation in the press that this relative unknown would be the one to take up the mantle following Dr Rowan Williams’ stepping down to take up a post as master of Magdalene College, Cambridge.
This comes as quite a surprise as there were a number of more high profile candidates who were tipped for the post and who seemed ideally suited to the direction the Church had oriented itself toward in the latter years of Dr Rowan Williams’ tenure, namely the media’s go-to for comment on all things morality, Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu.
Welby, in contrast, has until this week enjoyed relative anonymity.
Welby, 56, was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and has enjoyed several positions both in and outside of church life. These positions include Rector of Southam (1995 to 2002), Vicar of Ufton, Coventry diocese (1998 to 2002), Canon Residentiary at Coventry Cathedral (2002 to 2007), and Dean of Liverpool (2007 to 2011).
In the wider world, Welby has also been the Chairman of an NHS Hospital Trust (2000-2002), has served as a committee member on ethical funds for a large investment company and, most recently, is currently part of the Banking Standards Commission which was set up in the wake of the global economic crisis and the resulting investigation into Britain’s banks which found widespread mishandling in the banking sector.
With regards to his appointment, Welby is quoted as saying:
“To be nominated to this post is both astonishing and exciting. It is something I never expected, and the last few weeks have been a very strange experience.
“It is exciting because we are at one of those rare points where the tide of events is turning, and the church nationally, including the Church of England has great opportunities to match its very great but often hidden strengths.
“I feel a massive sense of privilege at being one of those responsible for the leadership of the church in a time of spiritual hunger, when our network of parishes and churches and schools and above all people means that we are facing the toughest issues in the toughest place.”
So, what kind of leadership will the new Archbishop of Canterbury bring to the role?
If Welby’s first speech given at Lambeth Palace on Friday is anything to go by, his ordination seems almost a direct response to the two biggest issues facing the Church, both of which have threatened a schism, those being gay rights and specifically gay marriage, and the ordination of women bishops.
Welby wasted no time in declaring his support for female ordinations, saying:
“I will be voting in favour, and join my voice to many others in urging the synod to go forward with this change.”
The significance in both timing and tone cannot be overstated.
The campaign for the ordination of women bishops has been at an impasse and with a vote at the end of the year looming on the horizon, those advocating the move desperately needed a new source of support as, until this juncture, the Church’s orthodoxy has seemed decidedly reluctant about risking the possibility of shedding even more of its more conservative members.
On the issue of gay rights, Welby also will have delighted many when he declared:
“It is absolutely right for the state to define the rights and status of people cohabiting in different forms of relationships, including civil partnerships.
“We must have no truck with any form of homophobia in any part of the church.”
To some this may sound flowery and generally nice without much substance, but this carries with it a definitive statement that is hard to ignore.
It is a message not so much for British ears but rather for those evangelicals in areas like Uganda and Nigeria where religion is currently being used as a motivation not just to perpetuate homophobia but also to actively persecute gay people. Admittedly, the previous head of the church Dr Rowan Williams had made similar statements, but they were often couched in very careful rhetoric.
But, and there did have to be a but, Welby went on to say that, in line with his past statements, he supports the recommendation of the House of Bishops against legalizing same-sex marriage in the UK — despite the fact that this is solely a civil law affair and of no real consequence to religious institutions beyond driving home the point that Britain is rapidly becoming a largely secular nation.
However, Welby did qualify this with the following:
“But I also know I need to listen very attentively to the LGBT communities and examine my own thinking carefully and prayerfully.”
This puts Welby’s tone in stark contrast to other British religious leaders like, for instance, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who has through dangerous and often mystifying rhetoric made it his business to oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage.
It remains to be seen if Welby’s appointment marks a rethink from the Anglican Church which, for a while, seemed to be flirting with a move toward the more conservative, but certainly Welby will have a difficult task ahead of him given that the issue of gay rights, gay marriage, and gay priests has all of it caused the Church of England several headaches as it attempts to please both the socially liberal and its bedrock conservatives.
The outgoing Archbishop Dr Rowan Williams even said upon announcing his resignation earlier this year that his successor would need the ”constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros.”
Whether this describes Welby, we will have to wait and see.
Welby will be the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury. He will be enthroned on March 21, 2013.