New archbishop of Canterbury to be named Friday

Published: Thursday, Nov. 8 2012 5:00 p.m. MST

A new archbishop of Canterbury is to be named Friday, and the buzz in the British press is that the new head of the Church of England will be a former oil executive with relatively little experience in the church's hierarchy.

"A press conference at Lambeth Palace on Friday will end weeks of uncertainty surrounding the appointment of Rowan Williams' successor as archbishop of Canterbury, and announce that the 56-year-old bishop of Durham will be the 105th man to sit on the throne of St. Augustine," reported The Guardian on Thursday.

The bishop of Durham is Justin Welby, a former oil executive who didn't enter the priesthood until the early 1990s. Much has been made of his meteoric rise in the Church of England, both positive and negative.

"He became the Dean of Liverpool in 2007, and was only appointed as the Bishop of Durham less than 13 months ago in November 2011. The core weakness in his application for the position as the Archbishop of Canterbury was thought to be inexperience," the Christian Post reported. "Other candidates up against him held far greater experience in the church than him, but it now appears as though any fears surrounding his relatively short time in senior roles in the church have been allayed."

Meanwhile, The Guardian reported that evangelicals in the church "admire his unusual profile."

"He is certainly a risk-taker; he's very visionary and strategic, and extremely astute," Christina Rees, a member of the General Synod, told The Guardian. "Put that together with a man absolutely grounded in his faith … and you get a very exciting proposition for archbishop of Canterbury."

While he reportedly described himself as "one of the thicker bishops in the Church of England," he was educated at the elite Eton College and at Cambridge University. And he hails from a colorful heritage: his father traded in whisky during Prohibition in the United States, his mother was Winston Churchill's private secretary, his great-grandfather was a colonial governor in India, his great-uncle was the Conservative chancellor Rab Butler.

Other reports focused on Welby's views on same-sex marriage and female clergy, two divisive issues for the 77 million-member Anglican Communion and its hierarchy.

"Welby, who is seen as more conservative than the liberal (his predecessor Rowan) Williams, is widely reported to be against gay marriage but in favour of the ordination of women bishops," said an account by Reuters in the Huffington Post.

But in a clever profile/analysis of Welby and the Anglican church's process of selecting its leader, Simon Edge wrote that "even on the question of gay marriage, where there was not much on paper to differentiate any of the candidates for archbishop, Welby is believed by liberals on the Crown Commission (which selects the church's new leader) to be more tolerant than some of his rivals."

But Edge warned that a candidate's record can't predict his conduct in office.

All accounts of Welby noted his life changed after the death of his daughter in a car crash in 1983. Four years later, he retired from a lucrative job with an oil company and entered the seminary, where he wrote a dissertation concluding that corporations can sin.

"He has returned to Nigeria several times to try to help resolve some of the violent conflicts fueled by oil production," Edge wrote. "This summer in an interview he said the Occupy protesters at St Paul's Cathedral were 'absolutely right' to say the City of London has too much power."

Welby recently served on a government panel investigating banking standards after the Libor interbank interest rate scandal. Reuters reported that Welby, speaking at a conference in Zurich last month, criticized banks as being "exponents of anarchy" and said they should become more socially useful following the financial crisis of recent years.

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