LONDON – How will Justin Welby lead the world’s Anglicans and heal their deep divisions? Even he is not sure yet.
Welby generated high hopes but few clear expectations Friday as British Prime Minister David Cameron announced the 56-year-old former oil executive was being promoted to archbishop of Canterbury after only a year’s experience as a bishop.
“We don’t know much about him and there are very few expectations because he has been a bishop for such a short time,” said Paul Handley, managing editor of the Church Times newspaper.
But, he said, initial signs were “very encouraging and impressive.”
Welby, appointed last year as bishop of Durham in northeastern England, worked for 11 years in the oil industry, rising to treasurer of Enterprise Oil before deciding he was called to the priesthood.
A skilled mediator who has worked to resolve conflicts in Africa, he will lead a global Anglican Communion riven by sharply divided views on gay people and the place of women in the church.
As the 105th holder of a post that stretches back to the 6th century, Welby takes over after Rowan Williams retires in December.
Welby said he felt privileged and astonished to be chosen to lead the church at “a time of spiritual hunger.”
“It’s something I never expected,” Welby told reporters, saying he had been “overwhelmed and surprised” to be offered the job.
Welby declined to take questions about the contentious issues of female bishops and the church’s attitude toward homosexuals and said “I don’t have a detailed plan” for promoting growth in the church.
Reaction to his appointment was positive.
Jonathan Gledhill, bishop of Lichfield, called the appointment “daring and imaginative.”
“Everybody seems to like him, those who know him,” said Stephen Parkinson, U.K. director of the traditionalist group Forward in Faith.
The Rev. Bob Callaghan of Inclusive Church, which campaigns against discrimination based on sexuality or gender, said Welby’s appointment was “quite a brave statement by the church: We’ll have something fresh and new and see where it goes.”
Rod Thomas, chairman of the conservative evangelical group Reform, said Welby “has great credibility as a mediator and a friend of Africa, so we will be praying” that he can heal some of the splits in the Anglican Communion.
Women and the Church, which has campaigned for female bishops, said it was encouraged that Welby had worked with women as equals in the business world.
Welby supports the ordination of women as bishops, and indicated that his thinking on legally defining same-sex unions as “marriage” — which he and other bishops have opposed — was evolving.
“We must have no truck with any form of homophobia in any part of the church,” he said, adding that he planned to “listen to the voice of the LGBT communities and examine my own thinking.”
The closely cropped, clean-shaven Welby joked that “I’ve got a better barber and spend more on razors than Rowan Williams.”
But he praised Williams – a self-described “hairy lefty” – as “one of the greatest archbishops of Canterbury.”
Even before formally becoming archbishop, Welby could face a test of his mediation skills later this month when the church’s governing General Synod votes on allowing women to serve as bishops. He supports that change, but the latest proposed compromise has drawn fire from activists on both sides – either as being too weak or going too far.
Welby was also recently appointed to the U.K. Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, which is examining possible reforms of the industry, and he serves as ethical adviser to the Association of Corporate Treasurers.
He has denounced multi-million executive pay packages in big British companies as “obscene” and has said the Occupy movement “reflects a deep-seated sense that something is wrong.”
Before seeking ordination, Welby spent six years with French oil company Elf Aquitaine and then as treasurer of exploration company Enterprise Oil in 1984. He resigned in 1989.
Following ordination in 1993. he was a parish priest for nine years before moving to Coventry Cathedral, as co-director of international ministry. In 2005, he became co-director of the cathedral’s conflict reconciliation ministry in Africa.
He estimates he has visited Africa 60 times since 2002, involved in reconciliation efforts between Christians and Muslims in northern Nigeria, and in the Niger Delta where tensions are high between residents and the oil industry.
He has spoken of having to “establish relationships with killers and with the families of their victims, with arms smugglers, corrupt officials and more.”
Bishop Brighton Malasa, chairman of the Anglican church in Malawi, said he had met Welby and found him to be a good man, a humble person, so cool.”
In 2007, he was appointed dean of Liverpool Cathedral, Britain’s largest church. He caused a bit of controversy there by allowing John Lennon’s “Imagine” to be played on the cathedral bells.
Welby is an enthusiastic user of Twitter, a tool he intends to use as archbishop “if I am not stopped forcibly.”
He and his wife, Caroline, have two sons and three daughters. Their first child, a 7-month-old girl, was killed in a traffic accident in 1983.