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Can former oil executive Justin Welby's background in business help the Anglican Communion solve its differences over gay marriage and women bishops?
LONDON — They will be praying for Justin this Sunday in parish churches around England. Justin Welby, currently Bishop of Durham, has been chosen to be the new Archbishop of Canterbury, leader of the worldwide Anglican communion — which includes America's Episcopal churches — a group of more than 80 million Christians.
It is one of the many quirks of the job that his surname will go when he puts the mitre on his head. He will be called Archbishop Justin by his bishops, priests, deacons and congregations. An odd bit of informality at odds with the responsibilities he is taking on. He is the 105th person to hold the position in a line that goes all the way back to St. Augustine, Apostle to the English, who is not the St. Augustine who prayed, "Grant me chastity … but not just yet." Although in some ways, Welby's life before becoming a churchman lives out that prayer. He was very worldly before putting on the collar.
Justin Welby is a son of privilege and connections. His father, Gavin, was a bootlegger during prohibition and made the acquaintance of the Kennedy family. It is reported that Gavin Welby introduced Jack Kennedy to his first mistress.
The new Archbishop's parents divorced when he was two, and his father dated Vanessa Redgrave for a while. His mother married Lord Williams of Elvel.
Super well-connected by birth, Justin Welby was educated at Eton and Cambridge, and he became an oil company executive straight out of university. In his words, he more or less fell into the work — but, of course, when you go to Eton and Cambridge, the jobs you fall into tend to come with big salaries.
He was a six figure a year exec in his early 30's during the Thatcher years, when a six figure salary was a lot of money.
Then, something happened. In 1983, his infant daughter was killed in a car crash. He has said the tragedy brought him closer to God. He began to attend the Alpha course, an evangelical grouping within the Church of England. In 1989, he gave up his oil executive life, studied for ordination, and entered the ridiculously low-paid world of the Anglican priesthood.
He remains on the evangelical wing of the Church of England, and here is where it gets interesting.
The Anglican communion globally is split down the middle over two social issues: women in the clergy and gay marriage.
There are women priests in the Church of England but there is a push to allow them to become Bishops. Welby is on record as favoring this. This marks him as liberal for an evangelical.
On gay marriage, Welby is on record as saying he is against the idea and believes marriage is a sacrament between a man and a woman. This marks him as a more traditional evangelical.
Where does this leave the church he will now lead? The Anglican communion suffers from tri-polar disorder. It has three main parts, each in some conflict over these issues.
There is the C of E, the established Church in England, whose head is Queen Elizabeth the Second. Then there are the Episcopal Church in America and the Anglican churches of Africa.
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The American branch is remarkably liberal, the African branch exceptionally conservative, the English branch a little of both. The Episcopal Church agreed this year to allow same sex couples to have their relationships blessed in church. The African churches regard homosexuality as a sin and oppose the ordination of gay clergy.
Welby's main competition for Canterbury was John Sentamu, the Ugandan-born Archbishop of York. Appointing an African to the top job appealed to many liberal members of the church hierarchy, and it was also considered a smart geo-political move. As regular worshippers decline in England, Africa is a growth area for the Anglican communion. But Sentamu, while aggressively liberal in his criticism of bankers' greed and African dictators, is relentlessly conservative and public in his views on the issue of gay marriage, which may have lost him support.
Welby has his own African connections. He spent part of his oil career in Nigeria and is respected by many in that country for his understanding of Africa.
Welby is also probably a bit better at the politics of gay marriage. He and Sentamu hold similar views. However, while Sentamu preaches it in a column in a Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid, Welby hinted at a press conference Friday that his idea might be a bit more flexible and he would continue to examine the issue "prayerfully and carefully."
Real world events may force his hand. Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to legalize gay marriage in the UK by 2015 (at present, homosexuals may enter civil partnerships so they don't live in legal limbo, but there is no legal recognition of gay marriage). If gay marriage becomes law in England, won't the established Church have to accept the rule and perform the ceremonies?
In any case, despite his class background, Welby's appointment has been greeted with an unusual lack of carping and a great deal of good will across the board.
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Liberals see in him not just a man willing to embrace the consecration of women bishops but a man whose years as a financial executive in the oil business means that his views on the world of high finance will get a hearing. He currently sits on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, and has argued forcefully and knowledgeably about the need to re-regulate the City of London's banks.
Conservatives see a man who really believes in God. You would think that was a pre-requisite for the job, but the Church of England has a decades' long reputation for theological wooly-mindedness. Right wingers here think that is the reason the established church only has around a million regular worshippers. They are wrong, of course. But Welby does mark a break from the sense that those who preceded him in St. Augustine's chair had lost the ability to speak clearly about Christian belief, as Britain has gone from a mono-cultural to a multi-ethnic and sectarian society.
How far this idea has taken hold could be seen yesterday, when he was asked by Channel 4 News host Krishnan Guru-Murthy if he really believes in the Virgin Birth. Without hesitation or a smile at the insulting nature of the journalist's question, Welby replied, "I can recite the Creed without crossing my fingers at any point." Asked if he believed that Jesus was physically resurrected, he said without any hint of doubt, "Yes."
They will be praying for Justin's success this weekend in England's parish churches, and my guess is there will be a few more in the pews than usual. In confusing times, a bit of traditional belief goes a long way in bringing back the parishioners.