LONDON – His first reaction upon being given the job was “Oh no.”
But Justin Welby said Friday that he was “overwhelmed and surprised,” but feels a “massive sense of privilege” at being appointed the next archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of the world’s 80 million Anglicans and a post steeped in centuries of tradition.
Welby, 56, acknowledged the formidable challenges that face the Anglican Communion in general and the Church of England in particular; both have been riven by bitter divisions over sexuality and the role of women. Church attendance is also dwindling perilously in some parts of the Anglican world, including here in Anglicanism’s birthplace, Britain.
But the oil executive-turned-priest, who will take up his duties as leader of the flock in March, expressed faith that the church would find a way through.
“I am utterly optimistic about the future of the church,” Welby told reporters Friday. “We will certainly get things wrong; I certainly will. But the grace of God is bigger than our biggest failures.”
Welby’s appointment as the 105th archbishop of Canterbury caps a meteoric ascent through the Church of England hierarchy since his ordination as a deacon 20 years ago. The bespectacled, self-effacing cleric is currently the bishop of Durham, in northern England, a position he has held for only a year.
Supporters hope that the leadership skills he sharpened as an oil executive, before taking up his religious vocation, and his experience in conflict resolution in Africa will help him hold together a fractious global fellowship in danger of coming apart.
The outgoing archbishop, Rowan Williams, has had almighty trouble trying to keep conservative church leaders, especially in developing countries such as Nigeria, talking to liberal clergy in places like the United States, where the Episcopal Church boasts openly gay bishops.