LONDON -- If Britain’s media and its famous bookies are right, the man in line to be the next archbishop of Canterbury is a smart but self-deprecating former oil executive who has said he doesn’t want the job, one of the most exalted positions in Christendom.
In the latest step of a meteoric rise, Justin Welby, the current -- and relative neophyte -- bishop of the diocese of Durham in northern England, is expected to be named Friday as the next leader of the world’s 80 million Anglicans. That includes the Episcopal Church in the United States, which boasts about 2 million adherents.
If the appointment happens, as all of Britain’s major news outlets are reporting it will, Welby would succeed Rowan Williams, the mild-mannered theologian who announced his retirement in March after a rocky decade-long tenure and who advised his successor to have the “skin of a rhinoceros” to deal with the slings and arrows that come with the job.
Welby, 56, would inherit a global fellowship hobbled by hostility between conservatives and liberals over the same issues that have divided many Christian denominations, particularly the role of women and of gays and lesbians in the church. Traditionalists throughout the Anglican Communion, from American priests to fast-growing parishes in Africa and Asia, have even threatened to pull out and start their own rival group.
Whether Welby, who belongs to the more evangelical wing of the Church of England, would be able to keep Anglicans under one roof remains to be seen. But those who know him describe an astute leader with a level head and a human touch.
“He has a very collaborative, modern style of leadership. He listens to people; he takes advice,” said Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, a church historian and newly installed vicar in a Durham parish. “His strength could be an ability to see that the fact we don’t agree about things isn’t a problem. It’s how we disagree that matters.”
The selection of a new archbishop of Canterbury, a post with a pedigree going back more than a millennium, is to be announced Friday morning by 10 Downing St., the office of Prime Minister David Cameron. By tradition, the British government chooses a new archbishop with the advice of a special committee and passes the name to the queen, who as titular head of the Church of England makes the appointment.
The naming of a new archbishop –- who is also known, a bit unfortunately, as primate of all England -– comes days before the Church of England is due to finalize plans to allow female bishops. (The Episcopal Church in the U.S. already has women as bishops.)
The issue is a fraught one here, and has led some conservative priests and parishes to break with the Anglican Communion and join the Roman Catholic Church under a special papal dispensation.
Welby is a forceful champion of women’s leadership in the church. However, he is also said to hew to current policy banning openly gay clergy and opposing marriage for same-sex couples.
His religious calling, a personal epiphany for Welby, came after he had worked in the oil industry for more than a decade, a sector he said he “drifted into” because he couldn’t find a job anywhere else upon graduating from Cambridge and Eton, Britain’s most famous private school, which has churned out prime ministers and statesmen.
His religious convictions were strengthened through tragedy, after the death of his infant daughter in a car accident. He was ordained in 1992, held a succession of clerical posts around England and also spent time working on conflict resolution in West Africa, honing skills his supporters say should help him as archbishop.
“I have sat down with murderers in Burundi,” Welby told the Guardian newspaper this year. “I even liked the bloke, though I knew he had killed tens of thousands of people. And you go away horrified that you like them.”
With his business background, he is also probably one of the few priests who can speak equally fluently about predestination and high finance – or, as one commentator put it, a man who has served both God and mammon. The government has appointed him to a commission investigating a recent interest-rate scandal.
But his public comments about the need for better corporate responsibility and criticizing the recklessness of the financial world attracted rebuke Thursday from a fellow priest, who attacked Welby for his “left-wing attitude towards economics in general and the banks in particular.”
Welby clearly “regards his own private opinions as matters of principle,” Peter Mullen, the priest, wrote for the conservative Daily Telegraph. “This is dangerous. It has been known to lead to demagoguery.”
Welby’s expected elevation Friday comes after he has spent just a year as bishop of Durham, the fourth-most senior position in the Church of England. After Williams announced his intention to step down, Welby said he wasn’t interested in succeeding him.
But he was considered a serious candidate from the start. And when some of Britain’s biggest betting firms recently stopped taking wagers on his chances of being appointed, Welby’s promotion seemed all but sealed.
“The rumors have been flying around,” said Threlfall-Holmes. “We feel a bit annoyed that we’re losing him, but we feel it’s actually a very good appointment for the Church of England.”
Photo: Justin Welby, bishop of the diocese of Durham in northern England.