But Justin Welby said Friday that he now 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 such as the United States, where the Episcopal Church boasts openly gay bishops.
Welby said he wants the church to be "a place where we can disagree in love."
But he also pledged support for an upcoming vote in the Church of England to allow women to serve as bishops, which many traditionalists oppose. And although he adheres to current church policy banning openly homosexual priests and decrying same-sex marriage, he spoke of the need to listen to the gay community and to "examine my own thinking carefully and prayerfully."
"We must have no truck with any form of homophobia in any part of the church," Welby said.
He has also been an outspoken critic of corporate greed and exploitation. Welby's theological dissertation bore the title, "Can companies sin?" (His answer: yes.)
By the time of the formal announcement Friday, his appointment as the next archbishop of Canterbury was one of the worst-kept secrets in Britain. Media outlets leaked the news; bookies stopped taking bets on his promotion.
He himself first heard last week in a telephone call from the office of British Prime Minister David Cameron. By tradition, the government of the day selects the archbishop of Canterbury on the advice of a special committee and forwards its choice to the queen, who as the titular head of the Church of England makes the appointment.
"My initial reaction was 'Oh no' ... [I was] just overwhelmed and surprised by it," Welby said, adding: "It's something I never expected."
-- Henry Chu
Photo: Justin Welby, the bishop of Durham, was named Friday as the next archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of the world's Anglicans. Credit: Keith Blundy / AFP/Getty Images