LONDON — Anglican Bishop of Durham Justin Welby will become the 105th archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, succeeding the retiring Archbishop Rowan Williams.
“I feel a massive sense of privilege at being one of those responsible for the leadership of the church in a time of spiritual hunger,” said the 56-year-old father of six, who was an oil-industry executive before pursuing a religious vocation.
British Prime Minister David Cameron’s office formally announced the appointment, saying he had been the “overwhelming choice” of the British Crown Nominations Commission, a body made up of clergy and laypeople.
Bishop Welby is widely hailed for his personal holiness and ability to sort out complex issues, which supporters hope will serve him well as church attendance continues to drop and the Church of England wrestles with divisive issues such as female clergy and bishops, ordaining practicing homosexuals and creating wedding ceremonies for homosexual persons.
The future Anglican Communion leader got a warm reception from Catholic quarters, including Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster.
“I am sure that his ministry, like that of his predecessor, Archbishop Rowan Williams, will provide an important Christian witness to this country over the coming years,” said the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.
The president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, Cardinal Kurt Koch, welcomed Bishop Welby’s appointment and will travel to England for his installation on March 21, 2013.
Bishop Welby’s press conference Nov. 9 underscored why Paul Murray, director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Durham University, described him to Vatican Radio as “a very unusual combination.”
On the one hand, Bishop Welby praised “the riches of Benedictine and Ignatian spirituality, the treasures of contemplative prayer and adoration” and being “confronted with the rich and challenging social teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.” He mentioned no other branch of Christianity in his remarks.
He also admitted, like his predecessor, to taking spiritual direction from a Benedictine monk.
But Bishop Welby also took the occasion to voice his support for an issue that is further straining the theologically divided Church of England and is being hotly debated at its general synod, which will end later this month.
“I will be voting in favor” of ordaining women bishops, he said, “and join my voice to many others in urging the synod to go forward with this change.”
Archbishop Williams is also pushing this measure, saying it is “inconsistent to exclude in principle a baptized person from the possibility of ordained ministry.”
In a 2008 article in The Tablet, Cardinal Walter Kasper, then the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said any hope the Catholic Church had in recognizing Anglican holy orders was dashed by the consecration of women bishops.
Cardinal Kasper said that hope of “full, visible communion” had receded and dialogue was compromised, now that 16 provinces, including the Church of England, had voted for legislation for women bishops.
“The Catholic Church must now take account of the reality that the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate is ... increasingly the stance of the [Anglican] Communion,” said the cardinal.
The issue of the ordination of women bishops will be decided at a two-day meeting that will begin Nov. 19. If it fails to pass, it cannot be brought up for reconsideration until the next synod in 10 years. The Church of England allowed for the ordination of women priests in 1992.
Bishop Welby’s predecessor served 10 years in the position before announcing his retirement earlier this year. He struggled to maintain order in the Anglican Communion, which is divided over issues of sexuality and ordination.
In 2006, Archbishop Williams chided the Episcopal Church, the American branch of the Anglican Communion, for its embrace of homosexuality, including ordaining an openly homosexual bishop living with his partner.
“In terms of decision-making, the American Church has pushed the boundaries,” he said.
Many disaffected traditional Anglicans have left for other churches rather than remain in a church where, it seems to them, theology and morality are up for grabs.