LONDON -- The bishop of Durham, Justin Welby -- a former oil company executive who once said he was unable to escape "a sense of God calling" -- is likely to be named the new archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual head of the world's estimated 77 million Anglicans, British news media reported Thursday.
The current archbishop, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, announced in March that he would step down at the end of the year, saying his successor should have "the constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros" -- an allusion to the tasks facing the head of a church riven by debate over same-sex marriage and the ordination of women as bishops, among other issues.
While the appointment of a successor is supposed to be secret, word leaked out this week that Bishop Welby had been chosen, prompting bookmakers to close their books after an avalanche of bets on him. On Wednesday and Thursday, leading newspapers and the BBC reported that he would replace Archbishop Williams.
There was no official confirmation of the appointment from either church or lay authorities. The office of Prime Minister David Cameron said a formal announcement would be made Friday.
Bishop Welby, 56, who would be the 105th archbishop of Canterbury, is said to have been chosen over three other contenders: the archbishop of York, John Sentamu; the bishop of Norwich, Graham Jones; and the bishop of London, John Charteris. Bishop Welby is regarded as an evangelical conservative in opposing same-sex marriage but favoring the elevation of women to senior church positions.
Educated, like Mr. Cameron and other members of the British elite, at Eton College, Bishop Welby studied law and history at Cambridge University before working for 11 years for French and British oil companies.
After his youngest daughter, Johanna, was killed in a car crash in 1983, he said, "It was a very dark time for my wife, Caroline, and myself, but in a strange way it actually brought us closer to God." They have five other children.
He began his training as a priest in 1987 and was made a deacon in 1992. Since then he has risen rapidly through the church hierarchy. He was made Bishop of Durham only a year ago.
In an interview published in September in Money Marketing, a British financial newspaper, he said he had abandoned the oil industry in favor of the church because "I was unable to get away from a sense of God calling."
In June, Bishop Welby told The Mail on Sunday newspaper that his father, Gavin Welby, had made a living as a bootlegger during Prohibition in the United States after the bishop's grandmother had sent him to America. "I remember my father telling me she gave him five pounds and put him on a boat," he was quoted as saying. "He said he went to New York in 1929 and traded whiskey."
According to biographies in British newspapers, Gavin Welby later moved in the same circles as the Kennedys before returning to Britain and marrying a private secretary to Winston Churchill, Jane Portal, who became Bishop Welby's mother.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.