LONDON -- If Britain's media and its famous bookies are correct, 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 today 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, Bishop 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.
Bishop 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 Bishop 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 this 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 Queen Elizabeth II, who as titular head of the Church of England makes the appointment.