Former Oil Executive Appointed Archbishop of Canterbury

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LONDON -- Bishop Justin Welby, the new archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual head of the world's estimated 77 million Anglicans, pledged Friday to seek reconciliation in some of the most contentious issues of gender and sexuality that have split the Anglican Communion.

Soon after Prime Minister David Cameron announced his appointment, Bishop Welby, a former oil company executive, made it clear that he endorsed earlier church statements criticizing government plans to legalize same-sex marriage.

"But I also need to listen very attentively to the L.G.B.T. communities and examine my own thinking carefully and prayerfully," he added, referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups.

"I am always averse to the language of exclusion," he said, apparently seeking a middle ground in the debates, which have rived Anglicans from Africa to America. "Above all, in the church we need to create safe spaces for these issues to be discussed in honesty and in love."

He said at a news conference, "We must have no truck with any form of homophobia in any part of the church."

Drawing on a career that has taken him from the executive suites of French and British oil companies to hardscrabble parish churches in the British Midlands and to scenes of sectarian strife in Africa and the Middle East, Bishop Welby said he would bring a "passion for reconciliation" to his new position.

Bishop Welby will replace the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, who announced in March that he would step down at the end of the year. Within the Church of England, Bishop Welby faces dwindling congregations and the same divisions between conservatives and liberals as Anglicans elsewhere.

"It's exciting, because I believe that we are at one of those rare points where the tide of events is turning, and the church nationally, including the Church of England, has great opportunities to match its very great, but often hidden strengths," Bishop Welby said.

"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, when our network of parishes and churches and schools -- and above all, people -- means that we are facing the toughest issues in the toughest places," he said.

Bishop Welby emerged as the favorite to become the 105th archbishop of Canterbury only after tortuous negotiations within the Church of England that had led to frequent reports of deadlock and disagreement among members of the church commission that chose him.

His appointment is likely to be closely watched in the Vatican, where the Roman Catholic hierarchy has sought to lure away Anglican priests who have become disaffected with what they see as a liberalizing trend in the Church of England.

Bishop Welby was educated at Eton College. He went on to study law and history at Cambridge University before working for 11 years in the treasury departments of the French Elf Aquitaine oil company and later a British exploration company, Enterprise Oil.

His rise through the church ranks has been widely described as meteoric. He began his training as a priest in 1987 and was made a deacon in 1992. He was made bishop of Durham -- the fourth-ranking diocese in the hierarchy -- only a year ago.

Bishop Welby has a reputation as self-deprecating. On Friday, he called his appointment "something I never expected." When he heard from Mr. Cameron's office that he was to be offered the position, "my initial reaction was, 'Oh, no,' " he said.

Before becoming bishop of Durham, he worked in the British Midlands as a parish priest and at the Anglican cathedral in Liverpool in the northwest.

He also led church organizations devoted to mediation and reconciliation in conflict zones, traveling to northern Nigeria, Kenya, Burundi and the Middle East.

His visits to Africa gave him firsthand contact with African Anglicans, who are generally held to be far more conservative on women's issues and gay rights issues than some of their Western counterparts, particularly in the United States, where Episcopalians are deeply divided.

Archbishop Williams spent much of his 10-year tenure trying to avoid an open schism, but he acknowledged publicly in March, "There are some conflicts that won't go away, however long you struggle with them." Not everybody "in the Anglican Communion or even in the Church of England is eager to avoid schism or separation," he said.

Bishop Welby's experience in business and conflict resolution represents a marked departure from his predecessor's background as a theologian and a poet.

This year, as a member of the upper House of Lords, to which Anglican bishops are routinely appointed, Bishop Welby joined a parliamentary panel scrutinizing the behavior of British banks. He is known as an opponent of corporate excess and has been critical of banks.

Speaking at a conference in Zurich, according to a financial Web site, he described banks as "exponents of anarchy" before the financial crisis in 2008 because they pursued "activity without purpose."

Bishop Welby said on Friday that as archbishop of Canterbury, he would remain on the parliamentary panel examining banking ethics.

The announcement on Friday was the first of several steps leading to Bishop Welby's consecration as archbishop, including formal approval by Queen Elizabeth II, the titular head of the Church of England; endorsement by the college of canons at Canterbury Cathedral; and his enthronement there in March.

Archbishop Williams has said he plans to become master of Magdalene College at Cambridge University in January.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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