Justin Welby, a former oil executive, has been chosen to be the new Archbishop of Canterbury, and spiritual leader of the world’s 77 million Anglicans.
The 56-year-old has had a meteoric rise within the Anglican Church and takes over a global flock riven by divisions.
Anchor Aaron Schachter speaks with the BBC’s Jane Little about Justin Welby.
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Aaron Schacter: I’m Aaron Schacter, this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. There’s a new Archbishop of Canterbury, that’s the person who heads the Church of England and acts as spiritual leader to some 77 million Anglicans worldwide. The new Archbishop is Justin Welby, and one of the more interesting things about him is the fact that he spent more than a decade in the oil business. Another interesting personal detail, his father was a bootlegger in the U.S. during prohibition. The BBC’s Jane Little covers religion issues. Jane, where did Justin Welby come from to reach this top spot?
Jane Little: Well he has a very interesting, unusual story. He’s a fifty six year old man who’s only been a priest for twenty years, not very long in Anglican years, and a Bishop for just one of them, that’s very unusual. He’s got five children, and tragically he lost a baby girl in a car accident in 1983, which he suggested influenced his decision to leave the oil industry, which he had been working in for a long time, and to go into the church. His wife, children, and one grandchild were with him today at Lambeth Palace where he will be living. He seemed to quite at ease, joking with the press. He said that he had a better barber, and spent more on razors than the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who’s recognizable by his gray beard and scraggy gray hair. But on a more serious note, his appointment, he said, was astonishing and exciting, and he told the BBC what he thought he was there to do.
Justin Welby: I think my principle job is to be one of those who leads the church in the worship of Jesus Christ, and in the proclamation of the good news about Jesus Christ. In order to do that, there needs to be reconciliation within the church, that is clear.
Schacter: Now Jane Little, what is this reconciliation that Justin Welby is referring to there?
Little: Well, the Church of England is the mother church of the global Anglican Communion, and that communion is riven by bitter division, more so than at any time in its history. The Church of England itself is divided over the role of women in the church. We’re going to see a vote in just over ten days’ time over the ordination of women as Bishops, which Justin Welby himself strongly favors, much to the delight of the liberal wing. But he’s also facing the biggest divisions over homosexuality, same-sex marriage, the interpretation of scripture. African churches have been leading the dissent to liberal western churches ever since the ordination of Jean Robinson in New Hampshire, the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion. Now Justin Welby is seen as an Evangelical, being on the conservative wing in terms of Biblical matters. He opposes same-sex marriage, so in a way there’s something in this appointment for everyone.
Schacter: Now as you mentioned, though, Justin Welby has been a priest for only 20 years. As far as careers go in the church, he’s moved up the Anglican hierarchy pretty fast. Why him, why was he chosen?
Little: Well, I think it would be fair to describe it as a meteoric rise, yes. I think at a time of crisis, the church needed strong leadership, someone seen as an honest broker. And I think his business background as an oil industry executive really probably played a crucial role in that. In fact, I asked the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, who’s currently in Washington, whether he thought Justin Welby had been chosen to be less of a pastor-in-chief than as a chief executive.
George Carey: Oh no, I don’t think that comes into it at all. I mean, god forbid, we have a CEO of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. We deeply need a pastor, someone who’s going to travel, to reconcile groups and bring them together again. I think, though, that the background to your question is very interesting, because I do think that the oil experience, the business experience, is a gift that will help him to do his job. But all the signs are that he’s going to set up the church very well.
Schacter: Remind us, if you would, just what the Archbishop of Canterbury does. Is it like the Pope for Anglicans, or Episcopalians as we know them in the United States? I guess what I’m trying to get at is just how important and influential this job is.
Little: Well he’s certainly not the Pope. You may recall there was something called the Reformation in England, and that left the King, and now the Queen, technically as the head of the Church of England. But the Archbishop of Canterbury is the spiritual head, the figurehead of that and the global church. Some suggest the role actually needs to be beefed up, for there to be more centralized authority in the Anglican Communion, so that there’s someone there to clamp down on dissent. But others say, no, there’s Rome for that. We’re the Anglican tradition, the so-called middle way, and we have to muddle through this together. I think whatever happens, he’s going to have a tough time holding people together, and Lord Carey told me that the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, would need to keep a sense of humor, his advice was to laugh at himself every day.
Schacter: The BBC’s Jane Little, speaking to us from Washington, D.C. Jane, thanks!
Little: Thank you.
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