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Can a former oil executive hold together the Anglican Church?

Justin Welby, appointed Archbishop of Canterbury today, is equipped to deal with the church's divisions, observers say, thanks to his corporate experience and charisma.

By Correspondent / November 9, 2012

Justin Welby, current bishop of Durham and the future Archbishop of Canterbury, smiles during a news conference announcing his future leadership of the Church of England at Lambeth Palace in London Friday.

Dylan Martinez/Reuters

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London

The outgoing head of the Church of England once said that he hoped his successor would have "the constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros."

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Justin Welby may well be considering those words today, after being appointed the new Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church of England and symbolic leader of the world's estimated 85 million Anglicans.

Downing Street officially announced the appointment of Mr. Welby, the bishop of Durham and a former oil company executive, Friday, after two months of deadlock involving the secretive appointments panel that was charged with coming up with the name, which the prime minister recommended to the queen. Now, Welby, who has been bishop for less than a year following a meteoric rise within the Church of England, will occupy one of the most prestigious and high-pressure posts in British public life.

He takes over from Rowan Williams a church struggling with shrinking congregations in Britain and beset with divisions over women clergy and gay marriage. But many observers say Welby, the fourth-most senior figure in the Church of England until now, is better equipped for those challenges than anyone else in the church's hierarchy as a result of his corporate experience and relatively good standing among both conservative and liberal factions.

Welby, who told a press conference Friday that he had “never expected” the appointment, struck an optimistic note throughout, saying: "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."

"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."

Backed by many traditionalists

A figure from the evangelical wing of the church and one with backing from many traditionalists, Welby opposes gay marriage, potentially the most serious faultline in a church already at odds with the British government over new proposals to legalize gay marriage. However, his support for women clergy has also won him admirers from beyond conservative circles.

“He has strong record on female clergy, but at the same time, traditionalists who disagree about women in leadership feel that he has come there through quite a scriptural route, that he understands why some people are not in favor, and is prepared to fight for their right to remain in the Church of England by finding ways to square their consciousness,” says Elizabeth Oldfield, director of Theos, a theology think tank.

Welby also said Friday that he would be casting his ballot in favor of the ordination of women as bishops, which is set to be voted upon by the church's General Synod in 10 days' time.

"I'm optimistic about the future of the church. The church will certainly get things wrong, I certainly will get things wrong. We will also get much right, and do so already," he added.

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