Africa warms to new Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby

Members of Africa's largely conservative Anglican communion say Welby understands the challenges that the church faces on the continent and can stave off a schism.

Dylan Martinez/Reuters
Bishop of Durham and newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby speaks to the media during a news conference at Lambeth Palace in London today.

Anglicans in Africa greeted the appointment of Justin Welby to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury with cautious optimism, suggesting that the new leader of the global Anglican Church may be able to prevent a schism.

Mr. Welby, a former oil executive who became bishop of Durham a year ago, was officially announced today as the successor to Rowan Williams, who retires at the end of this year, as the spiritual leader of the more than 80 million member worldwide Anglican Communion.

Welby takes charge as the church is struggling with internal differences over several issues, including the blessing of same-sex unions in the church and the ordination of women and gays, which have pitted traditionalists in the Global South against liberals in the North.

But African Anglicans – mainly seen as conservatives – are warming up to Welby, who served as Dr. Williams’ envoy to Africa and who the region's Anglicans say has a good insight into the challenges of the continent’s church such as poverty.  Welby worked in the Nigerian oil industry and was recently involved in reconciliation there.

Like the conservatives, Welby adheres to the traditional interpretation of the bible according to reports, and is opposed to gay marriage. He is open to ordination of women as bishops, but has not been as forthright about his views on ordination of gays.

But Professor Jesse Mugambi, an Anglican who teaches Religion and Philosophy at the University of Nairobi, says he sees no doctrinal, scriptural, or theological undertones in the appointment.

“But then, the Church of England is the state religion of an openly secular state. So I would not expect spiritual criteria to determine the most suitable candidate for a spiritual appointment,” he says.

In Nairobi, Anglican Church officials were remaining cautious. “We would not like to comment now,” said Canon Rosemary Mbogo, Kenya’s Anglican Church provincial secretary, when asked about the appointment.

But in Uganda, Rev. Canon George Bagamuhunda, the provincial secretary for the (Anglican) Church of Uganda, says the province is happy to hear Welby is “evangelical.”

“We pledge our cooperation and prayers for him as he takes on the mantle of leadership,” says Canon Bagamuhunda, whose is province is the second largest after Nigeria in terms of membership in the Anglican Church.

Bagamuhunda observes it is a challenging time not only in the Church of England, but also in the global Anglican Communion, which remained fractured over scriptural interpretation. He adds that his province will pray that Welby will "set the Word of God written as the authority for our common faith and morality.”

In South Africa, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of Cape Town says he is delighted at the appointment.

“It is clear that he will bring great gifts to his new role,” says Archbishop Makgoba, adding that Welby's experience in the secular world of business and finance will help with the church’s primary concerns of overcoming poverty and promoting comprehensive justice and peace.

“He has faced the tough realities with which so many live, and even looked the possibility of violent death in the face. He knows the harsh daily experience of so many here and around the world.”

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