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.

Dylan Martinez/Reuters
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.

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."

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.

Several other senior figures in the Church of England had been reported as early frontrunners to succeed Dr. Williams, who departs at the end of this year after a decade of service, but Welby emerged as a strong favorite in some press coverage as of September.

His ability to remain on good terms with opposing sections of a church which has, at times, appeared to be set to tear itself apart, is indicative of Welby's political skills and charisma. Indeed, some suggest that ambiguity surrounding his political beliefs, in contrast to a predecessor often accused of being explicitly left-leaning, means that Welby will carry greater credibility should he opt for wider societal interventions on issues such as wealth distribution.

An intriguing dissertation

Credibility has also come from his financial expertise, gained from working more than 11 years in the oil industry at Britain's Enterprise Oil and France's Elf Aquitaine. That expertise already earned him a seat on the government committee scrutinizing banking standards after this past summer's scandal over banks' manipulation of the Libor interest rate.

“The fact that he has been involved in the treasury side of things at companies means that he knows that world and is well regarded within it,” says Peter Ould, a priest and commentator, who points out that Welby's dissertation was an exploration into whether companies can sin.

“So when he stands up and speaks on those subjects, he is treated as someone who knows what he is talking about. He's not one of those bishops who don't know how to write a check.”

Indeed, Welby has not been bashful about speaking out, describing banks last month as “exponents of anarchy” who pursued “activity without purpose” in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis.

While he won't be able to run England's state church like a company, his corporate nuance is likely to come in handy when it comes to tackling some of the wider organizational challenges the church faces as congregations dwindle and age, depriving it of its primary source of funding.

“There are fewer parishioners, as well as an increasingly aging and much more stretched clergy,” says Ms. Oldfield, who notes Welby's success several years ago as dean of Liverpool, where he was able to sort out local church finances. “Working out what is a sustainable model for the church over the course of the century is a hugely urgent piece of work, and I think that Justin Welby might be the person to do that.”

In terms of the style of communication likely to be adopted by the new archbishop as he works his way through challenges facing him, Mr. Ould meanwhile depicts him as figure likely to be more direct than his predecessor.

“The impression is of a nice guy who people get on with, but I don't think he will hide when he is trying to get his way,” says Ould, who says Welby managed to be conciliatory in an address last year to liberal American bishops, while also pointing out that there was a lot he disagreed with.”

“Rowan Williams gave the impression of being a fluffy, cuddly figure, but was actually a ruthless political maneuverer. Welby is more open about what he wants to do. He will call a spade a spade and he will do something about it.”

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