The newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of the global Anglican Communion, faces major challenges in uniting the faith’s increasingly divided church. For church members in Africa - where more than half of Anglicans live - opinions vary about how Justin Welby will weather the storm.
Welby will take up his new position as the Archbishop of Canterbury in March 2013. His extraordinary career has led him from work in the petroleum industry to work as a cleric in the Church of England. He has been a bishop of the Anglican Church for only one year, having served as bishop of the historic see of Durham.
According to VOA News, South African theologian Barney Pityana said many African Anglicans in his region do not know anything about Welby. “There is a little bit of apprehension over the appointment of somebody with so little episcopal experience,” said Pityana. According to the theologian, the Anglican Communion is at a complex and crucial point in its history. Nagging issues continue to threaten Anglican unity, dividing liberals, many in North America, and conservatives, many based in Africa. Numerous Anglican bishops and priests have left their church and joined the Catholic Church, which has formed an ordinariate which incorporates historic traditions and prayers of the Anglican Church.
The split between liberals and conservatives has raged ever since the Episcopal Church of the United States, a sister church of the Anglican Communion, consecrated its first openly male homosexual bishop. Since then, disputes over homosexual priests and same-sex marriages have become a major stumbling block to unity. Welby has said he agrees with the Church of England bishops’ position in opposition to gay marriage. On the other hand, he supports the ordination of women - another, though lesser, issue of controversy. Neither the Catholic Church or the Orthodox churches have females or married men as bishops.
Welby hails from the church's evangelical wing, which analysts say should stand him well in Africa. Even so, Pityana said that building a bridge between the two sides, however, will not be easy. "Clearly any archbishop has got to be a master diplomat, has got to be somebody who can really balance out a variety of interests and pushes and pulls in the Anglican community. In this time, I would imagine there is a schism in all but name," said Pityana. Pityana said what is needed is an archbishop who can open dialogue, and he thinks Welby may have what it takes.
The incoming archbishop has worked as a crisis negotiator in Africa, working with separatists in the Niger Delta and negotiating with Islamists in northern Nigeria. His experience in Africa is important, Pityana said, especially in Nigeria, host to the world’s largest Anglican community. “Bishop Justin has worked in Nigeria and one assumes that he has got fraternal relations with the leadership or the emerging leadership of the church in Nigeria. And so he would be able, at the very least, to be persuasive enough to open real genuine dialogue, which clearly under Archbishop Rowen Williams just did not happen,” said Pityana.
Reflecting the deeply held feelings of Christians in Africa, Bishop Nicolas Okah of Nigeria expressed rejection of a gay agenda for his church. Speaking with the BBC, the bishop said “The homosexual agenda that is being promoted here and there in the church, and by different governments here and there, if that is the agenda he is coming to promote, of course we will not be part of it.,”
Rev. Kevin Ward of the University of Leeds, an Anglican priest, said he thinks Welby has the qualities needed to make better headway toward dialogue within the Anglican Communion. "I think that Justin Welby is going to work hard. He has this strong background of reconciliation, of working with divided people, bringing people together. And I think he will use those skills very well, not least in working with African church leaders," said Ward according to VOA.
Born in 1956 in London, Bishop Welby was educated at Eton College and Cambridge University, where he studied history and law. For over a decade, he worked in the oil industry in England and France, becoming group treasurer of a large British exploration and production company and focused on West African and North Sea projects. His father’s family were German Jewish immigrants who moved to England to escape anti-Semitism in the late 19th century, and integrated quickly. He and his wife, Caroline, have five children. In 1983, a daughter was killed in an automobile accident. It was thus that he began his discernment to become a cleric of his church.