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Rowan Williams once said the next Archbishop of Canterbury, spiritual leader of the fractious Anglican wing of world Christianity, needs “the constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros”.
He overlooked the calm and patient negotiating skills that probably helped his successor Justin Welby clinch the job.
Welby, 56, hardly seems an obvious choice to head the Church of England. He started out in the oil business in France, had a late vocation to the priesthood and became a bishop only last year.
His resume includes years of work as a crisis negotiator in Africa, among separatists in the swamps of the Niger Delta and Islamists in northern Nigeria.
Those skills, honed as head of Coventry Cathedral’s Centre for Reconciliation from 2002 to 2007, will be crucial in an Anglican Communion that has come close to schism over gay rights and a Church of England preparing to welcome women bishops.
The Coventry spirit of building new structures and fostering reconciliation, as the city did with Germany after its cathedral was destroyed by World War Two bombing, also influences his work in a parliamentary commission examining the banking sector.
“He is absolutely the right man at the right time,” said Canon Stephen Davis, a former Coventry staffer who endured hardship and death threats accompanying Welby in Africa. “He has exactly what’s needed to head the Anglican church and Anglican Communion.”
Williams acknowledged these traits when he said Welby would "bring to this office both a rich pastoral experience and a keen sense of international priorities, for Church and world”.
Williams knows how important that “keen sense” will be. A theologian and poet at heart, Williams anguished over the conflict within Anglicanism during his 10 years in a post with prestige but no direct authority over the wider Communion.
With about 80 million faithful, the Communion — a loose association of 38 member churches around the globe — shares third place in world Christianity with other large denominations such as the Lutherans and the Reformed churches.
Only the Roman Catholics, with 1,2 billion members, and the 250-million strong Orthodox churches are larger.
Soon after Williams took office in 2003, the Episcopal Church — the US branch of the Anglican Communion — ordained its first openly gay bishop. Conservative churches in the developing world, mostly Africa, revolted against what they called an un-Biblical abomination.
Over the years, the Communion’s so-called “Global South” - where the majority of Anglicans now live — created a parallel group and supported conservatives in North America who opposed gay bishops and growing approval there for same-sex marriage.
“Rowan Williams was perceived as socially liberal from the get-go, so he had a problem gaining the trust of the Global South,” said Paul Bickley, senior researcher at the Theos religion think tank in London.
When he seemed to give in to the critics and try to slow the reformist Americans and Canadians, Williams lost the liberals’ confidence as well. His proposed solution of creating more centralised authority for the Communion died when his own Church of England rejected it.
Welby, the outgoing Bishop of Durham, arrives as the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury with none of Williams’s baggage.
“Justin has never come across as a person trying to impose a point of view,” Davis said.
His method in conflict negotiation is to hear everyone out, take risks — even to his own life — to show he respects their concerns and patiently build trust until common ground emerges.
“Justin is very good at being sensitive to the right time to broach difficult issues,” Davis said.
In the Niger Delta, Welby found rebel groups with “conflict fatigue” who sought his help in finding a way out of their deadlocked struggle with the Nigerian government.
“It’s a little like that in the Church,” Davis said. “It’s so distracted by internal problems it may have lost the plot.”
Jim Naughton, communications adviser to Episcopal bishops in the United States, said Welby’s African experience would stand him well in relations with the Global South churches.
Two important African provinces, Nigeria and Kenya, have said they will campaign to have the Archbishop of Canterbury pushed aside as head of the Communion in favour of a leader elected by the group’s 38 member churches.
Naughton saw little hope for that initiative. “He’s not going to fluster,” he said. “He’s negotiated with rebels in Nigeria at gunpoint. He’s not going to be put off by other prelates in purple shirts.”
Neither man could say exactly where Welby will lead the Church and the Communion after his installation next March, but both were sure he had better chances than Williams to find the common ground. “Anyone who thinks he knows what that is, doesn’t,” Davis said. “You have to have an open mind. If the different sides think you have a plan, you’re out.”
After his initial meeting with journalists on Friday, Welby was not immediately available for comment on his plans.
OILMAN, PRIEST, ETHICIST
Welby attended the elite private school Eton, then studied law and economics at Cambridge, but prefers to be defined as a Christian rather than as the product of a privileged education.
His first career was in oil, first for Elf Aquitaine in Paris for five years, then six years as treasurer for the London-based exploration company Enterprise Oil.
“Treasury teaches you to be decisive,” Welby told an interviewer in mid-2011. “Markets don’t allow you to hang about and vacillate.”
In ministry, he mixed this business acumen with the principles of Catholic social teaching whose focus on commerce for society’s common good, he says, has influenced him greatly.
His theology dissertation was entitled “Can Companies Sin?” and he has written about the ethics of the derivatives contracts he once traded.
In a speech in Zurich on business ethics last month, Welby said patching up the financial system that collapsed in 2008 would be as senseless as rebuilding Coventry Cathedral on its ruins. As in Coventry, w h e re a modern cathedral stands next to the mediaeval ruined shell, a new financial structure is needed.
“We need to build from the ruins something that looks as if it helps people, rather than being there for people to help it,” he said.
“The industry was referred to as financial services, but in fact it served nothing,” he added. “We can only replace it with something that is dedicated to the support of human society, to the common good and to solidarity.”
GRILLING A BANK BOSS
Welby is one of 26 Anglican bishops that have seats in the upper chamber of parliament, the House of Lords, and sits on the Commission on Banking Standards.
At a hearing this week, Welby showed he is not always the soft-spoken mediator.
Welby grilled the chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland, a bank with vast assets which taxpayers bailed out during the crisis, for failing to mention social responsibility in introductory remarks at the hearing.
“What is the duty of an enormous bank like yours — approaching 100% of GDP, well into the hundreds of billions of pounds — what is your duty to society, and why didn’t you mention it?” he asked RBS boss Stephen Hester.
When Hester said RBS served its savers and shareholders and paid its taxes, the bishop dismissed that as “motherhood and apple pie” and asked for “a bit more penetrating analysis of what your duty is to society”.
In his Zurich speech, Welby offered no overall plan for banking reform but suggested state support should be “limited only to those banks and financial institutions that have a clear and explicit social value”.
Banks with a social purpose could enjoy “an easier tax regime and lighter regulatory touch”, he said.
His criticism of the banks has led him to support the Occupy protest movement against inequality that started near New York’s Wall Street and spread far beyond. “Occupy reflects a deep-seated sense there is something wrong and we need to think very hard about what’s wrong,” he told another interviewer last July.
The Occupy movement exposed divisions within the Church over whether to clear a protest camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London.
HARD TO LABEL
Welby comes from Anglicanism’s evangelical wing, in contrast to his liberal Anglo-Catholic predecessor.
Before entering the priesthood in 1989 he was a lay leader at Holy Trinity Brompton, a London church known worldwide for its popular Alpha courses to bring non-believers into the faith.
But this does not automatically mean a close link to conservative politics, as with many US evangelicals. Welby supports women bishops in the Church of England and some of his positions on economic issues echo those of the political left.
He has supported the Church’s opposition to the legalisation of same-sex marriage, as planned by the Conservative government.
Given the divisive role of gay issues at home and abroad, he acknowledged the differing views of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender church members. After his nomination, Welby said he would have to “listen very attentively to the LGBT communities and examine my own thinking prayerfully and carefully”.
What stands out in his pastoral record in Coventry and Liverpool, where he was dean of the cathedral, is that the congregations grew wherever he worked.
“It’s hard to put a label on him,” Davis said.
Whenever he returned from Africa to Coventry, he recalled, Welby enjoyed reconnecting with traditional Anglican liturgy and vestments.
“At the same time, Justin has great sympathy with Holy Trinity Brompton, which is really vibrant, incredibly modern — some would say Pentecostal,” he added.
In the last analysis, Davis said, he would simply count Welby among Christians “who want to reach out and grow the Kingdom of God here on Earth”.
When Williams announced he would leave his post in late 2012 for an academic post at Cambridge University, the Church of England announced that nominations for his successor could be emailed to email@example.com by the end of April.
That was one of the few public aspects of the secretive selection process by a commission of 16 bishops, priests and lay Anglicans, who finally picked a preferred candidate and alternative for Prime Minister David Cameron to choose.
No details of their meetings were announced and no details of their deliberations leaked out, but they were clearly deadlocked in September, when a decision had been expected.
Several other possible candidates were mentioned in Church circles, including John Sentamu, the Ugandan-born Archbishop of York, and London Bishop Richard Chartres.
The first sign Welby had got the nod was when bookmakers suspended betting on him last Tuesday following a wave of wagers on his name that seemed to be inspired by a leak. “It’s a very strange feeling when you find yourself having odds quoted on you at a bookie,” Welby said later.
Peter Ould, a religious commentator and Anglican priest, dismissed any suggestion that Welby’s nomination was without intrigue, although it did fall short of the drama that has surrounded some elections of Roman Catholic popes.
“If someone tries to be super-spiritual and say it is not political, they are not living in the real world,” said Ould.
“It is not quite as Machiavellian as a papal conclave, but it has its moments.”