New Anglican head Welby mixes conflict resolution role with business skills

November 14, 2012

The Bishop of Durham, and the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, smiles during a news conference at Lambeth Palace in London November 9, 2012.  REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

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, whose nomination was announced last Friday, 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”.

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