November 9th, 2012
08:41 AM ET
By Laura Smith-Spark, CNN
London CNN) - It's not a career path followed by many. On Friday, the Right Reverend Justin Welby, a former oil executive, was confirmed as the next archbishop of Canterbury, and as such will become head of the 77 million-member worldwide Anglican Communion.
Although Welby has been a bishop for just less than a year, his experience beyond the pulpit may be what has given him the edge over his rivals for the top job.
He will take over from Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who has headed the church for more than a decade, in March.
Welby faces the challenge of holding together an increasingly fractured Communion as it wrestles with the issues of homosexuality and women bishops, as well as tensions between the shrinking Western provinces of the Anglican Communion, including the United States and United Kingdom, and the exploding growth of the provinces in the Global South, many of them in Africa and Asia.
These questions over homosexuality and the ordination of women caused public tension and deep division within the Anglican Communion during Williams' tenure, and that pattern looks set to continue.
Welby's appointment may reflect a desire for compromise within the church, as he is in favor of women bishops but against gay marriage - positions that put him in line with the bulk of mainstream opinion within the Church of England, which is expected to vote on allowing women bishops later this month.
He voiced those views again in a news conference to announce his appointment, and in an interview with CNN. While he supports the Church of England's opposition to gay marriage, Welby stressed that homophobia was unacceptable and that he would "listen attentively" to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LBGT, community.
Gay marriage is "a very, very major issue in the life of the church, but it's not what defines the church, and there are obviously very tough differences of opinion," he told CNN.
He also said that he was "very much an advocate" of women bishops and that it looked likely the Synod would approve their ordination.
Welby described his nomination as "both astonishing and exciting," adding that he had never expected to be in this position.
"It is exciting because 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," he said.
Colin Blakely, editor of The Church of England Newspaper, told CNN he believed Welby was a good choice for the role.
"He's very unusual - this is the first time we have had a bishop, or archbishop even, who's come into the church with this level of experience in the world of commerce," he said.
"I think it's an unconventional choice because looking at the state of the church, the divisions within the Anglican Communion, the challenges that are facing the Church of England - well, this is a new person who brings something different to the table."
Welby, who went to Eton College, one of Britain's most exclusive schools, before studying law and history at Cambridge University, worked in senior management within the oil industry for 11 years, based both in Paris and London.
He was ordained in 1992 and since then has risen rapidly through the ranks of the Church of England.
While at Coventry Cathedral, he helped run its reconciliation ministry - working extensively in areas of civil war or other violent disturbance. Five years ago, he became dean of Liverpool, during which time he continued to work overseas on reconciliation projects.
Welby was enthroned as bishop of Durham, a diocese in northern England, in November of last year.
He was been outspoken on questions about business ethics and finance, and as a member of the House of Lords was appointed to a parliamentary inquiry into banking ethics this summer after the Libor-rigging scandal. He is expected to keep his place on the inquiry after his new appointment, according to the UK's Financial Times newspaper.
His theological dissertation, published two decades ago, was titled, "Can Companies Sin?" - and in the years since, he has been a vocal critic of payday loan firms, among others, according to reports.
Welby told CNN he had enjoyed working in the oil industry at the time, but what he had seen then and since, particularly in the Niger Delta, had informed his criticism of the world of commerce.
This includes an awareness of issues around pollution, poor handling of communities and the "wealth that comes from under people's ground not benefiting them the way it should," he said.
Welby spoke of a passion for Nigeria, which he has visited numerous times, and of its complicated ethnic, religious and economic mix, which he described as a "potent cocktail."
He also mentioned the great pressure faced by Christians in northern Nigeria as they come under attack by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram, and the difficult social situations of many in Africa.
Welby's exposure to the realities of the business world, as well as his experience in mediation and as Williams' special envoy to Africa, are likely to help in his new role.
And despite his limited time as a bishop, Welby was considered as a frontrunner to step into Williams' shoes in recent months.
The question of who would succeed the scholarly archbishop had been the subject of intense speculation among members of the Anglican Communion and others since Williams announced his intention to stand down in March.
Potential contenders for his role were considered by the Crown Nominations Commission, which made a recommendation to Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron then gave a recommendation to Queen Elizabeth II, who formally appoints the archbishop of Canterbury as supreme governor of the Church of England.
Many within the church will look to Welby to give a clear voice on divisive issues to help lead the Anglican Communion forward.
In a letter to the Crown Nominations Commission in July, the leadership of the Global South pointed out that its members make up about 55 million of the number worldwide, and made an appeal for the new archbishop to foster unity and uphold the "orthodoxy of the Christian faith."
"Anglicans today stand in worship and witness amidst diverse cultures, among ancient traditions and often in inter-religious tensions," the church leaders wrote.
"The new Archbishop of Canterbury should have the experience and cross-cultural sensitivity to understand the concerns and conflicts in the worldwide Communion. He has to be able to communicate effectively with and gain the respect and confidence of, his fellow Primates in the Global South."
The new archbishop must also "be able to build upon the work of his predecessors while avoiding any further actions that may widen the gap between us and these partners," the letter stressed.
Williams, who said "moving on has not been an easy decision," has accepted the position of master of Magdalene College at Cambridge University starting early next year.
The secretary-general of the Anglican Communion, Canon Kenneth Kearon, said Williams' time in office had "coincided with a period of turmoil, change and development in the Anglican Communion, and his careful leadership, deeply rooted in spirituality and theology, has strengthened and inspired us all in the Communion during this time."
Although Williams came out against gay marriage, speaking of the dangers - as he called them - of "imposing" this on the rest of the population, he is generally perceived to be a liberal and is credited with pushing forward the ordination of women bishops, which had been a major controversy.
Among others considered likely to take over from Williams were the Ugandan-born archbishop of York, John Sentamu, and the bishops of Coventry and Norwich.
Born in London in 1956, Welby has five children aged 16 to 27 with his wife, Caroline. They lost their first child, a daughter born while they lived in Paris, to a car accident in 1983, according to a biography on the website of the Durham diocese.
–CNN's Matthew Chance contributed to this report.
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.