Talking Politics

The next Archbishop of Canterbury? Meet Bishop Justin Welby

A privileged education and a past in the oil business: is the Church of England about to pick one of its self-confessed "thicker bishops" as the Archbishop of Canterbury?

Justin Welby has only been the Bishop of Durham for 12 months, but is already being been named by national newspapers as the man the Crown Nominations Commission is likely to recommend to No 10.

The choice will be a major departure for the world's 77 million Anglicans, given his strong commitment to evangelicalism. His last tweet, from November 3rd, stated: "Durham Diocesan Synod unanimously approves long term programme of evangelism. sharing the news of the love Christ gives us". Such forthright enthusiasm can produce a wrinkled nose from many in the Church. Will Welby really be a unifying figure?

His rise in the Church has been meteoric — oddly so. Welby was dean of Liverpool before being enthroned in Durham last November, having impressed with his financial management skills on Merseyside. Still, the rapidity of his progress is deeply unusual for a Church hierarchy now strictly governed by career progressions. What of the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu? What of the Bishops of Coventry? The Bishop of Norwich? All are further up the chain than this 56-year-old, who has beaten them all to the most important job in the Church.

"The trouble with austerity is what's a slight chill in Chelsea is a pretty good ice age up here." That's Welby on BBC2's Newsnight, displaying a real aptitude for politics which is at the heart of his appeal. "There is a serious issue about whether we act with solidarity and people working together, or not," he added. "For that to happen there needs to be a very significant change of heart and change of attitudes."

Being Archbishop of Canterbury is as much a political role as it is a theological one, which is why deep-thinking academics like Rowan Williams have proved such an obvious choice in the past. Welby has the establishment background — he was educated at Eton and then Trinity College, Cambridge — but his life afterwards has been far from conventional.

It seems extraordinary that the man who is about to become Archbishop of Canterbury was once sitting in oil industry meetings as an executive, building a successful career for the French firm Elf Aquitaine in Paris and then becoming treasurer of oil exploitation group Enterprise Oil in London, helping the company grow from its work during the early days of North Sea oil to become a major multinational oil and gas firm.

His old boss at Enterprise Oil, Sir Graham Hearne, reminisced to the Guardian newspaper that Welby was always in a hurry. "When the investment bankers came in with long-winded presentations he'd get pretty impatient, because he was so quick, you see," Hearne explains. "He'd look at the slide and say 'Next!' And then the next slide, he'd go 'Next!' He liked them to get through it fairly quickly. He of course knew his stuff and so a lot of it was unnecessary. But it did amuse me very often when I observed that."

His sudden departure from the oil business was a shock to his colleagues, given that he had never been especially aggressive about his religious beliefs. It would have been a big shock to the bank balance, too, sacrificing a six-figure salary for next to nothing. But in 1987 it happened nonetheless, with Welby disappearing off to study at Ridley Hall.

Quite a departure for a man whose father had been a whisky bootlegger during the Prohibition period in America, and whose mother had once been a private secretary to none other than Winston Churchill.

Years of experience as a parish priest followed — important, given that Williams had never actually done that particular job. He worked on conflict resolution issues while at Coventry Cathedral from 2002 before becoming Dean of Liverpool in 2007. During these years he has successfully avoided becoming embroiled in any of the Church's major divisive issues. Even on gay marriage, perhaps the most politically potent of all at present, he is viewed as a clear opponent — but does not take an aggressive stance on the issue.

Perhaps it is his ability to engage with the ethics of the City that is the clincher, however. His work on the parliamentary commission on banking standards was an obvious extension to his previous published works, most of which have been about the rights and wrongs of finance and management.

Welby promises to be a chief executive with a conscience, to boot. But it is his political brain that matters most. He is a healer of wounds, not an aggravator — a skill he will have need of during his time in Lambeth Palace. From there he will take charge not just of the Church of England but also the schism-hit worldwide Anglican communion. A tough job for a man whose working life once confined him to whizzing through slides in corporate boardroom presentations.

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