Church Of England Names New Top Cleric

The Bishop of Durham, Justin Welby, has been appointed as the next archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the Church of England. The former oil executive has only a year's experience as a bishop. Philip Reeves has the story.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Robert Siegel. Justin Welby is a former oil executive, so you might be surprised to hear about his new job. Today, he was officially named the next Archbishop of Canterbury. Right now, he's Bishop of Durham in England. When Welby is enthroned as Archbishop in March, he'll become the most senior cleric in the Church of England, the head of the wider Anglican Communion and a man with a lot of problems on his hands, as NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: The history of the post stretches back to the 6th century and is entwined with kings and queens. The Christian world has few more prominent positions. Yet, when Justin Welby opened the letter saying he's to be the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury, he was far from ecstatic.

JUSTIN WELBY: My initial reaction was, oh, no.

REEVES: Welby did feel other emotions, a sense of privilege and, he says, also surprise. His rapid rise certainly is surprising. He spent a decade in the oil industry before embarking on a career in the church. Skills in finance and conflict resolution were among those that helped him along the path and now, at 56, less than a year after becoming a bishop, Welby's been named as head of the communion of some 77 million Anglicans.

He seems undeterred by deep divisions among his followers.

WELBY: This is a time for optimism and for faith in the church. I knew we are facing very hard issues.

REEVES: Those hard issues include whether women should be able to be ordained as bishops. That question's going before the Church of England's governing body, the General Synod, this month.

WELBY: I will be voting in favor and join my voice to many others in urging the Synod to go forward with this change.

REEVES: The schism among Anglicans worldwide owes much to another issue, same-sex marriage. Welby's been opposed to this, though today he said he's willing to listen.

WELBY: In the Church, we need to create safe spaces for these issues to be discussed in honesty and in love.

REEVES: Welby warned Anglicans against homophobia.

WELBY: I am always averse to the language of exclusion.

REEVES: Those words will not heal the deep divisions on this issue. The Primate of the Church of Nigeria, Nicholas Okoh, is among many African Anglicans strongly opposed to same-sex marriage. He's not interested in hearing Archbishop Justin Welby trying to change minds.

NICHOLAS OKOH: It is not the agenda he is gone on to promote, of course, we will not be part of it.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News.

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