London, England, Nov 9, 2012 / 05:29 pm (CNA).- Bishop of Durham Justin Welby will become the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, succeeding the retiring Dr. Rowan Williams.
“I feel a massive sense of privilege at being one of those responsible for the leadership of the church in a time of spiritual hunger,” said the 56-year-old father of six, who was an oil industry executive before pursuing a religious vocation.
British Prime Minister David Cameron’s office formally announced the appointment, saying he had been the “overwhelming choice” of the British Crown Nominations Commission, a body made up of clergy and laypeople.
Bishop Welby is widely hailed for his personal holiness and ability to sort out complex issues, which supporters hope will serve him well as church attendance continues to drop and the Church of England wrestles with divisive issues such as female clergy and bishops, ordaining practicing homosexuals, and creating wedding ceremonies for gays.
The future Archbishop of Canterbury got a warm reception from Catholic quarters, including Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols.
“I am sure that his ministry, like that of his predecessor Archbishop Rowan Williams, will provide an important Christian witness to this country over the coming years,” said the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales.
The President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, Cardinal Kurt Koch, welcomed Bishop Welby’s appointment and will be traveling to England for his installation next March 21.
Bishop Welby’s press conference today underscored why Professor Paul Murray, director of the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University, described him to Vatican Radio as “a very unusual combination.”
On the one hand, he praised “the riches of Benedictine and Ignatian spirituality, the treasures of contemplative prayer and adoration,” and being “confronted with the rich and challenging social teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.” He mentioned no other branch of Christianity in his remarks.
He also admitted, like his predecessor, to taking spiritual direction from a Benedictine monk.
But Bishop Welby also took the occasion to voice his support for an issue that is further straining the theologically divided Church of England and is being hotly debated at its general synod, which will end later this month.
“I will be voting in favor” of ordaining women bishops, he said, “and join my voice to many others in urging the synod to go forward with this change.”
Dr. Williams is also pushing this measure, saying it is “inconsistent to exclude in principle a baptized person from the possibility of ordained ministry.”
The issue will be decided at a two-day meeting that will begin Nov. 19. If it fails to pass, it cannot be brought up for reconsideration until the next synod in 10 years. The Church of England allowed for the ordination of women in 1992.
Bishop Welby’s predecessor served 10 years in the position before announcing his retirement earlier this year. He struggled to maintain order in the Anglican Communion, which is divided over issues of sexuality and ordination.
In 2006 Archbishop Williams chided the Episcopal Church, the American branch of the Anglican Communion, for its embrace of homosexuality, including ordaining an openly homosexual bishop living with his partner. “In terms of decision-making the American Church has pushed the boundaries,” he said.
Many disaffected traditional Anglicans have left for other churches rather than remain in a church where theology and morality seem up for grabs.