The 105th Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, commenced his public ministry in a ceremony in Canterbury Cathedral on March 21; the ceremony included African dancing and a Punjabi chant. For the first time in the Anglican Church’s history, a woman, the Venerable Sheila Watson, Archdeacon of Canterbury, enthroned the former Bishop of Durham as Bishop of Canterbury; he was then enthroned a second time, as Archbishop. The new Archbishop, a former oil executive, had held the Durham mission for under a year and a half. He has known personal tragedy and pain. He and his wife lost a baby daughter aged seven weeks in a car crash in 1983, and his father was an alcoholic. He has also been Co-Director of the Coventry Cathedral-based International Centre for Reconciliation, which is active in many conflict areas. As a member of the Privy Council, he has already made his presence felt by supporting an open letter from 43 bishops criticising the British government’s plan to limit increases in state benefits to well below the inflation rate; the clergy argue that 200,000 children could be forced into poverty thereby, and hold that a civilised society has a duty to support the vulnerable.
The Archbishop’s commitments on this kind of issue may stem in part from his experience of the contrast between a well-paid job in oil and a modest living as a newly-ordained curate, and will resonate with millions of Britons as the economic slump continues; he has said that Jesus did not live in a palace, and while on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards he made several strong interventions. He has also written a booklet on company accountability. Various other issues, however, will be much thornier. For example, the bishops’ open letter does not make the point that good jobs paying good wages are the best way to end poverty and dependence on benefits. Secondly, His Grace is in favour of women bishops, a matter over which the Church of England is bitterly divided. Furthermore, he has strongly opposed homophobia but supports the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage, though he recognises that many same-sex relationships express lasting love and commitment. It also remains to be seen how much influence the Archbishop’s earlier involvement with an evangelical branch of the church — which has had some success in reviving flagging church attendance — will have on him. Whatever else, as spiritual leader of the United Kingdom’s established church and a worldwide communion of over 80 million, the new Archbishop will be very much in the moral and political spotlight over almost any significant public issue that arises.