LONDON (Reuters) - He has met murderous warlords, survived death threats and brokered multi-million pound deals on the financial markets. Now the next Archbishop of Canterbury faces what many see as the near impossible task of uniting an Anglican church that risks tearing itself apart over gay marriage and women bishops.
Justin Welby, a self-deprecating figure who called himself “one of the thicker bishops in the Church of England”, inherits a bitterly divided institution struggling to find a role in an increasingly secular society.
Seen as a more conservative figure than the outgoing Rowan Williams, Welby was educated at the same elite school as British Prime Minister David Cameron and Prince William, second in line to the throne.
The 56-year-old said on Friday his appointment to a 1,400-year-old post was “astonishing”, reflecting a view that he lacks experience after he first became a bishop just a year ago.
Williams, who steps down as spiritual leader of the world’s 80 million Anglicans at the end of the year, says his successor needs “the constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros”.
Supporters say Welby’s background in the oil industry and in conflict resolution will help an often introspective body divided between more liberal forces in parts of the United States and Britain and conservatives in places like Africa.
Although he comes from the church’s evangelical side, a conservative group which emphasizes the Bible’s authority, people close to Welby say he has a broad range of views.
Welby’s rise up the church hierarchy has been swift - he only became Bishop of Durham, the fourth most senior cleric in England, in October 2011.
While supporting plans to allow women to become bishops, Welby agrees with the church’s opposition to gay marriage. However, his public stance on civil partnerships is less clear.
Welby is in no doubt about the size of his task in a church at a crossroads, saying in a sermon in April: “We are divided, often savagely. We are battered. We are weak.”
A cartoon in the Daily Telegraph newspaper showed Welby sitting next to U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese leader Hu Jintao in an office with baying crowds outside. Welby says in the caption: “And you think YOU‘VE got a hard job.”
Friends say that beneath his English modesty lies a sharp intellect, strong diplomatic skills and a knack for communication that some felt the outgoing Archbishop lacked.
Despite his background in finance, Welby is unafraid to criticize his former industry. He has called the financial markets “anarchic” and has been a probing member of a British parliamentary panel investigating banking standards.
Born in London in 1956, he was educated at top fee-paying Eton College, west of London, and went on to study history and law at Cambridge.
His father’s family were German-Jewish immigrants who fled persecution to live in England in the late 19th century.
A “mysterious character”, Gavin Welby travelled to the United States and sold whisky during the period of Prohibition, in force from 1920 to 1933, when the sale of alcohol was banned.
There are family links to Britain’s Conservative Party, currently in power in a coalition government. Welby is related to Rab Butler, a towering figure in the party’s history who held several top ministerial posts.
He worked in finance for French oil company Elf Aquitane and as group treasurer for Britain’s Enterprise Oil. Unable to escape “a sense of God calling”, he left finance after 11 years to become a priest in the late 1980s.
The death of his first child, Johanna, in a car crash in 1983 brought Welby and his wife Caroline “closer to God”, he said in an interview. They went on to have five more children.
Ordained in 1992, he worked as a vicar for seven years before taking the role of a conflict resolution negotiator at Coventry Cathedral, in central England. He travelled to conflict zones including Nigeria and Iraq.
“On three occasions it looked like I was going to get killed. One plan was to shoot me,” he said in an interview in July. “I have sat down with murderers. I even liked the bloke, though I knew he had killed tens of thousands of people. And you go away horrified that you like them.”
($1 = 0.6222 British pounds)
Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Giles Elgood