It’s a familiar story of privilege in Britain: a well-connected man receives a top-notch, prestigious education before making his name in the high-paying business sector and is eventually selected to fill one of the most prominent roles in British society. But this version of the story has a twist: the man in question, Justin Welby, quit the life of a business executive in 1987 and became a village parish priest in the Church of England instead—and in remarkably short order has risen to be on the verge of being officially named the Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of 80 million Anglicans around the world.
After weeks of speculation from the British media and Anglicans around the world, Downing Street announced Friday on Twitter that a group of clergy and lay people known as the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC) had chosen the 56-year-old to be the head of the Church of England. Beyond his background in business, Welby may seem like a surprising choice for the top job for other reasons. Although he was rumored to be a possibility for the leadership of the Church in September when the 16-member CNC met in a secret location to deliberate on their choices, many felt that he was too young and new to the Church. A bit “undercooked”, as Reverend George Pitcher put it when speaking to TIME before the selection was announced. A bishop for less than a year, Welby’s background seems more in line with that of a top political advisor or a flashy CEO rather than the spiritual guide to millions.
Born in London in 1956, Welby has always had well-heeled connections. His father, Gavin Welby, worked as a bootlegger in the United States in the 1920s, was friendly with the Kennedys and once dated the actress Vanessa Redgrave. His mother, Jane Portal Welby, once worked as a secretary for Winston Churchill. Welby was educated at Eton College, the same elite private boys school attended by Princes William and Harry, London Mayor Boris Johnson and 19 British Prime Ministers including the current incumbent David Cameron. He went on to study law and economic history at Cambridge University before starting a career in the oil industry, first on the international finance team for a French oil company in Paris and then as an executive for Enterprise Oil Plc in London. In 1979, he married his wife Caroline and they started a family.
But Welby’s career path took a sharp pivot after the death of his baby daughter Johanna, who was killed in a car accident in France in 1983. Though devastated by the loss, Welby later said, “in a strange way it actually brought [my wife and I] closer to God.” A few years later, Welby quit his job and enrolled at St. John’s College at Durham University to study theology and become a priest. He quickly climbed the ranks of the Church and was appointed the Bishop of Durham—the fourth most senior bishop in the Church of England— in November 2012. His appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury marks another huge promotion—but it’s an elevation to a post that promises to be extremely challenging.
Worldwide, the Anglican community is made up of dozens of different churches, each with their own autonomy. More than half of all Anglicans are members of conservative African churches. In the U.S., the Episcopal Church has only about two million members and an outlook markedly more liberal than their African co-religionists. On issues such as gay marriage, women bishops and even the economy, Anglican churches can seem as far apart from each other in their beliefs as they are geographically. The diverse network of churches is, however, unified through the Communion, which, for the last ten years, has been led by the liberal-minded Rowan Williams, who announced his resignation as Archbishop earlier this year after a decade of struggling to resolve clashes within his flock.
It will now be up to Welby to manage the Church’s conflicts, the most severe of which have sometimes threatened to cause schisms. Many in the Church fear that a move too far to the right or too far to the left by one faction of Anglicans could lead to another faction breaking away entirely. Conservative Anglican groups such as the Convention of Anglicans in North America (CANA) are adamantly opposed to views they feel are contrary to the teachings of the gospels—particularly gay marriage and ordaining women as bishops. Julian Dobbs, a Bishop of CANA, says that such conflicts over theology are “causing huge divisions in the Anglican Communion.” He adds that to prevent irreparable divides, Welby “will need to work hard to establish those historic faith principles that the communion was founded.”
On the other side of the debate are Anglicans who believe that such a move toward codifying the Anglican faith would be at odds with what the Church fundamentally stands for. “Trying to force us into a common belief system is contrary to being an Anglican,” says Pitcher.
Welby clearly has daunting task ahead, but many feel that if anyone is capable of uniting the liberal and conservative factions of the Communion, it’s him. Church insiders describe Welby as a people-person who’s skilled at seeing all sides of an issue and negotiating with both wings of the Church. He’s also traveled extensively in Africa and worked behind the scenes with many churches there, encouraging communication between them and more liberal churches in the West.
That’s not to say he hasn’t taken stands on certain issues. Welby is on the record as being in favor of ordaining women as bishops and he’s just as outspokenly opposed to gay marriage. And yet he has largely managed to avoid being characterized as either of the right or the left in the Church’s political spectrum. In business and as a leader in the Church, Welby is perhaps most commonly described as a mediator. Vivian Gibney, a former colleague of Welby’s, told the BBC that “one of his main strengths is to find the way forward in negotiation.”
Never mind the elite education and business-savvy; that’s the skill most likely to make Welby the Communion’s saving grace.
(MORE: Anglicanism In Crisis)