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November 15, 2012

Tough Path Ahead for New Anglican Leader

by Selah Hennessy

The newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of the global Anglican Communion, faces major challenges in uniting the faith’s increasingly divided church. For church members in Africa - where more than half of Anglicans live - opinions vary about how Justin Welby will weather the storm.

Welby will take up his new position as the Archbishop of Canterbury early next year. It will be a remarkable undertaking for a man who began his career in the oil industry before becoming a parish priest in the Church of England. He has only been a bishop for one year.

South African theologian Barney Pityana said many African Anglicans in his region do not know anything about Welby.

“There is a little bit of apprehension over the appointment of somebody with so little episcopal experience,” said Pityana.

Divided Anglican Communion

The trouble, he said, is that the Anglican Communion, with its 80 million members, is at a complex and crucial point in its history.

Issues that have dogged the church for the past decade continue to threaten Anglican unity, dividing liberals, many in North America, and conservatives, many based in Africa.

The split between liberal and conservative regions set in after the United States consecrated its first openly gay bishop. Since then, disputes over homosexual priests and same-sex marriages have become a major stumbling block.

Welby has said he agrees with the Church of England bishops’ position in opposition to gay marriage. On the other hand, he supports the ordination of women - another, though lesser, issue of controversy.

Evangelical uniter

The archbishop also comes from the church's evangelical wing, which analysts say should stand him well in Africa. Pityana said that building a bridge between the two sides, however, will not be easy.

"Clearly any archbishop has got to be a master diplomat, has got to be somebody who can really balance out a variety of interests and pushes and pulls in the Anglican community. In this time, I would imagine there is a schism in all but name," said Pityana.

Pityana said what is needed is an archbishop who can open dialogue, and he thinks Welby may have what it takes.

The incoming archbishop has worked as a crisis negotiator in Africa, working with separatists in the Niger Delta and negotiating with Islamists in northern Nigeria. His experience in Africa is important, Pityana said, especially in Nigeria, host to the world’s largest Anglican community.

“Bishop Justin has worked in Nigeria and one assumes that he has got fraternal relations with the leadership or the emerging leadership of the church in Nigeria. And so he would be able, at the very least, to be persuasive enough to open real genuine dialogue, which clearly under Archbishop Rowen Williams just did not happen,” said Pityana.

Forging a dialogue

But speaking on the BBC, Nigerian Anglican leader Nicholas Okah made it clear how he views the road ahead.

“The homosexual agenda that is being promoted here and there in the church, and by different governments here and there, if that is the agenda he is coming to promote, of course we will not be part of it,” said Okah.

Leeds University African-religious studies expert Kevin Ward also is an Anglican priest. He said he thinks Welby has the qualities needed to make better headway toward dialogue within the Communion.

"I think that Justin Welby is going to work hard. He has this strong background of reconciliation, of working with divided people, bringing people together. And I think he will use those skills very well, not least in working with African church leaders," said Ward.

Welby is to be enthroned as archbishop of Canterbury on March 21 in Canterbury Cathedral.