Justin Welby: conflict resolution specialist for a warring Church

Nov 8, 2012

Next Archbishop of Canterbury has negotiating skills - but can he bat off 'Old Etonian' insults?

THE RT REV Justin Welby, who has been Bishop of Durham for just under a year, is expected to be named Archbishop of Canterbury tomorrow, beating off competition from more experienced candidates such as Archbishop of York John Sentamu and Bishop of Norwich Graham James.

Bishop Welby, 56, had a career as an oil executive before leaving in 1987 to become a priest in the Church of England. His rapid rise to Canterbury – if it is confirmed – means that little is known about his personality and he has few enemies in the Church. But his educational background - Eton - is known, and it is this issue that was immediately seized upon by some observers today.

Alastair Campbell, former spin doctor to Tony Blair, tweeted: "Oh Lord, what a shock, another Old Etonian gets another top Establishment job. Of the toffs, by the toffs, for the toffs. All in it together."

Giles Fraser, former Canon Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral, also on Twitter, pointed out that now "the Prime Minister, the Mayor of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury all went to Eton".

But Rupert Myers, in The Daily Telegraph, dismisses such concerns. "Where he [Welby] went to school is an irrelevance contrasted with his theological position on the important issues facing the Church of England," he writes. "His views on women in the Church, gay marriage and capitalism are far more relevant to his leadership."

Those views are being picked apart in the media.

Christina Rees, a member of the Church of England's legislative body the General Synod, told the BBC that Bishop Welby is known to be "extremely supportive" of women bishops and "towing the Church's current line on homosexuality and same-sex marriage". However, she adds, "he is a man who is prepared to change his views if it is the right thing to do".

After he became a canon at Coventry Cathedral in 2002, Bishop Welby involved himself in conflict resolution and peace building in war-torn areas around the world - at one point risking his own life when dealing with warring factions in Nigeria.

Former BBC religious affairs correspondent Mike Wooldridge says Bishop Welby's "remarkable breadth of experience in reconciliation matters", in the UK, Africa and across the world will be an asset as Archbishop of Canterbury, because he will preside over various factions that are split over questions of homosexuality and the ordination of women.

Bishop Welby's strong financial background and business sense, gained in his time in the oil industry, is also likely to have been viewed as an asset, Ruth Gledhill, religious affairs correspondent at The Times, told the Today programme this morning.

A profile of Bishop Welby in The Guardian includes this nugget from his last boss at Enterprise Oil, Sir Graham Hearne: "I do remember that when the investment bankers came in with long-winded presentations he'd get pretty impatient, because he was so quick, you see.

"He'd look at the slide and say 'Next!' And then the next slide, he'd go 'Next!' He liked them to get through it fairly quickly. He of course knew his stuff and so a lot of it was unnecessary. But it did amuse me very often when I observed that."

Welby has recently been tangling with investment bankers again in his capacity as a panel member on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards.

The 'Occupy' activists who camped outside St Paul's Cathedral a year ago calling for banking reform might be happy to hear that, last month, Welby suggested that before the financial crisis, banks had been serving "no socially useful purpose" and were "exponents of anarchy". He called for the financial industry to be "rebuilt from the ruins".

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