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.
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.
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.