There can’t be many chief executives who take up their appointment with the public confession that they come to the job 'in weakness and fear and in much trembling.' If they did, you’d be able to hear the whistle of the company’s share prices as they went into terminal freefall.
But for Justin Portal Welby, new spiritual leader of the 77 million soul worldwide Anglican communion, those same words summed up all he claims to bring to the post. As if even that was some kind of over qualification, we were all invited to further ‘humble ourselves before God and together seek his mercy and strength.'
His ascent to this pinnacle of humility and subservience, as the Church of England’s 105th Archbishop of Canterbury, began for the 57 year old former oil executive began with his coming to faith while at university in Cambridge. There he met his wife, Caroline Eaton.
English Speaking Outsider with No Insider Knowledge
Claiming to have drifted into his business career, he couldn't get a job anywhere else so he eventually joined Elf Aquitaine’s international finance team; partly because they needed someone who could speak English, and because they wanted someone who didn't know anything about the oil business and so could have a fresh view on the future of the French giant.
In his words, he turned out to be ‘reasonably good at it’ and ended up as group treasurer for Enterprise Oil plc. Later he worked in the Niger Delta, where oil companies were involved in the exploitation of local communities, prompting years of violent civil conflict. Still only in his 20s, he began to realise this was dirty business. Later, a number of his former colleagues were arrested for corruption. But the turning point came in a time of personal tragedy.
A Dark Time and a Drawing Closer to God
On his return from Africa in 1983, his seven-month-old daughter, Johanna, was killed in a car crash in France. "It was a very dark time for my wife Caroline and myself,” he said in interview, “but in a strange way it actually brought us closer to God.”
In 1987, he resigned and entered St John’s College, Durham. After ordination, Justin served as curate and then rector to a number of midlands churches before his appointment as Dean of Liverpool Cathedral in 2007 and then Bishop of Durham 2011, entering the 2012 Archbishop election stakes as a 7 to 1 outsider, rising to 6 to 4 favourite.
Welby has returned to Nigeria many times, working as the co-director for International Ministry at the International Centre for Reconciliation. Justice and reconciliation are close to his heart. He's already shown himself able and willing to make healing concessions to views not his own; as in his admission that: 'You see gay relationships that are just stunning in the quality of the relationship', despite his own opposition to sexual relations outside of the conventional understanding of marriage.
In his inaugural address, the new Archbishop spoke of his earnest belief that 'the present challenges of environment and economy, of human development and global poverty, can only be faced with Christ-liberated extraordinary courage.'
There can be no doubt that all of Justin Welby’s worldy experience, as well as God’s directing wisdom, will be needed to bring the healing, justice and reconciliation needed now more than ever in church, state, commererce and wider world.
For an insight into the character and convictions of the new archbishop, go to Rev Dr Andrew Atherstone's book Archbishop Justin Welby: The Road to Canterbury. And for a retrospective on the life and influence of outgoing Archbishop Rowan Williams, go to Andrew Goddard's Rowan Williams: His Legacy.
April 4th, 2013 - Posted & Written by Les Ellison