Eton, the City, Lambeth Palace? Bookies close bets on next Archbishop

Flurry of support for former oil boss suggests CofE may have a new leader
  • @cahalmilmo

A former oil executive who has been an Anglican bishop for only a year and is strongly opposed to gay marriage is rumoured to be on the verge of being named as the next Archbishop of Canterbury.

Bookmakers Ladbrokes suspended betting on Justin Welby, the Bishop of Durham, following a flurry of bets that he is to be the 105th head of the Church of England and leader of the 77 million-strong Anglican Communion worldwide.

Lambeth Palace declined to comment on suggestions that an announcement, which would initially come from Downing Street, could be made as soon as Thursday this week after a lengthy selection process which was last month deadlocked over its shortlist of successful candidates.

The Right Reverend Welby, initially considered a dark horse for the post, would represent a marked swing towards the traditionalist wing of the Anglican faith compared to his predecessor, Dr Rowan Williams, an instinctive liberal who worked hard to prevent a schism over the issues of female and gay bishops.

Ladbrokes shortened the odds on Bishop Welby to 1-2 favourite after receiving what it said was a sudden rise in bets, including several for hundreds of pounds, on its book on the next Archbishop.

Betting was later suspended on all candidates and Ladbrokes tweeted: “Money suggests that @Bishopofdurham has got the job.”

Bishop Welby, an Old Etonian, is an evangelical and will be seen as a doctrinal conservative. He was an outspoken proponent of the Church’s opposition to gay marriage but he has also voiced support for the ordination of women bishops, saying he wants to see a mechanism to allow those opposed to the move to stay within the communion.

Elevation to the head of the established church would represent a remarkable rise for the 56-year-old who was ordained in 1992 and was appointed to the See of Durham, the CofE’s fourth most senior bishopric, in October last year.

As a result critics have pointed to the bishop’s lack of leadership experience inside the often tempestuous world of Anglicanism.

But he consequently untainted by partisanship and it is likely that the bishop’s substantial experience outside the Church as much as inside it that has recommended him to the Crown Nominations Commission, the panel of four women and 15 men tasked with drawing up a list of two choices - a frontrunner and a fall back candidate - to be presented to the Prime Minister and the Queen.

The panel, which had initially been expected to make its decision at the end of September, is believed to have been widely in favour of Bishop Welby as its first choice but was split on its second candidate, throwing doubt over the entire process and prompting speculation that Downing Street would be forced to intervene to break any deadlock.

Prior to ordination, Bishop Welby spent 11 years working in the oil industry, providing the sort of managerial experience required to sort out not only the doctrinal but also the financial and structural challenges that face the Church.

His corporate background has made him an authoritative critic of muscular capitalism. His dissertation at theological college was entitled “Can companies sin?” and he was last month sharply critical of banks, saying they had “no socially useful purpose” and were “exponents of anarchy” prior to the 2008 crash and the sector needs to be rebuilt “from the ruins”. His words were particularly significant because he is a member of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards looking into the Libor lending rate scandal.

By convention, David Cameron will accept the recommendations of the nominations commission and advise that the Queen appoints its first choice as Archbishop.

Justin Welby: Bishop with the common touch

If the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury is to be Justin Welby, most of the nation will not know what to expect.

He is an Old Etonian, but of the self-deprecating sort. Before being ordained he worked as an international oil executive for 11 years, some of it in civil war-torn Nigeria. He understands pain; his first child, Johanna, died in a car accident.

A man of quiet charisma he has the common touch. Though a conservative evangelical, he talks human rather than Kingdom-of-God speak. And his theology is not so conservative as some suppose.

Expect him to talk tough on many matters. He has castigated the present generation for inheriting the benefits of their grandparents' faith and jettisoning its moral obligations.

Paul Vallely