Newly elected Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has used his first public comments as leader of the world’s 80million Anglicans to reiterate his opposition to the Government’s gay marriage plans.
The former oil-executive turned evangelical man of the cloth was officially made the 105 Archbishop of Canterbury following a brief, legalese filled ceremony in St Paul’s. He had already been nominated for the job last year but today’s ceremony marked his official election to the post before his enthronement at Canterbury cathedral next month.
In a brief interview with the media afterwards Dr Welby was asked to comment on tomorrow’s vote on gay marriage – an issue that although the Anglican Church’s leadership has officially opposed many pew members are nonetheless supportive of.
"I have no idea how the vote will go, so I am not going to get into hypothetical questions,” he said. “I stand, as I have always stood over the last few months, with the statement I made at the announcement of my appointment, which is that I support the Church of England's position on this. We have made many statements about this and I stick with that."
Although much speculation had grown in the last 24 hours of the Archbishop publicly “challenging” the government over gay marriage, Dr Welby’s chose his words carefully and instead re-iterated the church’s official position. Last year the Church released a detailed paper explaining why they were officially opposed to the Government’s same sex marriage proposals.
Welby himself comes from a gently conservative but charismatic evangelical background and is known to favour the church’s official teaching that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. However on the issue of women bishops he is known to be in favour.
Now that he has officially taken up the role as the symbolic leader of the world’s 80million Anglicans, Welby knows the trials he faces are daunting. Anglicans desperately need an adept leader and Welby has to grapple with the twin tasks of keeping a fractious church together and filling rapidly emptying church pews. His election comes at a time of huge divisions within the Anglican Church – both at home and abroad – over the role of women clergy and the acceptance of gay marriages as well as the increasing abandonment of faith in the West.
In the “Global South”- Anglican dioceses predominantly in Africa, Latin America and Asia – opposition to (and at times outward discrimination against) gay men and women is commonplace among church leaders with some threatening to create a “church within a church” if more liberal dioceses continue to welcome gay congregants and clergy.
At home, socially conservative evangelicals are bitterly opposed to gay marriage and women bishops but many ordinary pew members are highly supportive of the government’s plans to allow gay couples the same marriage rights as straight people. Meanwhile the latest census figures have shown how every day 1,100 fewer British people describe themselves as “Christian”.
The Archbishop of York Dr Sentamu, who preached at the St Paul’s service, warned his new colleague that he would lead the Church in an age of selfishness and individualism.
"Ours is really the most self-regarding culture in many centuries," he told him. "We make choices as individuals, we have rights as individuals - if it works for you, do it .. if it no longer works for you throw it away and go on to the next thing. Never was the human universe so large yet so small. Never was a culture so written in the first person singular. In the words of the late George Harrison, 'I me, mine'."
Other church leaders said they hoped he could bring unity at a time of uncertainty for the church. Tim Dakin, the Bishop of Winchester, said: “Justin’s got a huge responsibility now, gibber than mine. He’s responsible for his own diocese and for the province; and for the both the provinces of York and Canterbury; and in some sense responsibility for holding the unity of the Anglican Communion. So I think what we can pray for him and expect of hi is that he will be able to fulfil some of those words that were given to him in the charge.”
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