In 1983, life was going well for Justin Welby. An executive for French oil giant Elf, he became a father for the first time and his career was on an upward spiral. Then tragedy struck and his path took a new direction, first through despair and ultimately to residency in Lambeth Palace.
The man who is set to be unveiled as the new Archbishop of Canterbury charts the start of his long and, by his own admission, improbable journey to leadership of the world’s 77 million Anglicans to the death of his seven-month-old daughter, Johanna, in a car accident in France nearly 30 years ago.
The loss of their first child was devastating for the then 27-year-old petro-chemicals manager and his wife, Caroline. But it also sparked a growing realisation that he wanted to swap the highly-paid world of the oil industry for the priesthood and the meagre income of a junior vicar.
In one of his few interviews on the subject of his daughter’s death, Bishop Welby, who is now a father of five surviving children, said: “It was a horrible time. A very dark time. And yet I think we’ve almost never been as conscious of the presence of God as we were during that time. It deepened the faith of both of us.”
By 1987, and despite promotion to a London-based oil exploration company, the then Mr Welby decided that he could no longer resist the sense of a calling and, as he put it, he went “kicking and screaming” into training to become a Church of England clergyman.
Bishop Welby ascent through the ranks of the Anglican Church thereafter has been notably rapid. Within a decade of his ordination in 1992 he was appointed to a post at Coventry Cathedral and became director of the International Centre for Reconciliation, a hands-on conflict resolution body.
His elevation to see of Durham, the fourth most senior bishopric in the CofE, took place only a year ago and, though it may be unfair to say he is fulfilling a destiny to lead, Bishop Welby, who lists his interests “most things French” and sailing, has the undoubted pedigree of Britain’s ruling class.
Educated at Eton and Cambridge University, his great uncle was the former Conservative deputy prime minister Rab Butler and his mother, Jane Portal, was a private secretary to Winston Churchill.
His father, Gavin, was a more unconventional figure - a businessman who made a living a purveyor of bootlegged whisky in the American Prohibition and is credited with both introducing John F Kennedy to his first mistress and a romantic entanglement with the actress Vanessa Redgrave, though Bishop Welby insists reports of their thwarted marriage are exaggerated.
Gavin Welby’s son seems to have inherited some of his father’s dynamism.
As news of his imminent appointment to Archbishop of Canterbury spread yesterday, one commentator praised Bishop Welby as a “risk taker”. Just how much of a risk taker was revealed earlier this year when it emerged that he had narrowly avoided being shot while on a mission to northern Nigeria to report on attacks on Christians.
Quite how this will translate into his oversight of England’s established church remains to be seen.
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