JUSTIN Portal Welby, the Bishop of Durham for but a year, looks all but certain to be named the next Archbishop of Canterbury today (Friday, November 9). Mark Tallentire charts his meteoric rise.
THE man who is odds on to become the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury can pinpoint, virtually to the minute, the moment he became a Christian: October 12, 1975; just before midnight.
The young Justin was then a wide-eyed university undergraduate, reading law and history.
But despite his relatively youthful conversion, the future bishop’s entry into the clerical cloth would not come for another 27 years: in 1992, having studied at theology at Durham University.
In the meantime, he had pursued a highly successful career in the oil industry, working on Nigerian and North Sea projects and finishing as group treasurer of Enterprise Oil.
But although Bishop Welby’s calling to full-time church ministry came comparatively late in life, his subsequent rise through the church hierarchy has been incredibly rapid.
From starting out as a humble parish priest in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, he became Rector of Southam, also in Warwickshire, in 1995; and then a canon, and later sub-dean, of Coventry Cathedral, where he became involved in conflict resolution and peace building projects around the globe.
He was promoted to Dean of Liverpool in 2007, spending five years on Merseyside before being announced as the new Bishop of Durham, the fourth most important post in the Church of England, in June last year, succeeding the world-renowned New Testament academic and author Dr Tom Wright who had departed the previous August after seven years in the North-East.
He was consecrated by Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, in York Minister last October and enthroned at Durham Cathedral on November 26, when he called on Christians to ‘re-convert the region’.
The 56-year-old has consistently played down his chances of replacing Rowan Williams as head of the 77 million-strong worldwide Anglican Communion when he retires in December, saying he neither had the experience nor the desire for the job.
Once, he even commented: “Let’s be clear, I’m one of the thicker bishops in the Church of England.”
But his self-deprecation is overstated. He is, after all, an old Etonian and Cambridge graduate. His great-uncle was Conservative Deputy Prime Minister Rab Butler, his mother was Winston Churchill’s private secretary and his childhood included play dates at the home of actress Vanessa Redgrave.
His financial expertise has been in much demand, as evidenced by his appointment to the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards and the North East Local Enterprise Partnership’s economic review, headed by Lord Adonis.
Admittedly, some of his roots are colourful. His father, Gavin Welby, left for the United States in 1929 with $5 in his pocket and is said to have sold whiskey in prohibition America, surviving the alcohol ban by selling communion wine.
But Mr Welby Snr lived the American dream, eventually moving into circles frequented by the Kennedy dynasty.
He has known personal tragedy and loss. Married to Caroline, their first child, Johanna, died in a road accident in France, aged seven months.
Asked about the impact of her death, he said: “There’s an old saying about the influence of the French revolution – that it’s only 200 years on, so it’s too early to tell.”
It certainly had a significant impact on his outlook.
But it was a time when his Christian faith was strengthened, not diminished.
“It was a very dark time for Caroline and myself,” he reflected, “but in a strange way it actually brought us closer to God.
“For both of us, it was a moment of knowing the faithfulness of God.
“It was very significant – realising that God doesn’t give up on us.”
He became a lay reader at Holy Trinity Brompton, one of London’s most influential churches and the birthplace of the Alpha course which has attracted 15 million participants and led to thousands of conversions worldwide.
He now has five children, some grown up and others still at school: Tim, Pete, Katharine, Eleanor and Hannah. Perhaps surprisingly for someone in such a prominent role, relatively little is known about his personal beliefs – probably due to him having spoken more about economic than social issues in his brief time as Bishop of Durham.
He is said to be orthodox and conservative, leading some reports to portray his choice as the church lurching to the right.
“I can say the Creed without crossing my fingers,” he once joked.
He supports the consecration of women bishops but is thought to oppose gay marriage – something which could put him on a collision course with the Coalition Government in the months ahead.
But, whatever he comes up against, he is sure to approach it with impeccable diplomacy. His skills in the area are praised by anyone who encounters them.
His work was crucial, for example, on securing the future of Auckland Castle and its £15m Zurburan paintings.
The full-to-bursting in-tray facing any incoming Archbishop will require and stretch all his talents, gifts, patience and grace. Is he up to the job? Perhaps only God knows.