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Justin Welby, the bishop of Durham in northeast England, will be the new archbishop of Canterbury. This is the most senior archbishop in the Church of England and a symbol of unity for seventy-seven million Anglicans around the world (including Episcopalians in the United States.) An archbishop of Canterbury is not a pope and has no formal authority outside the Church of England. But an archbishop has immense moral authority and prestige among Anglicans worldwide. The Anglican Communion, like other Christian denominations, has been growing rapidly in the global south even as its relative influence has declined in the developed world.
African Anglicans in general are much more conservative on issues such as women as bishops or gay marriage than their developed world co-religionists. On an everyday basis, African Anglicans also face ethnic conflict, often difficult relations with Islam, and the ravages of poverty and disease that are much less acute in the developed world. There has been the concern that the Anglican Communion could split along north/south, liberal/conservative lines. Bishop Welby worked closely with the current archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, as his special envoy to Africa, to keep the communion together.
The new archbishop knows personally the challenges of Africans. According to Bloomberg, he has made more than forty visits to Nigeria. He has been deeply involved in peace and reconciliation work in the Niger Delta, and in the predominately Islamic north, now ravaged by Boko Haram, and where there is the danger of a more general conflict between the Muslim majority and the Christian minority. A person who places a premium on listening, he has the confidence of an astonishingly wide range of Africans. His understanding and sympathy for Islam has promoted dialogue between the two religions, and some Muslim religious leaders will talk to him when they are usually unwilling to talk to other westerners.
Justin Welby appears to be acutely aware of the importance of the grass roots, both in England, where as bishop of Durham he reportedly revived the parish-church structure, and in Africa. In Nigeria, in the Delta and the North, he regularly interacted with local people, rather than restricting his contacts to the more conventional movers and shakers. On a continent where there is too often a yawning gap between those who govern and those who are governed, yet where grassroots movements are increasingly driving the agenda, the new archbishop’s sensitivity, listening skills, and his experience promoting peace and reconciliation, make his appointment good news for Africa.