Friday, November 09, 2012

For Canterbury, Rerum Novarum

As the more news-savvy have already known for the better part of 48 hours, at 11am today in London, Justin Welby – the 57 year-old cleric ordained bishop of Durham barely a year ago – was formally "unveiled" as the 105th archbishop of Canterbury, in succession to the retiring Rowan Williams.

While Anglo-Catholic ties have endured a rough patch on the macro level over recent years amid controversial moves by both churches, the Rome-Canterbury axis is still viewed as a crucial ecumenical front at the Vatican, where the bond between Pope Benedict and Williams – both renowned theologians well before they were thrust into leading roles – deepened considerably even for the challenges. (Most recently, at Benedict's invite the departing Anglican primate delivered a major address at last month's Synod of Bishops for the New Evangelization, becoming the first prelate of a Reformation church to do so.)

Given the backdrop, between the institutional tensions and the leaders' personal warmth, the choice of Williams' successor by the Crown Nominations Commission has been awaited with particular interest in Rome. And in his first appearance as the nominee, Welby didn't disappoint, praising "the riches of Benedictine and Ignatian spirituality, the treasures of contemplative prayer and adoration," as well as – he said – being "confronted with the rich and challenging social teaching of the Roman Catholic church." 

No other Christian branch was cited in his remarks.

In an interview with Britain's left-wing Guardian newspaper earlier this year, the incoming archbishop (a father of six who spent a decade in oil industry finance before veering toward seminary) singled out Rerum Novarum – Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical cited as the touchstone of modern Catholic social teaching – as "the greatest influence over his moral thinking." At today's presser, meanwhile, Welby said that – like his predecessor – his spiritual director is a "Benedictine monk."

At the same time, not all the appointee's initial comments will make things easy across the Tiber. Welby signaled full speed ahead on the Church of England's long-simmering proposal to ordain women bishops, announcing that he will vote in favor of the plan at this month's General Synod.

Slated to be enthroned in the chair of St Augustine next March 21st, Vatican Radio reported that the Holy See's chief ecumenist, Cardinal Kurt Koch, will attend the rites in Canterbury Cathedral as the papal legate. A visit to Rome and courtesy-call on the Pope by the new archbishop would be expected to come within the first weeks afterward.