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Justin Welby, New Archbishop Of Canterbury, Watched By Pro-Gay Rights Episcopalians As Church Tensions Continue

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The new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, addresses a press conference in London, on November 9, 2012. | Getty Images

For nearly a decade, the 77 million-member Anglican church has been caught in an internal tug-of-war over gender and sexuality: The liberal U.S. Episcopal Church that forms its American wing appoints gay members to be church leaders and approves blessings for same-sex couples, while the more conservative, traditional wings in the United Kingdom and Africa forcefully protest.

So when the new archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of the Church of England and the symbolic head of the Anglicans worldwide, was named, questions started pouring in. Will the Rev. Justin Welby, the new archbishop who was relatively unknown to most Anglicans before his appointment, be able to maintain unity in the church as it continues to confront increasing internal tensions?

The answer is unclear. In interviews in London on Friday, Welby spoke out against homophobia, but reports said he is against same-sex marriage. He also said that he supports ordaining women bishops. That's long been a non-issue in the U.S., where the highest-ranking Episcopal bishop is a woman, but it's a more contentious one in the Church of England, which is voting on the issue only this month at its General Synod.

"We must have no truck with any form of homophobia in any part of the church," Welby said in an interview with the Associated Press, adding that he planned to "listen to the voice of the LGBT communities and examine my own thinking."

Nonetheless, pro-LGBT Episcopal voices in the U.S. church already have started pressuring Welby, a 56-year-old former oil executive who was a bishop for one year before Friday's announcement.

"We hope that he will listen with an open heart to the voices of the millions of faithful lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Christians across the Anglican Communion," said the Rev. Lowell Grisham of St. Paul's Episcopal Church Fayetteville, Ark., the co-convener of the Chicago Consultation, an organization of pro-LGBT Episcopal bishops and priests, in a statement released Friday. "Bishop Welby is known for his pragmatic approach to conflict resolution and his personal courage as an agent of reconciliation. We pray that these qualities will guide his tenure."

The Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, the former New Hampshire bishop whose appointment in 2003 ignited controversy throughout the global church because he is openly gay and not celibate, said via a representative that he has met Welby only once at a conference and it is too early to tell how Welby will act on sexuality-related issues. But Robinson added that Welby's appointment is a sign of the church thinking outside the box and said he found Welby to be a man of the "21st century."

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, congratulated Welby and said she was "delighted" at his appointment. Welby "brings knowledge of the immense challenges of the world in which the Anglican Communion seeks to partner in the service of God’s mission to heal and reconcile ... I give thanks for his appointment and his willingness to accept this work, in which I know his gifts of reconciliation and discernment will be abundantly tested," she said in a statement.

Since being installed in 2006, Schori's tenure has been marked by tensions within the 1.9 million-member U.S. church over the ordination of openly gay bishops. Dozens of Episcopal parishes left the American church over the issue and have aligned themselves with more conservative Anglican bishops in other parts of the world.

During the church's General Convention in July, representatives from the Diocese of South Carolina walked out in protest of a vote that approved the blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples (Episcopalians also approved the ordination of transgender people at that meeting). The 29,000-member diocese disaffiliated from the Episcopal Church in October, making it the fifth diocese to defect.

Ross Murray, the director of religion, faith and values for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, said his organization will keep a close eye on developments with Welby, who will take over after the current archbishop, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, retires in December.

"I like that he's indicating a willingness to listen before he makes any rash judgements," said Murray, a Lutheran who works on promoting LGBT causes across denominations and regularly attends denominational meetings where LGBT issues are decided. "He is very much trying to look out at how he relates to the church as a whole, including LGBT people, which many Christian leaders generally have not done."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article attributed a quote from the Chicago Consultation to the Rt. Rev. Michael Ingham, bishop of the Diocese of New Westminster, Canada. The quote is from the Rev. Lowell Grisham of St. Paul's Episcopal Church Fayetteville, Ark..

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