Story to Watch: New Archbishop of Canterbury and the Relationship Between the Anglican Church and LGBT People

While those of us in the United States were digging out from under election news, the Bishop of Durham, Justin Welby, was named the new archbishop of Canterbury on Friday morning in London. The current archbishop—the Most Rev. Rowan Williams—announced in March that he would be stepping down at the end of the 2012. Bishop Welby—who worked as an oil executive for twenty years before entering the priesthood—received his post as bishop a short year ago.

During a press conference after his appointment, Bishop Welby made clear his support of women’s ordination—stating his intention to vote in favor of the full-inclusion of women in the Church of England during a conference of bishops next week. However, he re-affirmed the Anglican Church’s opposition to marriage equality in England.

In the same press conference, Bishop Welby confessed his desire and commitment to dialogue, leaving room for his position to evolve: “I know I need to listen very attentively to the LGBT communities and examine my own thinking carefully and prayerfully.” He starts talking about LGBT people at the 3:00 mark.

Perhaps a word of hope for some LGBT Anglicans, Bishop Welby’s statement on marriage demonstrates what was already known about the 77 million-member worldwide Anglican Communion: it continues to wrestle with its understanding of the role of LGBT people within the church. Some branches of the communion—like the Episcopal Church in the United States—have already moved in the direction of including and affirming LGBT people in the life of the church. The Episcopal Church ordains LGBT priests, with a specific nondiscrimination clause for transgender people, and performing marriages for gay and lesbian couples. 

Bishop Gene Robinson—the first openly gay Episcopal bishop—commented on the appointment earlier this week in an interview with the BBC. Bishop Robinson stated that he believed Bishop Welby to be “an immensely likeable and sensible man,” and pointed to the decision as a sign that the Church of England was "thinking outside the box, which is exactly what is needed, and it would be a breath of fresh air for the Anglican Communion." Bishop Robinson, who will also retire at the end of the year, was recently featured in the documentary, Love Free or Die. His latest book, God Believes in Love: Straight Talk about Gay Marriage, was published earlier this year.

Ever since the election of Gene Robinson, many media outlets have called the relationships within the Anglican Communion “strained” or “on the verge of collapse.” As tempting as it may be, it is important to avoid portraying Bishop Welby as a viciously anti-LGBT monster who is leading the church toward an irreparable schism. Bishop Welby acknowledged the difficulty LGBT people have historically faced in the church, and took a decided stance against hatred and violence. “We must have no track with any form of homophobia in any part of the church,” he said.

Much is still uncertain regarding the future of the Church of England and marriage quality. However, with an archbishop willing to listen to and prayerfully consider their stories, LGBT Anglicans around the world may be able to speak into the future of the church in a decidedly new way. Given that Bishop Welby has expressed a desire to listen, what are some of the things that you would want him to know?