CANTERBURY, England — The new spiritual leader of the world's Anglicans was enthroned by a female cleric on Thursday, taking the helm at a time when the troubled church risks tearing itself apart over gay marriage and women bishops.
In a colorful ceremony featuring African dancers, Punjabi music and Anglican hymns, Justin Welby, 57, officially became the 105th archbishop of Canterbury under the gothic arches of Britain's 900-year-old Canterbury Cathedral.
The ceremony took place in front of a congregation that included heir-to-the-throne Prince Charles, Prime Minister David Cameron and other establishment figures.
For the first time in the church's history, the priest who placed him on the diocesan throne in Canterbury — the mother church of the Church of England and of the Anglican Communion — was a woman, Archdeacon of Canterbury Sheila Watson.
Another priest then installed Welby in the chair of St. Augustine, marking his inauguration as Primate of All England and spiritual leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Welby now faces a tough balancing act to keep the 80 million-strong Anglican Communion together.
He is against gay marriage, but favors the ordination of women as bishops.
Softer stance on gay marriage
The archbishop finds himself in the crossfire between liberal clerics in the United States and Britain who are at odds with conservatives in Africa and elsewhere over those issues, and his handling of the dispute is set to dominate his tenure.
Just hours before the ceremony, Welby spoke out publicly about gay marriage, offering a softer stance on the issue.
"You see gay relationships that are just stunning in the quality of the relationship," he told the BBC, while stressing he had no doubts over the church's policy on same-sex relationships.
"The Church of England holds very firmly, and continues to hold to the view, that marriage is a lifelong union of one man to one woman."
Senior African Anglican leaders have lined up to denounce a decision to allow celibate gay bishops, saying it would only widen the rift in the church.
"It's true that not all the African bishops, but quite a number of African bishops are strongly opposed to the way you understand sexuality in the West," Solomon Tilewa Johnson, archbishop and primate of the West Africa section of the Anglican Communion, told Reuters on the eve of the ceremony.
Pope Francis, who was formally installed as head of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics about a week ago, sent Welby a message from the Vatican to congratulate him.
"Please be assured of my prayers as you take up your new responsibilities, and I ask you to pray for me as I respond to the new call that the Lord has addressed to me," he said. "I look forward to meeting you in the near future, and to continuing the warm fraternal relations that our predecessors enjoyed."
Welby is seen as a pragmatic trouble-shooter, hardened by years of work as a crisis negotiator in Africa among separatists in the swamps of the Niger Delta and Islamists in northern Nigeria.
Born in London in 1956, he was educated at the private Eton College, and went on to study history and law at Cambridge University. His father's family were German-Jewish immigrants who fled persecution to England in the 19th century.
His life changed dramatically in 1983 when his daughter was killed in a car accident, an event he described as a "dark time" that brought him and his wife closer to God.