When the archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Justin Welby, welcomed friends to sing Christmas carols at his London residence last week, his remarks ran, as they often do, to his coronation of King Charles III in May.
The vaulted chamber in which his guests were gathered, he told them, had been used to rehearse the ceremony twice a week over four months. Members of his staff were assigned to play Charles and other royals in a rotating cast. “I always played the archbishop,” he said dryly.
Then he ran through the script a few times with the actual king. “We practiced putting it on and screwing it down,” Archbishop Welby said later of the 17th-century St. Edward’s Crown. “It’s a wobbly old thing.”
But on coronation day, before a hushed assembly of 2,300 and a worldwide television audience of hundreds of millions, the archbishop made one conspicuous error: He bent down after placing the crown to inspect whether it was sitting level on the sovereign’s head, an unscripted move that made him look vaguely like a carpenter inspecting his work. “I got it right,” he recalled. “I just didn’t trust myself.”
Such matter-of-factness is typical of Justin Portal Welby, a trim, affable 67-year-old clergyman who wears the trappings of his weighty post — the archbishop of Canterbury also serves as the Primate of All England and spiritual leader of 85 million Anglicans worldwide — with an almost gossamer lightness. The Church of England’s looser formality means he is known as Mr. Welby, but his aides simply call him Justin.
It’s not that the archbishop isn’t high-minded. He reached for his iPad to share a quote from the midcentury American theologian and lawyer, William Stringfellow, about the “moral power of death” triumphing over earthly empires (translation: “don’t kid yourself,” Mr. Welby said.) But he also cheerfully noted that he drives a seven-year-old Volkswagen Golf and confessed to getting a speeding ticket.
After a decade as archbishop, and with two years to go before he must retire, Mr. Welby relished his rendezvous with royal history. It was the highlight of a hectic year in which he also made waves by condemning the British government’s policy of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda as “morally unacceptable.” As a peer in the House of Lords, he tried to amend an earlier version of the legislation so it would take a longer-term view of the problems of human trafficking and mass migration.
But he is keenly aware of the limits on what he can accomplish before he hands over to the next archbishop in 2026. A bitter, yearslong debate over how the Church of England should treat same-sex marriage will not be resolved during his term, he said in an interview at Lambeth Palace, his 14th-century residence in London.
Like the Roman Catholic Church under Pope Francis, the Church of England recently began allowing priests to bless same-sex couples. But it continues to debate a more formal recognition of these unions. Conservative clerics in Britain sent a letter to the church’s governing House of Bishops, objecting to the blessings, while 10 Anglican archbishops from Africa and Latin America rejected Mr. Welby as their leader — technically, he functions as a first among equals — over similar objections.
Mr. Welby has tried to steer a middle course. “Every person matters equally,” he said, “including L.G.B.T.Q.I.A.+ people.” Yet he insisted that the debate over their unions cannot be forced. The dispute has been personally painful: Some of his oldest friends in the church have come out against his cautious moves toward recognition, while reformers complain he’s dithering.
“It’s a high-wire act for the Church of England because there is profound division and disagreement,” Mr. Welby said. “We have to deal with this as a family dispute and not a political dispute. In other words, don’t split.”
“Everybody will probably feel at the moment, I’m going both too fast and too slowly,” he acknowledged. “That’s life.”
It’s a phrase the archbishop used more than once, and it suggests an equanimity honed over a lifetime of fateful twists and turns.
Born in London to a mother who worked as a personal secretary to Winston Churchill and a wayward, mysterious father who ran two failed campaigns for Parliament, Mr. Welby has described his childhood as “messy.” His parents, both alcoholics, divorced when he was 3. His father was later engaged to the actress Vanessa Redgrave.
In 2016, Mr. Welby discovered through a D.N.A. test that his biological father was not Gavin Welby, but Sir Anthony Montague Browne, Churchill’s private secretary, with whom his mother, Jane Williams, had a liaison before her first marriage. Mr. Welby’s mother, who quit drinking many years ago, died last summer at 93.
Educated at Eton College, training ground of princes and prime ministers, Mr. Welby has said he first sensed a religious calling while a student at Cambridge University. He began attending Holy Trinity Brompton, a prominent evangelical Anglican congregation in Kensington.
“He found God in a classic Protestant evangelical experience,” said Charles Moore, a former editor of The Daily Telegraph who was a year behind the future archbishop at Eton. “It fills you with a sense of urgency.”
But Mr. Welby first embarked on a career more typical of his elite pedigree, as a finance executive at the French oil company Elf Aquitaine.
Living in Paris with his wife, Caroline, Mr. Welby earned a reputation for being a shrewd reader of the markets. He became the treasurer of a British firm, Enterprise Oil, and traveled to line up oil exploration deals. But the sense of a higher calling never left him, and by 1989, he resigned to join the priesthood.
His ascent in the church hierarchy was even swifter than his rise in the oil industry. After serving as a canon in Coventry Cathedral and dean of Liverpool, he was consecrated as the bishop of Durham in 2011. Barely a year later, he was appointed to succeed Rowan Williams as archbishop of Canterbury, the 105th holder of a post whose roots date back to 597.
Moving from oil to holy oil was less improbable than it might seem, Mr. Welby said. Both are built on the principle of taking big risks for even bigger rewards. “It’s an industry where you drill 10, 20 wells for every time you actually find anything other than water, and pretty sandy water at that,” he said.
The risk in the priesthood, Mr. Welby said, is that people will reject the Gospel of Jesus. (He declined to compare his success rate as a pastor to that of an oil prospector, saying that judgment should be left for posterity.) Still, he said his years in business had given him a sense of the ineluctable creep of secular society — or, as he put it, “a really deep-set recognition of how irrelevant the church is to an awful lot of people in this country.”
Mr. Welby has no magic remedy, but he stressed the in-the-trenches work of the parishes — the “coal face” of the church, he called them — to reach out to “those who are not often so easy to embrace.”
Attendance at Sunday services fell between 20 percent and 25 percent during the coronavirus pandemic, and has yet to recover. Candidates for the priesthood dropped 14 percent in the last year, even though the church has been ordaining women for nearly three decades and allowed them to become bishops in 2014. That latter change, pushed through by Mr. Welby over deep-rooted resistance, is likely to be his most consequential legacy.
But that sort of boldness has also occasionally gotten him into trouble, especially running an ancient, highly decentralized institution like the Anglican Church. “He slightly shoots from the hip,” said Mr. Moore, the fellow Etonian.
Cabinet ministers bridled at his criticism of their immigration policy. While the archbishop does not dispute that Britain should resist uncontrolled migration, he said it needed a more strategic policy. Putting asylum seekers on one-way flights to Rwanda, Mr. Welby said, was beneath a country with Britain’s human-rights tradition, even if he expressed doubt any planes would ever take off.
“Frankly, it’s a symbolic gesture,” he said of the revised draft of the legislation, which recently moved from the House of Commons for review in the House of Lords. “This is essentially a performative bill.”
For all his interest in the legislative process, the archbishop is still a dedicated servant of the monarchy. He bristles at criticism of one of his innovations for the coronation: a voluntary oath of homage to the king, sworn by the public, at home and in Westminster Abbey. Critics called it patronizing, but he said it was a democratizing gesture, since at previous coronations only the hereditary aristocracy had sworn allegiance.
“There isn’t a guardsman behind you with a fixed bayonet in every household in the land,” he said. “It’s not a big deal. Just chill.”
Mr. Welby brushed aside another report meant to illustrate his closeness to the royal family: that Charles once enlisted him to try to broker a deal with his estranged son, Prince Harry, so the Duke of Sussex could attend the coronation.
“I have no belief at all in my own powers of reconciliation,” he said. “I have a profound belief in God’s power of reconciliation.”