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Like Pope Francis, new archbishop of Canterbury seen as advocate for the poor

Justin Welby, installed Thursday as head of the Anglican church, has cheered the left and riled the right in the UK with his willingness to criticize banking practices and government cuts.

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The new Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby leaves after his enthronement ceremony at Canterbury Cathedral, in Canterbury, southern England, Thursday. Like Pope Francis, Rev. Welby has been portrayed as an outspoken advocate for social justice and the poor.

Luke MacGregor/Reuters

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The new archbishop of Canterbury was formally enthroned Thursday, providing the Church of England and millions of members of the worldwide Anglican communion with a leader who – much like the new pope – has emerged as a strong advocate of social justice.

In spite of his roots as a student at Britain’s most elite boys school and a background as a high-flying executive before becoming a cleric who rose through the Church of England’s ranks, Justin Welby's willingness to criticize banking practices and government cuts has cheered many on the left – and caused some discomfort on the right.

Coming just days after the inaugural mass of Pope Francis, Rev. Welby’s formal elevation also means that the world’s two most visible leadership roles in Christianity are now occupied by men who have been portrayed as outspoken advocates for social justice and the poor.

While it remains to be seen what impact their arrival will have on global economic policy and management beyond the realm of the symbolic, observers have pointed out that the conversational style of both men marks a departure from predecessors who, while also critical of the impact of the free market, tended towards academic language which often failed to penetrate popular consciousness.

In Britain, the emergence of Welby and the pope was being tentatively welcomed by Christians with left-wing views on economic issues, including activists.

“I don’t want to say that it marks a massive change but I am encouraged by what Francis and Justin Welby have been saying,” says Symon Hill of Christianity Uncut, an informal network of Christians campaigning against the British government’s cuts agenda that has also been involved with the Occupy movement. 

“One of the tests will be how specific Francis and Justin Welby will they be. For example, will Justin Welby criticize the UK government’s cuts agenda? And not just specific cuts but the whole austerity agenda, which is hurting the poor the most.”

The specter of Britain’s bitter austerity-era political divisions loomed on the peripheries of Welby's installation as dozens of protestors opposed to government cuts gathered outside the 900-year-old Canterbury cathedral ahead of the event. Those wielding placards made it clear, however, that their target was the prime minister, David Cameron, rather than the incoming archbishop, who has spoken out against elements of the government's economic and social policy.

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Earlier this month, Welby voiced his opposition to government plans to limit raises in state-paid benefits to 1 percent per year until 2016. He backed an open letter from dozens of bishops who warned that the policy would have a disproportionate impact on children.

While some commentators on the right have been irked by such interventions, however, others have stressed the new archbishop’s declaration that he recognized major reforms of Britain’s welfare system were being undertaken “with the best possible motives."

“It is not me saying the government is evil (I am much less cynical than many about politicians of all sides), but that I don’t agree on this particular bit of a programme which in general is incredibly brave,” he wrote on his blog on Mar. 11, referring to planned caps on various social security payments.

The Rev. Angus Ritchie, an Anglican priest who runs a social justice charity, Contextual Theology Centre, says that there is continuity in the approaches of both the new archbishop and pope, whose predecessors were also both “critical of the way that the laissez-faire market harms the poor."

“There is a way of looking at this debate that often categorizes people as either being liberal or conservative, left or right, while in fact in both communions it cuts across both lines and it's really about an understanding of the human being in relationship with others,” adds Rev. Ritchie, who is also is a philosophy research associate at Oxford University.

“What Christians have to say about ... the effect of excessive individualism, consumerism, and the impact of pornography would be perceived and portrayed in the media often as right wing. But in economic issues it is the same logic, which is that as individuals we find ourselves not only being on our own but in a communion with our neighbor.”

In at least one debate, however, Welby is clearly ensconced in the politically conservative camp. On Thursday the new archbishop used a BBC interview to underline his opposition to same-sex marriage. 

"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," said Welby. However, he was also careful to speak out against homophobia and added that some gay couples have loving and monogamous relationships of "stunning quality."


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