By Laura Smith-Spark, CNN
LONDON (CNN) — In a week of change at the top for church leaders, the question of same-sex marriage has jumped to the fore.
Only two days after Pope Francis was officially installed, former oil executive Justin Welby is to be enthroned Thursday as the new head of the Church of England and the 77 million-strong worldwide Anglican Communion.
Ahead of the service at historic Canterbury Cathedral, an interview the new Archbishop of Canterbury gave to the BBC has reignited the debate over the church’s approach to issues of sexuality.
Welby acknowledged the strength of some same-sex partnerships, saying, “You see gay relationships that are just stunning in the quality of the relationship.”
Nonetheless, he reaffirmed his support for the Church of England’s policy of 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,” he told the British public service broadcaster.
“At the same time, at the heart of our understanding of what it is to be human is the essential dignity of the human being. And so we have to be very clear about homophobia.”
Welby said it was not about “turning a blind eye” to same-sex relationships but rather “loving people as they are and where they are.”
His remarks come a day after it emerged that Pope Francis, now head of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, may privately have voiced support for civil unions in his native Argentina while publicly opposing same-sex marriage.
Gay rights activist Marcelo Marquez — a self-described devout Catholic and former theology professor at a Catholic seminary — said the then-archbishop of Buenos Aires had called him after he wrote an angry letter to Catholic leaders.
“He told me … ‘I’m in favor of gay rights and in any case, I also favor civil unions for homosexuals, but I believe that Argentina is not yet ready for a gay marriage law,'” said Marquez.
Argentina approved a law legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide in July 2010.
Welby was named as the successor to Dr. Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury in November. He was the Bishop of Durham, England, at the time.
Thursday’s service will make him the 105th holder of the most senior position in the Church of England and the titular leader of the world’s 77 million Anglicans.
Prime Minister David Cameron is among those expected to attend the ceremony.
A bill that would legalize same-sex marriage is currently under consideration in the British Parliament. Cameron has incurred the wrath of many in his Conservative Party by backing the legislation.
Educated at Cambridge University, Welby worked for oil companies in Paris and London before training for the ministry. He had only been a bishop for a year before his promotion to the top job was announced.
He is considered an outspoken critic of the excesses of capitalism and a supporter of women bishops, as well as an opponent of same-sex marriage.
In his public appearances so far, he has displayed a wry humor and down-to-earth attitude that may help him negotiate the minefield of conflicting views and interests within the vast Anglican Communion.
Ahead of his inauguration as Archbishop of Canterbury, Welby visited five cities in five days on what he called a “prayer pilgrimage” through southern England, inviting people to pray with him on each stop.