The Church of England named former oil executive Justin Welby as the next archbishop of Canterbury, making him the titular leader of the world's 77 million Anglicans.
Welby, who has been a bishop for only a year, is considered an outspoken critic of the excesses of capitalism, a supporter of women bishops and an opponent of gay marriage.
He will be enthroned as archbishop of Canterbury on March 21.
Speaking as his appointment was announced Friday at Lambeth Palace in London, Welby said it was a privilege to take the helm at a time when the "tide of events is turning" and the church has great opportunities to be involved in a changing world.
"To be nominated to this post is both astonishing and exciting," he said, adding that it is a time for "optimism and for faith in the church" as it faces tough issues.
One of those issues is the ordination of women bishops, on which the General Synod will vote later this month. Welby said he would be voting in favor -- and urged the Synod to go ahead with the change.
Welby said he supported the opposition voiced by the Church of England earlier this year in response to a British government consultation on upgrading same-sex "civil partnerships" to gay marriage.
However, he added, the church must not accept any form of homophobia.
Welby acknowledged that homosexuality is a highly divisive issue within the wider Anglican Communion, but said he would listen "very attentively" to the concerns of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
He promised to "examine my own thinking carefully and prayerfully" on gay issues.
Paying tribute to the faith and charitable work of churchgoers and clergy around the country, Welby, who is currently the bishop of Durham, said he felt "utterly optimistic about the future of the church."
Reflecting on his wider role, Welby said the Anglican Communion, "for all its difficulties, is also a source of remarkable blessing to the world."
He singled out northern Nigeria, where churches have been targeted in deadly attacks by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram, as a place where Christians are under particular pressure.
Peppered with wry jokes, his speech displayed a sense of humor and down-to-earth attitude that may help him negotiate the minefield of conflicting views and interests within the vast Anglican Communion.
Educated at Cambridge University, Welby worked for oil companies in Paris and London before training for the ministry.
His appointment was approved by Queen Elizabeth II, as supreme governor of the Church of England.
He will take over from Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who has headed the church for more than a decade.
Welby paid tribute to Williams' moral courage and learning, and said he would be a hard act to follow.
"The church worldwide owes him a great debt, more than it knows, and I shall be continuing to seek his advice and wisdom," the archbishop-elect said.
The secretary general of the Anglican Communion, Canon Kenneth Kearon, welcomed the news of the appointment, saying Welby "already has rich knowledge and experience of the Anglican Communion, and brings great pastoral and intellectual gifts to this position.
"He is a gifted communicator, deeply committed to the engagement between the Christian faith and an increasingly challenging secular society."
The news was also welcomed by the archbishop of Westminster, the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols, who heads the Catholic Church in England and Wales.
"I know that Bishop Welby will bring many personal gifts and experience to his new role," he said in a statement. "As the future primate of the Church of England, I am sure that his ministry, like that of his predecessor Archbishop Rowan Williams, will provide an important Christian witness to this country over the coming years."
In the United States, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal Church said Welby's experience of churches in different countries and his "knowledge of the immense challenges of the world" would stand him in good stead.
"His gifts of reconciliation and discernment will be abundantly tested" in the role, she added.