Church of England likely to move to the right

Religious Affairs Correspondent

The Church of England is likely to take a swing to the right as a conclave of powerful figures from within the Anglican Communion meets to decide who should become the new Archbishop of Canterbury over the coming days.

Almost all the front-runners who have been put forward for the role are noticeably more conservative than Rowan Williams was before he took up leadership of the church nine years ago – particularly when it comes to the thorny issue of homosexuality.

Although the short list of applicants is not made public, the runners who have been promoted by commentators features a variety of senior theologians who are either against the Government's plans to legalise gay marriage or have yet to declare for it.

Among those in the running are the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, a staunch conservative who has refused to ordain women priests; the softly evangelical Bishop of Coventry, Christopher Cocksworth; and the newly appointed Bishop of Durham Justin Welby, a former oil executive turned theologian who is a staunch opponent of gay marriage.

When Williams was given the job, he was viewed as an academically brilliant and relatively liberal theologian who was sympathetic towards greater inclusion and acceptance of openly homosexual laity and clergy. But in office he regularly backed down in favour of the church's more conservative elements in an attempt to prevent a split over the key issues of women and gay bishops.

His successor will be appointed by the Crown Nominations Committee, a group of four women and 15 men meeting in secret over the next two days to decide who should become the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury. The committee, led by former Conservative MP Lord Luce, will give two names to Downing Street – a preferred choice and a fall-back option. Dr Williams' successor is then likely to be announced by the Queen next week.

Among the slightly more liberal clergymen who have been suggested are the Bishop of Norwich, Graham Jones, and James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool. The media-savvy John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, is also a strong contender and would probably appeal to the secular masses despite his opposition to gay marriage. However, he is a divisive figure within the church and has a powerful lobby of detractors who are often nicknamed the ABYs – Anyone But Yorks.

Whoever is enthroned at Canterbury faces a daunting task. Unlike more dogmatic faiths, Anglicanism is a "big tent" that accepts multiple theological convictions. But over the past decade the church has been torn apart over the issues of women and gay clergy.

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