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Church of England looks set to take a swing to the right with choice of new Archbishop of Canterbury


The Church of England will almost certainly take a swing to the right as a conclave of powerful figures from within the Anglican Communion meet 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 leadership of the church nine years ago - particularly when it comes to the thorny issue of homosexuality.

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 throughout his time 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 who are currently meeting in secret over the next two days to decide who should become the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury.

The committee, which is led by the former Conservative MP Lord Luce,  will give two names to Downing Street - a preferred choice and a fall back option.  Dr Williams' successor will then likely be announced by the Queen next week.

Although the shortlist of applicants is not made public, the runners and riders which 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 staunch opponent of gay marriage.

Welby has been increasingly touted as last minute dark horse. He was only made a bishop last year and an elevation to Archbishop would be a remarkable rise. However because of his relative inexperience he is untainted by many of the political fallouts that have dominated the church for the last decade. And as a former oil industry executive he also has a strong managerial record.

Among the slightly more liberal clergymen which have been suggested are the Bishop of Norwich Graham Jones, deemed a safe - if somewhat uncharismatic - pair of hands, and James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool. The media savvy Ugandan born cleric John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, is also a strong contender and would likely appeal to the secular masses despite his staunch opposition to gay marriage. However he is a divisive figure within the church itself and has a powerful lobby of detractors who are often nicknamed the ABYs - Anyone But Yorks.

Whoever is enthroned at Canterbury Cathedral faces a daunting task. Unlike more dogmatic faiths, Anglicanism is a "big tent" that accepts multiple theological convictions. Over the last decade the church has been torn apart - both domestically and abroad - over the issues of women and gay clergy. The Church faces a crunch vote at home in two months' time on the issue of women bishops. A small but vocal group of conservatives have threatened to walk away if their needs are not met. Meanwhile a major divide has occurred among the Anglican Communion's 77million adherents worldwide over the issue of gay bishops. Liberal churches such as the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Cuba have all appointed openly gay or women bishops - something which has been met with horror by the more socially conservative dioceses in the developing world and especially Africa.

Peter Ould, a priest and prominent church blogger in London, believes the new Archbishop of Canterbury needs to have at least three qualities. 

"Firstly he needs to have a tangible sense of spiritual maturity so that you know that he is a man of God in the same way that you knew Rowan Williams was," he says. "Secondly he needs to be prepared to take some tough decisions and follow through on them, because the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion has some divisive issues to handle over the next few years. Finally he needs to have the charisma and common touch that will help speak to a wider secular audience beyond the walls of the Church."