Williams resigns: but who'll accept the poisoned chalice?

The Primate's departure comes at a critical moment in the Church of England's history
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Rowan Williams, the soft-spoken, cerebral cleric who had the unenviable task of trying to lead the world's increasingly fractious Anglican community, has announced that he is putting down his mitre in favour of a quiet retirement in academia. The 61-year-old said yesterday he would step down as Archbishop of Canterbury in December to become the Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge.

His departure, which had been rumoured for months, will end a tumultuous decade at Lambeth Palace and spark feverish speculation over who will be the next leader of the Church of England and the world's 77 million Anglicans.

Whoever takes his place will be confronted with a host of issues that threaten to overwhelm the Anglican Church. They include dwindling congregations in secular nations, threats from increasingly rebellious conservative bishops in the developing world to set up their own churches, and seemingly intractable disagreements between liberals and traditionalists over the consecration of gay and women clergy.

Speaking to reporters yesterday about his decision to step down, Dr Williams recognised that much of his tenure had been dominated by internal conflicts and disagreements within his own flock.

"The worst aspects of the job, I think, have been the sense that there are some conflicts that won't go away, however long you struggle with them, and that not everybody in the Anglican Communion or even in the Church of England is eager to avoid schism or separation," he said.

But he also insisted that leading the world's Anglicans was an "immense privilege" and denied any suggestion that his return to academia was welcome relief from what is a highly political and often thankless job. "I can't say that it is a great sense of 'free at last'," he said.

Senior positions in the Church of England are appointed by the Queen, in her capacity as Supreme Governor and Defender of the Faith. However, the task of choosing the next Archbishop of Canterbury ultimately falls to the Crown Nominations Commission, a committee of ecclesiastical worthies that is often criticised for making its decisions in secret.

Its recommendations then go to the Prime Minister, who will probably want to avoid appointing someone known for being vocally critical of politicians.

Peter Ould, an Anglican priest and a prominent blogger from the orthodox wing of the Church, said: "What they will be looking for is a candidate who can keep the Church unified. They'll be less interested this time around in academic qualifications."

Bookies and commentators quickly promoted John Sentamu, the charismatic Ugandan-born Archbishop of York, as the most likely candidate to succeed Dr Williams. But the favourite rarely becomes the next Archbishop.

Dr Sentamu has a prominent public profile and is favoured by the media for his pithy soundbites and eye-catching stunts, such as vowing not to wear his dog collar until Zimbabwe's authoritarian leader Robert Mugabe is out of office. But many powerful Church figures – often dubbed the "Anyone but York" lobby – are vehemently opposed to him becoming the next leader.

Conservatives and traditionalist evangelicals, who have threatened to quit the Church of England if women or openly homosexual clergy are allowed to become bishops, will want a candidate that is palatable both to them and their liberal opponents. Some suggest the current Bishop of Coventry, Christopher Cocksworth, would be suitable. A favourite candidate for liberals, meanwhile, is Stephen Cottrell, the Bishop of Chelmsford.

The political establishment might favour Richard Chartres, the conservative-leaning Bishop of London, or Tim Stevens, who as Bishop of Leicester and leader of the bishops in the House of Lords already has a firm grasp of ecclesiastical politics.

For Dr Williams – a former left-wing radical who took part in non-violent protests – a post at Cambridge University will provide him with not just a sanctuary from politics but also a place to reinvigorate academically.

Throughout much of his tenure, the Welsh-born cleric – who speaks five languages and composes poetry – was criticised for his overly cerebral tones and failing to sum up the Church's mission in an accessible way.

But friends and supporters often felt he was unfairly maligned by an impatient press and a calculating political elite who failed to grasp many of the subtle nuances contained within his pronouncements.

Names in the frame: Who will succeed Rowan Williams?

John Sentamu Archbishop of York

Chances ***

Sentamu, a Sun on Sunday columnist, lacks Williams's subtlety but has charisma. He would be a popular political choice but has already clashed with the Government over gay marriages.

Richard Chartres Bishop of London

Chances ***

A political heavyweight with close links to the establishment, Chartres was passed over last time. He is opposed to women bishops and might be deemed too schismatic for liberals.

Nick Baines Bishop of Bradford

Chances ***

A 21st-century bishop who knows the power of social media, Baines comes from the evangelical wing but is liked by many liberals. Used to work in GCHQ as a Russian translator.

Christopher Cocksworth Bishop of Coventry

Chances **

The youngest serving diocesan bishop would be a surprise winner, but he could unite liberals and conservatives. The accomplished evangelical has won plaudits for his Coventry work.

Canterbury tales: Timeline of a primacy

2002 After a stint as the Bishop of Monmouth and later the Archbishop of Wales, Rowan Williams is elevated to the most senior position in the Church of England to replace George Carey, left. The promotion of the highly respected theologian is widely praised.

2003 Within months of his consecration, Williams faces his first political challenge following the appointment of Jeffrey John, right, an openly gay cleric, to the post of Bishop of Reading. After a conservative backlash, Williams forces John to step down, causing dismay among liberals and reformists. The same year Williams launches an excoriating attack on the Government for the war in Iraq.

2007 The greatest threat to Dr Williams's leadership of the Anglican Communion emerges with the creation of Gafcon, a group of socially conservative bishops – primarily from Africa and South America – who are furious about the ordination of women and gay bishops in places such as Australia and America. Williams struggles to keep the Church united.

2010 As arguments rage between traditionalists and liberals over the consecration of women bishops, Williams and the Archbishop of York, right, make a highly unusual intervention, tabling a compromise for both camps. Their involvement angers the pro-women lobby but stops many conservatives from walking away entirely from the Church. Women bishops now looks like an inevitability and will almost certainly be approved this summer. Whoever takes over from Rowan Williams will have to contend with that fallout and growing demands for gay equality.