The second most senior figure in the Church of England, Dr David Hope, the Archbishop of York, has announced his resignation to take up a job as a parish priest.
Dr Hope has found himself at the centre of the deepening crisis in Anglicanism and the threatened schism over the issues of gay priests and women clergy. The decision on who is to replace him will be closely scrutinised by both the liberal and conservative wings of the Church.
The Archbishop, who once defined his own sexuality as a "grey area" provoked the fury of campaigners for gay rights for failing to give more support to Dr Jeffrey John, the homosexual priest whose appointment as the Bishop of Reading was thwarted by traditionalists last year.
His decision to stand down, although anticipated, comes less than 10 months after he reportedly delayed his retirement for two years in order to help the embattled Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.
Dr Williams yesterday described the Archbishop as "one of God's great gifts to the Church". "I shall miss him more than I can easily say, as a colleague whose wise advice and constant support have made a huge difference to my own ministry," he said.
Dr Hope, 64, will cease to be Archbishop from February, taking up his new post as vicar of St Margaret's, Ilkley in March.
The move means giving up his residence at Bishopthorpe Palace, which he has occupied since 1995, and taking a salary cut of £40,000 a year. But Dr Hope said it was St Margaret's traditional values that had attracted him. "I thought it would be good to conclude my ministry where I began, I began as a parish priest. All ministries are a vocation, a calling from God, I was responding to that call," he said.
From the Anglo-Catholic wing of the church, Dr Hope won the approval of conservatives last year when he addressed the National Evangelical Congress.
But there are uncomfortable times ahead for his successor. This autumn Dr Williams will publish a long awaited report on the issue of gay clergy and church authority.
Dr Hope, who has opposed the ordination of women, has also been at the centre of talks to introduce a so-called third province - an all male church-within-a-church with its own archbishop, bishops and training colleges. Last month, he told the General Synod the church must not be "overwhelmed" by gay issues.
Richard Kirker of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement said Dr Hope had helped prevent an open schism between the Church's warring factions but at the cost of highlighting its "institutionalised homophobia".
"Someone must be found to replace him who will be determined to create a more inclusive Church, even if that means alienating some traditionalists."
David Holloway, the vicar of Jesmond and a member of the evangelical group Reform said: "I am ... praying that someone with clear biblical convictions will be appointed. It is absolutely essential that person will be in the mainstream of Anglican tradition."