Devious, secretive, but ever so polite: the race is on to lead the Church of England

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The Independent Online

The competition will be frantic, or as close to it as is polite among the world's most genteel group of executives.

An announcement that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, will retire this year is expected within days, setting free the Church of England's leading bishops to start their campaigns to inherit his job.

To succeed in becoming Archbishop of Canterbury, Primate of All England and leader of the worldwide Anglican communion, they must negotiate one of the most secretive appointment processes in the country, which culminates in two names being placed on the Prime Minister's desk.

One of those names is traditionally a complete outsider, included by the Church's publicity-shy Crown Appointments Commission to ensure the Prime Minister picks the right candidate.

It does not always work. In 1990 Dr Carey is thought to have been selected as a candidate to push Margaret Thatcher into picking the Most Rev Dr John Habgood, Archbishop of York at the time, whose social views she disliked. But in one of her last acts as Prime Minister she chose Dr Carey, surprising the Church and putting at the heart of the establishment an East End hospital porter's son who left school at 15.

Not everyone welcomed him and there were plenty of critics who agreed with his description of feeling "dazed and unworthy" when he learnt of the move from his Bath and Wells see to Lambeth Palace.

Dr Carey had identified his retirement date within three years of taking office. In 1994 he said he intended to step down in 2001 once the Church had recovered from the disastrous financial investments of the previous decade, which had cost it £800m.

Two years later he said his job was "very wearing", complaining of the spiritual, emotional and physical demands that left him feeling as though he was being "hit from all angles".

Dr Carey could be forgiven for experiencing a certain amount of fatigue. He had overseen 1992 legislation to ordain women priests, managing to hold together the Church through one of the most divisive controversies in its history.

His task did not get any easier. He presided over the 1998 Lambeth Conference when conservatives among the 800 Anglican bishops from all over the world clashed bitterly with liberals over homosexuality. All the while he has continued to grapple with the intractable problems of finance and declining congregations.

While supporters point to his formidable record of internal reform, critics say he has never provided the inspirational leadership needed during a period that has seen baptised Anglicans become a minority in England for the first time since the Reformation.

The Church's own figures show that only 968,800 people attend church every week and an independent survey last year estimated that 23.94 million were baptised Anglicans, just under half of the 48 million British nationals living in England.

With 70 million people living in Anglican provinces across the world, and 25 million of them classed as active churchgoers, most of the Church of England flock now live abroad, a trend that was recognised in a review of the Archbishop's role by Lord Hurd of Westwell last year.

The review called for the Archbishop to be relieved of many of his duties to concentrate on his international role, but also noted that he remained the nation's "primary spiritual conscience" even if he was no longer the spiritual director of the English people. Dr Carey's successor will have to meet those growing international responsibilities while striving to keep the Church relevant in its homeland.

As congregations decline, he will have to ask remaining churchgoers to give more money from their pockets to meet the Church's pension commitments to its clergy.

Paul Handley, the editor of the leading Anglican newspaper, The Church Times, said Dr Carey and his predecessor, Robert Runcie, were drawn into spending much time abroad when the key aspect of the job was acting as a national religious figure in England.

Neither Lord Runcie nor Dr Carey had initially felt comfortable with acting as a national figure, but Lord Runcie had grown into it in a way that Dr Carey had not, he said. Instead, Dr Carey had become caught up in the management details of the Church.

"It has been consolidated management of decline in the last decade and I think people are looking for a lot more vision for the Church and the country," he said. "It would be nice to have a bit of a maverick, someone a bit unpredictable, a bit difficult, who was energetic, exuberant and hard to handle."

Once Dr Carey formally confirms he is to leave Lambeth Palace after his 67th birthday in November, ambitious bishops will have almost 10 months to convince the 12 members of the Crown Appointments Commission that they have the leadership qualities the Church may have been lacking.

They will not, however, be interviewed. The commission will discreetly canvass views from differing groups within the Church. The process is so secret that a Church of England official spokesman, when asked yesterday what the procedure was, replied: "I just don't know."

The commission will then pass the two names to Tony Blair. The Prime Minister can choose one, which he then submits to the Queen for formal approval, or can send back both names to the commission for a rethink, a power of veto that Mr Blair has shown he is not afraid to use when applied to bishops.

Four years ago he rejected the commission's suggestions for the Bishop of Liverpool, resulting in two more candidates being put forward, including a favourite of Mr Blair, the Rt Rev James Jones, who was at the time Bishop of Hull and was finally appointed.

Highly media aware, Mr Jones has been described as the perfect Blairite bishop, which makes him a strong contender to succeed Dr Carey. But detractors accuse him of being glib and some of his sympathies are more old than New Labour.

A more radical candidate is the Archbishop of Wales, the Most Rev Rowan Williams, a former Oxford professor of theology, who has publicly said the monarch should no longer be the supreme governor of the Church of England.

Then there is the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, an arch traditionalist who was once thought to have ruled himself out through his firm opposition to women priests but who has since said privately that he may be prepared to change his views.

He shares his traditional outlook with the Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, the Bishop of Rochester, who has been criticised by liberals for his views on homosexuality and marriage. Born in Pakistan, his appointment might be favoured by Anglicans in Africa and Asia.

At this stage, predicting the winner with confidence is impossible. The commission need only look at Dr Carey, the rank outsider 10 years ago, to remind them that nothing is certain.

Four in the frame for Canterbury

The Right Rev Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, 54

Studied history at Cambridge and theology at Oxford before becoming chaplain to Dr Carey's predecessor, Robert Runcie. A conservative, he opposed women priests and has not ordained a woman since becoming Bishop of London in 1995.

The Right Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, Bishop of Rochester, 52

Born in Karachi, he became a bishop in Pakistan in 1984. When appointed to Rochester, Kent, in 1994, he was the first diocesan bishop from an ethnic minority. An evangelical, he is conservative on social issues.

The Right Rev James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool, 53

The Prime Minister's favourite, he has displayed great skill in using the media, and has written about religion and social issues for both the News of the World and The Guardian. His chances may be harmed by an evangelical outlook that is similar to Dr Carey's.

The Most Rev Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Wales, 51

The most cerebral candidate, he was the youngest professor at Oxford when he began teaching theology there in 1986. Often seen as the favourite, he has a radical streak that has led him to float the idea of disestablishment of the Church by stages.

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