He knew from the start the job would be tough. But not this tough

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Just before he became Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams stood in his kitchen in Wales, paused halfway through making a cheese sandwich, and said, in a moment of sudden self-awareness: "People are going to be very disappointed in me." Of course they won't, I reassured him. "They will. It's inevitable," he insisted.

What he foresaw was the heavy burden of conflicting expectations which have characterised his decade at Canterbury. Those who cheered his appointment saw a man of orthodox faith but liberal instincts with the skill to bring Christianity alive to believers and unbelievers alike. What they did not predict was that this formidably deep thinker had weighed the responsibilities of his new office and concluded – at a time when disputes over homosexuality became totems of a conservative/liberal battle for the soul of Anglicanism – that the overarching duty of the Archbishop of Canterbury was keeping its factions in communion with one another.

That was why he said in resigning yesterday: "I think the Church of England is a great treasure. I wish my successor well in the stewardship of it."

Stewardship – looking after what has been entrusted and passing it on to the next generation – was the job's top priority, felt the man who was, significantly, the first Archbishop of Canterbury since the English Reformation to be appointed from outside the Church of England. "I certainly regard it as a real priority," he said yesterday, "to try to keep people in relationship with each other." Many liberals were disappointed. Some even felt betrayed. Yet none of his conciliations could ever be enough to appease hardline conservatives and evangelicals who proved uncompromising, zealous and even vicious in their attitudes towards him.

For most, however, Rowan Williams's personal holiness, massive intellect, pastoral warmth and twinkly charm have been a self-evident good. His contributions to the national and international debate have been brave and insightful. He opposed the war in Iraq, and in Zimbabwe confronted Robert Mugabe face to face. He challenged the Coalition's social "reforms" and critiqued David Cameron's Big Society. He handled rivals with a combination of courtesy and clarity.

Boldly he queried the received wisdom of the age; after 9/11 he insisted that terrorists "can have serious moral goals". Muslim/Christian dialogue is one of the aspects of his years that gives him most satisfaction, though his nuanced pronouncements on sharia law highlight the danger of academic subtlety in a soundbite era.

In addition to that – and refereeing the feuding between the Anglican left and the right – Dr Williams's decade has been characterised by more arcane attempts to improve relations with the Orthodox Church and also handling a Pope intent on poaching CofE traditionalists. He is quitting now because he wants to give his successor time to prepare for the next Lambeth conference in 2018. But he also knows that the Anglican Covenant – the scheme to maintain consensus inside the Anglican Communion, on which he has staked his personal authority – looks as if it is about to hit the buffers. Twice as many CofE dioceses have rejected it as have voted yes.

Schism beckons. Rowan Williams is humble and canny enough to know when it is time to let someone else have a go at this impossible job. Dr Williams said his successor would need the "constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros". Tradition suggests that an Anglo-Catholic like Dr Williams is followed in the top job by an evangelical. A cleric of that churchmanship might succeed in holding the Anglican Communion together but perhaps by demoting its progressive American and Canadian churches to second-class membership.

There would be another cost to that. The Church would become more estranged from the values of the secular society it wants to influence by making Christianity credible to the intelligent non-believer. Disappointment will not be the word to describe that.

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