The head of the Church of England, Rowan Williams, will step down at the end of this year after serving as Archbishop of Canterbury since 2002.
The archbishop, 61, is returning to academic life and has accepted the position of master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, with effect from January 2013, the church said in a statement on its website today.
“It has been an immense privilege to serve as Archbishop of Canterbury over the past decade, and moving on has not been an easy decision,” Williams said in the statement. “During the time remaining there is much to do, and I ask your prayers and support in this period and beyond.”
Williams’s time as the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, and thus the leader of the 85 million-strong global Anglican communion, has been marked by disputes over the introduction of women bishops and the ordination of gay clergy. His resignation may open the way for the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, who holds the second-highest post in the Church of England hierarchy, to take over, even though he’s clashed with the U.K. government over plans to allow same-sex civil marriages.
‘Anxiety and Anger’
Williams has been critical of the policies of Prime Minister David Cameron’s government. In June last year, he used a slot as guest editor of the New Statesman magazine to write that the coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats lacked a democratic mandate for its policies to cut spending and overhaul the National Health Service and education and that voters felt “anxiety and anger” as a result. Cameron said at the time that he disagreed “profoundly” with many of the archbishop’s views.
“I would like to thank Rowan Williams for the dedicated service as Archbishop of Canterbury,” Cameron said in a statement. “As a man of great learning and humility, he guided the church through time of challenge and change. He sought to unite different communities and offer a profoundly humane sense of moral leadership that was respected by people of all faiths and none. As prime minister, I have been grateful for his support and advice.”
Williams, who was appointed by Cameron’s predecessor, Tony Blair, opposed the invasion of Iraq by U.S. and U.K. forces in 2003 and repeatedly attacked the war and the handling of its aftermath.
The archbishop “brought to the office a vision, an intellectual integrity, an openness to all, and a deep spirituality that has weathered the trials and challenges through which the Church of England has been passing,” Blair said in an e-mailed statement.
Williams studied at both Cambridge and Oxford universities, became a lecturer in divinity at Cambridge in 1983 and then moved to Oxford as professor of divinity in 1986. He became Bishop of Monmouth in 1991 and then Archbishop of Wales in 1999.
Divisions within the church over homosexuality hit the headlines soon after the start of his tenure as its most senior cleric.
The Episcopal Church in the U.S. enraged traditionalists in 2003 by consecrating the first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in New Hampshire.
Another gay clergyman, Jeffrey John, withdrew his acceptance of an appointment as Bishop of Reading, west of London, in 2003 after protests.
In November 2010, five Church of England bishops joined the Roman Catholic Church, taking advantage of a structure set up by the Vatican to welcome Anglicans disaffected over issues such as female bishops and gay clergy.
Responsibility for choosing the next Archbishop of Canterbury rests with the Crown Nominations Commission, which will submit the name of a preferred candidate and a second appointable candidate to Cameron. The premier is constitutionally responsible for advising Queen Elizabeth II, who is supreme governor of the Church of England.
Sentamu is 6/4 favorite to succeed Williams, bookmaker William Hill Plc said in an e-mailed statement. That means a successful 4-pound bet would win 6 pounds, plus the return of the stake. Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, is second favorite at 7/4.
Sentamu became the Church of England’s first black archbishop in 2005. Born in Uganda in 1949, he qualified as a lawyer and fled to Britain in 1974 from persecution under the regime of Idi Amin, the East African country’s dictator.
“Our partnership in the gospel over the past six years has been the most creative period of my ministry,” Sentamu said of Williams in a statement. “It has been life-giving to have led missions together, gone on retreats and prayed together. In his company I have drunk deeply from the wells of God’s mercy and love and it has all been joyful. He is a real brother to me in Christ.”
Sentamu told BBC television on March 11 that proposals backed by Cameron to allow gay couples to marry in civil ceremonies were an “unjustified change” to the law and required the consent of the Church of England. The plans wouldn’t allow for religious same-sex marriages.
The Bishop of London helped to officiate at the wedding last year of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. He became embroiled in controversy in October when St. Paul’s Cathedral, in the city’s financial district, closed its doors for the first time since World War II after anti-capitalist protests set up a tented camp outside. The bishop called on the protesters to leave and backed legal action to remove them. Three members of the cathedral clergy resigned. The camp was cleared last month.