LONDON — After a decade of struggling inconclusively to keep the worldwide Anglican Communion from breaking apart over such intractable issues as women clergy, gay bishops and same-sex marriage, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, announced Friday that he will step down at the end of the year to take up a senior position at Cambridge University.
The resignation of the 61-year-old prelate had been widely predicted, although its timing surprised some of his followers. For months, experts have been speculating over Williams' likely successor as the senior bishop of the Church of England and as the symbolic head of the Anglican Communion, the international network of Anglican and Episcopal churches that represents nearly 80 million people across the globe.
Williams is to become the master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, next January, returning to the academic life — much of it at Oxford and Cambridge — that he left on his first appointment as a bishop more than 20 years ago. In effect, he will be returning to what he always said was his primary calling, as a liberal theologian, and leaving behind the tangled church politics that require the archbishop of Canterbury to have, as he once said, "the hide of a rhinoceros and the constitution of an ox."
Two possible successors whose names have won favor with supporters in the Church of England, traditionally the mother church of the union, have been John Sentamu, 62, the archbishop of York, who is the Church of England's most senior bishop after Williams, and Richard Chartres, 64, the bishop of London.
The early favorite, according to many experts, is Sentamu, a down-to-earth, plain-speaking figure who ran afoul of the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin while practicing law in Uganda in the 1970s and who has won wide popularity among Anglicans in Britain, especially with those who favor a more conservative approach to the social issues besetting the church. If appointed, he would become the first black cleric to occupy the post.