Pope Benedict XVI (L) meets with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams during a private audience at Vatican March 10, 2012 (Reuters Pictures)
By Avril Ormsby
(Reuters) - Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who has agonized about schisms in the Anglican Communion over women and gay bishops and same-sex unions, announced unexpectedly on Friday that he would step down at the end of the year.
He said it was time to move on after a decade as archbishop and his new post as master of Magdelene College at Cambridge University would give him the time "which I have longed for" to think and write about the Church.
"I would hope that my successor has the constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros," he said.
Williams, 61, a white-bearded and bushy-browed theologian, will leave behind a church split between progressives ready to allow women bishops and bless same-sex unions, and conservatives opposed to such modern reforms.
His resignation also appeared to spell the end for his faltering project to forge more unity in the Anglican Communion, an 80-million strong worldwide federation of 38 national and regional churches that see him as their spiritual leader.
He acknowledged these strains in an interview with Britain's Press Association, saying that crisis management was "never a favorite activity" and had actually been "major nuisance" during his tenure.
"There are some conflicts that won't go away, however long you struggle with them," he said. "Not everybody in the Anglican Communion or even in the Church of England is eager to avoid schism or separation."
UGANDA-BORN ARCHBISHOP TIPPED AS SUCCESSOR
Frontrunner to replace him is the Church of England's second highest cleric, Archbishop of York John Sentamu. Born in Uganda, he fled to Britain in 1974 to escape from dictator Idi Amin.
Sentamu praised Williams as "God's apostle for our time", a courageous and holy man who had been "much maligned by people who should have known better".
Elizabeth Hunter, director of the London-based religious think tank Theos, described Sentamu as more conservative than Williams. But she did not see him making a sharp break in the Church or the Communion.
"Anyone who gets this post will not take a radical diversion from the path that Archbishop Rowan has been treading simply because there really isn't any other choice.
"They'll just continue with these slightly awkward compromises and uncomfortable conversations, where you sometimes get to wondering really is it one church at all, or two or three," she said... (continued)