The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, is to step down after ten years, to take up a new academic role as Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge.
Dr Williams will leave his post at the head of the 77 million strong Anglican community at the end of the year, after a stormy decade in office. In a statement on his website, he described his tenure as “an immense privilege” and said it had not been an easy decision to step down. The Crown Nominations Commission will now begin deciding his successor; someone who Dr Williams warned would need “the constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros”.
The Church of England has been struggling with deep disagreements over the role of women bishops and gay rights, which has seen some traditionalists split away and join the Catholic church. Later this year, the General Synod will decide once and for all whether to approve legislation to introduce women bishops – a moment Dr Williams described as one of a number of forthcoming “watersheds” which had prompted his decision to leave, although he said for all the difficulties over the issue, there was a “huge amount of goodwill” to make things work.
It has been an immense privilege…and moving on has not been an easy decision. Dr Rowan Williams
He said having to deal with almost constant crisis management had been a “major nuisance”, but had not overshadowed his entire job. And beyond the arguments within the Anglican community, he claimed that considerable “ignorance and rather dim-witted prejudice” was clouding the whole discussion of Christianity. However, he insisted the Church was not losing any wider argument against secularisation.
Dr Williams has not been afraid of speaking out on controversial issues. He opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and has spoken out about the plight of asylum seekers. Most recently, as guest editor of the New Statesman magazine last year, he warned that the coalition was pushing through “radical, long-term policies for which no one voted”.
The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, is widely tipped as a front runner to succeed Dr Williams. He paid tribute to his colleague on Friday, saying: “Despite his courageous, tireless and holy endeavour, he has been much maligned by people who should have known better. For my part, he has been God’s apostle for our time.”
George Pitcher, who was Public Affairs secretary for Dr Williams, told Channel 4 News that the Archbishop’s detractors ought to be careful what they wish for. He said he thought David Cameron would be pushing for a new Archbishop who believed in gay marriage. “That’s where those who have been so critical of Rowan Williams will find they miss him rather more than they thought”, he said.
He has been God’s apostle for our time. John Sentamu, Archbishop of York
For his part, the Prime Minister David Cameron described Dr Williams as a “man of great learning and humility (who) guided the church through times of challenge and change”, praising his “profoundly humane sense of moral leadership.” The Labour leader Ed Miliband added his tribute, saying: “He has done what he said he would do, which is to challenge the imagination of our country. I hope he will go on doing that through the rest of his time as Archbishop of Canterbury and beyond.” And the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks said it had been an honour to work beside him, and thanked him for the kindness and friendship which he had shown to Britain’s Jewish community.
Dr Williams will be returning to academia after more than 20 years as a bishop and archbishop. He studied theology at Cambridge as an undergraduate, before spending nine years in academic and parish work. He will continue to carry out all his duties as archbishop until the end of the year, in time to take up his new role at Cambridge in January 2013.