On Wednesday 15 men and four women meet to decide who will succeed Rowan Williams. The frontrunners include a Sun columnist, an economist, and chair of the Hillsborough independent panel.
This week sees the selection of the next archbishop of Canterbury following Rowan Williams’s decision to step down in March. The selection body, the Crown Nominations Commission, will have to weigh up the demands of church and society before presenting its nomination to the Queen via the prime minister.
Dr Williams leaves his post at the head of the 77 million-strong Anglican community at the end of the year, after a decade in office. He returns to academia after more than 20 years as a bishop and archbishop, to become master at Magdalene, Cambridge.
The current archbishop has warned that his successor will need “the constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros” – but so far the race to become archbishop has been fairly open, with four different favourites at bookmakers William Hill.
According to William Hill, the current favourite is the bishop of Coventry, Christopher Cocksworth, followed by the recently appointed bishop of Durham, Justin Welby, with Graham James, the bishop of Norwich in third position.
Then come the big names. John Sentamu, the archbishop of York and a Sun columnist is fourth favourite, followed by James Jones, the bishop of Liverpool, who has been in the news because of his position on the independent panel into the Hillsborough disaster. Both are rumoured to have had problems with their health in recent years, which the commission could take into account.
Tim Stevens the bishop of Leicester and Richard Chartres, the bishop of London, are also also being backed by the punters despite being more than 65 years of age, and in Mr Stevens’s case apparently considering retirement.
The CNC is likely to chose from 44 of the 113 Anglican bishops, but in reality it is would only be between those whose ages fall within the mid 50s and mid 60s bracket.
Age and health will be a factor, with the CNC thought to prefer a candidate who will remain in post until the next Lambeth Conference in 2019.
The commission must also decide who is best to carry out the archbishop’s roles of dealing with the monarch and her government, acting as a focus for unity for the worldwide Anglican church, working with other churches and religion,s as well as responsibilities for his diocese.
Paul Bickley, director of the political programme at the think tank Theos, said Rowan Williams has not focused too much on internal church issues but on the public platform that his position gave him, often controversially. “He sometimes held the government’s feet to the fire on issues like the big society and welfare cuts.”
Mr Bickley adds that Mr Williams has also defied categorisation, pleasing and frustrating liberals and traditionalists in equal measures, despite having a left-of-centre reputation at the outset.
“The lesson of Rowan, some of the things that we think might be significant considerations have not figured. People in the past have painted Rowan Williams as a beardy-weirdy socialist but he’s more complicated than that. He speaks on issues of the day and he has set the bar very high for his successor.”
Mr Bickley said John Sentamu’s popular touch and the fact he originates from Africa, where the church is still growing, could prove attractive to the CNC. But he said James Jones and Justin Welby have strong interests on social and economic issues that would allow the church to maintain a strong voice on issues outside spirituality.
He recalls that both Dr Williams and Lord Carey had been surprise appointments, and suggests that it could be the same this time round. “In my mind there is no front runner.”
The role as a focus for the unity of the church is particularly challenging at a time when there are deep divisions on the issue of gay marriage, which the church officially opposes. While all the leading candidates oppose gay marriage, they have different positions on sexuality in the church and other social issues.
A spokesperson for the equality organisation Inclusive Church said on the issue of sexual equality in the church it was looking for a good manager who could unite the church as much as someone who is socially liberal.
“The question for the next archbishop is will he manage to change the Church of England’s views on these issues? The whole sexuality debate is going to be key for the next leader of the Church of England.”
Two views from within the Anglican Church
Giles Fraser, the parish priest at St Mary’s, Newington, in London, told Channel 4 News that his favoured candidate to become archbishop of Canterbury would be the bishop of Durham, Justin Welby.
Rev Fraser, who resigned as canon of St Paul’s because he could not sanction the use force to remove the Occupy protesters, said Welby is someone of “passion and wisdom” and would bring “a fresh approach” to the office of archbishop. “He is quite conservative but he is sensitive to diversity issues,” said Mr Fraser, who is on the liberal wing of the church on social issues.
“Rowan Williams was billed as being a progressive but he has not taken forward a particularly progressive agenda.” “The church wants a conservative this time and of all the conservatives, I prefer Justin Welby.”
John Milbank, research professor of theology at Nottingham university and chairman of the Respublica think tank, said Dr Williams’s successor must be an equal to the outgoing archbishop intellectually.
He is tipping a dark horse, the bishop of Worcester John Inge, who he said is now coming to the fore. “Like Rowan he is an intellectual, Anglo-Catholic communitarian. We need that kind of continuity.”