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Archbishop of Canterbury to step down

March 16, 2012 |  5:18 am

REPORTING FROM LONDON -- Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams announced Friday that he would step down at year's end after a decade of leading the worldwide Anglican Communion at a time of continued controversy over the role of women and gays and lesbians in the church.

Williams, 61, said it had been a privilege to serve as head of a communion that includes the Episcopal Church in the United States but he had decided to take up a position as master of Magdalene College at Cambridge University, a return to the world of academia in which many said the bookish cleric has always felt most at home.

"Moving on has not been an easy decision," Williams said on his website. "During the time remaining there is much to do, and I ask your prayers and support in this period and beyond."

His decision to resign after 10 years on the job was not completely unexpected by church watchers. His predecessor, George Carey, served for 11 years.

But it comes as the Anglican Communion wrestles with thorny issues that have bedeviled many Christian denominations. In July, for example, the Church of England is to decide the question of whether women can serve as bishops. Some traditionalist priests and parishes have already threatened to leave the church if the change goes through as expected. (Women already serve as bishops in the Episcopal Church.)

Outside Britain, Williams has also had to confront the wrath of Anglicans, particularly in Africa and Asia, who disapprove of homosexuality and who have even suggested setting up a rival grouping after Episcopal dioceses in the U.S. elected openly gay and lesbian bishops. Williams' own views on the subject have often been contorted and confusing, at least in public, as he tried to reconcile liberals and conservatives within the Anglican Communion.

At home, the Church of England is faced with ever-declining attendance in a deeply secular society. Only a small fraction of Britons are now faithful churchgoers.

Williams, a respected theologian who also writes poetry, is known to have been wearied by the constant infighting within the Anglican Communion. His appointment at Cambridge University will allow him to return to a milieu that many say better suits his mild, professorial personality.


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Photo: Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, with Queen Elizabeth II last month. Credit: Geoff Caddick / EPA