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Over the centuries, 104 men have led the Worldwide Anglican Communion and soon it will be time for one more. Today, the current Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams made the surprise announcement that he's stepping down at the end of the year. He'll take a post at Cambridge University.
NPR's Philip Reeves has this story on his challenging tenure.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Williams will only be 62 when he hands over his robes and miter. That's young for an archbishop. For nearly 10 years, Williams has been the religious head of the Church of England and of a Worldwide Anglican Communion of some 80 million people.
He's held the post during a particularly difficult period, says his fellow Welshman, the Archbishop of Wales Barry Morgan.
BARRY MORGAN: It's just unfortunate that he came to be archbishop at the time when the communion was being driven apart by issues of human sexuality. And I think what he's tried to do is to hold the church together, whatever his own personal views.
REEVES: Williams hasn't said whether those issues - the ordination of gay clergy and women bishops - led him to decide to leave. They're causing deep divisions, notably between conservative clerics in Africa and their more liberal counterparts in North America. Williams is candid, though, about how tough it is to lead his church these days.
ROWAN WILLIAMS: I think that it's a job of immense demands. And I would hope that my successor has the constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros, really.
REEVES: The bearded Williams once described himself as a typical hairy lefty. But as Archbishop of Canterbury, he's found himself on the far from left and right. Liberals in the church felt he failed to enforce his views. Conservatives saw him as unacceptably liberal, especially over issues like homosexuality.
Allison Ruoff, a member of the Church of England's Parliament, the General Synod, praises Williams as wise and godly. But adds...
ALLISON RUOFF: I'm sure it's right that he returns academia because under Archbishop Rowan's tenure the church has really gone in a most liberal direction. And many, many churches have gone away from Bible truth.
REEVES: Williams has been willing over the years to court controversy by tackling British governments over political issues, including the Iraq War and the overpaid and reckless bankers. He's sought to build bridges with Britain's Muslim community. And in 2008, caused a furore by saying Britain should incorporate aspects of Sharia Law, explaining it thus...
WILLIAMS: It seems unavoidable and, indeed, as a matter of fact, certain provisions of Sharia are already recognized in our society and under our law. So, it's not as if we're bringing in an alien and rival system.
REEVES: Speculation has begun over who will replace Williams. The bookies' favorite is reportedly the Ugandan-born Archbishop of York, John Sentamu. He'd be the first black Archbishop of Canterbury.
Meanwhile, tributes are pouring into Williams from inside and outside the church. Ruth Gledhill, religious affairs correspondent at The London Times, says Williams is loved by people at the grassroots. But she says this doesn't come across at the political level.
RUTH GLEDHILL: The tragedy of Rowan Williams is that he's a man of enormous gifts, gifts that the world and the church have both failed and not been able to appreciate because of the schismatic battles within its own church. And, it has to be said, because of the way he's dealt with his battle.
REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.