(Photo: REUTERS/Toby Melville)
The spiritual head of the Anglican Communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams, announced on Friday that he will be stepping down from his position at the end of December, and take on the role as Master of Magdalene College, a senior role at Cambridge University.
"It has been an immense privilege to serve as Archbishop of Canterbury over the past decade, and moving on has not been an easy decision," Williams said in a statement. He did not give a concrete reason for his decision to retire, noting only that "after 10 years it is proper to pray and reflect and review your options."
The archbishop, who is 61, has been a bishop for 20 years and in his current position for almost 10 years. Although the normal retirement age for Church of England bishops is 70, Reuters reported that he made the decision to step down in what is widely viewed as a turbulent time for the Anglican Communion, amid divisions and debates over homosexuality and women priests.
For years, Williams has tried to keep the global communion together and prevent the estimated 80 million-member body from splitting.
While The Episcopal Church – the U.S. body of Anglicanism – has seen thousands of members leave over the ordination of openly homosexual bishops and departure from traditional Anglicanism, those breakaway parishioners and parishes have remained aligned with the Anglican Communion. A number of disaffected bishops in the Church of England have, meanwhile, left and joined the Catholic Church.
In an interview with Press Association, Williams commented on the crises he has had to lead through and whether he feels relieved to be going.
"Crisis management is never a favorite activity, I have to admit, but it's not as if that has overshadowed everything," he stated, " It's certainly been a major nuisance, but in every job that you're in, there are controversies and conflicts and this one isn't going to go away in a hurry. So I can't say that there's a great sense of 'free at last.'"
Regarding his 10-year leadership, he said, "It's impossible to register whether it's been 'a success' or not. I look back on it chiefly as a time of enormous pressure, yes, and plenty of invitations to all sorts of things, to engage in all sorts of contexts – many, many opportunities and lots of demands."
One of his crowning moments as leader of the Anglican Church came on April 29, 2011, when Williams officiated Prince William and Catherine Middleton's wedding at Westminster Abbey in front of millions of people watching in Britain and around the world.
British Prime Minister David Cameron was one of the first to pay tribute to Dr. Williams.
"As a man of great learning and humility, he has guided the church through times of challenge and change," Cameron said, as quoted by the Daily Mail. "He has sought to unite different communities and offer a profoundly humane sense of moral leadership that was respected by people of all faiths and none."
"As Prime Minister, I have been grateful for his support and advice and for the work he has done around the world, particularly in Africa where he has taken such a close interest in the Sudan," Cameron added.
The Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu, has been named as the favorite for succeeding Williams, which would make him the first black Anglican leader in history.