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Rowan Williams quits: could Anglican church have its first black spiritual leader?

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A file picture taken on July 11, 2008 shows Archbishop of York John Sentamu speaking to the media about the plight of the people who have fled Zimbabwe in Parliament Square in London.

LONDON - The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams - spiritual leader of the global Anglican Communion - is to step down, ending a turbulent era in which Church of England has been sharply divided on issues such as same-sex marriage, female clergy and gay bishops.

He announced on his website Friday he would be leaving his post at the end of the year after a decade of wrestling with the near-impossible task of reconciling traditionalists and liberals among the church's 77 million worldwide followers.

The church is known in the U.S. as the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America. Its Presiding Bishop is currently Katharine Jefferts Schori.

"Williams was in an almost impossible position, trying to keep together the two tectonic plates of the increasingly liberal American Anglican church and the conservatives in Africa," Jonathan Wynne-Jones, a Chicago-based journalist and former Religious Affairs Correspondent of Britain's Sunday Telegraph told msnbc.com.

"The Episcopal Church is very liberal on issues such as gay marriage and gay clergy - it ordained a lesbian bishop two years ago - and Williams has been caught between them and conservatives without really satisfying either side."

Williams has also tried to reach an agreed position on the ordination of women as bishops in the Church of England after a string of traditionalists left to join the Roman Catholic church.

Unlike the Catholic Church, the Anglican movement's head has no direct control over its members, making the structure of authority harder to define. It has approximately 1.9 million followers in the United States and central America.

Williams, an academic and a poet, will move to a new post as master of Magdalene College at Cambridge University.

In an interview with the Press Association on Friday, he spoke of the demands of the job, hoping that his successor "has the constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros".

He added: "I think the Church of England is a great treasure. I wish my successor well in the stewardship of it."

The current favorite to succeed him is the Uganda-born Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, a populist conservative with a high media profile thanks to his attention-grabbing acts, such as sky-diving to raise money for families of servicemen killed in Afghanistan.

The Daily Telegraph reported that other possible contenders to replace Williams include: Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London who gave the address at the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton last year; Bishop of Bradford Nick Baines, known as the ''blogging'' bishop, in recognition of his enthusiasm for new media; and Tim Stevens, the Bishop of Leicester.

However, Wynne-Jones said: "Sentamu is the hot favorite but I would not be surprised if the eventual choice is somebody who has kept a lower profile."

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