LONDON (Reuters) - Church of England officials met in secret on Wednesday to choose the next Archbishop of Canterbury, a centuries-old role with the modern task of preventing 80 million Anglicans worldwide from splitting over gay marriage and women bishops.
The new church leader must reconcile modernists and traditionalists, and stem a long-term decline in church attendance, a difficult juggling act that some see as a poisoned chalice.
Outgoing Archbishop Rowan Williams, 62, a self-confessed "old hairy lefty" who opposed the Iraq war, said his successor as head of the global Anglican Communion will need "the constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros".
"It'd be hard to find somebody more unifying than Rowan Williams, and yet he hasn't managed to hold it together," Paul Handley, editor of the Church Times newspaper, told Reuters.
"Under him, there have been two significant changes: one is the growth of secularism ... and the other is greater division in the church over issues like women bishops, women priests and gay weddings."
The arcane process of selecting the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury is wrapped in layers of protocol perhaps unsurprising for a role with roots going back 1,400 years.
Meeting for three days behind closed doors at a secret location, a 16-member panel of bishops, church members and lay people will pick a preferred candidate and a reserve choice.
They will give the two names to Prime Minister David Cameron who will forward the name of the preferred candidate to the Queen, supreme governor of the Church of England. Once she approves the candidate, Cameron's Downing Street office will make the announcement next week, possibly on Wednesday.
The new archbishop will earn about 74,000 pounds a year and have lodgings in the Old Palace in Canterbury, southeast England, and the historic riverside Lambeth Palace in London. His tenure will last until retirement at 70 or until he decides to move on.
The winner will be under pressure to prevent the Anglican world from being torn apart over homosexuality and same-sex unions. Greater tolerance on those issues among some in Britain and the United States has angered conservatives in areas with growing congregations, such as Nigeria.
One of the favourites to replace Williams is the Bishop of Durham Justin Welby, 56, a former oil executive who trained as a priest after the death of his infant daughter in a car crash.
He sits on a panel set up by the government to investigate the fixing of the Libor (interbank) borrowing rate.
Perhaps the best known candidate is the Archbishop of York John Sentamu, 63, a straight-talking traditionalist and the church's second most senior cleric. Born in Uganda, he fled to Britain after being detained and beaten under dictator Idi Amin.
He writes a column for Rupert Murdoch's top-selling Sun tabloid, a newspaper better known for its daily picture of a topless woman on page three.
Other frontrunners include the Bishop of Coventry Christopher Cocksworth, 53, a father of five who is a popular figure among more liberal members of the church.
The main traditionalist candidate is the Bishop of London Richard Chartres, 65, who opposed the blessing in Anglican churches of "civil partnerships", a formula that gives same-sex couples legal recognition.
The successor to the scholarly Williams will be enthroned in a grand ceremony at Canterbury Cathedral, where St Augustine began England's conversion to Christianity in 597 AD.
The Reverend George Pitcher, who advised Williams on public relations, said the next archbishop should reform the role to make it more manageable.
"The job as it currently stands can't be a job that anybody in their right mind would want to do," he told the BBC. "It's probably a debilitating and depressing prospect becoming Archbishop of Canterbury precisely because the job is undoable."
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)