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LONDON (Reuters) - A secretive group choosing the next Archbishop of Canterbury, spiritual leader of the world's 80 million Anglicans, is under pressure to break a deadlock in their talks and reach a decision, nearly a month after an announcement was expected.
The choice of the next head of the worldwide Anglican Communion comes at critical time for a church threatened by a rise in secularism and long-running divisions over senior women clergy and homosexuality.
The 105th Archbishop of Canterbury will have to contend with the risk of a schism over sex and sexuality. Liberal church leaders in the United States and Britain are at odds with more conservative figures in places such as Africa.
Rowan Williams, who steps down at the end of the year after a decade in the job, has warned that his successor will need the "constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros".
The succession talks are shrouded in secrecy, but commentators speculate that the panel is split over choosing a reformer or a safe pair of hands to maintain the status quo in a post that dates back 1,400 years.
Members were expected to reach a decision in September and pass two names - their first choice and a back-up - to Prime Minister David Cameron, who then seeks the approval of The Queen, the church's supreme governor.
Williams leaves to take up a role at the University of Cambridge at the turn of the year and his successor would normally be expected to give his diocese notice of his departure and be given time to move. One unnamed church source told a Sunday newspaper that the process was "becoming a farce".
"If someone tries to be super spiritual and say it is not political, they are not living in the real world," said Peter Ould, a religious commentator and priest.
"It is not quite as Machiavellian as a papal conclave, but it has its moments."
Andrew Carey, another commentator whose father George Carey is a former Archbishop of Canterbury, said the church was "divided like never before".
"The faultline is same-sex marriage and both sides, liberal and conservative, seem to be extremely bad tempered," he said.
Ruth Gledhill, the longstanding religious editor of the Times newspaper, sent a message to followers on Twitter on Thursday that there were rumours the final names will be sent to Cameron early next week.
A Church of England spokesman would not say when or where the talks were taking place or speculate on the date of an announcement.
"There has never been a precise deadline set on the basis that there are too many unknown factors," he said.
The decision is in the hands of the Crown Nominations Commission - an obscure panel with 16 voting members made up of bishops, church members and lay people chaired by Richard Luce, a former Conservative minister appointed by Cameron.
The successful candidate will be eligible for an annual stipend of 74,000 pounds ($118,000).
One of the favourites is Justin Welby, Bishop of Durham, northeast England, regarded as a conservative.
Educated at Eton College, Cameron's old school, the 56-year-old worked in finance in the oil industry for 11 years before becoming a priest.
Another frontrunner is Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, eastern England. A keen amateur actor and cricketer, he is seen as a Lambeth Palace "insider" after working as a chaplain for two former holders of the post.
However, the 61-year-old said in September he hoped he did not land a job that some have described as one of the toughest in British public life.
"I am fairly sure the whole process will lead, I hope and pray, to God choosing someone other than me," he said.