The archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, steps down at the end of the year and it is up to the Crown Nominations Commission to put two names forward as his successor. Photograph: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP
Next Wednesday, four women and 15 men on the Crown Nominations Commission will gather for two days of prayer and horsetrading to replace Rowan Williams as archbishop of Canterbury. We know who they are, and when they will meet – but not where, so they can't be doorstepped.
Only three members of the commission, chaired by the former Conservative arts minister Lord Luce, are bishops. One of the women and two of the men have no vote, but are there to advise. Five, including one of the women, are priests. The rest are lay people. Almost all the parties of the church are represented and there is even Dr Barry Morgan, a Welshman, to represent the rest of the world for the first time in this process. They will pick two names to present to the prime minister, who is bound to choose the first, unless he proves unable to take the job.
The man they choose will have at least five jobs at once in his new post, and very little power in any of them. He is a bishop in Kent. He sits in the House of Lords. He chairs meetings of the bishops of all England. In some very nebulous sense he is also the leader of the Anglican communion, a worldwide body with no agreed doctrine and no discipline, which has rejected all attempts to supply it with either. If the Queen dies, he will crown her successor. When the nation requires religious pageantry, he must supply it and star in it.
"The next man has got to be able to hold together the Anglican communion, and to stare down the loony left and the loony right on sexual questions," says Stephen Kuhrt, a south London vicar who represents centrist evangelical opinion. "There are those who want a split as soon as possible, but the vast majority of Anglicans want a working compromise on sexuality. We need someone who can communicate a bit more on a popular level than Rowan, and is a bit tougher."
This time last year the two main candidates were John Sentamu, the archbishop of York, and Richard Chartres, the bishop of London. Neither filled the church with much enthusiasm. Sentamu wanted the job too obviously. Chartres has refused to ordain women. Both men are in their 60s, and Sentamu is not in perfect health. This matters because if one of the jobs of the archbishop is to run the Anglican communion – well, to head it, since it is not a body coherent enough to run – he must be in shape for the next Lambeth Conference in 2018, when most of the Anglican bishops of the world will come together.
During the Occupy crisis last year, Charters originally wanted the protestors cleared away, but after Giles Fraser resigned the bishop reversed position with blinding speed and conviction. Chartres is hugely experienced, having served as Robert Runcie's chaplain, and he can point to the fact that church attendance in his diocese has grown over the last decade.
Sentamu's qualifications are drive, intelligence and a gift for theatre. As a black African former asylum seeker he is able to praise British patriotism extravagantly. He seems at home as a columnist for the Sun on Sunday, where he writes things such as: "We shouldn't be shy about saying how great our country is." He inspires devotion in his staff but two people separately said to me he will never get the job because he sat on the appointments committee for five years, and some of his former colleagues there are determined that he should not. He has drifted out in the betting.
"John Sentamu is a great public face for Christianity in this country, but not a great manager of people," says Kuhrt. "Of course, in this job you do have to challenge the Captain Mainwarings if you want anything to happen."
Beyond them, candidates are less obvious. Among the younger bishops the bookies early anointed Christopher Cocksworth, bishop of Coventry, as favourite. He is an evangelical, ran a theological college, and he hasn't offended any powerful lobbies. But reports from his diocese suggest that he hasn't offended anyone only because he can't take decisions. Sentiment has quietly but decisively swung away from him.
James Jones, the bishop of Liverpool, who has just chaired the Hillsborough inquiry, is another possible caretaker choice. Although he has a firm evangelical background, he is sympathetic to gay clergy and an enthusiastic green. He had heart surgery last year, and though a fluent speaker, he lacks the star quality possessed in their different ways by both Sentamu and Chartres.
Graham James, the bishop of Norwich, is favourite everywhere of the steady-as-she-goes party. He is widely experienced – he worked in Lambeth Palace under the previous archbishop, Lord Carey – and widely trusted, as well as scholarly. But critics say he has the charisma of a tea cosy and exemplifies the benevolent but out-of-touch quality of a church cut off from the mainstream of English life.
Outsiders include Nick Baines, the newly appointed bishop of Bradford. He is active on Twitter, where journalists notice him, and he is both interested in the media and largely unafraid of it. He is an evangelical, which ticks one important box, but youth (he's 51) and inexperience should tell against him.
Another possible is John Inge, bishop of Worcester, a former public schoolmaster favoured by some centrist evangelicals. He is the author of an unlikely work of theology, Living Love, which takes as its starting point the detective novels of Alexander McCall Smith.
Liberals make wistful noises about Stephen Cottrell, the bishop of Chelmsford. He was the man with briefly the worst job in the church – brought in as the unimpeachably heterosexual bishop of Reading after Williams lost his nerve in the face of a concerted and international evangelical campaign and forced his old friend Jeffrey John, a celibate gay man, to withdraw from the post. That was in many ways the defining catastrophe of Williams's term in office, and his surrender ensured that bitter infighting over gay clergy would continue for the foreseeable future.
"Stephen Cottrell has got nous, native wit, and common sense. It is an impossible job, but we are ready for someone to say, when a crisis comes along, like the banking crisis, 'Look, this is bad' and to do so in a joined up, cogent, and clear way," says Rachel Boulding, deputy editor of the Church Times.
But Cottrell also has limited experience and is too friendly to gay clergy and gay rights to be acceptable to most evangelical opinion.
This leaves the dark horse, whom no one was discussing a year ago, yet now seems to lead the field: Justin Welby, the bishop of Durham. The reason why Welby was never discussed earlier is also the big strike against him. He wasn't even a bishop this time last year, but dean of Liverpool. He was only consecrated as bishop in the new year. This also means that he has made no enemies yet.
Welby is an evangelical; he's also an old Etonian. But people who might be repelled by either or both of these traits tend not to be in practice. He charmed Giles Fraser, for example. He is thoughtful about the Church of England's problems. If these were primarily financial, he would be the outstanding candidate. Not only did he have a successful career as an oil trader before seeking ordination, he turned around the finances of Liverpool Cathedral when he ran it.
None of the candidates will bring comfort to a Tory government. The most establishment candidates are Chartres and Welby. But Chartres is a Prince Charles-type Tory who wants less capitalism and more hierarchy. Welby has been an informed critic of the banks. Sentamu was stopped and searched eight times by the Metropolitan police while he was bishop of Stepney, and served on the Macpherson committee that accused the force of institutionalised racism.
Whoever he is, the next archbishop will face other large problems, even though the issue of female bishops will probably not be among them. It looks as if a form of words has been agreed which both supporters and opponents can accept, so that the first will be consecrated next year.
The struggle over gay clergy will continue for the foreseeable future. Opinion within congregations is slowly shifting as it has shifted in the outside world. But the long stalemate, punctuated by vicious little skirmishes, can only be expected to continue.
There is the slow international fissioning of the Anglican communion, where conservative Africans and Asians have been trying for years to throw out the more liberal churches of North America, with the Church of England caught uneasily between factions. It's difficult to see any compromise there except the peace of exhaustion.
With all these difficulties at home and abroad it's lucky that the Crown Nominations Commission believe in prayer, since prayer will work at least as well as horsetrading when it meets next week to choose its victim.