In a surprise move, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams, head of the more than 80 million strong worldwide Anglican communion, on Friday announced that he would quit in December to take up an academic position at Cambridge University as Master of Magdalene College.

Dr. Williams (61) was appointed in 2002 bringing a whiff of liberalism to the Church of England after the deeply conservative reign of his predecessor Lord George Carey.

In a statement, he said it had “not been an easy decision” and vowed to continue to serve the Church's mission “as best I can in the years ahead”. “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. During the time remaining there is much to do, and I ask your prayers and support in this period and beyond,” he said.

His office said that the Queen, as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, had been informed.

Dr. Williams's departure comes at a time when the Church of England is embroiled in a bitter internal row over the issue of gay marriages and women bishops with hundreds of Anglicans set to defect to the Vatican in protest against Church of England's move towards the ordination of women bishops.

He expressed anguish over the schism in the Church saying there were “some conflicts that won't go away, however long you struggle with them”.

Dr. Williams backs the ordination of women bishops but his position on homosexuality has been more ambivalent which some have attributed to his attempt to avert a split in the Church. A few years ago, he sparked a controversy by suggesting that elements of sharia law could be incorporated into the British legal system.

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