LONDON (AP) _ The Archbishop of Canterbury announced his retirement Tuesday after more than a decade as the spiritual leader of the world's 70 million Anglicans and a reign plagued by infighting over women priests, gay clergy and the Church of England's financial problems.
George Carey, 66, said he would retire Oct. 31.
Rumors of his retirement had been circulating for days, and speculation in the British media about his possible successor also has been intense.
Leading candidates include the Pakistan-born Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali, 52, the bishop of Rochester and member of the church's conservative wing. Nazir-Ali is a respected authority on Christian-Muslim relations and church history, but has raised the concerns of liberals in the church after saying that married couples who chose not to have children are ``self-indulgent.''
The Church of England is the ``mother church'' for the Anglican Communion, which groups autonomous churches in more than 160 countries _ including the 2.5 million Episcopalians in the United States. The Archbishop of Canterbury does not rule the world's 70 million Anglicans but maintains the unity of the Communion.
Carey has presided over the Church during a difficult decade, when it battled over the ordination of women and moves to establish closer ties with other Christian denominations. He tried to end infighting and restore the appeal of a church that has seen its following plummet in recent decades.
Carey backed ordaining women, saying it was vital to keep the church's credibility, and under his leaders the church voted to allow it. However, he also declared homosexual relationships ``incompatible'' with the Bible and upheld the church's ban on the ordination of practicing gay priests.
``By the end of October, I shall have served 11 and half years in a demanding yet wonderfully absorbing and rewarding post,'' Carey said. ``I feel certain this will be the right and proper time to stand down. I look forward to exciting opportunities and challenges in the coming months, and then to fresh ones in the years that follow.''
In all, about half a dozen bishops are considered candidates to replace Carey.
The Crown Appointments Commission, a 16-member body made up of bishops and church officials, will hold a series of meetings to decide on two names to recommend to Prime Minister Tony Blair. His choice will then formally be ratified by the queen.
Nazir-Ali is reportedly Carey's choice as a successor. Nazir-Ali has won praise for his insights into Islam following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and the U.S.- and British-led war in Afghanistan that followed.
Nazir-Ali also is seen as someone who could ease tensions among the diverse religious and ethnic groups in Britain, which recently experienced race riots between its white and South Asian populations.
Another candidate is said to be the archbishop of Wales, the Rev. Rowan Williams, 51, a former professor of divinity at Oxford University and a recognized theologian and intellectual.
Carey, the son of a hospital porter, was the 103rd Archbishop of Canterbury. Blair's Downing Street office said Carey had worked ``tirelessly at home and abroad.''
Blair ``has great admiration and respect for the work that he has done over the last decade in guiding the church through a period of change,'' a spokesman said.
The Vatican thanked Carey for his efforts to heal rifts between Anglicans and Roman Catholics, noting the archbishop had met several times with Pope John Paul II.
``The image of him kneeling with an Orthodox leader alongside the Holy Father as they together opened the Holy Door at St. Paul Outside the Walls to begin the (2000) Jubilee Year is firmly planted on our memories,'' the Vatican's Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity said in a written statement.
The Church of England split from Roman Catholicism during the reign of Henry VIII in the 16th century.
The leader of Roman Catholics in England and Wales, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, praised Carey's ``immense integrity, zeal and courage.''
``Archbishop George Carey and I are good friends, and I have appreciated very much our collaboration in ecumenical endeavor,'' Murphy-O'Connor said.
Meanwhile, in Britain, where betting shops are endemic, bookmakers William Hill took bets on the successor, with 1,000-1 odds that the new Archbishop of Canterbury will be a woman, even though the church currently doesn't allow female bishops.