DR Rowan Williams has attended his last service as the Archbishop of Canterbury at the city’s cathedral, before he leaves office as head of the Church of England and spiritual leader of the 77 million-strong Anglican Communion.
More than 700 people turned out to bid farewell to 62-year-old Dr Williams before he officially departs as the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury today following a 10-year tenure.
He will go on to take up the posts of Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and chairman of the board of trustees of Christian Aid, the international development agency.
Dr Williams will be replaced by 56-year-old former oil executive the Rt Rev Justin Welby, the Bishop of Durham, who will be consecrated in March at Canterbury Cathedral as Archbishop of Canterbury.
At the end of yesterday’s service, Dr Williams was presented with a set of five porcelain bowls created by ceramic artist Edmund de Waal, the son of a former dean of Canterbury, by the current dean, the Very Rev Dr Robert Willis.
A cathedral spokesman said: “It was a way for the local congregation and the people of Canterbury to come together and say thank you to Archbishop Rowan for all that he has done for the last 10 years.”
Dr Williams’s departure comes after a turbulent decade in office in which he has fought to maintain unity within the Anglican Communion amid rows over Church teaching on gay relationships.
He leaves the Church of England battling to resolve long-running negotiations over the introduction of women bishops after legislation to introduce the first female bishops was defeated last month at the General Synod.
The Archbishop’s decade in office has also featured high-profile interventions on controversial issues such as the invasion of Iraq, sharia law and government economic policy.
He has been willing to take part in public debates with leading atheists and critics of the Church such as Professor Richard Dawkins and the author Philip Pullman.
Delivering his final Christmas Day sermon from Canterbury Cathedral, Dr Williams spoke of how he has been inspired by meeting people who have experienced great suffering, such as victims of gang violence.
He also acknowledged that the General Synod’s vote against allowing women to become bishops had damaged the credibility of the Church.
But he pointed out a reason to be positive – the recently-published Census statistics indicated that 59 per cent of people still identified themselves as Christian.
Church of England bishops and former prime minister Tony Blair have paid tribute to Dr Williams, describing him as “loved and deeply respected” and someone who had given “unwavering” service to the Church of England and the wider nation.
The Bishop of Sheffield, the Rt Rev Steven Croft, said Dr Williams was “loved and deeply respected” across the Church of England and the Anglican Communion.
The Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, said he believed history will judge Dr Williams to have been an “outstanding” archbishop.