Williams will continue to carry out all the duties and responsibilities of the archbishop of Canterbury, both for the Church of England and the Anglican communion, until the end of the year, Lambeth Palace said. The Crown Nominations Commission (CNC) would consider “in due course” the selection of a successor.
The archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, is to resign and return to academia as master of Magdalene college, Cambridge.
Williams, 61, will leave at the end of December in time to start his new role next January.
His time in office has been marked by a slowly growing schism in the worldwide Anglican church, which he has failed to heal. Williams has been attacked by conservatives for his liberal views on homosexuality and by liberals for failing to live up to these principles.
But he has been respected on all sides for his gifts as a preacher of great eloquence and flashes of clarity.
Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, tweeted: “Rowan Williams will be sorely missed as archbishop of Canterbury; did what he said he’d do – challenge the imagination of our country.”
Williams’s generally leftwing politics have led him to clash with the government, most notably when he guest-edited an issue of the New Statesman last year, which was taken by Conservative MPs as a declaration of hostilities.
The prime minister, David Cameron, said: “I would like to thank Rowan Williams for his dedicated service as archbishop of Canterbury. As a man of great learning and humility he guided the church through times of challenge and change. He sought to unite different communities and offer a profoundly humane sense of moral leadership that was respected by people of all faiths and none.”
The bookmakers’ favourite to succeed him is the Ugandan-born archbishop of York, John Sentamu, whose energy is widely admired, but who has upset some with a reputed forceful manner.
The other name frequently mentioned is the bishop of London, Richard Chartres, who is opposed to the ordination of women, but has been increasingly quiet. Both men are older than Williams.
None of the younger candidates has yet made their mark on the world outside the church, though Graham James, the bishop of Norwich, and Nick Baines, the bishop of Bradford, are two names most often mentioned.
Williams, who was confirmed in December 2002 as the 104th archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual leader of the 77-million-strong Anglican communion, told the Press Association that occupying the post had been an enormous privilege.
He described the Church of England as a “great treasure” that was still a place where many people sought inspiration and comfort in times of need. “I would like the successor that God would like,” he said.
“It is a job of immense demands and I would hope that my successor has the constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros, really.
“But he will, I think, have to look with positive, hopeful eyes on a church, which for all its problems is still, for so many people, a place to which they resort in times of need and crisis, a place to which they look for inspiration.
“I think the Church of England is a great treasure. I wish my successor well in the stewardship of it.”