THE search is on for a new Archbishop of Canterbury - the leader (under Queen Elizabeth II) of the Church of England and, in a looser sense, of 70 million Anglicans worldwide. For the past decade the post has been held by Robert Runcie, whose announced retirement next January is provoking a lively debate about the future of his church, its relationship with the state, and the mechanism by which his successor will be chosen. He was due to retire at 70.
Dr. Runcie's tenure has coincided almost exactly with Margaret Thatcher's term as prime minister. Relations between them have been troubled largely, their officials say, because they have diverging views of the role of Christianity in British society.
In 1982, Mrs. Thatcher resented Runcie's suggestion that in the aftermath of the Falklands War, Britons should be prepared to pray for the dead of both sides. He frequently assailed her style of government as socially divisive and lacking compassion. He supported the coal miners in their long and unsuccessful strike.
Were it not for one important fact, the resulting tensions between 10 Downing Street and Lambeth Palace, Runcie's London headquarters, would have only limited importance.
But the British prime minister will be heavily involved in choosing Runcie's successor, and it is believed she wants a more cautious, less combative figure. The Church of England is an ``established'' church, meaning that it is an official institution of state. It derives from King Henry VIII's break with Rome in the 16th century. That makes the Queen its leader. And because of the intertwining of spiritual and temporal matters, it gives the prime minister a central part to play in deciding who will be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. In coming months, a special crown commission will consider other bishops to take Runcie's place and present Thatcher with a choice of two names. She will then recommend one of them to Queen Elizabeth II, who will almost certainly agree.
Given a choice between a ``progressive'' and a ``conservative,'' Thatcher's instincts and convictions would probably lead her to choose the latter, observers say.
Arguments about the system are already brisk. David Jenkins, Bishop of Durham, famous for his denial of the virgin birth, is among leading churchmen keen to have the Church of England disestablished and put on a par with other faiths. Most of his fellow bishops, even if they privately agree with him, are known to consider that church and state are likely to continue to embrace each other.
Michael Alison, a former parliamentary private secretary to Thatcher, and a leading Church of England layman, notes that the Crown owns about 2.5 billion ( $4.1 billion) worth of what were once church assets. ``Untangling that would be a nightmare,'' he says. Disestablishing the Church of England would also mean abolishing the right of 26 bishops to sit in the House of Lords, the upper house of Parliament - something Thatcher's advisers are believed to have warned her against.
Though the political aspect of the succession is attracting the most news-media attention, leading churchmen, including possible contenders for Runcie's post, point out that the Church of England is a church in crisis, and that the question of who leads it toward the year 2000 is spiritual as well as political.
Regular Sunday Church of England attendance has fallen to around 800,000 out of 20 million professing Anglicans. There is deep dispute between bishops and laymen about the ordination of women clergy (Runcie has tried to open the door gradually, but influential figures such as Graham Leonard, the Bishop of London, have threatened to lead a schism if the policy is fully approved.) Among the 27 self-governing Anglican provinces worldwide, those in the United States, New Zealand, Ireland, and Hong Kong have already accepted the ordination of women.
Simon Lee and Peter Stanford, joint authors of ``Believing Bishops,'' say there is a broad consensus among the bishops that their role should be that of teachers. ``But,'' they ask, ``what should they be teaching - the Gospel, controversial economic theories, politics, special ethics?''
As public debate and private lobbying about the Canterbury succession gather momentum, these questions are certain to be thoroughly considered. There are thought to be a dozen possible candidates to succeed Runcie and take over the leadership of the Church of England. Bishops from outside England are eligible. Robin Eames, primate of the Church of Ireland, which has only 100,000 members, has been spoken of as a front-runner, partly because he commands Thatcher's confidence on Northern Ireland matters. Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, is another possible contender from the church's liberal wing.