LONDON (Reuters) - A Church of England panel meeting in secret to choose the next Archbishop of Canterbury has failed to reach agreement on who should be the new leader of the world's 80 million Anglicans, a newspaper reported on Sunday.
After three days of talks behind closed doors in an undisclosed location, officials narrowed the field to three candidates, but will need to meet again to finish the job, the Sunday Times said, citing an unnamed senior cleric.
The choice of a replacement for Rowan Williams, who steps down in December, is critical for a church in danger of splitting over divisive issues such as gay marriage and senior women clergy, and facing a rising threat from secularism.
The Crown Nominations Commission (CNC), a church panel with 16 members whose chairman is appointed by the prime minister, had been expected to pick a preferred candidate and a second choice on Friday, a church source said last week.
The names were then due to be passed to Prime Minister David Cameron and Queen Elizabeth, supreme governor of the Church of England, before an official announcement within days, possibly on Wednesday.
In a brief statement, the church said a decision would be reached during the autumn. Officials had previously signaled that it could come as early as next week.
"The work of the Commission continues. There will be no comment on any speculation about candidates or about the CNC's deliberations," it said.
According to the Sunday Times, the panel has a three name shortlist:
* Bishop of Norwich Graham James, 61, a keen amateur actor and cricketer who said last week he would "hope and pray" someone else gets the job.
* Archbishop of York John Sentamu, 63, a Ugandan-born traditionalist who holds the second most senior post in the Church of England and writes a column for the Sun newspaper.
* Bishop of Durham Justin Welby, 56, a former oil industry executive who has been a bishop for less than a year.
The 105th Archbishop of Canterbury will take over at a painful time for a church divided by long-running debates over sexuality and senior roles for women clergy. Liberal attitudes among some clerics in Britain and the United States have infuriated conservatives in places with growing congregations, such as Nigeria.
Williams, 62, who takes up a position at Cambridge University, said in March that his successor would need the "constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros".
The head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, expressed sympathy for the winning candidate.
"They all get hammered, you know, the Archbishops of Canterbury," he told the Sunday Telegraph newspaper. "I have sympathy. Everybody's saying it's an impossible job."
(Reporting by Peter Griffiths; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)