Members of a group responsible for senior Church of England appointments are beginning a key three-day meeting to decide who should succeed Dr Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual leader of the 77 million-strong Anglican Communion.
The Crown Nominations Commission (CNC) will continue its deliberations at a secret location in an effort to find a successor to Dr Williams, who announced earlier this year that he is stepping down after a decade in office.
The commission, with 16 voting members and chaired by former Conservative arts minister Lord Luce, has to submit the name of a preferred candidate and a second appointable candidate as Archbishop of Canterbury to Prime Minister David Cameron.
Under convention agreed since 2007, the Prime Minister commends the name preferred by the commission to the Queen for approval, with the second name used only if there is a change of circumstances which means the appointment of the recommended candidate cannot go ahead.
The meeting comes amid growing speculation about possible candidates to replace Dr Williams, who leaves his post at the end of December in time to take up a new role as Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, in January.
No clear front-runner for the post appears to have emerged within the Church of England with a number of senior figures said to be possible contenders including the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, 63, the Bishop of London, the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, 65, the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Rev James Jones, 64, and the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham James, 61.
The commission is also thought to be considering whether to appoint one of a younger generation of bishops including the Rt Rev Christopher Cocksworth, Bishop of Coventry, who is 53 years old, and the Rt Rev Justin Welby, 56, who was enthroned less than a year ago as Bishop of Durham.
The Archbishop of Canterbury must fulfil a number of roles including that of bishop of the Canterbury diocese and head of the Church of England as well as acting as a "focus of unity" for the worldwide Anglican Communion.
In recent years, the Anglican Communion has been split by arguments between traditionalists and liberals over gays. The appointment also comes as the Church of England General Synod stands poised to give final approval in November to the introduction of women bishops after years of tortuous negotiations.
Dr Williams has described the post of Archbishop of Canterbury as one of "immense demands" and has said his successor will need the "constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros".