LONDON -- A scathing attack this week on Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie criticizing him as a weak and ineffectual liberal has added to the woes of the Church of England, already deeply divided over women priests, theology and other issues.

The attack appeared in the traditionally unsigned preface to the 1987-88 edition of Crockford's Clerical Directory, the handbook listing church clerics.

Runcie, archbishop since 1970, is spiritual leader of the world's 70 million Anglicans, including the 3 million Episcopalians in the United States.

The article also castigates the Episcopal Church for being too liberal. The American church has ordained women, even though the Church of England opposes it.

The article said Runcie prefers to take the line of least resistance on each issue, puts off questions until someone else makes a decision and is usually to be found "nailing his colors to the fence."

The archbishop's character makes him "peculiarly vulnerable to pressure groups," said the writer who also called him an elitist liberal.

Runcie's office at Lambeth Palace said Runcie would have no comment on the attack. But Press Association, Britain's domestic news agency, called the article "astonishing" and Bishop William Westwood of Peterborough condemned it as "anonymous, gutless malice."

The article charged: "His {Runcie's} clear preference is for men of liberal disposition with a moderately 'catholic' style, which is not taken to the point of having firm principles. If in addition they have a good appearance and are articulate over the media he is prepared to overlook a certain theological deficiency."

The Times of London wrote that one interpretation of the Crockford's attack "is that it marks the opening round in a battle over the succession. Runcie, 66, is widely expected to retire after the Lambeth Conference next summer.

The conservative Daily Telegraph wrote: "Someone so anxious to please everyone was bound to please no one . . . . It is unlikely that Dr. Runcie's authority can now be reestablished after such a blow."

Runcie has been under attack from conservatives inside and outside the church since he refused in 1982 to allow the service for victory in the Falklands war to be turned into a celebration of British arms. He said instead it should be a time for forgiveness.

The Crockford's article said the new bishops appointed under Runcie vote for liberal policies in the policy-making General Synod and are likely to throw their full weight behind the ordination of women priests.