LONDON, JULY 25 -- A little-known English bishop today became the surprise nominee as the next Archbishop of Canterbury, spiritual leader of the Church of England and the world's 70 million Anglicans, including 2 1/2 million Episcopalians in the United States.

George L. Carey, Bishop of Bath and Wells in southwest England, appeared to have been a compromise choice to succeed Robert A.K. Runcie after two better known but more controversial candidates were ruled out by the 16-member committee that chooses the nominee under the supervision of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's office.

Analysts say Carey, 54, faces an uphill battle in reversing declining church attendance and restoring a sense of unity and purpose to the institution. It has been deeply divided over theological issues such as the ordination of women priests and the church's proper role in modern British society.

Carey, who would be the 103rd Archbishop of Canterbury, is the son of a manual laborer from London's working-class East End. He is considered a supporter of the mainstream evangelical wing of the church, which tends to be more traditional in its interpretation of the Bible and approach to religious ritual. But he favors ordination of women and has made clear that once the issue is settled, he expects other clergymen to support the decision or consider resigning.

He also is expected to be less politically controversial than Runcie, who was drawn into several verbal confrontations with Thatcher's right-wing government over social issues. Nonetheless, Carey already has publicly expressed reservations about the government's new system of local taxation and has been an ardent advocate of tougher environmental restrictions, a stance Thatcher has been slow to adopt.

Despite years of erosion in its power and prestige, the Church of England remains Britain's established state church, and the Archbishop of Canterbury retains a unique moral authority here and among the worldwide Anglican communion. When he speaks out, government officials feel compelled to listen and respond, even when -- as was sometimes the case with Runcie -- they are appalled or offended by what they hear.

Runcie's 11 years in office have coincided with those of Thatcher, but his image as a caring though somewhat ineffectual church leader was at times the opposite of Thatcher's as a hard-charging politician. He especially angered her followers by criticizing the resurgence of jingoistic nationalism during the 1982 Falklands War and by deriding what he described as an intolerant, self-centered "Pharisee society" during her years in office.

The temporal leader of the church is Queen Elizabeth II, who formally names the new archbishop. But he actually is chosen under a shroud of secrecy by a specially constituted church commission whose chairman is appointed by Thatcher and whose choice then must be accepted by the prime minister.

Because of Thatcher's role and the involvement of several members of Parliament, it is a deeply politicized process and one avidly followed by analysts here. The odds-on early favorites after Runcie announced his retirement in March were David Sheppard, the Bishop of Liverpool, and John Habgood, the Archbishop of York.

Sheppard, 61, is a fiery left-winger by Anglican church standards, and a principal author of "Faith in the City," a controversial 1985 church document that lambasted the government's urban policy and was branded as Marxist propaganda by Conservative Party officials. Habgood, 63, is a brilliant but prickly cleric who is considered too liberal by mainstream theologians and right-wing politicians.

Carey, by contrast, was a 20-to-1 long shot in betting parlors willing to give odds on the nomination. But observers said he became an ideal candidate once opposition to Sheppard and Habgood had firmed because of the relative youth he would bring to what has become a grueling job and because he was theologically acceptable to a broad range of church leaders.

At a press conference today, Carey denied he was a compromise choice but acknowledged that he and his family were stunned and "still a little dizzy from the speed of all of this."

Asked about how he would deal with the Thatcher government, Carey told reporters he wanted "a rich and creative dialogue between church and state.

"This is not to say that the church takes up issues of party politics -- far from it," he said, adding, however, that social and political issues are at "the very heart" of the New Testament. "I cannot be an other-worldly archbishop," he said. "I've got to be a spiritual archbishop who is concerned about God and the implications that has for life today."