Melbourne Archbishop Philip Freier, who began a career in science before being seduced by spirituality, will lead the Anglican Church in Australia.

A man who began adult life as a nominal Roman Catholic embarking on a career in the sciences has been chosen, 40-odd years later, as the next spiritual leader of the Anglican Church in Australia.

Melbourne Archbishop Philip Freier was elected by a special synod of laymen, clergy and bishops from across the country at a meeting in Adelaide on Saturday.

He takes over from Brisbane Archbishop Phillip Aspinall, who is stepping down after nine years.

Raised in working class Brisbane with an Anglican father and Catholic mother, Dr Freier’s first love was science and not spirituality.

He studied applied sciences at university before training as an educator, and asked to be posted in an indigenous community.

It was in Far North Queensland that Dr Freier, profoundly influenced by the Aboriginal Anglican community around him, began to undergo a kind of conversion.

“I grew up as a cultural Roman Catholic,” he told AAP.

“I think I always had a spiritual aspiration but working in a remote area surrounded by indigenous Christians was quite formative for me.”

Thus began his rise through the Anglican Church: ordained a deacon in 1983, Dr Freier entered the priesthood the following year and was elected a bishop for the Northern Territory in 1999.

The 59-year-old has now spent two decades working in the outback and says closing the country-city gap will be among the most important challenges he faces during his time at the church’s helm.

“The Anglican Church has had a very impressive national reach but in many parts of the country that’s under pressure,” Dr Freier said.

“Rural populations are declining, ministries are harder to maintain.

“(We need) more young leaders who are ready to go into some of these difficult places – the kind of places I was working, in fact.”

He also hopes to continue the work of his predecessor in stamping out sexual predation and helping abuse victims heal.

“We see what happens when people betray trust and we must aspire to be a holy community that does actually represent Jesus,” Dr Freier said.

The married father of two and grandfather of three holds a PhD in history.