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Father Abbot
Robert Runcie, former Archbishop of Canterbury, writes about Basil Hume

24 June 1999

For those of us who have exercised any leadership in the British Churches during the past 23 years, Basil Hume has been our "Father Abbot". When we were puzzled about creating new ways of expressing our unity he proposed a weekend retreat together at Canterbury, and during the subsequent Swanwick conference he made the critical and decisive intervention.

There is a saintliness that seems to spring from rigorous self-discipline. His character did not suggest that kind of quality. About the self-discipline there could be no doubt. What was clearly evident was the humanity, the breadth, the naturalness. He was one of those rare spirits to whom grace seemed to be natural.

This enabled him to hold together without tension or pose qualities which divide personalities. There was dignity and a presence that lent moment to a pastoral visitation or the opening of a school or college. Yet he had an enviable informality which allowed him to skip into the Notting Hill Carnival and enjoy mingling among the crowds. It also gave to his residence an open-house feel which was denied to the occupant of embattled and historic Lambeth.

He cared about order and coherence. At the same time he kept contact with rebels and retained their affection and respect. He did not seem to need a general synod to exercise a listening leadership.

Those of us who have hung on the words of this clear-headed teacher or marvelled at the compassion of his pastoring would not have thought him an able administrator or a natural organiser; but there was more of the wily abbot about him than was generally thought – I did not hesitate to tell him so. Very early in our relationship, when I was Bishop of St Albans, we allowed him to buy our convent of All Saints at London Colney for a modest sum and imagined we would see the archdiocese of Westminster drained by the burden of its maintenance. In fact his vision turned it into the pastoral centre on which we all depend and fight for places.

Many have appreciated the English face that he gave to the Catholic Church in England. Mention has been made of his reputation at Rome and the trust and affection in which he was held as president of the Council of European Bishops' Conferences and on the standing committee of the international Synod of Bishops. Both of us were at Assisi and afterwards in the Vatican in 1986 for the Day of Prayer for Peace. In Assisi we were bussed from church to basilica and shared the piquancy of the Universal Pontiff being last on the bus and having to stand, refusing to take a seat offered by the Cardinal.

We both shared a devotion to Archbishop Oscar Romero, shot down in San Salvador as he celebrated Mass a few hours before my enthronement as archbishop. Our partnership on this began some years earlier, when the Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR) warned the Cardinal that the Government was about to sell surplus military equipment to El Salvador. He urged me to question the Government in the House of Lords. We did. The sale was called off.

On issues of race, or international aid, he was an ally and pace-maker, treating them as matters of principle equal for him to the inadmissibility of abortion. Peace and justice always had his ear and discriminating voice. Equally he did not shirk giving a lead about homelessness on his own doorstep.

I first set eyes on him at his consecration and enthronement in Westminster Cathedral. The shy monk went through all the liturgical movements dutifully and yet with an embarrassed modesty at being centre stage. Since that day he grew in grace to become one of the great spiritual leaders of our time, and without loss of that endearing shy modesty.

Nobody was ever less childish; but the childlike – a happy trustfulness, a particular candour, commended by Our Lord for the Kingdom. . . . Ah, that is different!

A charming story has recently come my way. In 1978 there was a gathering of Benedictine monks and nuns from all the English houses, and many from France and Belgium, to sing vespers in the cathedral at Canterbury. The Cardinal and Archbishop Coggan were there and gave the blessing. At tea afterwards in the deanery, Thomas, the youngest son of the dean and then a small boy of about 10, knowing that Donald Coggan was soon to retire, asked Basil if he could not succeed him as the next Archbishop of Canterbury. The Cardinal knew how to take small boys seriously: "There is one solution, Thomas – you must become Prime Minister and then you can appoint me."

It is hard for me to put into words how much he meant to me as a friend and an example.

Robert Runcie
(Lord Runcie was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1980 to 1991.)

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