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Anglicans Online last updated 19 May 2019
by Andrew Brown, 12 July 2000
ROBERT RUNCIE was a good man doing an impossible job in a bad time. Very probably, he was the last Archbishop of Canterbury who had the stature and the experience to be an integral part of the establishment in its secular sense. But his public position was not nearly as remarkable as his personal qualities. It's not the bloody establishment that matters: almost everyone who knew him will feel today that they would swap half the British constitution to have him back.
He was born on 2 October 1921 in Birkenhead, the son of Robert Dalziel Runcie, an electrical engineer who, when Robert was 17, went blind and had to take early retirement from his position at Tate and Lyle. This meant that the family homea semi-detached house without grandeurhad to be sold. Such a background was much lower down the social scale than that of most of his predecessors as Archbishop. It may have contributed to the impression he could give many people of being absent. He played innumerable roles very well indeed, but there could be a quality of awkwardness and not belonging about him, which television ruthlessly ferreted out.
By the time catastrophe overwhelmed his parents, Runcie was already on his way to Oxford University, as a scholarship boy. The word "gentleman" is so bound up with snobbery, and Runcie was so much a gentleman, in his bearing as well as his acts, that it is difficult for anyone who knew him as archbishop to imagine him as the son of an electrical engineer and a ship's hairdresser in Birkenhead.
Cleverness was his first route out. But he was also a gifted cricketer, and, according to one biographer, a brilliant mimic. His home was not a religious one: in the manner of the English middle classes, occasional church attendance was used as a vaccination against belief. In Runcie, however, the effects of this vaccination were overcome by his headmaster, a serious and devout man who gave him works of biblical criticism to read.
Other people's faith is as much a mystery as their marriages, yet it seems that the two most important facts about Runcie's religious formation were that it was never dramatic or theatrical: it started as an intellectual conviction informed by historical criticism - and that it had, very early, to contend with the hideous fate suffered by his father. These things taken together seem to have quite inoculated him against triumphalism. When he was Archbishop, he was constantly to be assailed with demands to "give a clear lead". These calls were wholly futile: even if the Church of England were a body capable of being led in any direction, as Runcie knew better than any one it was not; had the English in the 1980s been a nation given to followership, as even Margaret Thatcher found they were not, he could not have risen to declamatory dogmatism.
War service seems to have reinforced this thoughtful, profoundly unrhetorical side of him. After one undergraduate year at Brasenose College he was commissioned into the Scots Guards, where he did extremely well. He was brave, competent, and well-liked. He fought his way across Northern France and Germany in the wake of D-Day. In March 1945 he won the Military Cross for two successive feats of bravery: first rescuing one of his men from a crippled tank under heavy enemy fire; and the next day taking his own tank into an exceptionally exposed position in order to knock out three anti-tank guns.
In May 1945 he was among the first British troops to enter Belsen. Much later, in a speech, he remarked that the war had been worth fighting in order to put an end to Belsen but, he added with a historian's scruple characteristically destructive of rhetoric, that was not why it had been fought.
None of his army friends guessed that he had settled his heart on ordination after the war. But after a first in Greats at Oxford, he went to Westcott House, outside Cambridge. Oxford philosophy was then in the throes of logical positivism, a philosophy which marked deeply many of the more thoughtful members of the Church of England of that generation. They might in the end conclude that metaphysical discussion was possible and even necessary, whatever A.J. Ayer might believe, but they would never feel happy with large metaphysical constructions such as the fortifications which surround the opinions of Pope John Paul II and their gimcrack equivalents in the Church of England. This would lead to difficulty later, over the ordination of women.
He was ordained deacon on Christmas Day 1950, priest a year later, and served two years as a curate on Tyneside before returning to Westcott as chaplain. He was then promoted to Vice-Principal; in 1956, Owen Chadwick picked Runcie to be his successor as dean of Trinity Hall, and John Habgood succeeded to Runcie's place at Westcott. It makes a pleasant picture of three men who were to become among the most influential in the Church of England forming up like railroad cars along the fast track.
At Trinity Hall, Runcie married Lindy Turner, the daughter of a law don who met him as his secretary there. Some of his staff at Lambeth Palace found her a trial, but it is hardly the principal job of a wife to appear agreeable to her husband's connections. She could give the impression that she thought almost everyone who talked to him was wasting his time; she may have been right. Loyal herself, she resented fiercely the disloyalty endemic to journalism and politics. The couple had two children.
From Trinity Hall, he continued, onwards and upwards, to become principal of Cuddesdon, the Oxford equivalent of Westcott House. He spent 10 years there, developing the habits of work that were to rescue him as Archbishop, but in an institution curiously untouched by the ferment of the Sixties. Runcie did a little to mitigate its organised misogyny. When he arrived, married ordinands were expected to keep their families at least two miles from the place, to spend all day, from 7am until 9.30pm in the seminary, and to keep Saturday lunch as their only meal of the week with the family. There had been some small relaxation in this discipline when he left.
In 1970 he was consecrated Bishop of St Albans. It rapidly became apparent that he was the most able as well as one of the most-liked men within the Church of England. It is said that he turned down the see of York in 1975; in 1980 he was distressed to be offered the see of Canterbury. He felt he must accept: he was the first man to be chosen by the new Crown Appointments Commission, and to that extent represented the choice of the Church and not the Prime Minister. The drawbacks of the post as they might have presented themselves to him are many: the first is the disorganisation of the Church of England. An Archbishop of Canterbury has little more power than the King of Poland. In the phrase used by John V. Taylor, the saintly Bishop of Winchester, after he had chaired a doctrine commission, to lead such a body is like taking a large collection of dogs for a walk in the country without enough leads In the case of the Anglican communion, of which the Archbishop is a sort of primate, the analogy may be extended: the pack of good-natured, energetic, English dogs is augmented by an elephant or two, some very touchy rodents and perhaps a hippogriff.
It is a further drawback to the job that this powerlessness is not publicly recognised. The Archbishop will be held responsible for any sheep worried, exactly as if he had personally urged the unleashed animals on. The period of Runcie's primacy was to be one of profound divergences and strains within the Church. The issues involved were common to the whole of Christianity, but in the Church of England, which had acquired the institutions to do everything with decisions except take them, the effects seemed particularly severe
The battles between liberal and a resurgent conservative theology, which concentrated in this period on belief in miracle stories, revealed that the Church of England contained men who did not even pretend to believe any of them; and men who would pretend to believe in everything they were ever told. It is hard to tell which faction damaged more the kind of reasonable, humane belief whose possibilities Runcie had always upheld.
Only one of the problems facing an Archbishop could not have appeared to him, then, in its full horror: the fact that Mrs Thatcher was going to be his Prime Minister. Her choice of an appointments secretary seemed to Runcie evidence of an evangelical plot to do down good Catholic liberals everywhere, and he referred in private to Sir Robin Catford as "catfood".
All these difficulties were to come together in the great crisis of his Primacy, the Crockford's Affair. But while that dramatised the issues involved, it did little or nothing to resolve them.
Any attempt to solve them, or to live with them, is complicated by the logical incoherence of the Church of England. The problem is not that there are no good answers to the questions "What is the Church of England for?", and "Why is it here?. There are a number of very good answers, all accepted by different bits of the Church, and all profoundly incompatible with each other. It now seems that these are not problems at all, but conflicts. The difference is that problems have solutions; while conflicts only have outcomes. It may have been the profoundest weakness of his primacy and of the church he led, to see problems where there were in fact profound and insoluble conflicts; but in the eighties he was for a while a kind of unofficial leader of the opposition to a government which saw all problems as conflicts.
Runcie, for all his adult life, had believed that the Church of England is a part of Catholic Christendom. The first spectacular act of his primacy was a dramatic demonstration of this. Meeting Pope John Paul in Accra, when both men were on African visits, he invited him to visit Canterbury Cathedral. "We have a martyr there who would interest you," he said: a wonderful example of the judgement behind his charm: what Pole under communism could resist the shrine of Thomas a Becket, who died to defend the papacy against a secular power?
The Pope's visit to Canterbury in 1982 was postponed by the Falklands War. But when it came, it was as close as we may ever get to a Roman Catholic recognition of the Church of England as a real, Catholic church. It may have marked a profound change in English self-understanding: English patriotism has long been entwined with anti-Catholicism. The wilder rantings of Ian Paisley would have made perfect sense to almost everyone in this country 100 years ago. Runcie's gracious, generous and intelligent handling of these matters was hugely important in showing that attitudes had changed, as well as in changing them.
In the meantime, the war that had postponed the Pope's visit had supplied Runcie with his first political crisis. His sermon at the service of thanksgiving in St Paul's was praised by Willie Whitelaw (who had served with him in the Scots Guards), but grossly offended against the braying triumphalist spirit that then possessed the Conservative Party. The ostensible offence was that the Archbishop had remembered the Argentinian dead as well as our own. But there was a deeper objection, too: the reflective, unrhetorical style of his sermon could never have satisfied people who felt the world needed remythologising, whatever he had actually said. His sermon is the work of a man who, after he won his MC, walked over the battlefield to look at the bodies of the men he had killed.
It is not the way of politicians to contemplate the bodies of their victims. The reaction to the Archbishop's next journey into political life reflected this: the report of a commission he had set up to study the inner cities and the Church's role in them was travestied as "Marxist theology" by a cabinet minister (probably Peter Lilley).
Runcie, a man to whom the courtesies of the establishment were second nature, now found himself pilloried as a wimpish outsider. In 1984 The consecration of David Jenkins as Bishop of Durham gave pleasure and profit to the opponents of liberalism everywhere. Jenkins's opinions were widely believed to be intolerable when they were mostly incoherent. It might be observed that is the duty of any Archbishop to defend the incoherence of the Church of England; but the impression was left that the Church of England under Runcie was a place where anyone could believe anything. Private Eye put the Archbishop on its cover, saying "With men like us, who needs women priests?"
At the same time his ceaseless travels and his tremendous energies were making him more personal friends than any other Archbishop may have had. One example, that I discovered by chance: he wrote letters every day for months to a mutual friend hospitalised with cancer. This was at a time when he was involved in the running of the General Synod, the Canterbury Diocese, the Primate's meeting, and planning the run-up to the Lambeth Conference, as well as several other full-time jobs. There came to be an almost unbridgeable divide between the Archbishop as he was portrayed and the man in the flesh, possessed of tremendous natural authority.
He had put the workings of Lambeth Palace on to an almost professional basis. He used speechwriters from all over the academic community, but he had a knack of mastering their briefs completely. Among his not entirely successful innovations were the hiring of Terry Waite, as his Secretary for Anglican Communion Affairs. In due course, after Waite became involved far more deeply than he should have done with the American adventures in the Middle East, John Lyttle, an exceptionally tough-minded and experienced man from the SDP was hired to bring him back under control and manage the palace's relations with government.
In the event, Waite was kidnapped two days after Lyttle started his new job. Had Runcie known all the details that were to emerge later, he would almost certainly have tried harder to stop Waite from leaving on his final trip; he reproached himself bitterly afterwards, and he was greatly persecuted by his enemies in the press, for whom the apparently uncomplicated and certainly unintellectual figure of Waite made a much finer model of Christian leadership. This idea was attractive to Waite himself in some moods.
By the winter of 1987, when Waite was kidnapped, Runcie had made friends all over the world, and acquired enemies in all parties of Church and State. The hostility to him among the jackals of the Conservative Party has already been noted. The Daily Star published that summer a series of articles about Lindy Runcie, based on the testimony of disgruntled ex-employees, that earned her quite a lot of money when her libel action was settled out of court.
Thoughtful Conservatives, too, found him unsympathetic to all grand designs for the remoralisation of society, and within the parties of the Church there were few who could not consider themselves slighted. The emergence of the General Synod as a body whose debates could, on occasion, command the attention of the whole nation, suggested opportunities to a number of politicians, both clergy and lay, who felt that they, too, deserved this attention.
The first crisis came over homosexuals. The Rev Tony Higton, an Essex vicar of pronounced fundamentalist tendencies, had been prominent in the agitation against the Bishop of Durham. In the spring of 1987, he put down a private motion calling for a return to "Biblical standards of morality" among church leaders. This caught the evangelical imagination and despite vigorous efforts to block it from behind the scenes, the motion was given a full debate in November that year. The Church was profoundly confused as well as divided over the issue. In the event, the Synod was able to pretend to unite around a motion which condemned "homosexual genital acts" but not the condition of homosexuality. This laid the ground for another decade of trench warfare, without satisfying anyone: "Pulpit Poofs must stay", proclaimed the next day's headline in The Sun.
By a pleasing irony of fate, the next attack on Runcie as a corrupt and unprincipled liberal originated from two homosexuals who were, in consequence, practically beatified by Runcie's Christian enemies. Derek Pattinson, now the Rev Sir Derek, had run the Church of England's General Synod almost since its inception. A man of considerable charm and intelligence, he possessed to a high degree the civil service trick of concealing responsibility behind the walls of an immemorial tradition run up the day before.
The anonymous Preface to Crockford's Clerical Directory was one such tradition. It was a piece of well-informed cattiness that had for 10 years been written by the liberal historian David Edwards, the Provost of Southwark. When he dropped the job, Pattinson offered it to a Conservative historian in holy orders, Gary Bennett of New College, Oxford. Bennett had been a pupil and friend of Runcie's at Westcott House, and was later one of his speechwriters. In later life, disappointed of both clerical and academic advancement, he threw himself into Synodical politics. He wrote with elegance, penetration, and ferocious malice. The centrepiece of the preface that he finally submitted was a portrait of Runcie which started by quoting Frank Field's epigram, "The Archbishop is usually to be found nailing his colours to the fence", and went on in tones to make that opening made seem eirenic. Runcie was accused of lacking all principle, and of systematically corrupting the Church by appointing only cronies to the bench of Bishops.
The author's identity was spotted by anyone who knew him as soon as they read the preface. He started lying to the press about it on the day of publication, when the savage personal attack on Runcie in an official Church publication was front page news in almost all the papers. He killed himself four days later, when his exposure seemed certain. Of all the actors in the affair, Runcie alone emerged with his reputation enhanced. He did so by saying nothing at all in public. The specific accusations of jobbery were disproved, by painstaking research; of the four most ardent "traditionalist" supporters of Gary Bennett's thesis, one was blown up by the News of the World; another lost his synod seat after circulating copies of the News of the World article in question to every other member of the Synod; a third became a Roman Catholic journalist; and a fourth the Archdeacon of York.
The next year brought the Lambeth Conference. Every 10 years, hundreds of Anglican bishops from all over the world gather at Canterbury. The Anglican Communion is one of the largest Christian bodies in the world, and the Archbishop of Canterbury is its head. But neither he, nor any other body in the Communion, has anything approaching disciplinary powers. The churches involved do what seems best to them, over the ordination of women and much else. No one was certain what, under these circumstances, "communion" means. Now, of course, it is obvious that it means nothing at all; but in 1988 everyone who saw Runcie at that conference, working constantly, listening, teaching, exhorting and laughing, thought that communion is what he established with his presence. He spread joy and respect among everyone he talked to. It was at once a demonstration and a justification of all his searching for unity. He did not, I think, fool himself. "The secret of being Archbishop of Canterbury" he said, years later, "is never to believe your own propaganda," and he came to believe that the Anglican Communion was not an organisation to be taken seriously.
In the Seventies and Eighties there was no power on earth or elsewhere could have brought about substantial agreement on the issue of women priests within any of the Western churches. It was Runcie's misfortune to have been Archbishop at the moment when the Church of England could no longer dodge the question. He moved slowly towards a whole-hearted acceptance of women as priests and bishops; he had never, I think, doubted that they would come in the end, but towards the end of his primacy he believed that delay was wrong. Opinion in the General Synod did not follow him. In 1989, when legislation with a real chance of success was at last introduced to the General Synod, he voted against it because it was, he said, "legislation for schism". But schism, it turned out, was what the opposition wanted and has largely got.
On his last visit to Rome, he left behind him a storm of Protestant outrage, because he had said that the whole Church needed a primacy that could only be exercised by a Bishop of Rome, though the Papacy of Runcie's vision was far too Anglican, conciliar, and collegiate for any real Pope to accept, as his host made abundantly clear. He retired in 1990 and Downing Street and the evangelicals finally had their revenge. It's said that when George Carey was announced as his successor, Runcie had to look him up in Crockford's to discover his qualifications. I'm sorry I never asked him whether the story was true. He might have told me, which I suppose is why I was too delicate to ask.
In retirement he remained as charming as ever, and rather more indiscreet. He got into terrible trouble by allowing the author Humphrey Carpenter to tape a series of conversations in which his personality and opinions came across with un-archiepiscopal force and candour. He'd thought that nothing would be published until he was dead; but Carpenter had a contract to fulfil and in his Robert Runcie: a reluctant archbishop (1996) produced a book that hurt a great many people. Lindy realised before her husband that the book would be a disaster and made Carpenter remove some of the most memorable and catty remarks, but much damage was done anyway, and in after years, she would say to him "HC" when he seemed on the point of supplying interesting copy to other interviewers. He had an exceptional gift for anecdote and found it very hard to resist. He got away with it most of the time because he had a way of making people feel worthy of his trust. This is a trick few clergymen can work on journalists.
There may be no lasting achievements of his primacy, after an earlier life of remarkable promise and success. He did as much to sustain the unity of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion as any man could; and he did more than seemed humanly possible to show why that unity was worth preserving. He was brave honourable gentle long-suffering and wonderfully witty. Those who worked for him loved him. He made Christian truth seem personally as well as intellectually attractive: in that sense, he was a witness, or, in the Greek, martyr.
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