A MAN FOR HIS SEASON

George Austin reviews the life and times of Robert Runcie

 

IT WAS Archbishop Robert Runcie who presented Robert Ladds at his consecration as Bishop of Whitby. He was to have preached but he was clearly frail; yet it was characteristic of him that he should even make the effort to be present. Chatting to him afterwards, he asked me how I was enjoying retirement. I replied that I was enjoying it very much. He said that he had enjoyed the first few years - and then he paused and smiled. 'But now,' he said, 'I'm just dying cheerfully.' It was the lifting of the mask, a glimpse of the reality of resurrection faith underneath that veneer of mortality that hinders each of us from seeing more than through a glass darkly.

It reminded me of a conversation I once had with a strongly liberal, almost modernist, theologian of yesteryears, Canon Professor Geoffrey Lampe. He had recently been diagnosed as having terminal cancer, and I expressed my sympathy. Then for twenty minutes Lampe spoke simply and movingly of his solid biblical faith in the reality, physical and spiritual, of the resurrection of Jesus and how it was for him the promise of the hope of glory. It was a humbling reminder that one should not judge the inward reality of faith by the outward sign of academic questioning - or by the patina of engaging self-deprecation behind which Runcie often hid.

It was this that led him incautiously, in his conversations with biographer Humphrey Carpenter, to speak of his decision to start ordination training because it was the 'easy answer' - thinking 'I can always get out of it', whereas for most of us it was what we did not want to do but could not resist. Or, in an extraordinary comment, how Canon J S Bezzant taught him 'that you could be unbelieving, incredulous, and still a good Anglo-Catholic.'

In reality to compare Runcie with Lampe is inevitably superficial. Runcie was at heart a catholic Anglican and anyway would never have claimed to be an academic theologian, questioning or otherwise. But the outward sign with Runcie was one of affability by which he would be all things to all men, with the gift of making you feel, after a one-to-one discussion, that he was in full agreement with everything you had said and that you could count on his full support.

It was both a strength and a weakness in him as bishop and archbishop. It was a strength because through it he undoubtedly helped to hold the Church together when it might have begun to disintegrate; but a weakness too because it began to appear that the Church of England lacked both principle and belief. It helped to create the impression that we had an Archbishop who never gave the lead on anything. This was unfair, as even the most cursory reading of his speeches, in General Synod and elsewhere, would reveal. It may not of course have been the lead which this or that grouping wanted to hear, but it was a lead nevertheless.

Gareth Bennett famously quoted Frank Field describing Runcie as one who nailed his colours to the fence, giving ammunition to those who sought to deflect attention from the serious criticisms that Bennett made, by labelling the Preface as 'sour and vindictive'. In fact it was while Runcie was at St Albans that Bishop Ronald Williams, then of Leicester, jokingly commented on a Synod speech by Runcie that it came from one who possessed the ability 'to sit on the fence while keeping both ears to the ground at the same time.' Runcie himself led the prolonged laughter which greeted this, for he possessed in abundance the great gift and saving grace of never taking himself too seriously.

But it was Bennett's Preface that sparked the greatest crisis of Runcie's primacy. Many of us had become gradually aware that most appointments to the episcopal bench and cathedral deaneries were of men who had close personal connections with Runcie, especially from his time at Westcott House and Cuddesdon theological colleges. It was no surprise to those of us who had served under him in the diocese of St Albans, where during the ten years of his episcopate almost every major parochial and diocesan appointment had been made on the same basis - and often to those who would later receive higher preferment during his archiepiscopate.

It produced for Bennett the paragraph in his Preface for which he was most vilified: 'His 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. Dr Runcie and his closest associates are men who have nothing to prevent them following what they think is the wish of the majority of the moment.'

It was a fair but limited judgement. In Carpenter's biography, Runcie with his usual dry wit hints at an acceptance of the charge when he describes the appointment of Nicholas Coulton, later to become Provost of Newcastle, to be his Mr Slope in St Albans as his first act of cronyism. But Bennett's claim is limited in that it fails to recognise a personal trait in Runcie's character which always led him to appoint men of a certain type, a trait that had its roots in Runcie's background and upbringing.

He had humble beginnings in Liverpool but gained a scholarship to Brasenose College, Oxford. After one year he was conscripted to the army, not to become a private in the Pioneer Corps but to a commission in the Brigade of Guards, in which he gained the Military Cross for outstanding bravery. But when social class meant more than it does today, he also found that some men are the ' right sort of chap' and some are not; a fact that always matters more to those who have gained social standing than those born to it. More significant than liberal theological views or a desire to follow the majority of the moment, his bishops and deans were always without question the 'right sort of chaps'.

That is in no sense to suggest that Bennett was mistaken in his description of Runcie's senior appointees. Yet Runcie did wish to lay the foundation of a Church of England which would meet the needs of a moment both for the present and for the future. However, we need to look deeper and ask if this were not in fact an intuitive and perhaps instinctive perception of the mood of the age. In the political world, Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and leader of a Tory party entrenched in firm dogma. The Labour Party was engaged in internecine strife and, whatever the faults of the Tory government, had made itself unelectable. The Far Left dogmatism of the likes of Michael Foot and Tony Benn, eagerly supported by the Labour Party conference and the trade unions, was deeply unattractive and had caused many moderate socialists support either the SDP or even, fearful of the Labour alternative, the Tory Party.

Perhaps it was in reality not an age for men of firm principles, and maybe there would have been just as great a reaction by grassroot members of our congregations against those who had firm principles as there has been at the lack of them. Bennett pointed out that between 1960 and 1982 the annual number of confirmations declined from 190,000 to only 84,000. But one can safely assume the bishops will be very happy indeed in the year 2000 if they confirm anything like 84,000 candidates.

Although the great cry of the 1980s was that the church must be 'relevant and credible' to the society around it, the legacy of that period in the life of the Church of England is that it is now less relevant and credible than it has ever been within living memory. It is interesting that in modern political life, it is the Tory party which exhibits unattractive dogmatism and the Labour leadership which indulges in cronyism and is cautious of firm principles, and maybe both parties should learn the lessons of the Runcie primacy.

Hindsight is always a dangerous ally, for those who claim its benefit are likely to be hoist by its petard. We can claim to see the mistakes of the Runcie's archiepiscopate - and he would be the last to deny there were mistakes - but every leader makes his own. Certainly his legacy is evident in the today's Church of England, even though there is evidence that under Archbishop George Carey the pendulum has begun to swing against the liberal elitism of a former age. Of course it may well swing back with a new Primate, but a clock in which the pendulum hangs still is as good as dead.

Whatever else, Runcie did wind the clock up in his own inimitable, genial, witty manner. Anyone who could laugh as he did, especially at himself, has the nature of God within him. May he rest in peace and rise in the glory of the Christ in whom he believed firmly and whom he sought to serve faithfully.

George Austin was until recently Archdeacon of York

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