Obituary: SIR ROBIN CATFORD

by
09 July 2008

by Hector McLean

SIR ROBIN CATFORD, who died on 27 May, aged 86, was the Prime Minister’s Secretary for Appointments from 1989 to 1993.

He was educated at Hampton Grammar School, and, after he took degrees in Agriculture at St Andrews and Cambridge, his early career was in agriculture in the Sudan. On returning to Britain, he worked in commerce and industry until joining the Civil Service in 1966. He held posts of increasing seniority in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries until he was appointed the Prime Minister’s Secretary for Appointments in 1992. When he retired, he had served in that post for 11 years, first under Margaret Thatcher, and then John Major.

From the perspective of 2008, when the Church has begun to assume responsibility for virtually all clerical appointments (including parish livings in the gift of the Lord Chancellor, hitherto also looked after by the No. 10 team), Robin Catford’s period in office almost seems something from a bygone era.

He took very seriously the authority of the Crown and the Prime Minister in making church appointments at all levels, but especially those of diocesan bishops. He certainly recognised that Church and state were in a partnership, but regarded the state as the senior partner. For instance, while the Callaghan settlement in 1975 gave the Church a decisive voice in naming diocesan bishops, the state retained the decisive voice, and Robin Catford safeguarded that position.

Yet he was aware of and stuck to boundaries, and expected others to do the same. Thus appointments to deaneries were nothing to do with the Archbishops’ Appointments Secretary, but equally, for example, appointments to cathedral provostships were nothing to do with the Prime Minister’s Secretary for Appointments.

He also stuck firmly to the convention that when a diocesan bishop, with the support of his archbishop, put two names forward to fill a suffragan vacancy, the first name was always presented to the Sovereign. The state was not involved in any earlier stage of the process.

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On the other hand, Robin would insist that if a vacancy for, say, an archdeacon arose during an episcopal interregnum, the Crown would undertake the responsibility of filling it, as it was fully entitled to. The problem was that the information flows and “data banks” of Church and state were parallel but quite separate, so that each secretary could unwittingly be nominating a priest for a different vacancy without the other’s knowing. Inevitably, the bishops concerned were not the least happy when that happened.

It would be quite wrong, though, to conclude that Robin Catford was just a classic civil servant protecting his ministers. He set a very high value on confidentiality and trust, and who is to say that this was wrong, as we look at the results today of information leaking’s being a behavioural norm? He could be enigmatic and inscrutable, maddeningly so at times; but, often enough, that was directed at protecting the ministries of individual priests, be they in a parish or the hierarchy.

He was also quietly supportive: when I was appointed Archbishops’ Appointments Secretary, coming into the post from a senior position in industry in the north-east of England, and in church terms no more than the man in the pew, largely ignorant of the institutional structures of the Church and its politics. Robin was a model of patience and judicious advice, although he never came near to telling me directly what to do.

He must have had considerable apprehension initially about our early visits to vacancy-in-see committees, and the wider consultations we undertook together; for he knew the importance, as I quickly came to realise, of the two Appointments Secretaries’ being seen in public as a duo united in the task they had to undertake together — the Church-state partnership in action.

When the first day of a visit was over and we retreated to our hotel for the evening, the human Robin would emerge over supper as we compared notes on all we had heard. The twinkle in the eye and the chuckle would have full rein as we enjoyed some of the more light-hearted moments that had occurred.

The work of the Crown Appointments Commission (now the Crown Nominations Commission) was clearly central to the work of both Appointments Secretaries. There were those, of course, who believed the whole thing was stitched up by the secretaries before the Commission ever met: had that been the case, our lives would have been much easier. In practice, some of the background material came from the diocese concerned, and some from the secretaries reporting on their consultations.

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The selection of the candidates was, however, done almost entirely by the members of the particular meeting. The Archbishops and the secretaries might add names that they thought had been missed; but which name had been put forward by whom was never included in the material for the Commission.

After the secret voting had identified the two names to be submitted to the Prime Minister, it was Robin’s task to present the material to her or him to enable a recommendation to be put to the Queen. Before that, he would undertake the delicate task of establishing that the proposed nominee was open to the invitation. A degree of cloak-and-dagger work was deemed essential; and for this Robin was eminently suited.

Robin was a committed and devout Anglican. His sympathies lay with the Evangelical strand of the Church of England, and I think that made some people question his objectivity in recommending appointments. I saw no evidence of that, and, given that we were in touch with one another, either by phone or in writing, two or three times a week, and frequently in one another’s company, any bias could not have been concealed.

His task was to respond to what consultation showed was the requirement in a particular place, and follow that through. It is in the nature of things that not every recommendation from an Appointments Secretary will turn out to be a roaring success, but I believe that Robin’s record in that regard stands up to scrutiny. It says much for the regard in which he was held in No. 10 that he was 70 when he retired, five years beyond the normal Civil Service retirement age. The KCVO that he was awarded was also a mark of the high value the Crown put on his service.

I admired Robin for his professionalism and integrity, and for his readiness not to allow the inevitable disagreements between us occasionally to get in the way of our personal relationship. When he retired, he continued to be involved in the Church, first in his home parish, and latterly in Chichester Cathedral.

His later years were overshadowed by the death in 2005 of his wife, Daphne, Lady Catford, and then by his own illness, about which he was characteristically silent in Christmas cards. He leaves behind four children and several grandchildren, to whom our condolences and sympathy are due. He has run a good race: may he rest in peace.

Hector McLean was Archbishops’ Appointments Secretary 1987-95.

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