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A quiet word about the next archbishop

08 January 2009

In September 1960, David Stephens, the Prime Minister’s appointments secretary, wrote to Harold Macmillan about the filling of vacant sees. . .

BEFORE he went off to Africa in the middle of July, the Archbishop of Canterbury [Geoffrey Fisher] told me privately that he made up his mind to resign in the first half of next year. He then had in mind to announce his retirement early in the New Year and to let it take effect in May, after a visit to Uganda which he is due to make in April to inaugurate a new Province.

I have not seen the Archbishop now for nearly two months, as he has not been in Lon­don and I do not know how at present his mind is working. But at all events it cannot be long before you are faced with the prospect of vacan­cies both at Canterbury and also at London, where the Bishop is only hanging on at the re­quest of the Archbishop, so that you can con­sider both London and Canterbury together.

I am sure it is desirable that you should not choose a new Bishop of London without knowing who is going to be the next Arch­bishop of Canterbury.

There are persistent rumours too that the Bishop of Winchester (A. T. P. Williams), who is 72, means to resign before long, though he has so far said nothing to me personally about any such intention.

It therefore seems probable that you will have three major Sees to fill in 1961, and it is not too early to begin thinking of possible can­di­dates and combinations. I am sending you this note up by tonight’s bag in case you wish to mention the matter to the Queen.

I attach biographical notes of the following five people who would seem to have claims for consideration either for Canterbury or for London, namely:

  The Archbishop of York — Michael Ramsey


  The Bishop of Bradford — F. D. Coggan (50)

  The Bishop of Chelmsford — S. F. Allison (53)

  The Bishop of Exeter — R. C. Mortimer (57)

  The Bishop of Peterborough — R. W. Stopford (59)

The first and greatest problem is the See of Canterbury, and here I see only two candidates of archiepiscopal stature: the Archbishop of York (Ramsey) and the Bishop of Bradford (Coggan).

Here it is fair to remark that the Archbishop of York has not settled down happily alongside the present Archbishop of Canterbury. He never seems quite to have got over the rela­tionship established at Ropton, where Ramsey was at school when Fisher was headmaster.

They are men of a very different type and live on entirely different planes. Ramsey is less worldly and a more distinguished theologian than Fisher. He knows absolutely where he stands on all matters of doctrine and theology. Fisher likes to have his own way and is sometimes unpredictable in his actions and judgements. His capacity is prodigious and he hates to delegate. None of this makes him an easy man to work with, and Ramsey is not the first to suffer these difficulties.

I mention this relationship for two reasons, partly as a warning that Fisher’s view of Ramsey ought not to be taken altogether at its face value, and partly to explain why Ramsey, during his five years as Archbishop of York, may appear not to have grown in stature to quite the extent that was hoped when he was first appointed. He nevertheless remains the out­standing figure in the Church of England today. He is, of course, a definite high churchman, but I have not gathered any impression amongst people of a different way of thinking that he is in any way intolerant of their point of view.

The Bishop of Bradford, Donald Coggan, is much younger (51 in October) but is coming on fast, and is about the only member of the Bishops’ Bench who earns unqualified praise from all quarters. He would make an excellent Archbishop of York, if it were decided to move Ramsey to Canterbury. He would also make a possible Archbishop of Canterbury if it were decided to leave Ramsey at York. He is too big a man to have any definitive party allegiance, and has grown from an evangelical background into a central churchman. His evangelical back­ground would provide a balance to Ramsey’s tendencies in the opposite direction, and to­gether they would be a truly representative pair of Archbishops.

When the choice of Archbishop of Canter­bury is settled, you will no doubt wish to consult the future Archbishop about the choice of York (if Ramsey moves up): and in any case about the choice for London. The three candi­dates left out of my original list are the Bishop of Exeter (Mortimer — a high churchman), Chelmsford (Allison — an evangelical now tending to central), and Peterborough (Stop­ford — in churchmanship “central plus”).

I am frankly concerned about the future of the Bishop of Exeter. He has great gifts which the Church cannot afford to see wasted. Intel­lectually he is first class — perhaps the ablest brain on the Bench. But, to me at any rate, he seems somewhere to fall short of the essential qualifications for the highest office, and I find it hard to say exactly why. Perhaps he is a trifle lacking in spirituality — he is a very “ecclesi­astical” bishop. He is not well placed in Exeter where he does not really mean much to the average Devonian. But he counts for a great deal in the central counsels of the Church.

There is also the point of churchmanship. Mortimer is a definite high churchman, and you could hardly put him to London if Ramsey goes to Canterbury.

Of the other two, Allison and Stopford are both excellent men — competent, hard working, and conscientious, but neither has much obvious spark for greatness. Allison is, in particular, a first-class pastoral bishop and is doing particularly well as Chairman of the World Council of Churches. Stopford did first-class work as secretary to the Lambeth Con­ference, and is making an increasing name for himself, particularly in the sphere of church education. He is very wise and would make a good Bishop of London.

You will no doubt wish to discuss all this with the Archbishop of Canterbury, as soon as he makes any definitive move in regard to his own resignation.

It would be premature to make any recom­mendation at this stage, but you may like to be turning over in your mind the following possible combination:

Ramsey to Canterbury;

Coggan to York;

Stopford to London;

Mortimer or Allison to Winchester.

September 7 1960 (PREM 5/443)

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