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A ‘passionate moderate’: Archbishop of York as reconciler and radical

07 March 2019

This article was published in the Church Times on 24 April 1987. It was the first of two extracts from the book Living with Paradox: John Habgood, Archbishop of York by John S. Peart-Binns (Darton, Longman & Todd)

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WHEN John Stapylton Habgood was placed in the throne at York Minster on November 18, 1983, the Dean of York (Ronald Jasper) prayed that God would make the new archbishop “humble, just and true.” There was something unexpected about the choice of words; and “unexpectedness” is a strong ingredient in John Habgood’s life and thought.

Under his leadership the Church cannot be a ready-reckoner where stereotyped answers are given to intractable problems or glib pronouncements made on complex issues. National initiatives, blueprints and revivalist campaigns are unlikely to emanate from Bishopthorpe, York. Yet these are the kinds of semi-vacuous activities which people mistakenly regard as signs of strong leadership.

Habgood’s rationale of leadership is theological, interpreted in an unusual way. He has described the essence of the theological approach as being “the unfamiliar angle, the unexpected shaft of light, the revealing silence which conveys more than could have been said in words.”

There are words, an abundance of them, but they are unmistakably his own. The imprecision of language, with slogans standing for thought (the Church is as bad as anyone), is anathema to him. It is natural for him to handle deep religious themes without the usual conventional language. This makes issues come alive, take on significance, point somewhere, instead of being destroyed by jargon.

In an age when stridency and confrontation are predominating tendencies, words such as “compromise ” and “ reconciliation” are regarded as the paper weapons of a weak, defeatist and ineffectual army. Reconciliation is important to Habgood. Contrary to the laws of physics, the greater the friction between people, the colder they become. The reconciler draws the sting of friction into himself.

It is not a comfortable position. Habgood says: “The reconciler must do more than say reconciling words. It is frequently claimed, as an excuse for causing suffering, that in a battle somebody must get hurt. The reconciler accepts that the person who suffers may be himself.”

Habgood once described himself as a “ passionate moderate.” This is Christian strength — not, as the world may term it, a weakness.

He wrote: 

“To live with opposites, not in weak compromise but constantly allowing different convictions, different emphases, different insights to react fruitfully on each other, entails a kind of death. We have to let others be themselves. If need be, we have to let them wound us.

We have to reject utterly the sort of touchiness and pettiness and narrow-mindedness which can so quickly make us all scurry away from one another behind our defences. We have to bear the pain of difference if we are to know the joy of discovery.”

The reconciler and passionate moderate is also a radical thinker — another word which is suspect. It is too often assumed that radical thinkers, in any sphere of thought, have few if any dogmatic convictions.

Habgood agrees with Dorothy L. Sayers, who wrote: “Dogma, far from being an arrogant and uncritical assertion of knowledge, can be a protection against superficial explanations, a stimulus to look deeper.” Habgood has not only released depth-charges into the quiescent waters of the Church, but also continually keeps his own critical (though not, necessarily self-critical) faculty alive by never withdrawing his attentive antennae from the world of today.

The root of all real intelligence is scepticism. Habgood shares something with T. S. Eliot, who said: “My own beliefs are held with a scepticism which I never even hope to be quite rid of.”

He would go further with Eliot, who wrote of Pascal: “For every man who thinks and lives by thought must have his own scepticism, that which stops at the question, that which ends in denial, or that which leads to faith and which is somehow integrated into the faith which transcends it. And Pascal, as the type of one kind of religious believer who is highly passionate and ardent, but passionate only through a powerful and regulated intellect, is, in the first sections of his unfinished Apology for Christianity, facing unflinchingly the demon of doubt which is inseparable from the spirit of belief.”

In retrospect it seems that, when Habgood had a sudden evangelical conversion, he held back from total surrender and maintained his scepticism and his intellectual self-respect.

Habgood’s own thinking does not take place in the sanctified calm of the Athenaeum but in his study, while travelling and in small groups where hard and precise thinking — not waffle — is the strong meat available. These groups are on the exciting frontiers of many disciplines: launching-pads, not resting-places.

My aim in this book is to study and share with my readers the thought of John Habgood by reference to his published and unpublished writings. . . I consider Habgood’s writings are worth studying and pursuing. To many people he is the quintessential Anglican — reasonable, morally sensitive, cool, non-dogmatic, non-sectarian. He is the more valuable because such men are in perilously short supply.


Bracing tonic

Whether we are meandering or pushing our way towards the next century, it is a bracing tonic to share the journey with someone who is thinking his way through the moral, social, economic, political and theological turbulence which is both apparent and real. I think you will find some of Habgood’s words enlightening, some irritating, some bewildering, some full of paradox, but most of them thought-provoking and worth lingering over; and a few may cause you to consider changing direction.

One of the interesting aspects of some of Habgood’s writing is that he conveys the feeling of being a scientist as well as a Christian. His thinking starts with God, and he tackles the biggest questions.

Is God a question or an answer? Why value human beings? Who am I? Where do we come from? Where are we going? What is life for? There may be nothing new about the questions, but some of the answers will be new. Again the word that comes to mind is “unexpected.”

First God, then the world. Habgood is an internationalist, even universalist. And the natural world is his dwelling-place. An unashamed idealist, he responds to such words as “aspiration,” “hope,” “longing,” “vision.”

After God and the world there is the Church. . . He has always been concerned with big issues. And there are plenty of loose screws in the Church needing a theological spanner. Habgood will continue tightening the debate — whether the Church heeds or forbears!

Finally, there is John Habgood the man. This hook is emphatically not a biography . . . but a mind is not disembodied. It belongs to the man, and it had a nursery and a training. So the first two chapters of the book are largely biographical, dealing with Habgood’s life and development up to the time of his ordination. . . Thereafter my concern is with themes, issues and subjects.

Nevertheless, the reader is bound to catch at some of the shifting dimensions within which John Habgood lives, thinks, dreams and serves.

The perceptive words of Eric Heaton, Dean, of Christ Church, Oxford, and a former Dean of Durham, help to get the subject of this study in focus. Eric Heaton saw John Habgood in action at Durham, the one as Dean, the other as Bishop:

“He gave me the pleasure of watching a first-class analytical mind at work on a whole range of issues (many of them exceedingly, humdrum). I think he has three great strengths: intellectual honesty, skill in analysis, and good judgement of what in particular circumstances is possible. His mental cooling-system is highly efficient; he is not the kind of man who thrashes about in existential angst.

“Those who expect small-talk from a bishop understandably criticise him for not having any. But they are wrong in suggesting that this proves him to be a cold fish (cool customer, yes: but that’s different). When he is intellectually engaged, he is not only animated but accessible (even warm) as a person. . . He is best, therefore, with those who have questions and problems.

I think this detachment is a basic feature of his personality (my guess is that he has never had many intimate friends) and not part of a deliberately imposed discipline, but it does undoubtedly effect an economy of effort and save a lot of nervous energy for other things. One gets the impression that he never hangs about or wastes a moment.

His most secret place, I suspect, is that corner of his life where he enjoys poetry. I often heard him use it devotionally at Auckland Castle, when rural deans or what-have-you were meeting. His own style seems to me clear and civilised, but completely lacking in music or imagination; I think probably his sermons are best on tricky special occasions, when he is challenged to confront directly the issue raised.

On regular church festivals in the Cathedral at Durham, he seemed less at ease. He took the view (about which I got into my only unprofitable argument with him) that ordinary preaching was not for religious instruction but supplementary to the liturgy, to which it should be firmly subordinated.

His talks to children are in a class by themselves and seem to reflect a combination of his appreciation of poetry and fantasy with his love of carpentry, models and toys. I wonder if he finds adults a bit boring.

I always suppose without further inquiry that he shares my theological liberalism, but I don’t really know where he stands in relation to traditional orthodoxy. The fact that I don’t really know illustrates how circumspect he is at revealing what he decides to reveal and no more. This is all part of his acute awareness of the context — his practice of episcopate as the art of the possible.”

Living with paradox, struggling with ambiguity are realities, not clichés, for John Habgood. To some extent I am inviting you to share in an adventure of wrestling with words and meanings and symbols. But it is well-earthed, for in the end Christianity is not a heap of phrases but a way of looking at life and living it out.

Habgood once quoted St Hilary, who was writing about early controversies on the creeds: “We are compelled to attempt what is unattainable, to climb where we cannot reach, to speak what we cannot utter. Instead of the bare adoration of faith we are compelled to entrust the deep things of religion to the perils of human expression.”

This is an appropriate point of departure, for Habgood is constantly trying to find new ways of conveying the unsayable — hence poetry is very important to him. As he has said: “Poetry is the enlargement of the imagination and sensibilities — hence part of the groundwork of prayer. (Poetry) puts new life into familiar symbols — unifying experience into a pattern of meaning.” And poetry and symbol alike are just two of the aids for one who has been publicly charged to be or to become “humble, just and true.”

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