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From darkness to light: future archbishop converted during a Cambridge mission

07 March 2019

This article was published in the Church Times on 1 May 1987. It was the second 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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HABGOOD left Eton for Cambridge an atheist. In the autumn of 1946 there was an Evangelical mission in Cambridge led by Dr Donald Barnhouse. He was a Presbyterian minister from Philadelphia who had a considerable reputation as a missioner. His preaching was as challenging as his appeal was direct.

But, like all such well-organised missions, the meetings and services were somewhat contrived and controlled as bait to hook fish. Revivalist hymns, the encouragement of emotions, professional testimonials, an emphasis on sin and the need to be saved were the staple fare on the menu. All manner of means were adopted to entice people to services and informal gatherings.

After the mission Habgood noted: “To an outsider the mission promised to be great fun. There were unlimited opportunities for having free teas, and to one like myself, who had no fear of being converted, there was the pleasant feeling of being able to adopt a condescending attitude towards those whom one invariable despises. For hadn’t science disproved the existence of God? Wasn’t Christianity outmoded and impracticable? At any rate it didn’t work — that was obvious even within my own experience.”

A meeting was arranged for all Old Etonians at Cambridge. It did not matter whether the Old Etonians were agnostic, atheist, lukewarm or boiling-hot Christians: they were all invited, and Habgood was one of that number. He had no overwhelming desire to go, but the meeting happened to fall on one of his bridge evenings.

Although he enjoyed bridge, his regular partner, Peter Swinnerton-Dyer (now Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge and Master of St. Catharine’s College), was becoming increasingly tiresome, as he thought that each game should be followed by a postmortem. The interminable postmortems appeared to have become the reason for the game; and Habgood decided to escape by attending the meeting.

Among the people he met was Major W. F. Batt, one of the organisers of the mission. Major Batt was a country landowner in Norfolk, a former Guards officer and a member of the Church Assembly of the Church of England. He was a “straight up-and-down Christian” for whom God was his commanding officer.


There was much Bible talk that left Habgood unimpressed. He could not understand how seemingly good minds could be so uncritically shallow and closed when swallowing the Bible whole. However, he was persuaded to attend one of the main mission meetings. What had he to lose? Or rather, as he put it: “From want of something better to do, along went to Great St Mary’s.”

While recognising Dr Barnhouse’s forceful personality in the pulpit, Habgood was amused rather than convinced. It was entertainment. For a joke he filled a little form after the service was over to arrange an interview with Dr Barnhouse for the following day:


Wild thoughts of converting floated through my mind, and I spent a happy evening drawing up a list of unanswerable questions.

It was with considerable self-confidence that I presented myself at the vestry of Great St Mary’s the next day, and Dr Barnhouse’s first remarks did nothing to encourage me. He leant very close and with his face almost touching mine, said, “Are you saved?”

Phew! How could we talk about the evolution of dinosaurs after an opening gambit like that? And so, for the next hour and a half, it was he who chose the topics for discussion.

Though very little of what he said convinced me, I remember being impressed by one fact, his obvious sincerity, and realised that, however absurd his beliefs might be, it was intensely real to him.


Two days before the end of the mission Habgood received a note asking him if he would like to meet Dr Barnhouse again. Habgood’s inclination was to say “no,” as he was rather tired of the mission, its free teas and fringe activities. However, he somehow found himself going to see Dr Barnhouse in his room:


There was Dr Barnhouse, and off we plunged into the same old arguments that I had indulged in for years. I was sick and tired of it all, but somehow desperately I had to salvage my pride and self-assurance. And so on for an hour of attack and counter-attack, argument and counter-argument, until Barnhouse suddenly changed his tactics.

Instead of arguing he told me a few simple stories of how God had worked in his own life — and then, wisely, he sent me away. My thoughts as I went out were chaotic: he believed it . . . it worked for him . . . he was sincere, desperately sincere . . . but was it true? Oh God, was it true?

I suppose I was converted even before I reached the bottom of the staircase; but it was in Great St Mary’s that evening, before the service began, that I really gave myself to God.


The date was 28 November, 1946. The following evening Habgood was with Major Batt, drinking tea in the lounge of the Blue Boar Hotel. Some undergraduates nearby were arguing in a similar way to this the evening before. How silly it all seemed now. “Why don’t you tell them so?” said Major Batt.

Habgood remembers how, with his “stomach resting rather uneasily somewhere down in the coal cellar below, I got up and started to make a speech and eventually I stopped too. I have never felt such a fool, but it did me good. I had burnt my boats.”

From that moment he was gathered up in a relentless, bustling round of Bible-study groups and prayer meetings. He studied and learned the Bible and very soon had a text for most occasions, answers for the doubters, and warnings for the waverers. The Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, known as CICCU, was very strong; and its members included those who were later to attain high office in the Churches as well as in other areas of national life.

For a few years Habgood’s life was lived between the laboratory and the Bible, dissecting rats by day and digesting the Bible at night. Although he did not see it that way, his days were spent peering through a microscope examining objects and studying them with critical faculties alert, but during the evenings his objective approach was put aside in an intellectually superficial study of the Bible.

On the one hand, there was meticulous research where questions were more important than answers; on the other hand, a book full of answers to most of the tantalising questions of the day, a position he was to reverse within five years.

The next turning point came towards the end of 1949. It was not dramatic, as his conversion had been. Moreover, it placed the preceding years in a different perspective. Although Habgood’s converted heart and physical presence were with his new-found Christ, was his intellect totally committed?

He may have written to Major Batt a year after his conversion: “I have made a point of straightening out all those old scientific and philosophical difficulties which I was so keen on arguing about. How silly they all seem now.” But did they? Was his mind as committed as his heart? Did he surrender his intellect, or did he keep something in reserve?

There is paradox here. Habgood’s conversion had been liberating for him in all kinds of ways. He could write: “Life seems to be made of three overlapping spheres — the intellectual, the aesthetic and the social. Over and above these, exerting a unifying and cohesive action, giving purpose and meaning, lies religion.”

Razor’s edge

There is no doubt that growth in religion led to growth in aesthetic appreciation and social purpose. He began to appreciate art. Shakespeare was rediscovered, and poetry and good literature were new companions. His theological reading started with a limited range of Inter-Varsity Fellowship publications and commentaries all carrying the IVF imprimatur: Nihil obstat.

That did not satisfy Habgood for long. Looking at the kind of books he was reading in 1950 we find among them William Temple’s Mens Creatrix, Christus Veritas and Nature, Man and God in rapid succession; the Collected Poems of T. S. Eliot; and some of the provocatively stimulating works of Dorothy L. Sayers. All these authors have had a permanent influence on him.

As Habgood opened his mind, widened his horizons, broadened his interests and ideas and began to explore, he had to face some inner conflict. It was not the return of atheism; simply, honest doubt. He admitted:


On the one hand I could no longer feel secure or cocksure in my beliefs; I was walking on a razor’s edge with disaster on either side; it would be so easy to crash over into heresy or worldliness, and many times I was brought back by prayer and wise Christian friends.

But on the other hand whole new realms of experience seemed to be flooded with light; I could really begin to feel my way into the minds of others — to grow in sympathy and understanding.

I remember a bishop asking, “Do you love people because you want to convert them, or do you want to convert them because you love them?” I dare not say that I began to love, but at least I began to see how it might be done.


I have said that, with his conversion, Habgood’s life had been changed but not transformed. Now the transformation was beginning to take place. He was taking theology seriously, and this led his faith away from the neatly wrapped answer. Theology was a deliverance from that kind of dogmatism, as it constantly opened up the ultimate questions.

The overwhelming self-assurance of CICCU adherents was beginning to look like smug superiority and bigotry. It is said that people who are capable of setting people free are also good at enslaving them. Is this what was in danger of happening? Had Christ set Habgood free or enslaved him? The “simple gospel” began to look like a fiction. Problems could not be prayed away in a CICCU prayer meeting.

What actually levered him away from the Evangelicalism he had been professing was a Saturday-night Bible-reading where the speaker, a country parson, was talking on “ God the Creator.” Habgood remembers that meeting vividly, and he recorded some notes soon after the meeting:


He was obviously out of his depth, as most of us would be on such a topic; but the disturbing thing was that he showed no signs of realising it. On the contrary, he began discussing contemporary scientific thought in a most arrogant fashion, and finally dismissed the theory of evolution with a joke about Darwin’s personal appearance — “And the man even looked like a monkey.” And the really shattering thing was that the audience laughed — not at him, but with him.

This was Cambridge, a centre of the intellectual life; this was a group of young men, the intellectual elite of Evangelicalism, who were prepared to dismiss staggering problems with a laugh, a pious phrase or a scripture text.

It was a revelation to me. I began to see for the first time the closed mind in operation. It was as though there was a citadel of belief beyond the range of ordinary criticism.


It was too much for Habgood. From that moment he severed his links with the diehards, or lightheads, of the Movement. He could never take them seriously again. Nevertheless, his own experience has always made him sensitive to the claims of Evangelicals, even when he thinks some of their assertive positions are untenable. He also thinks that the Evangelicals of his years — Maurice Wood, Norman Anderson, David Sheppard, John Stott — were not as “ hard” as some of the conservative Evangelicals of today, whose consciences reign on many issues but do not rule.

Moreover, for Habgood, who had something of an air of easy superiority about him, this claustrophobic world of testifying, Bible-study and mutual preening was not good. Spiritual vanity was fostered by the self-imposed isolation of Evangelicals from the general life of the colleges.

The trouble was, they lived too much in one another’s society, and thus lost touch with the larger world and wider Church. Hence their lamentable lack of interest in everything save that which they could bring within the orbit of their distinctive and fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity. In an atmosphere so limited and prejudiced, it was but too easy to develop a conceited and censorious spirit.

Fortunately the nature of Habgood’s own personality saved him from the megalomania of zeal; and his gifts in the scientific sphere prevented spiritual egotism.

The year 1951 was an important one. He received an offer from Professor Adrian to go to Sweden for six months to work with a distinguished scientist, Zotterman. It was an exciting-opportunity for Habgood, but after some thought he declined. His mind was stirring in a different way.


Deeper issues

As too often is the case in Habgood’s type of conversion, it does not lead to a strong commitment to any particular church. He usually attended Holy Trinity, where he eventually served on the Parochial Church Council. But it might as well have been Methodist or Congregationalist. He had little contact with religion at King’s.

Slowly Habgood was discovering the richness of the Church of England outside King’s, Holy Trinity and his Evangelical circles. He became attracted to St Benet’s church, where he often went to pray. This church was staffed by the Franciscans, and it was not long before Brother Michael (later to become Bishop Suffragan of St Germans 1979-85) had a real influence on Habgood.

Another influence was the Vice-Principal of Westcott House, Harry Williams (now a well-known monk with the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield), to whom Habgood was sent. They began with an argument on Charles Simeon and Church order after Williams had lent Habgood a book by Simeon, but the conversation soon slipped beneath the surface to deeper things.

Harry Williams was particularly good for Habgood. He had served in that Anglo-Catholic citadel, All Saints’, Margaret Street, where vesture, gesture and incense were symbols, signs and smells of a dimension of life and worship hitherto unknown to Habgood. The year 1951 was the one in which Habgood decided to go into the ministry. . . What had led up to this decision? Primarily Habgood had discovered people, and secondly he had discovered the Church of England. Science could not fulfill his deepest needs.

Where should he undergo theological training? His older friends wanted him to go to an Evangelical college for his training. His new friends suggested Cuddesdon, and their judgement was right. In an interesting letter written to Major Batt, who was opposed to a Cuddesdon training, Habgood reveals the reasons for his choice:


I suppose why I really want to go to Cuddesdon is because it offers two things: spiritual discipline and intellectual freedom. Spiritual discipline you may feel shy of, but remember that I am setting out on a life’s work. It is not as though I shall have any other job or for one moment shall be able to escape from my spiritual responsibilities or difficulties: it is a frightening prospect.

But surely you would agree that the most practical thing to do before any great task is to pray; it is not “other-worldly” to have a quiet time. I don’t want to undergo two years of rigid spiritual discipline because I hope that the rest of my life is going to be modelled on what I did at college, but precisely because I imagine it is going to be very, very different!

And then, intellectual freedom. Most colleges seem to concentrate rather on formal theology and the dreary business of passing exams. The policy of Cuddesdon seems to be that the exams don’t really matter, but that it is important to read widely according to your own tastes. And that is just what I want. . .

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