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22 March 2019

Stewart Kendall/Sportsphoto

Lord Habgood, photographed in 1990

Lord Habgood, photographed in 1990

Andrew Brown writes:

THE Rt Revd Lord Habgood (Gazette, 15 March) was one of the Christians I met professionally for whom I felt real admiration and affection. His most attractive quality was a sort of courage or integrity rare in my experience of bishops, or for that matter of intellectuals: he sought truth with honest devotion, and, when he had found it, did what he had concluded was right. This is a temperament normally praised in rebels, but he wasn’t one. He called himself “a conservative liberal”, and that seemed fair. He wanted to preserve as much as possible of the old order as was compatible with truth.

He told the Synod once that an idea that he was proposing had come to him in his bath in the Athenaeum, and he did so as if this might happen to anyone in the chamber.

The first time I went to interview him, I asked him, knowing nothing of protocol, why any intelligent and educated person should be a Christian. Those weren’t my exact words, but we both knew what I meant: how could he believe all that stuff? How could he, a trained scientist, claim to know all the things which the creeds asserted?

He didn’t take the question as a trick, and it wasn’t meant as one either. I was new in the job and I wanted to know that I wasn’t wasting my life among idiots. It was a motivation with which he would have sympathised. I think he was interested by the question, too. In any case, he answered seriously, without waffle or jargon, and in terms of the philosophy of science rather than theology.

He made particular reference to Karl Polanyi, and one of the things that I treasure about the memory is that he wanted me to read him. He wasn’t using the name as a bludgeon to show that he was a qualified intellectual. He just wanted to spread the love, as his grandchildren might have said.

So I remember him as shy, decent, and kindly: the qualities least like the image spread of him by his enemies. It was a very horrible shock to hear that a man for whom thought meant so much, and who made such good use of it, had been killed in the end by Alzheimer’s disease.

The Revd Dr David L. Gosling adds: John Habgood’s first major contribution to the World Council of Churches (WCC) was in 1979 at the Faith, Science, and the Future conference held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He preached at the main Sunday service and contributed to plenary sessions dealing with nuclear power and molecular genetics. Shortly afterwards, at the Vancouver Assembly, he was elected a member of the WCC Central (or governing body) Com­mittee. In 1984, after my own appointment as director of the sub-unit on Church and Society, he became our Moderator, continuing until shortly after I had left five years later.

During those years, John earned the respect of the various WCC constituencies for his meticulous commitment to complex scientific and ethical issues. His realism during Central Committee discussions was not always welcome, but he could stop an impassioned debate by asking the most simple question; one such was “What happens when the poor become rich?” Major church leaders such as Archbishop (now Patriarch) Kirill and US Presiding Bishop Edmund Browning treated his views with the utmost seriousness.

The funding for my own programme came from the German churches, which made no bones about the fact that their confidence in our work was largely based on John’s active participation. We held conferences in Brazil, Argentina, East Germany (as it then was), Russia (at Tambov, south of Moscow), and many other places.

Often travelling with John I came to know him as a shy but warm and deeply caring man with a quixotic sense of humour. I will not forget the look of rapture on his face when a waiter in a restaurant in Buenos Aires served him a huge “knicker­bocker glory”.

In addition to holding ecumenical conferences, our sub-unit was expected to respond to topical science-related issues such as the Chernobyl and Bhopal disasters. Sometimes we referred these to members of our advisory committee, and then to John, who helped to make a statement for the General Secretary (Emilio Castro for most of my time at the WCC). These sessions could be very contentious, as when a representative of Union Carbide stormed out of a meeting after the Bhopal disaster.

At the beginning of the AIDS pandemic, the World Health Organization and the US Episcopal Church approached the WCC with a request to help understand why some conservative churches were blocking funds for AIDS-related research on the grounds that AIDS is God’s judgement on homosexuals. After a consultation — the first ecumenical and international of its kind — we raised the issue at the WCC Executive, after which John presented a series of recommendations for the Central Committee’s approval. They were:

  1. That AIDS is a virus;
  2. That the churches must rediscover their ministry to the sick and dying;
  3. That the rights of people with AIDS must be protected;
  4. That there must be education for prevention.

The recommendations were passed unanimously, but some of the General Secretariat were so unhappy that they blocked their dissemination. We therefore leaked them in French through sources in Paris.

One of John Habgood’s regular visits to Geneva was almost cancelled because York Minster was hit by lightning the previous day, shortly after the controversial David Jenkins had been consecrated as Bishop of Durham. John had been up half the night helping to put out the fire only to find, on arriving in Geneva, that his luggage had disappeared en route. But the Press were relentless. “Was the lightning an Act of God?” “Look”, replied an exhausted John, “in addition to the lightning, my luggage has disappeared”, and, glowering at a rapidly retreating reporter, “that’s neither more nor less an Act of God than the lightning.”

Canon Andrew Warner adds: Canon Rachel Mann’s article “Big-tent Lent” (Features, 8 March) reminded me of being told once that really great preachers were able “to make anything mean anything else”. Certainly I remember the late John Habgood, when he was Vice-Principal at Westcott House, demythologising the items on his mantelpiece at the end of a tutorial, and concluding that “There must be dogs in heaven”!

The memorial service for Lord Habgood will be held in York Minster on 27 June.

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