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Travels with a Primate: Around the world with Robert Runcie, by Terry Waite

29 March 2019

The Communion’s past is a foreign country, says Graham James

WHEN it was announced in 1986 that I would be the next Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury, some people were less impressed that I would be working with Robert Runcie than that I would be a colleague of Terry Waite.

Terry had a fame all his own, initially the result of his courageous work in securing the release of three Anglican missionaries from Iran in the early days of the Islamic revolution. He became known as the Archbishop’s Special Envoy in the media of the time, but once I arrived at Lambeth in 1987, Waite was himself a hostage. So I never did travel with him alongside the Primate.

This new edition of Travels with a Primate is published, as the introduction puts it, just as “many of Robert Runcie’s former students from his days as principal of Cuddesdon are now approaching retirement”. Runcie is recalled here with a lightness of style and good humour which never obscure the serious purposes for which Archbishops of Canterbury visit other parts of the world. At the 1988 Lambeth Conference, many of the bishops already knew the Archbishop of Canterbury. He had visited them in their home dioceses and Provinces. Even when his staff were exhausted, Runcie always seemed ready for another engagement.

Waite frequently describes Robert Runcie as a “liberal”. He had a liberal spirit, certainly, but he was no radical reformer of institutions, but loyally worked within them, whether the Scots Guards or the Church of England. Hence it was surprising that during the Thatcher years he became a focus of dissent, notably as a result of the response to his Falklands War sermon or the publication of Faith in the City.

PATerry Waite with Archbishop Robert Runcie in 1986

Visits to the Anglican Communion were then occasions when the Archbishop could enjoy a level of popularity and veneration which he was unlikely to be given in England. In Nigeria, many thousands greeted Runcie. Effigies of the Primate were on display in the streets. Balloons were sold with the tagline “Blow up the Archbishop of Canterbury”. That now seems like a premonition of attempts to undermine his successors.

The Anglican Communion, once described by Archbishop Desmond Tutu as “untidy but very lovable” has not become tidier and, sadly, inspires less affection. This book reads like a chronicle of a different age, one that seems from our present perspective more straightforward, though it did not seem so at the time. Travels with a Primate also illustrates vividly why one of Runcie’s successors, Rowan Williams, said that an Archbishop of Canterbury needed “the hide of a rhinoceros and the constitution of an ox”.

The Rt Revd Graham James is a former Bishop of Norwich.

Travels with a Primate: Around the world with Robert Runcie
Terry Waite
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