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‘If you feel lonely up in the sky’: John Habgood remembered

07 March 2019

Stewart Kendall/Sportsphoto

Lord Habgood, photographed in 1990

Lord Habgood, photographed in 1990

LORD HABGOOD, the former Archbishop of York who died on Wednesday, aged 91, was converted from a teenage atheism by the Christian Union at Cambridge.

His childhood faith, however, is described in an obituary that will appear in the Church Times next week.

In 1935, at the age of eight, he wrote the following letter to God:

Dear God

If you feel lonely up in the sky would you like to come down and stay with us, you could sleep in the spier-room [sic], and you could bathe with us, and I think you would enjoy yourself.

Love from John

In adult life, Archbishop Habgood’s intellectual approach to faith (he held a science doctorate) could make him seem austere; but many attested to his kindness, humility, and unassuming wit.

Dr John Habgood was ordained in 1954, serving as a curate at St Mary Abbots with Christ Church, Kensington, before becoming Vice-Principal of Westcott House Theological College, Cambridge, and then Rector of Jedburgh. He was Principal of The Queen’s College, Birmingham, until 1973, when he was made Bishop of Durham.

He served there for ten years, until 1983, when he became Archbishop of York, a position he held until 1995.

In 1990, he was passed over when a successor to Robert Runcie was being sought for Canterbury. Archbishop Habgood considered himself to be too old, but was content for his name to go forward. It was rumoured that the Prime Minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher, disliked him, though the confidentiality of the process has prevented any concrete news emerging of what took place. In the end, George Carey was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, and Archbishop Habgood stayed at York.

Following his retirement as Archbishop of York, he was made a life peer in 1995, sitting in the House of Lords until 2011.

Speaking on Thursday, the present Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, described his “towering presence, physical, intellectual, and spiritual. . .

“As a hugely distinguished scientist, theologian and philosopher, Archbishop Habgood’s faith in Christ gave him a particular perspective and a persuasive witness both to Church and nation for his time.

“His many books simplified big and complex questions, revealing an incredibly perceptive intellect. I’m very glad to have confirmed his grandchildren, and dedicated a room in his honour at Bishopthorpe Palace.”

In 1987, the Church Times published extracts from Living with Paradox: John Habgood, Archbishop of York by John S Peart-Binns (Darton, Longman and Todd).

In the first extract, Peart-Binns writes: “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.’

It was this willingness that made Dr Habgood, a firm supporter of women’s ordination, architect of the deal that allowed women to be ordained as priests while preserving the integrity of traditionalists, a condition that had been laid down by concerned parliamentarians. Thanks largely to his efforts, the ordination of women as priests was introduced without the mass exodus that had been threatened.

The second extract describes Habgood’s conversion at Cambridge.


From the archive:

A ‘Passionate Moderate’: Archbishop of York as reconciler and radical (24 April 1987)

From darkness to light: Future archbishop converted through a Cambridge mission (1 May, 1987) 

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