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Just John: The authorised biography of John Habgood, Archbishop of York, 1983-1995, by David Wilbourne

01 May 2020

Richard Harries reviews a life of John Habgood by his former chaplain

WHEN Justin Welby went up to Cambridge, he was told by the boatman at the University Boat Club that Etonians came in two kinds: “proper gentleman who I’d trust anywhere or complete bastards”.

John Habgood, like Welby an Etonian, was someone that many rightly trusted through three stormy decades in the life of the Church of England. He had a scientifically trained and acute mind that obtained for him a Fellowship at King’s College, Cambridge; but it was his deep seriousness both about the faith and the issues that faced the Church which, despite much hostility directed to him personally, made him such a highly significant figure in these years.

David Wilbourne, who was Habgood’s chaplain for four years, and whose writing is well known to readers of the Church Times, has written an informative and attractive life of his former boss, which will be essential reading for anyone who wants to understand this turbulent period better. SPCK has produced the book in an attractive format, complete with a golden-thread bookmark.

Cambridge in the 1950s was a place where religion was taken seriously. Many, like Habgood, who was an atheist when he arrived, owed their faith to the Evangelical Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU). It did not take him long, however, to be appalled by some of the things that were being said in the name of the faith, and he wrote a strong refutation of the simplistic fundamentalism that he had come across.

This was typical of his desire to state the truth, however unpalatable it might be to some. Throughout his ministry, his heart would warm to people, but nonsense still had to be exposed for what it was.

PARobert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury (left), with John Habgood, Bishop of Durham, just before the confirmation of the latter’s election as Archbishop of York in 1983

Wilbourne follows Habgood’s career as a theological teacher, ecumenist, writer, and church leader, underlining his key part, for example, in liturgical revision, and especially on the ordination of women.

I was a member of the House of Bishops at its key meeting when Habgood persuaded his colleagues to support a system of special episcopal oversight for those opposed to the ordination of women. The fact that a person of such intelligence and integrity thought that (despite the hurt done to women in the short term) this was the best way forward weighed decisively with us. What I did not know was that John’s much respected and beloved wife, Rosalie, was fiercely opposed to the ordination of women.

Once, at a meeting of women deacons who wished to be priested, Wilbourne recounts, he was asked to go down to the kitchen at Bishopthorpe and ask Rosalie to make 50 cups of tea. When he had to tell her what the meeting was about, her husband having kept her in the dark, she replied: “What? Give them tea? I’d rather give them strychnine!”

When Habgood rose to Robert Runcie’s defence over the issue of who wrote the critical preface to Crockford, which was followed by Gareth Bennett’s suicide, Habgood came in for some odium. As a result of this, Wilbourne suggests, Habgood bent over backwards even further to make opponents of the ordination of women feel included, even to the extent of appointing his arch critic, George Austin, as Archdeacon of York.

To some, Habgood might have appeared cold and aloof, and the silences that Wilbourne experienced for hours in the episcopal car must have been unnerving. In fact, as he brings out, though essentially a private person, Habgood was warm and deeply caring, and chatted with the best of them at parish “dos”, especially with the less glamorous. He was a well-rounded human being, beloved of his family and happily employed in his retirement painting and doing carpentry.

The question inevitably arises whether he should have been appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1980 rather than Robert Runcie, or in 1991 instead of George Carey. Wilbourne shows that there was a clear plot to stop him going to London in 1981, when the supporters of Graham Leonard intervened, but says that there is no evidence available about what really happened in 1980 and 1991.

My own view is that Runcie and Habgood made a very well-balanced team, and Habgood as Archbishop of York for 12 years from 1983 to 1995 probably served the Church best by being the ballast that kept the boat upright and sailing through fierce weather.

I regret that he did not write an autobiography, as it would have been good to know more from the inside about his faith journey; but Wilbourne has given us a warm picture of an estimable human being and a deeply serious Christian.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford. His latest book is Seeing God in Art (SPCK, 2020) (Books, 9 April).


Just John: The authorised biography of John Habgood, Archbishop of York, 1983-1995
David Wilbourne
SPCK £19.99
CT Bookshop special price £16


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