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Bigger platoon at Bishopthorpe

23 April 2021

News of further appointments to the Archbishop of York’s staff has prompted David Wilbourne to recall his time as John Habgood’s chaplain


Bishopthorpe Palace, York

Bishopthorpe Palace, York

VISITING the Archbishop of York’s office at Bishopthorpe recently, I bumped into Mark, who had been apprentice gardener when I was chaplain. “When you were here, there were three of you inside and three of us in t’garden. Now there’s still three of us, but 30 of them!”

Back then in the 1990s, I was Pike; John Habgood was Sergeant Wilson — with a polymath upgrade; our press officer played Captain Mainwaring. A PA and three young women typed myriads of dictated words on patripassianism, while being reprimanded for the shortness of their skirts.

The Archbishop and I (who wore our cassocks long) were resourced by our unsalaried wives: Rosalie Habgood, a skilled pianist/violinist, soothed us with Mozart; my wife, Rachel, a teacher, pioneered church-school visits by children who giggled at Lancelot Blackburn’s portrait — a pirate archbishop.

Our Dad’s Army did not exactly see off the Nazi hordes — although the General Synod had its moments. But, with George Carey new to Lambeth, John deftly piloted the SS Church of England, Paxman, the House of Lords, the Anglican Communion, the World Council of Churches, HM Government — even HM herself.

Office hours stretched beyond 9.30 p.m.: we’d reply by return to a daily mailbag of 30 to 50 letters. I once proposed that clergy work five two-hour sessions a day, which John curtly dismissed with: “Fourteen hours a day for sleeping and eating seems excessive.”

The former Archbishop of York, Cyril Garbett, once said that he faced more impossible problems in his first week as bishop than in 20 years as a high-profile parish priest of Portsea. By the time that problems reached us, if they could have been solved elsewhere they would have been, and so they fell into the category of 49.9 per cent for, 50.1 per cent against. Given such pressure, John inevitably made some wrong calls, such as over the 1987 Crockford preface. Yet the miracle was that he made so many right calls: Alec Graham, then Bishop of Newcastle, claimed that John was right 99 times out of 100.

John was a self-sufficient search engine before the internet’s time. I caught him at his zenith. We woke up and smelt the coffee, appreciating that the age of prince-bishops had long since passed, and with it the right to raise an army, mint coins, and levy taxes.

Instead, we were a lean and mean British square, firing out in all directions, our centre hollow rather than stuffed with advisers to distract us — or, worse, catch us in their crossfire.


OVER the years, there has been much discussion about giving more support to Ebor: to enable him to share the duties of Cantuar:. I felt that this was never a runner without significant constitutional change in the UK and the Anglican Communion. Such job creation carries the danger of an addictive spiral: appointing omniscient principal officers, then their PAs, then juniors, all needing additional office space and HR support.

Dr Sentamu, despite such an enhanced staff, recalled me as an adviser: Bishopthorpe, with no collective memory of the diocese or province, risked making serious blunders. I was a chaplain who knew his Yorkshire. I was also director of ordinands, a post that is now outsourced; so honouring vocation was at the heart of all that we did, thrilled by Christ — lock, stock, and donkey.

But it was all so tight: every minute counted, strictly no talking during the long car journeys; reading, writing, and thinking was the order of the day. Responses had to be made quickly, before the next batch assailed us; so there was no chance to let things simmer and mature. Every few weeks, a media storm would hijack our overpacked agenda. Surely there was another way?

Archbishop Coggan had run a similarly frantic ship, his staff beginning work at 7.30 a.m., even on Boxing Day. Then Stuart Blanch came along, playing tennis rather than dictating letters, bemused by Bishopthorpe’s hyperactivity.

After John came David Hope. We were still lean and mean, and the days were still long (at his prayers by 5.30 a.m., our daily mass at 7 a.m.), but he wore his substantial learning lightly, and there was a more relaxed air, more small talk. He was more like a parish priest, with time to pause and notice the ordinary and extraordinary under our noses.

Archbishop Cosmo Gordon Lang had concluded that his 20 years at York involved an awful lot of doing, but, after all that doing, what had actually been done? Present-day staffing levels, especially with half-shares in Bishop Ineson, ought to allow the new Archbishop to spend more time as Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus: being rather than doing. But just how many Marthas do you need?


The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is an Assistant Bishop in the diocese of York. His book, Just John: The authorised biography of John Habgood, Archbishop of York, 1983-1995, is published by SPCK (Books, 1 May 2020; Podcast, 15 May 2020).

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