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Platinum Jubilee: Archbishops of England during the Queen’s reign

27 May 2022

The observations of the Church Times on the Archbishops of Canterbury since 1952, selected by Glyn Paflin

Central Press Photos

Michael Ramsey, then Bishop of Durham, stands at the Queen’s right hand as Prince Philip pays homage during the Coronation service

Michael Ramsey, then Bishop of Durham, stands at the Queen’s right hand as Prince Philip pays homage during the Coronation service

Geoffrey Fisher (Canterbury 1945-61)

IT IS a memorable Primacy which will come to an end with the month of May. Geoffrey Francis Fisher has fully earned his place in history, in the long series of the successors of St Augustine, as an Archbishop of Canterbury who, by supreme natural gifts consecrated to Christ and his Church, has deserved well indeed of the Church of England, of the whole Anglican Communion, and of Christendom through all its variegated and disparate parts.

Happily the task of the commentator is the reverse of Mark Antony’s. The Church this week has not to bury Dr Fisher, but to praise him, with the hope that many years yet remain to him for the service of Church and State, albeit in a more private capacity than for long past. Nor is it hard to praise so brilliant and so humble a man. Though lacking some of the unique qualities of his predecessor (such as Temple’s devotional scholarship, his fantastic literary output, his prophetic zeal for social causes and his undisputed leadership of Christian opinion), Dr Fisher has nonetheless made his own different contribution to the life of the Church.

To say that his main strength has been in administration is not in any sense derogatory. The times, after the chaos of war, called for an administrative ability amounting to genius, and this Dr Fisher has shown in ample measure, in the reconstruction of the Church’s law and machinery of government: moreover his spontaneous warmth and geniality have imparted a special character to his administrative achievement.

Picture ServicesThe Duke of Edinburgh and Archbishop Fisher at the Royal Festival Hall for a concert in aid of the Duke’s award scheme, 1961

He has shown the truth of his own contention, that good government and administration are themselves essentially pastoral in character. Thanks to his herculean labours (there was never an Archbishop who did more sheer hard work), the Church of England has been put into a position where it has been given the tools to do its essential job.

Nor is it the Church of England alone which has cause for gratitude to the Archbishop. He has done wonders for the cohesion of the whole Anglican Communion, by his loving oversight of its affairs, and by his personal interest in all its parts and provinces.

His is a name to conjure with among Anglicans, from Ottawa to Adelaide, from the Arctic to the Cape. As if this was not enough, Dr Fisher has also laboured ceaselessly for Christian unity as a whole. By a deliberate and sustained policy, he has actively pursued those “courtesies of the Kingdom”, on which progress towards unity must depend. In this mission, of which his recent journey is the most dramatic expression, he has outstripped all his predecessors. It is as an apostle of unity, the true unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, that he will be best and most thankfully remembered by generations to come.

Dr Fisher has always had a flair for timing, and this has been brilliantly exemplified in his decision to resign now. For both in his passionate pursuit of unity and in his administrative reform of the Church, he has now brought matters to a point where a new and striking advance should be possible. And this requires a new leader

News summary, 20 January 1961

Michael Ramsey (York 1956-61; Canterbury 1961-74)

THE retirement this week of Arthur Michael Ramsey from the Primacy of All England has justly elicited a flood of tributes both to his personality and to the way in which he has performed the manifold duties of an office as arduous as any in the land. To those well-deserved tributes the Church Times wishes to add its own emphatic expression of appreciation and gratitude for a primacy of unquestionably high quality. It is right that attention should chiefly fasten on the personal qualities which the Archbishop of Canterbury has displayed to the Church and to the world on what the very nature of his office in modern times has inevitably made a public stage. The Church thanks God for having found, in the one hundredth Archbishop, a rare combination of kindliness and firmness, approachability and proper dignity, singleminded simplicity in the essentials of faith and a shrewdness of practical judgment which outward impressions of “otherworldliness ” might temporarily conceal but could never in fact belie. Added to all these qualities has been a deeply Christian compassion.

The last thirteen years have not been an easy time for the Church of England. This is a fact which in all fairness must be remembered when any attempt is made to strike a balance-sheet of the achievements and disappointments of the primacy now ended. A final judgment must await the verdict of future historians. But this week’s occasion calls nonetheless for some immediate praise for notable achievements, as well as for sympathy with obvious disappointments. Among Dr Ramsey’s best achievements has been his gentle but firm insistence on the absolute priority of theological truth and personal holiness, both for the Church as a whole and for the individual Christian. It is this insistence which has distinguished his approach to all the problems of ecumenical Christian relations — an approach crowned with equal success in his historic encounter with Roman Catholicism and in his continuance of the greatest friendliness with the Free Churches. Tribute is also due to this Archbishop’s proven sensitivity to the need for change and adaptability in the Church’s ordering of its life, in such fields as liturgy, Synodical government and the deployment of the clergy. Above all, Dr Ramsey has taught the Church what it means to be sorrowful yet always rejoicing.

There have been disappointments as well. No Primate is perfect, and in any event the times have been such as to mean that Christian success in some fields has been difficult if not impossible of attainment. What the Archbishop admits to be the “terrible decline” in family morality has been allowed to pass without clear-cut rebuke by the Church. The full potentiality of the Establishment, the Church prophesying the word of the Lord to the nation, may not have been realised. The evangelistic impact of a Church weakened by declining numbers has been often disappointing. There has been little obvious Christian advance. But these things are not fairly to be laid at the door of any single Church leader. Dr Ramsey goes into retirement accompanied by innumerable thanks for his past services, with universal good wishes for some rest from his great labours, and with the hope that he may fulfil his ambition of writing a crowning theological work, in terms understanded of the people, to renew the power of the Holy Spirit in the Bible and the Church and to restore the central truth of the person of Christ as Lord and God Incarnate.

Leader comment, 15 November 1974

Donald Coggan (York 1961-74; Canterbury 1974-80)

AS HE retires, it may be thought enough —it would certainly be easiest — simply to thank the 101st Archbishop of Canterbury for all that he said, did and was during the five years which his age allowed to him in the Primacy of All England. Those who have observed his work closely are, I find, agreed on its many merits. His goodness shines out straightforwardly; and in no age, least of all our own, is it unhelpful to be a good man. He has been tirelessly hardworking — supporting his fellow-bishops in endless details, but also finding time to visit and encourage many good causes in this country and overseas; and on top of all this somehow finding time during weekends to be available to his own diocese in Kent. “He is the opposite of self-indulgent,” one senior bishop has told me. One obvious truth is that during his time the Church of England has had two for the price of one. Jean Coggan is a spiritual leader in her own right. . .

PAThe Queen walks with Archbishop Coggan into Lambeth Palace at the end of her Silver Jubilee River Progress from Greenwich in 1977

What is likely to mar Dr Coggan’s reputation is not his actual failure to include in a consensus a conservatism more extreme than his own, but his apparent habit of underestimating the difficulties. The complaint is heard that, confident of his own judgment, he has not really consulted either his fellow bishops or the officials of the Church of England’s central councils. The criticism is made that he has disregarded warning signs.

The most public example came in Rome. Subtle work in Anglican-Roman Catholic relations has been done by the international commission of theologians. Optimists have hoped for the papal recognition of Anglican orders, on a par with the Orthodox. Appearing in Rome, the very centre of sophisticated diplomacy and of the delicate analysis of the status of schismatics, Dr Coggan took the experts by surprise by urging intercommunion in the near future. For good measure he added that the Vatican’s rules were already being disregarded — and repeated his plea in Westminster Cathedral.

My impression is that many who are aware of the severity of the problems facing the Church in our time have ceased to give their attention to this archbishop’s official statements, however much they like and admire him personally. . .

“Five years’ hard labour”, article by David L. Edwards, 18 January 1980

Robert Runcie (Canterbury 1980-91)

PAArchbishop Runcie and the Queen at a Commonwealth Day reception, with the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Sir Shridath Ramphal, in 1988

IT IS FITTING that one of Robert Runcie’s last aphorisms as Archbishop should have been in defence of tolerance. It is a virtue that he has himself bravely typified. He has understood that Anglicanism gathers up many strands of belief and allows none of them pre-eminence. His brand of liberalism has protected that comprehensiveness. The most unfair suggestion made about him during his time was that in so far as he was a liberal he was without fixed principles. The fact was quite otherwise. It was precisely his liberalism that was principled, because it insisted on equal rights for both orthodoxy and radicalism.

As an Archbishop must, he has ranged widely. At home, he has addressed one of the problems that mattered most: the puzzling inequity in the way opportunity is shared. The inquiry that produced Faith in the City was a high-minded enterprise determinedly carried through. The Church Urban Fund, its child, is already a success beyond many expectations. Both these things depended on the Archbishop’s steady support. Abroad, his attentiveness to Anglicans in provinces far from Canterbury has furnished a human reason why Canterbury should still be seen as a focus for the Anglican Communion. The 1988 Lambeth Conference crowned him with deserved affection.

He has had his setbacks. Ecumenical advance was limited by the regime in the Vatican. Charity towards the divorced who hoped to remarry in church was out of tune with the times. The abiding shadow, it need hardly be said, over his last four years at Lambeth has been Terry Waite’s detention in the Lebanon; and now even that sorrow has been overwhelmed by the deeper shadow of the war in the Gulf. But Robert Runcie has understood war. He said some of the things that needed to be said about it eight-and-a-half years ago, at the end of the Falklands campaign. “War has always been detestable. . . It is impossible to be a Christian and not to long for peace. . . War is a sign of human failure. . . The great nations continue to channel their agencies into perfecting weapons of destruction. . . In the most heavily armed area, the Middle East, every day seems to bring fresh bad news of man’s willingness to resort to the irrational and the intolerable in pursuit of his territorial and ideological ambitions.” This clear-sightedness has not always been welcome, but it has been right. A judicious and graceful man of God, Robert Runcie takes the gratitude of millions with him into the next stage of his life.

George Carey (1991-2002)

AlamyArchbishop Carey with the Queen in the grounds of Lambeth Palace in June 2002

WE MUST acknowledge that at the centre of Dr Carey’s time in office lies a disappointment. Whether he feels it himself we cannot know, but I have sometimes suspected that he does. It is this: that a man, young in church terms, deliberately chosen out of the brash, confident, outgoing section of the Church to broaden its appeal and attract new Christians, should somehow fail to do so. The so-called Decade of Evangelism, putting it kindly, was not the success it was hoped to be. Like a damp Millennium rocket, it failed to ignite, however long Dr Carey held his lighter to it.

In considering the reasons for this, we get to the heart of some of the paradoxes that surround the Archbishop. The Church of England seems to specialise in socially mobile archbishops. George, the working-class boy from Dagenham, followed Robert, the working-class boy from Liverpool. This is commendable; but the Church is not yet a place where you attain high office without travelling a certain distance, and Dr Carey had to travel further and faster than most. . .

Dr Carey’s concern for the Church . . . [was] a relatively unusual preoccupation in an Evangelical of his era. . . So, on a visit to a Charismatic conference during his first year at Lambeth Palace, he appeared to be profoundly uncomfortable. Hundreds of free spirits were waving their arms in the air, but the man who had been touched by the Holy Spirit in the Toronto hotel room stood stiffly to attention, arms by his side, deciding, rightly but sadly, that the office of Archbishop was not ready for such displays. The man who had been used to challenging his theological students with slightly provocative remarks found himself biting his tongue in case he said something to annoy one church constituency or another, or provoke the press into another scornful attack. A wise approach, but another suppression.

The pruning of George Carey by George Carey has been painful to watch, not made any easier by the knowledge that the George Carey who came to his cathedra at Canterbury was already a complex hybrid, bred to flourish in the church hothouse. Unfortunately, this has made him permanently uncomfortable in the secular, public world. Not very uncomfortable, perhaps, except in front of the media, but enough to make mutual understanding an uphill task. Someone recently compared him with a missionary returning to this country on furlough, inclined to be kindly but confused and dismayed by changes to society while he’s been away.

There are two approaches to evangelism. The first is to persuade people to come to church and benefit from the challenge and grace on offer there. This was largely the mindset of the Decade of Evangelism, and it is the approach that Christians generally feel comfortable with. The other is the Christianising of society, and this is a much riskier enterprise. It involves negotiating with sympathetic non-Christian forces in the world, and the end result is uncertain. During the past decade, and particularly since the advent of Tony Blair, this has been the area of most opportunity for the Church. Dr Carey has not been effective here, apart from the notable exception of his relations with other faiths. . .

So, where has Dr Carey been most at home in his time in office? . . Dr Carey has expressed no wish to run a church (small c), but he, too, will flourish away from the public eye. This has been the case throughout his time at Lambeth. Each year he has made space in his diary to conduct parish and diocesan missions, not because there was nobody else to do them, but because he enjoyed them. They were times of renewal for him, when he could associate with ordinary people, communicating the gospel without the need to impress. On these missions he showed himself to be amenable, practical and unconcerned about dignity — another indication that the burden of high office has been uncongenial. The stresses placed upon an Archbishop of Canterbury could hardly be otherwise, and one of the gifts he has bequeathed his successor is a review of the office of Archbishop, which will hopefully lead to reform.

“Missionary traveller who held us together”, article by Paul Handley, 25 October 2002

Rowan Williams (2002-12)

AlamyThe Queen, with the Duke of Edinburgh, receives a copy of the loyal address from Dr Rowan Williams on the Diamond Jubilee in 2012

WHEN an Archbishop stakes his reputation on a particular initiative, he deserves to be judged by its success or failure. In this instance, it was an issue that many Anglicans paid lip-service to, but had failed to absorb into their Christian identity. In the initial stages, the project was widely commended as filling an obvious gap in Anglican ecclesiology; but as its practical application became known, with its uneasy combination of liberalism and coercion, resistance to it began to grow. And, of course, it left the secular world largely indifferent. It is hard, then, to judge Archbishop George Carey without reflecting on the ineffectiveness of the Decade of Evangelism.

Church commentators have short memories when it comes to judging the leadership styles of archbishops.

The second lesson at evensong on Tuesday was from St John’s Gospel: “And the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” Reading and listening to some of the comments about Dr Rowan Williams during the past week, we have wondered which Church people think he belongs to. The Archbishop’s leadership has been analysed, weighed, and generally found wanting without any reference to those whom he attempted to lead. One analysis judges that it was the imminent rejection of the Anglican Covenant by a majority of the English dioceses that precipitated Dr Williams’s move. The probable outcome of this weekend’s votes will be significant, but it is not a consequence of anything Dr Williams has done or said. The Covenant was rejected by the conservatives long before the liberals had had their say, but its failure, if it comes, will be because of something more fundamental: the centuries-old Anglican — and especially English — dislike of being told what to do by foreigners. Shown a vision of Catholic unity based on obedience to a body or an individual, the Protestant genes within the typical Anglican are activated.

Had Dr Williams been prepared to leave this centrifugal tendency unchallenged, had he indulged his liberal sympathies, had he not made endless attempts to get opponents to understand each other, had he associated himself with US Episcopalians as his predecessor did, had he once expressed his irritation at the many ill-thought-out arguments and ill-judged positions he encountered, then the extraordinary criticism by the Archbishop of Nigeria that the divisions in the Communion “might not have been entirely his own making” might hold water. But Dr Williams has battled hard to keep the Communion together, to the extent that he lost the friendship of his natural allies, never securing the respect of the more extreme conservatives. It is unfair to judge Dr Williams on such a short timescale, but at least judge him correctly: not by comparing the state of the Communion when he took office and now, but by reflecting on how much more divided, in these uncompromising times, the Communion might now be without him.

Leader comment, 23 March 2012

Justin Welby (since 2012)

AlamyArchbishop Justin Welby after his act of homage to the Queen on his translation to Canterbury in 2013


York’s other Primates of England

Cyril Garbett (1942-55)

Stuart Blanch (1973-85)

John Habgood (1983-95)



David Hope (1995-2005)

John Sentamu (2005-2020)

Roger HarrisRoger Harris

Stephen Cottrell (since 2020)

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