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THE RUNCIE YEARS: Undervalued in an abrasive age

1991 January 1
by Paul Vallely

“It is not the work that wears one out; it is the geniality,” Robert Runcie once sighed to one of his staff after a particularly demanding round of ecclesiastical pleasantry. It will, therefore, have been an exhausting month for Dr Runcie. Most days recently seem to have included a ceremony of valediction or an informal round of farewells to the man who retires as Archbishop of Canterbury on Friday.

It has been an eventful term of office which has seen that geniality tested on many occasions. He has had to weather controversies over the introduction of the Alternative Service Book, over Bishop of Durham’s provocative exposition of doctrinal truth, over the Church’s attitude to homosexuality and over the issue of the ordination of women to the priesthood. He has been drawn into further conflict through the prickly relationship which developed between the Church of England under him and the government of Margaret Thatcher. And he has suffered deep remorse at his decision to allow his envoy Terry Waite to make one final trip, four years ago last Sunday, into the labyrinth of Lebanese politics.

Robert Runcie’s response to these years of turmoil has been to stand, like a surprised rabbit caught in a car headlights, transfixed and mesmerised. That, at any rate, is the wisdom received among the chattering classes. So much so that the announcement of his successor, George Carey, at present the Bishop of Bath and Wells, was hailed in The Sunday Times as bringing and end to “the long Runcie years of well-intentioned muddle and fudge”.

The dithering doctor, who seemed to epitomise a Church which in the Eighties was still stuck in a hopelessly outmoded Sixties worldview of social liberalism and welfare state politics, was going. In his place was a younger more forthright man whose emphasis upon personal morality would bring the Anglican faith into line with the realities of the Thatcher revolution and its emphasis upon individual responsibility.

Six months later, however, an altogether more complicated verdict is emerging from members of the Church, even from those whose churchmanship is of a different tradition from that of the outgoing primate.

The Rt Rev Robert Runcie had arrived in Canterbury as its 102nd archbishop with a good wind. His early years seemed marked by success and celebration. He was prominent in the public eye for his role in two happy royal occasions – the 80th birthday of the Queen Mother, at which he gave a delightful sermon, and the wedding of the Prince and Princess of Wales. His envoy Terry Waite had gone to Iran and successfully negotiated the release of a number of British missionaries and Anglican clergy. He met the Pope in Africa and persuaded him to make a historic visit to Canterbury, which was generally accounted a momentous success, despite the ugly anti-papist demonstrations Dr Runcie had to face in Liverpool from hard-line Protestants who could define their faith only in terms of their opposition to the Bishop of Rome.

“In those days I was calling him the lucky Archbishop. Everything he touched seemed to go well for him,” said John Martin, the editor of the Church of England Newspaper. “His early days seemed full of sparkle.”

It was with his sermon after the Falklands War that things began to change. Though he had earlier supported the war as a necessary response to aggression his address afterwards combined thanksgiving with mourning and a plea for Christian reconciliation. In it he said that all war must be accounted an admission of human failure and asked the congregation to remember the Argentinean as well as the British dead.

The notion outraged many in the Conservative Party. It was not a universal reaction there, according to Viscount Whitelaw who had been Dr Runcie’s commanding officer in the Scots Guards during the Second World War in which the future cleric had won a Military Cross for bravery. “I was most incensed by the criticism… I felt that he spoke exactly for me. His words were those of a soldier who understood war…There was no feeling of triumphal revenge in what he said, for he knew that one’s opponents in war are fighting for their country too, and have their wives and families,” the former deputy prime minister has written recently.

But others had hoped for a different kind of ceremony. Dennis Thatcher was reported as having said that the then Prime Minister was “spitting blood” over what was regarded as an unpatriotic attitude. Others later denied there was any bad feeling between Mrs Thatcher and Dr Runcie (and certainly the outgoing archbishop was gracious in his comments to her at his farewell dinner in Downing Street earlier this month) but many Tory backbenchers made no secret of their fury and have never forgiven him.

The rift between certain sections of the Conservative Party and the Church grew wider as the result of a number of other developments. It may have been the contentious doctrinal views of the new Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, which caused consternation among Anglicans in 1984. Those on the Evangelical wing of the Church, who have a more literal view of the truth of Scripture, may have been outraged by his views on the Resurrection. Those on the Anglo-Catholic wing, who set great store by traditional orthodoxy, may have been upset by his rejection of the Virgin Birth. But what really annoyed the Government was the support which Jenkins gave to the Miners’ Strike in his enthronement sermon in which he described Mrs Thatcher’s appointee as chairman of the Coal Board as an “elderly imported American”.

“It was almost as if, because the Labour Party was in such disarray, the Government came to see the Church as the Opposition,” said David Edwards, the Provost of Southwark and a leading Church historian who has just compiled an interesting anthology of tributes to the departing primate, Robert Runcie: A Portrait by his Friends (Fount £5.99).

Relations had deteriorated to an unprecedented low by 1985 when the Church which in previous eras had been caricatured as the Tory Party at Prayer published its response to the Brixton riots, Faith in the City. The report was dismissed even before publication with the leaked comment of one Cabinet minister that it was a “Marxist document” a response which, the Financial Times opined in a leader, was “so intemperate that it simply gives the impression that they are rattled”.

But certain other newspapers henceforth viewed Dr Runcie with suspicion and from this point onwards began to print stories about him which, according to the doyen of religious journalists, Clifford Longley of The Times, were characterised by an “obsessive dislike”.

Dr Runcie’s biographer, Margaret Duggan, claims that “for a considerable while there appeared to be an orchestrated campaign by a number of politicians and certain newspapers to discredit him” culminating in a number of scurrilous reports that his marriage was breaking up. One tabloid even printed a wild report that the Queen and Prime Minister had met to discuss how to get rid of him.

“Some mornings I used to stand outside his study with the press cuttings thinking: How can I go in and show him these,” said Eve Keatley, who was for seven years the archbishop’s press secretary. “But in the event he always accepted them philosophically or even with a wry humour, once saying ‘Some archbishops were hanged, drawn and quartered, one was done to death with mutton bones and it seems my fate is to be done to death by the press’. He never got angry, though sometimes it was clear he was hurt, especially by the stories about his wife.”

The nadir of Robert Runcie’s episcopate was clearly the affair of the Preface to Crockford’s Clerical Directory in 1987. Under cloak of its anonymity a traditionalist Anglo-Catholic cleric attacked Dr Runcie for being a man without firm principles, a mere pragmatist who took the line of least resistance on each issue. He also accused Dr Runcie of stuffing the bench of bishop with cronies from the Liberal wing of the Church, ignoring those from other traditions.

Some in the Church said they recognized a kernel of truth in the accusations made by the author, Dr Gareth Bennett, a Fellow of New College, Oxford. But most rejected the notion and virtually all regretted the embittered, almost sneering tone adopted by Dr Bennett whom they accused in public of a “cowardly and disgraceful attack” and in private of venting frustration at his own lack of preferment. Some days later Dr Bennett took his own life.

The shadow of the accusation lingered. Adrian Hastings, professor of theology at the University of Leeds, in his scholarly biography, Robert Runcie (Mowbray, £15.95), published this month, analyses the background of recently-appointed diocesan bishops and argues that all traditions are represented. And Canon Colin Craston, who has served for many years with Dr Runcie on the body which selects candidates for the bench, the Crown Appointments Commission, has said: “Having shared in three-quarters of the appointments of his time I can testify to his fairness to all traditions.”

But traditional Catholics, like the Ven George Austin, the Archdeacon of York, maintain that at a lower level a disproportionate number of Liberals have been made provosts, deans or suffragan bishops in the Runcie years. “There is no doubt that Catholics feel increasingly alienated,” he said.

Certainly it is true that the past decade has marked a sharpening in the divisions between the three main groups – the Evangelicals, the Catholics and the Liberals – within the Church of England.

The Evangelicals, who emphasize Scripture before all else, are growing stronger after a long period of decline. The Catholics, who stress the heritage which Anglicans trace back to the apostles and who see scripture as part of tradition rather than the fount of it, are dwindling in numbers and influence. The Liberals, who maintain that reason must be allowed to adapt Scripture and tradition to reinterpret the faith for each new generation, are still just the dominant voice in the Church.

Historically the interplay between these approaches was seen as fruitful. “Because no position, no point of view, goes for long unchallenged, so Anglicans tend to be in a permanent state of discomfort and disagreement with one another,” according to Richard Holloway, the Bishop of Edinburgh, who regards the conflict as an inescapable part of theological and spiritual growth.

But the spirit of confrontation which characterised the Eighties began to affect the way these groups dealt with one another. “A growing intolerance has set in. It can be seen in the way people are taking up more entrenched positions in the General Synod,” said George Austin.

One leading Liberal David Jenkins, the Bishop of Durham, agrees:  “It does seem to be a feature of the present times that the way you show you believe something is by shouting slogans and refusing to listen to arguments. But this sort of sectarianism isn’t a sign of deep faith, an inquiring spirituality and a caring humanity but something much more defensive, almost fearful and neurotic.”

Leading Churchmen have a variety of views on the causes of this

increased tension. Some blame the General Synod itself and the next decade is bound to see calls for reform of its structure and style.

“It does seem to have been captured by aping parliamentary procedure and heightening party conflict,” said Dr Jenkins. “It has not been able to recapture that sense of common belonging which goes much deeper than any questions, that sense of staying together to say our prayers and to worship whilst working out our disagreements.”

Dr John Habgood, the Archbishop of York, cites something deeper. “The whole of Britain has been going through a period of considerable social change. There has been a social polarisation which has reflected itself in church circles. When you’ve got divisive issue, like the ordination of women, a lot of other relatively minor issues get sucked into the orbit of the major one. The churchmanship has been sharpened by the issue of the ordination of women.”

“In a period of change people look to religious faith to provide the stability and security which is lacking in other departments of life. You can cope with this in two ways. One way is to say: There is an eternal set of truths, enshrined in prayers and doctrines, and provided we hang on to these one has a certainty unobtainable elsewhere in this changing world.

“The other is to say: We find God precisely in the dynamism of the change; we need not be confused or bewildered because we haven’t got all the answers because in asking the questions we begin to penetrate more deeply into the mystery of Christ.” There is bound to be some tension between those who adopt these widely differing approaches. And the greater the change the more the tension will be.

Robert Runcie’s great achievement, his colleagues are now realising, has been holding the Church together while it works through those problems. “Strong leadership may entail standing up to the extremes and in that respect he has been very strong,” said Dr Habgood.

“He’s had this very real sense of the importance of keeping people together but not dodging the issues. It has cost him a great deal personally. He’s been bombarded from all sides for not taking the right line or being wet and taking no line at all,” said David Jenkins.

“But he’s not been waffling or procrastinating. He’s been creating the space and time within which people can resolve their tensions naturally. I might myself wish that he’d been more decisive and more outspoken on some points but when you look at it over 10 years you can see a consistency of approach which you can respect.”

The Bishop of Durham has been happy to forgo decisions in his pet areas because he knows that decisions will be also be forgone at the other end of the spectrum. Michael Baughen, the Bishop of Chester, a leading evangelical, would have liked “a more prominent emphasis upon the centrality of Christ as Saviour”, a “more explicit lead in evangelism” and a condemnation of the “damaging statements by extreme liberals”. But if Dr Runcie felt he could not provide these Evangelicals were at least “thankful for his holding to the centre of the Faith”.

This encompassing approach, according to Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, has meant that few people within the Church have felt alienated in this period. Dr Runcie’s style gave “every faction a feeling that it was understood and had a part in the process.”

It was a technique which he employed on an international as well as a national level. The tensions within the various churches in the Anglican Communion led many to suppose that it was about to fall apart. What communion could there be between US Episcopalians who were on the point of consecrating women bishops and the hardline English opponents of allowing women even to be priests? How could Anglicans in the Third World be expected to take such matters seriously when their concerns were with more fundamental matters like saving their people from starvation?

Yet by assiduous travel – he visited 22 of the 28 national churches, often several times – he built such bonds of personal warmth and loyalty that the 1988 Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Communion confounded all the critics’ suggestions that it was on the point of collapse. It was a tremendous personal success for Robert Runcie and probably the high point of his archiepiscopate.

But the personal approach had its dangers too. Dr Runcie is renowned for his great gift for “making the person he’s talking to feel that they’re the most important person in the world”. The risk is that after such an intimate audience each individual goes away convinced that the archbishop agrees with them when in fact he has just listened sympathetically. Misapprehensions are, unfortunately, not uncommon.

Monica Furlong, the former Moderator of the Movement for the Ordination of Women, has had such an experience. “He is a lovely man but in the end he makes things harder for himself.”

The problem is only partly temperamental. It also comes from being able to see both sides of the argument and feeling the need to acknowledge that. “He managed to annoy both sides in the homosexuality debate by saying that he believed that homosexuality was not a sin, which the traditionalists didn’t like, but that he thought it was a handicap, which the gays didn’t like,” said David Edwards.

He did something similar in the debate over the ordination of women. After years of consideration he was eventually persuaded that there are no theological impediments to the ordination of women. But he then said that the process should be delayed for fear of splitting the church and hurting opponents.

“His position was feeble on both theological and psychological grounds,” said Monica Furlong. “Psychologically he irritated everyone and yet gave everyone longer to get more entrenched. Theologically it seems very dubious to say that you think something is right but that you’re not going to do anything about it. You have to deal with issues when they come up, if you believe in the action of the Holy Spirit, not when you think it’s historically appropriate. Religion is all about deciding what’s right and then doing it.”

Many of Robert Runcie’s hesitations have their roots, according to his fellow Anglicans, in his sense of theology rather than in his temperament. Ruth Etchells, the former principal of St John’s theological college in Durham, said: “His dominating theology has been that God is a reconciler and that the great task of the Church in an era of fragmentation is to hold together and provide a model.

“That’s why he will often sound woolly – because he’ll refuse to make a simplistic statement which will divide or be adversarial. It’s about managing profound conflict and still holding together – if the church can’t do both it has lost the authority to say anything to society.”

One problem with that, according to John Martin, editor of the Church’s main Evangelical newspaper, is that it has led the archbishop into some fearful complexities in search of the middle ground. “His approach is Aristotelian rather than Hebraic. He likes paradoxes. I recall one sermon about the Anglican virtue being passionate coolness. Passionate Coolness! Some of his statements may be very clever but there are not many crumbs from them for the ordinary person, especially when you compare him with the directness and simplicity of a leader like Cardinal Hume.”

Other churchmen, like John Gummer, who occupies a unique position being both a Cabinet minister and a member of the General Synod, feel that “all too often the Church confuses reconciliation with sentimentality. We’re asked to swallow all manner of things in the name of reconciliation.

“Dr Runcie had the misfortune to be Archbishop at a time when the Prime Minister had set such a standard in clarity of thought. In the era of the sound-byte his style seemed out of place.

Moreover the demands of the Anglican Communion and the Church of England often pulled him in opposing directions. I feel he’d have been able to give a much clearer lead on many issues if he hadn’t had to make everything he said acceptable to two groups which often have such opposing views. It’s been a hard task and I honour him for it. But perhaps the task of the next archbishop should take a different approach.”

Inevitably Dr Runcie suffers by comparison in the eyes of those who chose set him alongside someone with the leadership style of Mrs Thatcher or Pope John Paul II. Both have used their authority to provide an exceptionally strong and unambiguous lead over a wide range of issues.

Robert Runcie sees the attraction of this. In private he has great admiration for the Roman civil service and diplomatic corps, the Curia, his advisers reveal. But he also has no time for the illiberal authoritarianism of the Vatican. When he said he might one day accept the Pope as head of a united church – the only part of his statement which was well-reported – he also added that it would have to be a reformed church far different from the present papal monarchy. In private he has chided Cardinal Ratzinger, the Vatican’s guardian of doctrinal orthodoxy, for Rome’s moves to silence dissident theologians and enforce a new conservatism.

But Dr Runcie sees the danger of contemporary leaders who deal in conviction politics or authoritarian theology. The present pope, as Adrian Hastings notes, has succeeded “in alienating more Catholics than any other modern Pope, not only from him but from the institution of the papacy.” His many attempts to silence dissent have driven many Roman Catholics to question the whole nature of papal authority.

“Refusal to give a simple answer is not always a sin against the Holy Spirit,” concludes David Edwards. “Reality may be complicated.”


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