Robbie Low has read the ecclesiastical biography of the year and discovered nothing which surprises him in the least
HAT A MONTH it has been in the publishing world! George Austin, one of the more notable victims of Runcieism, wrote an extraordinarily charitable review of the great man. He was immediately called “grotesque” by Anthony Howard, political consultant to the chattering classes and no oil painting himself. Yet it was Howard, who got Runcie to admit the central charge against him that he had set out to create a liberal elite – “cronyism”.
A.N. Wilson, former ordinand and biographer, labelled Carpenter as a dirty, smelly, dandruffed scribbler of poor quality in an article, the personal viciousness of which led one to doubt the mental stability of the author. Wilson, it turned out, who had left his wife and his faith at about the same time, had not recovered from his cranky biography of Jesus being critically reviewed by Carpenter.
Meanwhile Clifford Longley, religious consultant to Prince Charles and one time savager of the Church of England, was busily lauding Runcie who had apparently once paid Longley, a maverick leftfooter, the ultimate compliment of saying he was “almost an Anglican”.
Ah! the inclusivity of the club! But, as the saying goes apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?
It will not take the reader more than a few pages to grasp that this is not, in any conventional sense, a biography. It is reminiscence and confession into a tape recorder. It is in many ways a lazy book. Facts are often checked against Margaret Duggan’s earlier biography or simply borrowed therefrom to fill in the perplexing gaps in the Archbishop’s memory of his personal history.
And someone should buy Humphrey an up to date Crockfords – e.g. the great and inspirational Peter Moore is no longer Dean of St. Albans – he retired in 1993 and another dignitary, listed as a Cambridge don, has surpassed even their acceptable limits of torpor and inactivity by being dead for several years.
Strangely, these shortcomings do little or nothing to detract from the power and importance of the book. Here is Runcie, in his own words and in the words of his friends and beneficiaries. The alacrity with which these latter have formed an ad hoc “Save Our Bob” committee and sprung into print to condemn the book needs to be set against this overwhelming fact.
Carpenter allowed Runcie to cut out ten per cent of the book and write a postscript disclaimer, while most of the last chapter is given over to Runcie’s friends correcting Carpenters “erroneous” picture. It is difficult to see how you can be fairer than that.
Opponents and victims of Runcieism are permitted as their spokesmen only the perceptive and prophetic voice of the long dead Gary Bennett and a measured and not uncharitable reflection by Bishop Graham Leonard – now an R.C. – neither of whom are now overly concerned with the future of the Church of England.
And who could Carpenter have asked? For, on reflection, so “successful” has Runcieism been that there is now scarcely a handful of major office holders who were ever actively opposed to that liberal scepticism and cronyism which he carelessly and insistently reveals as the hallmarks of his career. It is a great irony that he and Mrs. Thatcher were in power at the same time. Both operated a “one of us” policy of appointments and while Thatcher’s was clearly bent toward realising a political vision, whatever one’s judgement of it, Runcie appears to have no vision other than a Cuddesdon reunion on the episcopal bench.
What do we learn about the man who led the Church of England for a critical decade?
Various friends agonize about the agonized state of his spirituality but there are several indicative moments.
James, his son, describes family life as “voluntary religion and compulsory music”. Runcie himself says he never taught James any prayers but preferred to have him pick up an atmosphere of church while dad was “polishing the chalice or counting wafers.”
There is a touching and profoundly sad moment when, talking of his dying unbelieving father, Runcie says that he does not speak to him about church. “It would have been unthinkable on my part – I would have loved him too much to mention it.”
He later rejoices at having discovered the “high-church modernist” position which “showed me that you can be unbelieving, incredulous and still a good Anglo-Catholic” and “a way in which I could hold together fundamental scepticism and religious devotion”!
It is all about church. The only person in this book who mentions Jesus is the Pope!
There is much on the marriage which, Carpenter finds, is now fundamentally very strong. But it is abundantly clear that, not only does the ebullient Lindy, an astrology fan, call the shots but she is also in a state of permanent and immature rebellion against some caricature of a priest’s wife for which she clearly has no vocation. It is fascinating to see how many of the Runcie set are married to strong women for whom their cloistered bachelor days provided no preparation and how easily their consequent feelings of guilt and inadequacy were rolled over by the bandwagon of feminism.
Of Runcie’s own sexuality, this issue of homosexuality reverberates like a steady drum beat but the question is never really answered. He is influenced and surrounded by some of the most promiscuous of them but affects not to notice. He goes to “clubs” with his army chums and while they wench, he remains on the bar stool – a fact of which he seems slightly ashamed. According to one friend he flirts with everyone and according to Lindy he is not interested in any of them.
His great triumph is to float effortlessly up the class ladder via Oxford and the Scots Guards from humble origins. Lady Elizabeth Cavendish remarks “He struck me as a perfectly charming Guards officer. I wasn’t aware of his being a grammar school boy. The thing that surprised me was that he went into the church”. Runcie himself tells us that he went to train for the priesthood because, he said to himself, “it’s the easiest thing to do. I can always get out of it”.
When Runcie is put in charge of training priests at Cuddesdon, he surrounds himself with young men, fresh out of college, with even less experience than him. This is explained by David Stancliffe, Bishop of Salisbury, thus, “Most people of middle age and beyond have not remained in touch with the academic subjects to the required level. People coming out of college aren’t sullied by the disillusionment of unfruitful parochial experience…..”
Most Runcie protégés, Stancliffe included, have had as little “disillusionment” as possible. It is a devastating insight into the Runcieite view of parish life, priestly wisdom and experience.
We learn that Runcie presided over the Royal wedding while well aware that one partner probably had little intention of committing monogamy. Those not angered by the establishment deception of the nation have been infuriated by a breach of confidence which would surely have provoked discipline of any other professional from its governing body.
Throughout the book, with alarming regularity, Runcie drops into impersonations of people with a kind of amused detachment. Those who rejoiced at his elevation because of his supposed catholic orthodoxy will, at the end of this volume be wondering whether this wasn’t just another voice and set of clothes.
(He claims never to have doubted that women could be ordained and, guessing that only 50 priests would resign, is, apparently, astonished at the consequence of the result after all the preparation put in by him and his friends.)
He displays a deep suspicion and dislike of religious conviction at every turn. Even his Cell Group – “a small self-electing group” whose members “tended to be or become bishops” seems to have been less of a spiritual support group than a thinly disguised preferment bureau.
Those who were critical of the Runcie years and were subsequently treated as liars and pariahs are fully vindicated by this book. I hope every single Anglican will read it. They will then know, incidentally, why the Prince of Wales might be forgiven for giving up on the Church of England. (Runcie’s central charge against him).
They will also know, more importantly and tragically, why the Church of England has missed out on two generations of godly leadership by experienced and committed priests whose convictions disqualified them from high office. And finally, why nothing short of a complete revolution in the appointments system will stop this desperate rot and return the Church of England to the nation. Humphrey Carpenter deserves a medal.
Robert Runcie – The Reluctant Archbishop
Hodder and Stoughton p.401 £20.00 ISBN 0-340-57107-11445
Robbie Low is Vicar of St. Peter’s, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St. Alban’s