In the second of a series to mark the tenth anniversary of the Preface
George Austin considers the vexed question of Cronyism

IN A REVEALING throwaway line to his biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, Archbishop Robert Runcie describes how as Bishop of St Albans he appointed Nicholas Coulton as his first Mr Slope. Coulton had been one his students when Principal of Cuddesdon. ‘It was’, admitted Runcie, ‘the first example of my cronyism.’ He followed this pattern throughout his tenure at St Alban’s, where on only the rarest of occasions was an appointment made from within the diocese, even to major livings. When I became Vicar of Bushey Heath, it was in fact his first parochial appointment well in hand before he arrived. Had it not been, it is unlikely that I would even have been considered, being without a doubt not ‘the right sort of chap.’ At the induction he asked of my former ex-army officer/solicitor churchwarden, with more than a little incredulity in his tone, ‘How ever do you think George will get on the gin-and-jag belt?’ It was itself a total misjudgement of Bushey Heath, if maybe not of me.

The ‘right sort of chaps’ for Runcie to bring to St Albans were men like Bob Hardy, Peter Mumford, Christopher Mayfield, Kenneth Jennings, Trevor Beeson, and the Hon Hugh Dickenson who became bishops of Lincoln, Truro and Manchester and deans of Gloucester, Winchester and Salisbury in the early years of Runcie’s primacy. It was always something of a mystery why his closest adviser in St Alban’s, Canon Eric James, was always passed over for preferment after Runcie went to Canterbury. Cambridge graduate, sometime chaplain of Trinity College, leftwards politically, could it be that Erie James had one major drawback – a Bermondsey upbringing that certainly did not include a public school education?

Others who became bishops in the years before the fateful 1987 when Garry Bennett revealed all were men like Westwood at Peterborough, Barrington-Ward at Coventry, Adie at Guildford, Nott at Norwich, Santer at Birmingham, all Oxbridge and Westcott; and James at Winchester, Thompson at Exeter, Goodrich at Worcester, Dennis at St Edmundbury and Ipswich, Bavin at Portsmouth and Harries at Oxford, all Oxbridge and Cuddesdon. Harries and Nott had the additional accolade of graduating from Sandhurst. What more could one want for high office in the Church of God than a public school education, an Oxbridge degree, a Westcott/Cuddesdon theological training and Sandhurst?

It is little wonder that Bennett could speak of Runcie in the Preface in these terms that were to bring the fury of the liberal establishment on his head:

His clear preference is for men of liberal disposition with a moderately Catholic style that is not taken to the point of having firm principles. If in addition they have a good appearance and are articulate over the media he is prepared to overlook a certain theological deficiency. Dr Runcie and his closest associates are men who have nothing to prevent them following what they think is the wish of the majority of the moment.

In those early years of the Runcie primacy, I had begin to examine appointments and had come to the uneasy conclusion that the comprehensiveness of the Church of England had begun quite deliberately to be compromised. Later I discovered that Canon Michael Saward, a good friend but from a very different church background, had been doing a similar exercise with the same conclusion. I had always valued the broad church character of Anglicanism with its recognition that as we deal with mysteries of God we cannot expect full understanding and clear knowledge. There are (or were!) boundaries beyond which we should not stray in our belief, but at the same time a readiness to agree to disagree on quite major issues yet within theological limits defined by holy scripture.

Anglicanism was, it seemed to me, like a triangle, with the liberal, the evangelical and the catholic at its extreme points and most of its members somewhere in the middle, veering perhaps to one or other of those three points of the triangle. What Runcie seemed to have done was to imagine it to be not a triangle but a straight line, with the catholic and the evangelical at each end and the liberal, the moderate, in the middle. Always uneasy with conviction, Runcie had attempted to meet what he saw as a general desire for moderation rather than extremism and had endeavoured to translate this into the Church’s leadership through men he knew fitted the bill. In doing so he totally overlooked the fact that liberalism could be as much a fundamentalist and excluding as any of the other trends

within the Church. Indeed, as we have learnt to our cost in the years since the Runcie decade, no-one’s mind is more closed than that of the open-minded liberal.

I spoke to that effect in the General Synod debate on the Crockford Preface, discounting my first impression that what had happened was simply nepotism. Only when I read the Carpenter biography did I have to accept from Runcie’s own admission whatever the effect, cronyism pure and simple was the cause. Runcie justified that cronyism to Carpenter: ‘If someone has already proved themselves, then that’s the name you tend to think of.’ And he asked, ‘Has any of them been a disaster?’

The answer to that is that some have been excellent bishops, others less than excellent. But that is not the point. Vocation in the Church has nothing to do with preferment and preferment should have nothing to do with background. Have we forgotten that the ‘foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men’? ‘For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.’ A priest of considerable seniority and ability was recently assessed by his bishop. At the end of an hour or so, the bishop asked him if he had any questions. Somewhat bored by the whole proceedings, he decided to wind the bishop up. ‘Yes, I have a question. Why am I not a bishop?’ Without a moment’s hesitation, the bishop responded ‘Oh, you could never be a bishop. You haven’t enough polish.’ One suspects that on such a criterion only Judas Iscariot among the twelve apostles would have come up to the mark.

Crockford is now ten years ago. Immediately following the Bennett revelations and suicide, guilt produced a welcome change of emphasis in appointments, and Runcie himself suffered the embarrassment of being succeeded by an East End Cockney boy who had left school it 15 without many qualifications and who, worse still, was a bible-believing evangelical. But even around Carey, one can discern the continuing power of the liberal establishment. Left to himself, he gives a firm biblical lead on major moral and theological issues such as the importance of the traditional family, on inter-faith relations, and on the rightness of confining sex to heterosexual marriage. On other occasions his speeches appear to be the party line of advisers who have somehow persuaded him not to rock a particular liberal boat, however much in reality it is a sinking ship.

The Bonds of Peace document and Act of Synod negotiated by Archbishop Habgood gave a way in which a church, fundamentally divided on the issue of women priests, could live in harmony and mutual respect. It was recognition of the value of a comprehensive church in a divided world, and it could have worked. After it had passed in Synod, I teased Habgood that there were not a few bishops with sore arms. With a smile, he denied vehemently that any had been twisted. Unfortunately many of the ‘liberal’ bishops have ignored its provisions and broken its promises. No suffragans have been appointed from the other integrity by liberal bishops and often not even rural deans can expect to come from that source. Parishes which had a priest of that integrity again and again have been picked off with the result that, far from fulfilling John Habgood’s hope that every deanery would maintain such a parish, many have been entirely cleansed of such dissident voices. One formerly catholic archdeaconry in the northern province has been reduced to three orthodox parishes, while a southern diocese has managed to pick off all but three in the entire diocese.

The message of cronyism was clear: Treat the priesthood as a profession with a career structure; make sure you know which current issues to support and do not buck the trend; don’t forget that, unlike the world of cricket, we still have gentlemen and players. And if that sort of church model offends you, as it ought to – never forget that in the end it is God’s church and it is He who is in charge; not the placemen not the compromisers, not the betrayers of solemn promises, but God himself. But for that simple fact it would otherwise be astonishing that not one of the clones and cronies made it to Canterbury, York, London, Durham, Rochester or Chelmsford. The past many have been scandalous, the present depressing, but there is always hope for the future.

George Austin is Archdeacon of York.