Murder in the Cathedral

Anthony Howard

  • The Crockford’s File: Gareth Bennett and the Death of the Anglican Mind by William Oddie
    Hamish Hamilton, 232 pp, £14.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 241 12613 4
  • Absent Friends by Geoffrey Wheatcroft
    Hamish Hamilton, 291 pp, £15.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 241 12874 9

The most revealing moment at the recent meeting of the Church of England’s General Synod occurred during an impromptu speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Dr Robert Runcie was speaking against an amendment urging the Church to delay re-submitting its Clergy (Ordination) Measure to Parliament until ‘after the next Parliamentary General Election’. The point at issue concerned not women priests but the anomalous position of divorced candidates for the Ministry – anomalous because, although current clergy can be divorced and continue in their calling, no one under the present rules can be ordained if he has either been divorced or, indeed, is married to a divorced person. On the occasion of his winding-up speech it was not, however, the merits of the argument that concerned the Archbishop. He was preoccupied solely with the unwisdom of the proposed delaying tactic. ‘It would seem to me,’ he declared in that hesitant but oddly effective manner of his, ‘that this amendment depends on certain assumptions about the date of the next election, which I would regard as hazardous, to use a wholly neutral phrase.’

Immediately, there was the sound of incipient clerical chuckles, which gradually swelled into a gurgle of laughter engulfing the whole assembly. What had not passed his audience by was the hidden meaning of the Archbishop’s last remark. It carried – as Dr Runcie had indicated by the relish with which he rolled it round his tongue – a personal as well as a political message. By the time of the next election it is now no more than an evens bet that there will not be a new Archbishop installed in the chair of St Augustine.

Dr Runcie’s own time as the 102nd Archbishop of Canterbury is, in fact, drawing – if not especially peacefully – towards its close. Since, unlike his colleague at Chichester (at 74 the doyen of the episcopal Bench), he was translated too late to enjoy any bishop’s freehold, convention will require him to retire by the time of his 70th birthday, which inconveniently falls at the beginning of October 1991. Until a few months ago it had looked as if the whole matter could be tidily arranged: following her own precedents set in 1983 and 1987, the Prime Minister would call an election in June 1991, and there would thus be at least a chance that the next archbishop might be appointed by a new prime minister rather than by Mrs Thatcher. The Government’s recent troubles have, however, led to a widespread expectation that the next election will come later rather than sooner – and that, uncomfortably, puts Dr Runcie on the spot. Does he intimate his intention to retire – thereby setting the machinery for the selection of his successor in motion – in an inevitably politically-charged pre-election atmosphere, or can he somehow still contrive to win his own personal race against the electoral clock?

Revealingly, the word among the Archbishop’s own entourage is that the convention about retirement at 70 need not perhaps be taken wholly literally. After all, by the autumn of 1992, when any general election would have had to have taken place, Dr Runcie would still be in his 70th year – and if Dr Eric Kemp at Chichester can linger on well beyond three score years and ten, who is going to object to allowing an Archbishop just a little flexibility?

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