Bob's arch asides

ROBERT RUNCIE: The Reluctant Archbishop by Humphrey Carpenter, Hodder pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
When news of Robert Runcie's appointment to Lambeth first broke, an old friend from his army days is supposed to have remarked: "How refreshing to have an Archbishop of Canterbury whom you know for a fact says `fuck'." Any doubts about the authenticity of this story are swept away by this book, in which Runcie employs the word twice; but by the time he does so it hardly registers, so completely has the archiepiscopal starch been washed out by Humphrey Carpenter's racy prose and his own gloriously incautious apercus.

The Reluctant Archbishop is without a shadow of a doubt the first biography of an Anglican prelate that can be described as a real page-turner. Not surprisingly, it does not fully address the complexities of Runcie's role as Primate of All England and Head of the Anglican Communion, but it is none the worse for that. In any case, what did Runcie expect? Carpenter, the son of a former Bishop of Oxford and an old family friend, is a notorious gossip, and Runcie cannot possibly have imagined that he would produce a measured study of spirituality and statecraft. And anyone who has encountered Runcie at a party knows that his small talk is often candid in the extreme. In the middle of the carefully manufactured public row over this book a couple of weeks ago, Carpenter suggested that "the liberal side" of Runcie was not entirely displeased by the furore he had caused. After reading the book I find that easier to believe: its pages give off a strong whiff of mischief which can usually be traced straight back to old Bob himself.

The Robert Runcie portrayed here does much to explain the apparently perverse choice of Carpenter, chronicler of the Brideshead generation, as an official biographer. Years ago Runcie told a friend of mine: "I rather fear that I might be the most snobbish clergyman in the Church of England." He is nothing of the sort, but he has certainly worked hard to disguise his own lower- middle-class background. He is, in fact, what used to be called an HMG, or Home-Made Gent, having painstakingly redesigned himself along toff lines while at Oxford.

Unlike most, however, he is totally unabashed about the transformation, and spends much of the earlier part of this book cheerfully handing Carpenter the sort of ammunition which - as he is probably well aware - could do serious damage if discovered by an unfriendly biographer. He recalls writing letters to his mother during the war in which he dropped the names of his fellow Guards officers. She would then repair to the local public library to look them up in Debrett's - "something I've never done", he adds hastily. He does, however, admit to having distanced himself from grammar-school boys at Oxford: "I was full of admiration for those public- school characters throwing bottles and people into Mercury, you know," he says. As a soldier in war-ravaged Belgium in 1944, he manages to get himself invited to a local grandee's lavish Christmas ball. Decades later, when he meets the Pope, he is immensely envious of his personal valet.

This does not sound much like the hand-wringing liberal pilloried in the press during the 1980s, but that was always an unsatisfactory caricature, and one, interestingly, that many members of the Thatcher government knew to be false. Contrary to rumour, Runcie often enjoyed excellent relations with cabinet ministers: his social aspirations, undimmed over the years, acted as a sort of safety-valve, enabling him to smooth things over in private with the likes of Whitelaw or Carrington (real toffs) or Norman St John-Stevas (a fellow HMG). Mrs Thatcher, the grammar-school girl, was a different proposition, but even here one senses a surprising degree of mutual respect.

An even more important safety-valve, however, was his own innate sense of proportion. One of the slightly dubious services this book does Runcie is to convince us that we misinterpreted the agonised expression which so often distorted his features during the debate about women priests. It seems that this was not a man tortured by his ability to see both sides of the question, which was the consensus at the time: it was the face of a someone bored to distraction by the relentless expression of views which he was constitutionally incapable of holding with the same degree of passion. Just after the vote, Runcie tells Carpenter incredulously that "people have been here [at his Oxford flat] for an hour, weeping literally for an hour ... in an emotional state I couldn't imagine myself getting into over something like that. It may be a sign of how church commitment isn't so deeply in my bones and in my blood, isn't the totality of my life. Do you think that's it?"

The answer to this question is yes, I suppose; but one also feels that history will not judge him harshly for this lack of fervour. Five years after the women priests vote, the histrionics of the Anglo-Catholics do indeed look silly. The situation has quietly resolved itself, with those traditionalists who were essentially Catholics all along going over to Rome, and those who were essentially Protestants remaining within the fold; Runcie's coolness, which might have seemed callous at the time, now appears positively prophetic.

This admirable sense of proportion is not the same as strong leadership, of course, and it is interesting that no one involved in this project - Carpenter, friends and former staff, or Runcie himself - makes any great claims for him as an ecclesiastical statesman. Nor should they: such claims would not be credible, and perhaps the real reason Runcie asked Carpenter to write this book is that he knew instinctively that they were not what he needed. One of the marks of this secular age is that the public's criteria for judging religious leaders scarcely touch on their stewardship of their respective bodies but concentrate instead on their personal qualities. George Carey is in many ways a far better manager than Runcie; but his reputation will never amount to much because he is, frankly, so dislikeable. Runcie, in contrast, is one of the most delightful characters ever to have led the Church of England, but because he was unfortunate enough to hold office when he did, his qualities - extraordinary wit and kindness, though his wit was not always kind - did not always shine through.

This book restores the balance with a vengeance, and it is a shame that Lord Runcie is so unhappy with it. It is fluent, well-balanced, a little lacking in depth and wickedly indiscreet: precisely the biography he deserves.

Damian Thompson's book `The End of Time: Faith and Fear in the Shadow of the Millennium' is published by Sinclair-Stevenson at pounds 16.99.