The bishop who burbled into trouble

Should Lambeth Palace's most attractive tenant have spilt the beans? Michael de-la-Noy isn't convinced

Robert Runcie : The Reluctant Archbishop by Humphrey Carpenter, Hodder, pounds 20

This is not the biography Lord Runcie wanted, but a man who "burbles for background" (his own words) into a tape recorder on the motorway, while being chauffeured by his Boswell, and then complains that his words have been "reproduced for substance", is not in a very strong position to object. The last thing a biographer wants is "background" (whatever that is) which he cannot use. The result of this ultimately, unhappy collaboration is an exercise in journalism, with endless verbatim conversations where paraphrase is called for, and a lot of extraneous information.

I have read and admired Carpenter's life of Auden, and his evocation of Evelyn Waugh and his chums, The Brideshead Generation, so I was not prepared for a tour of Lambeth Palace that might just past muster from the pen of a trainee reporter on the Penge Gazette. "An old-fashioned bell-pull summoned a friendly porter, who directed me under an arch into a big quadrangle."."The big door" was open, and inside "rose a big, ceremonial staircase." But then everything at Lambeth Palace seems to have been on a scale to stun Mr Carpenter. He was taken into "a big drawing room" with "big windows." Amazingly enough, they "looked on to the garden."

Runcie's "burbles" about poor Lady Di being an actress and a schemer, and the heir to the throne having given up on the Church of England, seems somehow less sensational between hard covers than they did on the front page of the Times.who paid Mr Carpenter pounds 75,000 Runcie's breaches of confidence But perhaps familiarity has bred contempt. After we have all passed our moral judgements about former archbishops who burble, what matters now is whether Runcie's tenure of office and his personality have been fairly and adequately dealt with.

As far as Runcie the man is concerned, I think they have. When invited to go to Canterbury, Temple, Fisher, Ramsey and Coggan did not hesitate for any shorter time than was seemly. Carey positively jumped at it. But in 1980, with no other serious contender in sight, Robert Runcie, then bishop of St Albans, made the Establishment hold its breath while he agonised for six weeks over his decision, partly because he regarded himself as overrated by other people.

This makes him, always excepting William Temple, the most attractive successor to St Augustine this century. And, unsatisfactory though he finds this, his fourth, biography, he emerges from it as worldly and sophisticated, modest, amusing, without pomposity and, though a bit of a chameleon, essentially honest.

On the chameleon front, Carpenter could have probed more deeply into Runcie's ambiguous attitude towards homosexuality. In a notorious speech in the General Synod, not mentioned in the book, he once described homosexuals as emotional cripples. And what did he mean when he told Carpenter he had always been conscious that homosexuals might stab him in the back because he wasn't one of them?

Runcie's years at Canterbury were full of drama, and it is the sheer emotional impact of the visit of the Pope, the bloody split over women priests, the controversy about the Charismatic Movement (not referred to at all) that lie buried beneath these piles of tapes. But nuggets do emerge: a letter from the Queen's private secretary congratulating Runcie on his controversial Falkland Islands sermon; and Runcie's bizarre hope that the Pope would agree to attend a Eucharist in Canterbury Cathedral.

While Runcie was archbishop, two major disasters occurred; the capture of Terry Waite and the suicide of Gareth Bennett. Carpenter lets Runcie off the hook over his amazing lack of control of his staff, allowing Waite to rush in where any angel with a grain of commonsense would have heeded the advice of the Foreign Office. But in the chapter dealing with the Crockford's Preface scandal and the death of Mr Bennett, Carpenter has researched well, filling in much previously missing information.

Although Carpenter thinks the MC is a medal (it is a decoration), and appears not to realise that Cyril Easthaugh ended up as bishop of Peterborough, his book is factually very reliable, and full of Runcie gems. How could one not forgive a lot of a man who found C.S. Lewis "too good to be true", describes John Selwyn Gummer as a religious know-all and the Rt Hon Baroness Thatcher, LG, OM as "The Hacksaw"?

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?