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"?