Archbishop who turned hatred into grace

Andrew Brown charts the changing fortunes of Lord Habgood, who retired as Archbishop of York yesterday
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Few men in the Church of England have been so reviled as Lord Habgood, the Arch- bishop of York, who retired yesterday, and few will be more missed when they are gone. The transformation in his popularity has been immense.

Earlier this summer, Lord Habgood addressed a meeting of Anglo-Catholics in favour of the ordination of female priests. The speaker slipped up and introduced him as "Archbishop of Canterbury": the applause for this mistake went on for minutes until the Archbishop himself had to quell it with a gesture.

He is one of the few hierarchs who is trusted by the Anglo-Catholic opponents of female priests. They know that he understands their position, even if he disagrees with it. This marks a huge change from the late Eighties, when hatred of the Archbishop - and hatred is not too strong a word - was the main animating force in ecclesiastical politics. Not all of it is due to the contrasts between Lord Habgood and Dr George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury since 1990.

The great disputes of the Eighties have all been solved, or at least replaced by more urgent problems. Margaret (now baroness) Thatcher has gone; female priests have arrived. The Church of England has stopped shrinking, but seems to have lost a certain self-confidence and belief in its own part in the constitution.

Lord Habgood, now 68, remains in person as impressive as ever. You can hear the semi-colons when he talks in careful, fully formed sentences. And although he seems to be the last bastion of the old, self-confident establishment, he thinks that it will long survive him.

"Tony Blair makes a lot of the moral arguments underlying his politics; and because establishment is not just about what one might call the trappings, and the visible signs, but is about the way a nation understands itself, I think it would be difficult for someone who has taken his moral line to say, we're going to create a purely secular state," he said.

"And it is anybody's guess whether all the talk about reform of the House of Lords will ever come to anything, because there are severe political objections against doing it, as well as those concerning the church of England; and you'll know those as well as I do. If we have a democratic chamber which is in some sense a rival or an alternative to the House of Commons, either we are making the position of the Commons that much weaker, or you are in danger of producing deadlock."

He argued that establishment is not an anachronism but helps to keep Christianity relevant. "There are a lot of very high expectations of the church and a lot of very warm feelings towards us, and [many people have] the comforting sense that the church is somehow always there. That sense in itself is part of the whole establishment picture."

Yet this was threatened by the church commissioners' financial disaster. "As we become more and more vulnerable to the economic pressures of the day the church seems more the preserve of a small group of people who happen to be interested in that particular thing, rather than something which belongs to everybody and is in the end relevant to everybody, like it or not," the Archbishop said.

I said that part of the role of the established church today was -for outsiders - to be irrelevant: to believe in things which the rest of us are too clever to believe, in case they turned out to be true.

He thought for a while, then continued: "In the end, Christian faith, though it can be highly complex, is about very simple things. It is about how to be a decent human being; and recognising that to be a decent human being, you have to be in some sense more than a human being, related to the ground of your existence. There is a sense in which it is so basic and so childishly obvious that I can see why the highly sophisticated feel that with their high intelligence, life must be much more complicated than that. To be clever nowadays, or to appear clever, you need to be a sort of smart alec and to debunk."

I asked whether this had not been just as true in the sixteenth century, or even the fifth century BC. He replied: "I think in the sixteenth century it was done on the basis of some common assumptions. I think it's gone beyond that, and reached downhill to the belief that there is no truth to be found, it's only a matter of opinion, and in order to attract attention you must be shocking."

There is a sense in which this sort of destructive cleverness is no more than you would expect of a humanity infected by original sin; but the Archbishop, who trained as a scientist, does not hold to the traditional understanding of original sin as something produced by humanity's wilful turning from God. Darwinism has put paid to that, he believes. He is learned enough to find precursors for his beliefs in the early church, long before anyone could speak English, let alone write The Origin of Species in it.

"I think that it's extremely difficult to hold the doctrine of the fall in any literal sense; and I am more attracted to the view ascribed to Irenaeus, in which the kind of self-assertiveness which can lie at the root of sin is also necessary for human existence so that one has a sort of entail of evil within the very process of human beings coming to be what they are."