Faith & Reason: An exemplary archbishop to beatify

What does God want? Writing this week of saints and synods, Andrew Brown reflects on the notable influence of the outgoing Archbishop of York, Dr John Habgood.
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What do C.S. Lewis, Charles I and William Morris have in common? None of them is a saint. But all will be recognised as worth commemoration by the Church of England when the latest version of the Alternative Service Book is published.

The new calendar contains all sorts of people who were in their lifetimes mortal enemies or would have been had they had the chance. The only reason they are not saints is that the Church of England does not formally recognise such beings. A saint is someone who has been officially and authoritatively declared to be in heaven, ready to be prayed through. The Church of England, having no crypto-papal body which takes itself seriously enough to offer such an opinion with a straight face, merely proposes that we remember these people as accomplishing exemplary Christian lives.

The approval of a long list of possible candidates for sainthood was one of the very last things the General Synod did at its meeting in York at the weekend. It was the last gathering of this particular synod; in the autumn there will be elections, and the body that resumes in November will be very different, not least because of the loss of the Archbishop of York, Dr John Habgood. Fortunately, he is only retiring from Synod, a state sharply to be distinguished from death, but none the less his going prompts anticipations of mortality.

I suppose that if anyone were looking for an exemplary archbishop to beatify, Dr Habgood would be high on the list. Given the subtlety and elegance with which he has examined the whole problem of miracles it would be really rather a good joke on God's part to give him responsibility for a few of them. His valedictory speech was typically crystalline, both clear and incapable of compression. It was not pessimistic, but it left me feeling profoundly depressed. He has a much clearer grasp of the weaknesses of the Church of England and its concomitant strengths than any of the bishops he leaves behind.

The greatest change he leaves in the Synod is its extraordinary loss of rancour. This may not seem a weakness, but it is, I think, an expression of a weakness, since it suggests a loss of interest in ideas. In the late Eighties, when the battles over the ordination of women were at their height, there was a sense that huge ideas were clashing. The debates in Synod - or rather the single debate, in Synod and outside it - raised huge questions about the nature of Christianity and of the way God acts in the world.

Probably the central problem for all religions is to discover what God wants and how to act on these wishes. In the jargon, these are known as issues of authority but that is slightly misleading, for it suggests that they are simple technical matters of church government, susceptible of technocratic solutions, whereas in fact they are arguments about the truth and how a church should be formed to discern it.

Dr Habgood was an enormously important player in these arguments. Though he has since said that he thought the whole thing was carried through too quickly, his speeches made as good a case for the ordination of women as anyone's could. He met the arguments of opponents head on, which was unusual on either side of the debate. And he was overwhelmingly victorious. He was able to show that the beliefs of the opponents of women priests were repugnant to some of the deepest beliefs about truth held by a majority of Synod members, and to do this without distorting the case he was dissecting.

No wonder they hated him. No wonder, either, that they love him now. For the Habgood view has triumphed so completely that at times he seems the only man in Synod who can still understand the conservative case he argued against. The battles that he fought four years ago have receded almost as far as the Reformation. This is somehow a loss - the downside of a process of homogenisation that can put William Wilberforce and Ignatius Loyola side by side. Nowadays the Church of England has no difficulty honouring both Charles I and John Bunyan, the one beheaded for refusing to abandon bishops, the other imprisoned for refusing to accept them.

Of course, in one way, this is a wholly admirable thing. There are still men fighting the battles of the Reformation, most of them in Ireland, and we need fewer of them. But it is a pity if the end of a war must mean also the end of the causes it was fought for, and if afterwards the defeated and victorious alike can only ask "What was all the fuss about?"