Appointed to the Church of England's second most senior position in 1983, he has been at the heart of the establishment since 1973 when he was appointed Bishop of Durham. In recent years he has been in charge of the attempts to keep opponents of women priests within the Church, a task for which the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, is unfitted by temperament as well as conviction.
His career has been full of ironies. He was converted at Cambridge in 1949 by a barnstorming US evangelist, of the type who now represents his polar opposite as a Christian. Though himself a conservative who speaks carefully in complete sentences and has an obvious reverence for the past, he played a large part in the creation of the Alternative Service Book and the consequent general replacement of traditional language with modern alternatives.
He was excoriated during the Thatcher years as a dangerous liberal, and an unprecedented and ultimately successful campaign was mounted by conservatives to stop him succeeding his friend Dr Robert Runcie as Archbishop of Canterbury. But he is now regarded by the opponents of women priests as their only friend at the top of the Church.
He has been by far the most powerful and lucid defender of the Church's established status, yet Margaret Thatcher twice interfered decisively in his career: once in 1981, when she chose Dr Graham Leonard as Bishop of London instead of him.
The Crown Appointments Commission, which submits two names for every vacancy, had ranked Dr Habgood's first, but the Anglo-Catholic forces in the diocese of London, marshalled by the Rev Brian Masters, whom Dr Leonard latter appointed Bishop of Edmonton, lobbied hard and successfully against him. Dr Leonard has since become a Roman Catholic priest in reaction to the General Synod's decision to ordain women.
Mrs Thatcher appointed Dr Habgood as Archbishop of York in 1983, but when the see of Canterbury fell vacant in 1990, her appointees on the Crown Appointments Commission let it be known that she would not consider him for the post.
The evangelical wing of the Church never forgave him for doubting the Virgin Birth naratives, and defending the right of the then Bishop of Durham, Dr David Jenkins, to doubt them too.
Dr Habgood's training as a scientist (his doctorate is in physiology) was widely held against him, too. He was supposed to be cold and distant - except by those who have worked for him. They almost love him.
A man of his stature and experience has no obvious replacement on the present bench of bishops. The leading candidates are the Bishop of Birmingham, the Rt Rev Mark Santer; the Bishop of Ely, the Rt Rev Stephen Sykes; the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev Richard Harries; and the Bishop of London, the Rt Rev David Hope.
Dr Hope, 54, a former Bishop of Wakefield, is being run hard for the job. But his present diocese is in a state of civil war over women priests. The bishop, who opposes the ordination of women, has stopped ordaining priests of either sex, as a gesture of neutrality.
All the other credible candidates are supporters of women's ordination. Bishop Harries is a prolific writer and broadcaster who runs one of the richest dioceses in the country. Against him is the fact that he is distrusted by traditionalists.
Bishop Santer is in many ways the natural choice to follow Dr Habgood. A former don, who is co-chairman of the committee known as Arcic which works towards reconciliation between the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, he is widely respected, and represents the liberal Catholicism that Dr Habgood also stood for.
He is also respected by theological opponents such as the Rev Sandy Millar, who is probably the country's most influential Anglican evangelical leader.
Bishop Sykes another former Cambridge don, would be the other Liberal candidate. But he has only been a bishop for four years and the lack of experience may count against him.
Candidates with an outside chance include the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Rev David Sheppard, who at 65 could only be a caretaker; and the Bishop of Bath and Wells, the Rt Rev Jim Thompson, who would continue the Etonian tradition at York.
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