The archbishop's book of revelations

Lord Runcie is dismayed about a new biography. But controversy was inevitable
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The Independent Online
Robert Runcie chose Humphrey Carpenter to be his official biographer just before he retired as Archbishop of Canterbury in January 1991. A book will be published next month and extracts have begun appearing in a newspaper serialisation.

Lord Runcie is now dismayed about the character of the book and that it should have been published in his lifetime. Yet five years ago Mr Carpenter seemed to him the ideal choice. The son of an old friend, the former Bishop of Oxford, Carpenter had written an interesting book about the Christian literary clique surrounding CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. Surely he would combine the skills of a professional writer with a sensitive understanding of a modern archbishop's problems.

It was, none the less, a mistake. The official biographer of an Archbishop of Canterbury needs to be someone who understands the complexities of ecclesiastical business, is willing to spend long hours working through archives at Lambeth Palace, and is exceptionally discreet. Carpenter is simply not that kind of person. Instead he appears to have based his book largely on tape recordings of what Lord Runcie himself said to him. The former archbishop, it seems, thought he was simply providing background information to help fill in Carpenter's understanding of events. Carpenter thought he was getting the material that would be skilfully edited to provide the core for his biography. Perhaps the basic misunderstanding lay in the differing conventions of two generations.

Lord Runcie knew he was being taped and at great length; he lay down no condition as to the use of this material. He had, it seems, always wanted publication to await his death. But again he entered into no agreement to that effect. Carpenter, understandably, wanted the book published once it was finished. What use would it be to leave it in a cupboard for another 10 years or so? And what alternative had Carpenter to concentrating on the more sensational issues in what was otherwise a calm, useful and largely undistinguished life?

Lord Runcie has written rather little. He is not a theologian or systematic thinker. There is no collection of published material to get your teeth into. The life of a priest who has for years been a responsible theological principal and diocesan bishop is hardly thrilling. If you want a biography and don't choose an ecclesiastic historian to write it, what can you expect but concentration on gay clergy; Garry Bennett's tragic suicide after penning a preface to Crockford's Clerical Directory that was critical of Runcie; Terry Waite's over-glamorised missions; and indiscretions about the Royal Family?

Humphrey Carpenter surely had the right to go forward, and Lord Runcie's bitter response that "I have done my best to die before this book is published" - provided as a postscript to the book - seems rather belated wisdom and can have little effect other than to help sell the book.

Mr Carpenter is not unkind. And yet ... If Lord Runcie was unwise to choose him in the first place, and still more unwise to impose no conditions when talking for hours off the cuff into a tape recorder, one may still feel that Mr Carpenter has betrayed the trust of his father's old friend and the tradition of moral responsibility implied by the "official biographer" of an Archbishop of Canterbury. Something more weighty was needed.

The book is unlikely to do the reputation of either man any service. Yet neither is a villain, and it would be silly to blacken Carpenter as a biographer, just as it is silly to denounce Runcie as being an inadequate archbishop.

Lord Runcie's enemies will, of course, turn the knife in the wound as far as they can. It will do no good to their church, and most of the criticisms are misguided.

Take the case of Garry Bennett. Mr Carpenter quotes the remark in Dr Bennett's diary that he had hoped to be made Bishop of Oxford, when Richard Harries got the job. Yet it is ludicrous to think Bennett could have been chosen - no one less suitable is easily imaginable. But the fact that Carpenter does not seem to see this (nor Bennett's friends either) simply shows how far they are detached from reality.

The most Runcie might have found for Bennett was a cathedral canonry. Probably he was wrong ever to suggest he might arrange anything. But Bennett was an able church historian and had been a useful speech-writer for him on many occasions. A modern archbishop still has considerable openings for patronage, but also the inability to force someone through against reasoned opposition.

That really was Runcie's problem all along - the appearance of extensive authority but very little power. He saw his main task, correctly, as one of holding the different sides of a divided church together, not one of imposing his own view. Intellectual leadership can actually come better from someone other than Canterbury.

He has been derided for "sitting on the fence with both ears to the ground". But is that not actually quite a responsible position for a leader while great debates are going forward between enthusiasts of differing views?

As Anglicans sensibly refuse to credit their primate with infallibility, what more can they require? In Lord Runcie's own almost agonised words: "If anybody thinks it is easy and it doesn't cost very much to your personal soul to pursue the middle way, if anybody thinks that it's simply trying to please everybody like a chameleon, let them come and try and ponder the scripture and say their prayers and hold the Church together."

The writer is the author of 'Robert Runcie' (1991) and Emeritus Professor of Theology at Leeds University.