An outspoken and effective archbishop with a prickly intellect

Lord Habgood, who as Archbishop of York and second in the Church of England hierarchy for 12 years until 1995, was the most outspoken and effective ecclesiastical figure of his age.

It was his “liberal” tendencies, combined with a prickly intellect, which probably saw the denial of the highest office open to him as the Archbishop of Canterbury.

This is generally thought to be the reason why Margaret Thatcher, who regarded him as too “wet” in political terms for her tastes, would not recommend him for the Canterbury primacy.

Dr Robert Runcie and Reverend John Habgood – Lambeth Palace, London
John Habgood (r), meeting the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Robert Runcie at Lambeth Palace prior to being confirmed as Archbishop of York (PA)

Yet, oddly, Thatcher had recommended him for the York Archbishopric and made the unprecedented gesture of attending his enthronement in York Minster.

The assessment of him by Lord Hailsham, the Conservative politician and Lord Chancellor, was that he was “the only bishop with an intellectual background of the highest class”. It was seen as a well-deserved accolade for a man who was too modest and self-effacing ever to complain that he had been passed over.

Religion – General Synod of the Church of England – Westminster, London
The Queen, watched by the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Robert Runcie and Dr John Habgood, Archbishop of York, addressing the General Synod of the Church of England (PA)

Habgood’s practical achievements were notable. His sensitive handling of the situation created by the ordination of women – in which he believed – won him the admiration even of former critics.

But his supreme contribution was as an exponent of Christian faith and morals in a secular age.

Habgood had a scientific background and clearly regarded many of the stories on which Christian doctrines are based as being true allegorically rather than literally.

As a scientist he had difficulty in asserting the literal truth of supernatural events said to have occurred long ago, in times even more credulous than today.

Religion – General Synod of the Church of England – Westminster Abbey, London
The Queen, flanked by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, walking through Dean’s Yard to Church House to inaugurate the General Synod of the Church of England (PA)

John Stapylton Habgood was born on June 23, 1927. He was educated at Eton, King’s College, Cambridge, where he obtained a double-first in natural sciences, and at Cuddesdon Theological College, Oxford. His scientific background was when he was Demonstrator in Pharmacology, at Cambridge University from 1950 to 1953.

His ecclesiastical career began in earnest after that. He was curate at St Mary Abbots, Kensington (1954-56), Vice-Principal Westcott House, Cambridge (1956-62), Rector, St John’s Church, Jedburgh (1962-67), Principal Queen’s College, Birmingham (1967-73) and Bishop of Durham (1973-83).

He annoyed the traditionalists of the Prayer Book Society while he was at Durham by leading the working party which brought about the modernisation of liturgy in the Alternative Service Book.

John Habgood, the Archbishop of York, and Conservative MP Michael Alison at a news conference following a meeting with then-Chancellor Kenneth Clarke (Neil Munns/PA)

It was as Archbishop of York, from 1983, that his liberal credentials became clear. He backed moves to allow the remarriage of divorced people in church and to permit the relicensing of remarried priests who had been divorced.

Habgood favoured the ordination of women and supported the idea that a guaranteed number of General Synod places should be reserved for black members. In the House of Lords he voted against the controversial Clause 28 banning local authorities from “promoting homosexuality”.

On one occasion a disgruntled traditionalist, Dr Gareth Bennett, wrote an anonymous article in Crockford’s Clerical Directory, attacking the Church’s liberal establishment.

Dr Habgood publicly attacked this article as “scurrilous”, “sour” and “vindictive”. Dr Bennett then took his own life and Habgood’s detractors accused him of having gone too far.

Habgood retires as Archbishop of York
Moving out, Dr John Habgood, the Archbishop of York, leaves Bishopthorpe Palace near York for the final time

Habgood took his seat in the House of Lords on being appointed Bishop of Durham in 1973. He was elevated to the peerage as Lord Habgood of Calverton after his retirement as Archbiship of York in 1995.

He was a regular contributor to debates in the House of Lords. His speech on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in 1989 was so memorable that it continued to be quoted years after it was delivered.

His principal recreation was painting, both in water-colours and in oils.

He was married with four children. His wife Rosalie died peacefully in March 2016.

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