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Robert Runcie: W: The Reluctant Archbishop Hardcover – 13 Sep 1996
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About the Author
Humphrey Carpenter began his career working for the BBC and appeared on Radio 3 and 4 many times since. He has written many bestselling, award-winning biographies whose subjects include Tolkein, C. S. Lewis, Ezra Pound, WH Auden, Bejamin Britten, Spike Milligan. He was a prolific author of childrens' book and a skilled jazz musician. He died in January 2005.
Top customer reviews
A cracking good read in one sense, but very depressing in another - one certainly does not get the impression that the upper ranks of the Cof E are a collection of people wanting to serve God & His kingdom- it appears more like a men's club who judge eachother on how well they did in Oxbridge finals & are tediously career orientated.The strange liberal catholic schizophrenia of orthodox liturgy and heterodox theological believe is perhaps religion at its worst. It seems that saying mass regularly is important than believing in the atonement.
The picture that develops is intimate. It also comes across as honest and reliable, insofar as the author himself admits to confusion in the complexity he finds in his subject.
Runcie himself comes across as a warm and intelligent man. He was brave enough to be vilified without wanting to run or return fire. He was also probably bored much of the time, as any sane, intelligent person would be at the head of such a vast and antiquated bureaucracy.
The book describes a lonely man with many regrets. He also comes across as a man of somewhat ambivalent spirituality. That spirituality was also stunted. He would have been much happier - and probably safer - had he been an RE teacher in a good school rather than a priest.
To those who lived through his tenure, it will come as no surprise that Runcie never really believed that he was archbishop, hence his inertia and occasional crass decisions. Had he had more self-awareness, he would have dealt with e.g. Margaret Thatcher, the media, and Bishop Graham Leonard with more vigour and wisdom.
Overall, a beautifully written book (albeit with a surprising number of typos) describing an important man.
Runcie was brought up in what I suppose one might call a bourgeois, indeed, petit bourgeois milieu on Merseyside, managed to get a scholarship to Oxford (pretty much as WW2 broke out) and, later, took up the offer of a commission in the Guards Armoured regiment (being told that, in wartime, the possession of a private income did not really matter). He saw action after the Normandy Landings and ended the war with a certain respect for the Germans, though noting that the British troops tended to loot whatever they could get away with, albeit usually from houses abandoned by their owners.
In the Church after WW2, Runcie climbed steadily, no doubt assisted by his Oxford background, Rosalind's wifely help and, perhaps, the fact that he was very middle of the road, theologically, neither heavily all-but-Roman Catholic High Church, nor Evangelical Low Church. He became Bishop of St. Albans before Canterbury called.
As another reviewer has said, Runcie's fellow high churchmen seem to be, like him, somewhere between sort-of believers and agnostics, with the odd almost-atheist. One bishop (Montefiore) is a converted Jew and, while one can hardly cavil at that (thinking of, among others, St. Peter and St. Paul), one wonders how real is such a person's faith in the SuperNatural...
Careerism is obviously something, hm "not unknown" in the C of E; that does come out strongly in the book, as does the inevitable influence of the bishops' wives in all of that: it does seem to me (nominally C of E) that having a wife does, in general or often, mire a churchman in domesticity. How "holy" can someone be, when he has a wife and children and their interests and welfare and careers etc to think of? There again, some of the bishops, like Stockwood, were plainly gay anyway, as Private Eye often hinted (even scurrilously attributing something similar to Runcie, though on what if any evidential basis one knows not).
Runcie sat in the eye of the British domestic political hurricane as Mrs Thatcher took on the embattled Old Labour cohorts: Michael Foot in his donkey jacket (and Hampstead mansion), Arthur Scargill and his striking miners' legions etc. The C of E, sitting uncomfortably halfway between the lovely old England of the villages and parishes and the horried new faces of a UK scarred by both socialism and rampant capitalism, seemed to have nothing to say: all things to all men. Runcie was scarcely helped in this by Archbishops who seemed to think God was optional (at Durham and York) and by his own "international assistant" and prima donna, Terry Waite, who, meddling in affairs he plainly did not understand, was held hostage in Lebanon for years (though, as the book makes clear, later enjoying huge prosperity as the author of bestselling memoirs and the well known face seen, well, almost everywhere (he was even one of the guests of honour at a dinner I attended around 1993-ish at Lincoln's Inn). And the administration of the Church at its HQ, Lambeth Palace, is shown as shambolic. Indeed, one wonders why the Church of England thought itself fit to meddle in 1980's anti-apartheid politicking and Middle East affairs, when hardly anyone was attending church services etc in England itself?!
The book does pretty much tackle the problem of the Archbishop's wife full on. A pianist by training, she seemed unwilling to be the typical or traditional bishop's wife and was even photographed by the News of the World draped (clothed but very seductive) over a grand piano! Rumours spread widely throughout Runcie's period at Canterbury (and before). Indeed, a lady I knew personally told me, around 1990, I think, that a man she knew as an ex-colleague was a bit more than friendly there...
I was struck, overall, by the sheer shortage of both direct spirituality in the C of E and its equal lack of direction.. It seemed (is?) unwilling to either be an evangelical church in the Low sense, because no-one might turn up (too vulgar)! Yet, the High Church part or party is bedevilled by its not unjustified (in some cases) reputation for being too close to Rome and for its mysogyny and/or alcoholic mysticism ("Beers and Queers", as often said!). So the direction of the Church seems to not quite know where it does stand. The recent absurd outpouring of the present Archbishop of Canterbury, meaning his perceived appeasement of the Muslims, is a case in point.
The book is worth reading and is thought-provoking.
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The controversy stems from both the book's unconventional style and the author's unrestrained use of confidences. As a well-known biographer and son of an Anglican bishop, Carpenter seemed an ideal choice to write the Archbishop's biography. He had Runcie's complete cooperation, and armed with a tape recorder he spent five years recording conversations with Runcie, his wife, family members, friends and professional colleagues. The result is a non-linear progression through Runcie's life and career based almost wholly on taped material gathered by the author. This material is quoted verbatim, often in a kind of Q & A format, then stitched together with commentary by the author. The end product is chatty, indiscreet, and highly readable, but not, I think, either kind or fair to Lord Runcie. His horror when he read the manuscript for the first time can only be imagined; he had no idea that his remarks on subjects floated before him by Carpenter-the Royal Family, homosexuality in theological colleges and among clergy, internal divisions in the Established Church, Mrs. Thatcher's Government-would turn up word for word in print. The reason for Runcie's failure to ask for veto power over the final manuscript remains a mystery; the consequences will haunt him for the remainder of his life.
Robert Runcie became Archbishop of Canterbury shortly after Margaret Thatcher took office as Prime Minister, and notable events of the decade in which he presided over the Anglican Communion included the marriage of Charles and Diana, the Falklands War, the movement for the ordination of women, the Crockford's Preface affair, and the Terry Waite saga. Each is examined in detail, sprinkled with tidbits of insider gossip, and all of it makes facinating reading. It is not the "solemn, weighty official biography" that Lord Runcie had hoped for; that will come later, and Carpenter's book will be an important source for a future biographer. But for now, this volume will serve as an entertaining, idiosyncratic introduction to the life and times of the 102nd Archbishop of Canterbury.
-adapted from a lengthier review published in The Living Church early this year.
Humphrey Carpenter, the son of an Anglican bishop, and the author of several well-received books on JRR Tolkien and the Inklings, did not live up to his previous standards in this volume, and did, in the opinion of this reviewer, seriously strain the bounds of journalistic ethics, confidentiality, and certainly good taste.
This book needs to be set in strong contrast with scholarly works about the life and ministry of Lord Runcie, and should not be considered an accurate or clear picture of the late archbishop.
For a better picture of Lord Runcie, read Adrian Hastings biography, and the archbishop's own sermons.
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