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Archive - Wednesday, 12 July 2000
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A bishop who rocked the boat
IT WAS amazing really that Robert Runcie ever made it into the church, let alone became one of its leaders. His father, an electrical engineer, had "a love of horse racing and a dislike of clergymen'' and it wasn't love of God that drew young Robert to the church door in his native Liverpool. Many years later, when he was already a prominent figure in the church, he confessed that he attended confirmation classes and became an Anglican in his teens because he had a teenage crush on a girl who went to the church.
It was after the war, when he returned to Oxford, that he decided his future lay in the church. Ordained at Newcastle Cathedral, he served as a curate at All Saints, Gosforth, in Newcastle, before returning to Cambridge and in 1956 became dean of Trinity Hall, teaching classics and church history. There he met and married Rosalind Turner, daughter of the senior fellow.
In 1961, he became principal of Cuddesdon Theological College near Oxford and in 1970 he was consecrated Bishop of St Albans.
He soon began to be noticed in the Church of England. He became an expert on the Anglican church's relations with the Orthodox church and travelled extensively in Eastern Europe.
But it was a surprise when it was announced he was to succeed Donald Coggan as Archbishop of Canterbury. His name was not even considered by the so-called pundits. Soon after the announcement, Dr Runcie said he hoped he would persuade the church ''to loosen its stays a bit and perhaps rock the boat a little'' in the name of the Lord.
His enthronement sermon at Canterbury Cathedral as the 102nd Archbishop of Canterbury set his agenda.
The Church, he said, should not act as if it had the answers to all of life's problems ''tied up in a neat package''. It must give a firm lead ''against rigid thinking, a judging temper of mind, the disposition to over-simplify difficult and complex problems''.
Soon after his enthronement he made it plain he thought ''the Christian voice must be loud and clear on the great political issues of the time, race relations, unemployment, disarmament and the proper distribution of the world's resources''.
Within a few months he was pursuing another great longing for Christian unity when he met the Pope in Ghana.
Great state occasions demanded his voice. In July, 1980, he put the nation's feelings into words on the 80th birthday of the Queen Mother at a thanksgiving service at St Paul's Cathedral.
He conducted the marriages of both the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer and of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson.
In 1982, Pope John Paul II made an historic visit to Britain and Runcie welcomed him to Canterbury Cathedral. In a symbolic moment, the two leaders knelt in prayer at the site where Thomas a Becket was murdered in 1170.
The same year, in July, came his first clash with Thatcher supporters. The Prime Minister was said to be ''livid'' and senior Tory MPs were openly critical of his sermon at the St Paul's thanksgiving service for the end of the Falklands conflict. Some Tories said the service played down the British victory and gave too much consideration to the Argentinians.
He came under attack from Tory backbenchers for a Christmas Day sermon in which he criticised the time and money spent on building up Britain's ''lunatic'' nuclear arsenal.
There was no doubting Runcie's personal courage. At the end of his first year at Oxford University he joined the Scots Guards to fight in the Second World War and was awarded the Military Cross for ''courageous leadership under shell and mortar fire'' in Normandy in 1945.
In 1984, Tory backbenchers again attacked him for ''mindless'' comments on the Government's handling of the protracted miners' strike.
He faced storms within the Church over comments by the then newly-appointed Bishop of Durham, Dr David Jenkins, casting doubt on the historical accuracy of the Gospel accounts of the resurrection and virgin birth. Although defending Dr Jenkins' right to explore Christian belief, Runcie declared in his Easter Day sermon that the Gospel stories were based on ''events sure enough''.
At the end of 1985 the Tories mounted a major attack on his commission on inner city problems. Some ministers described its report as ''a political document of the extreme left Marxist''.
But despite the condemnation, the report led to the founding of the Church Urban Fund, which raised millions through Church of England dioceses to fund employment and social projects in the country's most deprived areas.
He was outspoken in condemning apartheid at the enthronement of Desmond Tutu as Archbishop of Cape Town in 1986 and called on Mrs Thatcher to impose tough sanctions against the South African Government.
Runcie never shied away from difficult issues; in 1988 he reversed his former views and came out in favour of women priests. And in another fierce debate within the church he opposed the ordination of active homosexuals as Church of England clergy.
In September 1989, he visited Rome for four days of talks with the Pope. The visit was marred by controversy at home over a call by Dr Runcie for Christians to recognise the Pope as a ''universal primate''. He had to issue a statement denying that the idea conflicted with the British constitution or would affect the Queen's position as the Church of England's supreme governor. But despite warm personal relationships, the Pope failed to respond to Dr Runcie's pleas for greater unity between the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. In their final statement the leaders recognised that the issue of women priests was the main factor barring the way, and in the end, there was little to show for the visit.
Dr Runcie's last few years were marred by occasional bouts of illness. In 1992 and again, in 1996 he was taken to hospital with cellulitis, an infection of the blood-stream, and he was later diagnosed as suffering from prostate cancer.
But illness didn't stop him speaking out. He condemned the Church of England's stance on homosexuality as ''ludicrous'' and admitted he had knowingly ordained practising homosexuals.
And he was still making front page news five years into his retirement, when he stated in a controversial biography that the wedding between Charles and Diana was an ''arranged marriage'. The biography, published in September 1996, also quoted him as saying he knew of the affair between Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles before it became public knowledge, and quoted him describing Diana as an ''actress, a schemer''.
Lord Runcie probably realised the storm that would erupt when the book was published. He said in a letter to the author, Humphrey Carpenter: ''I have done my best to die before this book is published.'' He didn't, but his cancer was diagnosed terminal shortly afterwards. In April this year he gave an interview in which he said: ''I'm dying cheerfully.''