Thinking Anglicans

Death of John Habgood, former Archbishop of York

The death has been announced of John Habgood, who served as Archbishop of York between 1983 and 1995, and before that as Bishop of Durham for 10 years. He was 91, and died on Wednesday, 6 March.

There is a statement from Archbishop John Sentamu here:

The sad news of the death yesterday of former Archbishop of York, John Stapylton Habgood, comes as northern bishops gather for a Diocesan mission in Liverpool. As a hugely distinguished scientist, theologian and philosopher, Archbishop Habgood’s faith in Christ gave him a particular perspective and a persuasive witness both to church and nation for his time. His many books simplified big and complex questions, revealing an incredibly perceptive intellect. I’m very glad to have confirmed his grandchildren and dedicated a room in his honour at Bishopthorpe Palace.

His towering presence, physical, intellectual, and spiritual, was a gift to all who knew him. My prayers are with his family at this time. May he Rest in Peace, and rise in glory.

Further coverage at the Church Times and the BBC.


  • Susannah Clark says:

    John Habgood: “to understand the Bible we must try to enter into the belief patterns of the period.”

    Correct, I think. The narratives of the scriptures were written in the context of their authors’ culture, assumptions, traditions, specific communities, and the parameters of the scientific knowledge of their day. They were written by fallible humans, trying tentatively to understand and communicate their experiences of encounter with the holy and divine.

    It is salutary to reflect on the scientific mind-sets of people like John Habgood, and remind ourselves that the route to understanding the bible runs through de-construction (what is the writer’s meta-narrative when the filters and cultural wrappings are stripped off?) and better-informed contextual understanding of the motives and core messages of these writers.

    As truth-seekers, we should respect scientific method and the widening of knowledge and parameters. Otherwise we risk leading people down that fundamentalist cul-de-sac that denies evolution, denies the ancient age of the planet, denies dinosaurs and other life forms millions of years before our own, looks for remains of ‘The Ark’ on Mount Ararat, thinks Noah loaded every single species from across the undiscovered globe, thinks sea levels rose above the Alps and Andes to that level in the Himalaya where we know that animals exist.

    And then you end up in a beleaguered ‘end-days’ enclave, where the world outside is hostile, evil, unremittingly dark; and you are some remnant of the pure, yearning for apocalypse for rescue and vindication.

    Science is part of Christian truth and we inhabit the opening spaces of its discovery. For myself, I wish that John Habgood had been chosen as Archbishop, and that people had also listened more rationally to David Jenkins.

    May he rest in peace.

    • Steve says:

      If John Habgood had become Archbishop of Canterbury, it would have set back the cause of women priests by 20 years.

      This doubtless sounds paradoxical to the point of being fatuous, so let me explain why I say this.

      I know for a fact that the Evangelical suspicion of Habgood ran very deep; never mind whether or not it should have done, the point is that it did – mainly over his insistence on going ahead with the consecration of David Jenkins and simply dismissing the objections to it (why, I wonder, did he not act as Randall Davidson did over Hensley Henson’s appointment to Hereford in 1917-18, over very much the same issues?). I do not suppose that it would ever have got to the point of “if Habgood supports it it must be wrong”, but Habgood as Cantuar would have made many Evangelicals on the General Synod much more receptive to the arguments of the more conservative Evangelicals (the forebears of “Reform”); and to shift such a current of opinion would have taken years. Instead, they had George Carey, whom they trusted, urging them to vote in favour, bringing in what was described at the time as the Evangelical floating vote, and enabling the measure – JUST! – to achieve the requisite majority in all three Houses.

      (And if I can be very naughty, I might also add that ++Welby succeeded where ++Williams failed in getting women bishops through…..)

  • Michael Mulhern says:

    This sad news only serves to highlight how the Church of England has become less of key player in national public life, and reminds us of a time when bishops and archbishops were people of intellectual stature. I doubt that Mrs Thatcher would ever get rattled by the current episcopal cohort, as she did whenever John Habgood, Robert Runcie, David Sheppard and David Jenkins spoke out against government policy and its effects on the most disadvantaged. Habgood, in particular, was a trenchant critic of economic policies which blindly insisted that the poor would rise with the tide of prosperity. Not much chance of that happening now.

    John Habgood also exemplified the inherent generosity that is the hallmark of Anglicanism, even recognising that while the majority of us welcomed the ordination of women, it would have consequences for those who could not accept that the Church of England was competent to make this decision alone, and making provision for their episcopal oversight. He was an adroit theologian, telling Cardinal Josef Ratzinger (as he then was) that the cause of ecumenical dialogue would be better served if the Roman Catholic Church could see its magisterium more in terms as an *approximation* to the truth, rather than insisting that it *is* the truth.

    Thank God for his life and ministry. A giant in every sense.

  • FrDavidH says:

    I was ordained by him at his first ordination service after he became a Bishop. Although he was somewhat aloof, he was loved and respected and had a caring pastoral heart. They don’t make bishops like him anymore. He ministered at a time when people listened to what bishops like him had to say – unlike today when none has anything to say worth hearing. RIP dear Bishop.

  • A Mighty Totara (tree) has fallen! May this holy man now rest in peace and rise with Christ!

  • Father David says:

    Just as Churchill wouldn’t hear of George Bell going to Canterbury so too Thatcher blocked John Habgood’s obvious and sensible passage to the throne of Saint Augustine. I remember being present in York Minster when, against much opposition, Archbishop Habgood bravely consecrated David Jenkins to the See of Durham. One of his books was entitled “Confessions of a Conservative Liberal” and another was called “Making Sense”. Alas, no one of Habgood’s intellect, wisdom and stature now sits on the Bench. A great loss to the Established Church.

  • Will Richards says:

    John Habgood may have appeared aloof @FrDavidH, but I think it is was more likely that he was shy. He also had the endearing quality of engaging brain before opening mouth, which is why, perhaps, he was less at ease in a parish bun fight than his successors. What he gave us in other ways was immeasurably rich and enduring. His sermons were a model of how to combine clarity with economy. Now that we no longer have Rowan Williams in Canterbury (not to say the faux-democracy of the current CNC where dioceses are allowed, effectively, choose their bishops on the basis of who they imagine will put bums on seats and balance the books) we are unlikely to have a bishop of Habgood’s stature in the Church of England again. Ever.

  • Fr John Emlyn Harris-White says:

    My generation were Blessed to live, and be in active ministry when as Fr Ron has said, ‘giant trees’ were leading the church OF England . May they all rest in peace, and rise in glory.

    We pray today for our Church of England , apart from York, led by ‘frail saplings’ with no roots , or stability.

    Fr John Emlyn

    • My father was a working class boy, ordained in his 30s in 1965, and in active ministry until the mid 1990s. He served in the days when most bishops had been theological college principals with little or no parish experience. He told me once that in 30 years of active ministry he had rarely found a bishop who understood what it was like to be a parish priest and could offer him the support he needed. Plus, he found their utterances largely unintelligible to anything other than the Oxbridge crowd.

      That’s why I’m skeptical about the good old days. Not everyone found them good.

  • Simon Kershaw says:

    Oh dear, I do hope that any of our current bishops who chance by this page are not too disheartened by the comments! As far as I recall it was ever thus, and similar things were said about the bishops of 30 years ago. What was it Hesiod said even further back?

    • Well said, Simon. Criticism is so often all we have to offer, it seems.

    • RosalindR says:

      The Guardian’s obituary today is slightly less of a euology.

      • Perry Butler says:

        It was written over 10 yrs ago by Alan Webster..and was rather dominated by his distress at Hapgoods plan for flying bishops.

    • Susannah Clark says:

      I agree. Many of our bishops are decent, pastorally-minded, faithful people. I’m more or less a nobody but lots of them have engaged with me and demonstrated thoughtfulness, kindness, care.

  • It’s too bad that we don’t seem to be able to praise dead bishops without dissing living ones. Being a bishop is an impossible job, and I’m grateful to all who answer the call. I’m only personally acquainted with one C of E bishop, but (being the age that I am) I know several here in Canada (where, God forbid, Will Richards, dioceses choose their own bishops!!!), and I’m grateful for their faith, hard work, and in many cases courageous leadership.

    Sometimes it seems to me as if ‘Thinking Anglicans’ should be renamed ‘Negative Thinking Anglicans’. Criticism is so often all we have to offer.

    • Rowland Wateridge says:

      Agreed. I find it personally painful, and I hope I am not especially thin-skinned. I have had several rude rebuffs which I felt wholly unwarranted (not to say unChristian) in response to what I thought were carefully-reasoned and rational comments. Really a Christian blog or website should be the last place to encounter such discourtesy. Having said this, I salute the liberal stance of the TA Moderators in allowing vigorous debate. It’s just such a pity that people sometimes resort to using extreme language without a lot of thought about even the possibilities of “the other side of the coin”.

    • Rod, I’ve already read it. I’m not talking about whether or not we should reform structures. I’m talking about the blanket judgement and condemnation of hard working bishops because they don’t fit the ‘saintly’ profile of people who lived years ago in an entirely different world. Statements like ‘they don’t make bishops like him any more’ and ‘we are unlikely to have a bishop of Habgood’s stature in the Church of England again. Ever.’ are profoundly unfair to modern bishops who deal with entirely different challenges.

    • Father David says:

      I look forward to the great day when the deceased Bishop George Bell’s name is praised rather than dissed. Who can be compared to such a great and holy man among the present Bench of bishops? None, I fear.

      • There is one Bishop who sits in the House of Lords who has courageously praised Bishop Bell without ceasing: Peter Forster, Bishop of Chester.

      • See, there you go again! Why not stop after praising George Bell? Why go on to condemn his modern successors? Whose right is it to make the comparison? Who gets to be the judge?

        • Grab a coffee, go somewhere quiet, and read this about Bishop Bell – by the late Bishop of Ely Peter Walker in 1985/6. Draw your own conclusions:

  • Father David says:

    The death of John Habgood has caused me to take down from the bookshelves a number of his volumes. In his “Confessions of a Conservative Liberal” in an essay on “The Crockfords Preface” (page 90) I read the following –
    “A parish in my own diocese has, as I write, advertised a Mass for “the maintenance of Catholic Faith and Order in the Church of England” complete with a “procession to the crowned statue of our Lady Queen of Heaven” and “veneration of the relic of Saint Pius V”. I do not wish to carp at what is doubtless a sincere intention, but it is plain that the Catholic future cannot possibly lie in that direction.”
    I wonder if anyone can identify which particular parish this is within the diocese of York?

    • Robin Ward says:

      No doubt St Stephen’s Hull under Fr Francis Bown

    • peter kettle says:

      I suspect it was St Stephen’s Hull, where the parish priest was the flamboyant and rabidly anti-women-priests Francis Bown. Ironically the church was closed down after a final service led by the Bishop of Hull, Alison White, in 2017. Francis Bown is still flamboyantly active in the secular world – google Bown’s Best and Bown’s Bespoke

    • Will Richards says:

      May be where Frankie Bown once held sway?

  • Jane Thomas says:

    To be fair to those who commented earlier in this thread, I don’t think anyone is saying that the current cohort of bishops is not hardworking and motivated by the highest good. A valid point was made that, collectively, they lack the intellectual calibre of previous generations. That’s hardly a controversial point. Similarly, I think there is strong evidence to say that bishops, on the whole, are less likely to challenge political policies that disadvantage the poor today; and certainly less willing to call the government to account. There are exceptions (e.g. Liverpool) but very much a minority. The silence over Brexit also bears this out. Unlike the Anglican Church in Canada, we do not have a congregationalist polity: we speak for the nation and serve the nation in an established (public) capacity. We are here for everybody. Whether it is the steep decline in attendance, or failing finances, there are factors that have turned all the energy inwards; and bishops are now more engrossed in institutional survival. I think it is valid for people to ask whether this is a good thing, and how well the future of the Church will be served by this strategy. John Habgood’s death is a reminder of what we have lost, and those of us who live and work in England feel the loss of incisive, intellectually rigorous contributions from bishops to public debate acutely.

    • ‘Unlike the Anglican Church in Canada, we do not have a congregationalist polity’.

      The bishops and clergy of the Anglican Church of Canada would be astounded to discover that we have a congregationalist polity.

    • ‘A valid point was made that, collectively, they lack the intellectual calibre of previous generations.’

      But it was on their watch that Christianity in England began to go into decline (I note that Alan Gilbert produced his influential book ‘The Making of Post-Christian Britain’ as long ago as 1980), so apparently their intellectual calibre wasn’t as effective as many here seem to think.

    • Father David says:

      Precisely, in former times and not so very long ago, with controversial figures like John Robinson and David Jenkins the debate was all about theological issues. Then we had great debates about The Church and the Bomb under great bishops like John Austin Baker. During Robert Runcie’s tenure at Canterbury we had Faith in the City. Now it would seem all we ever get hot under the collar about is Issues in Human Sexuality and how to keep the C of E plc still rolling along.

      • CRS says:

        Ah, yes, the good ol’ days.

        Culture does not stand still. As Tim Chesterton notes above, all this soi-disant intellectual firepower went hand in glove with a declining CofE, and now a church on the verge of collapse, calling forth a different kind of bishop altogether. New occasions teach new duties. The duty now is survival, disestablishment, God alone knows what.

        • CRS says:

          I am sure this is very sage, and also that you will judge it so!

          Each era has to face its own challenges. Looking back on “grand figures” who are to be contrasted with those contemporaneous will fail miserably if the respective challenges of the periods are not factored in.

          John Webster has a good entry on retrievalism in an OUP volume recently appearing. Cautious and wise.

          • CRS says:

            “Obviously. However, institutions also have entrenched patterns of maladapative behaviour. Dismissing the insights of intellectuals from within and without is one.” Duh.

          • CRS says:

            One speaks of glorfiying a previous generation, and my response to that is as above.

            Your comments about your individual heros then sound like lectures in your private salle d’enseignement.

            Blessed Lent indeed. Quiet in the Lord’s wisdom.

        • Will Richards says:

          Careful, CRS, the Church of England’s decline under George Carey was more pronounced than under Habgood and Runcie (remember the so-called ‘Decade of Evangelism’?) and it’s not doing too well at the moment with Welby, HTB and Resource Churches, with several dioceses coming close to haemorrhaging. I think the point about the withdrawal of the C of E from public life is still a valid and significant one. Existing to survive is, surely, a sign of failure.

      • Simon Dawson says:

        Perhaps it is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If you feel that the CofE is expiring through lack of numbers, then the safety needs of bums on seats will be prioritised. The self-actualisation needs of worrying about theology, and the bomb, will have to be deferred.

    • Northerner says:

      I wonder if Jane means the distinction between the Church of England being an established church, whereas the Anglican Church of Canada is not, rather than the distinction between being episcopal compared with congregational? The Anglican Church of Canada is definitely episcopal and not congregational in structure.

  • Father David says:

    Simon, when a Church stops “worrying about theology” surely it has then lost all sense of purpose and hope?
    As for the Bomb – then I’ll leave that one to Presidents Trump and Kim to start “worrying” about!

    • If Simon Dawson wishes to invoke Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ Theory, then he should do so more accurately. The Theory states if all the other Needs are threatened, we return to our basic Survival/Safety Needs. So, if a nuclear war threatens to wipe us out – because of our inability to deal with it – then our priority is unlikely to be putting “bums on seats” in church!

      By the way, Maslow later improved on his ‘Hierachy of Needs’ Theory with his ‘Metamotivation’ Theory – a far more creative, hopeful and challenging theory for humanity.

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