NEWS STORY: Former Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie Dies at 78

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c. 2000 Religion News Service

LONDON _ Former Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie, who led the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Communion through one of the most tumultuous theological and social decades in the church’s history, died Tuesday (July 11) at his home at St. Albans, Hertfordshire in southern England. He was 78.

Runcie served as archbishop from 1980 to 1991.

For some years Runcie had suffered from prostate cancer, though few would have deduced this from the range of activities he continued to maintain.

In a tribute his successor, Archbishop George Carey, singled out two of Runcie’s many contributions to the life of both the church and nation: an invitation to Pope John Paul II to visit Canterbury Cathedral during the pontiff’s visit to Britain in 1982, and the 1985 publication of the Faith in the City report, which offered a damning indictment of deprivation and poverty in inner-city areas. Subsequently, Runcie oversaw establishment in 1987 of the Church Urban Fund to support anti-poverty initiatives.

“From this significant recommitment to the people of our inner cities has come a new confidence in the church in its mission, particularly to the poor and marginalized,” Carey said.

Carey also recalled Runcie’s “delightful sense of humor,” as did Bishop Mark Santer of Birmingham.

“I once heard Robert say that nobody should be put in charge of anything unless they had a sense of humor,” Santer said “He certainly passed that test. He possessed a wonderful wit and with it a great sense of proportion. He had a sense of the absurdity of things and was always amazed that he was Archbishop of Canterbury.”

Santer recalled he had last seen Runcie when the two sat next to one another at the installation of Monsignor Cormac Murphy-O’Connor as Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster.

“I told him that the two of them had something in common,” said Santer. “Both of them were not only priests: they were also real human beings.”

In his tribute to Runcie, Archbishop Murphy-O’Connor spoke of their “very warm, personal relationship” and underlined Runcie’s deep commitment to Christian unity.

“I was particularly moved that, though ill, he insisted on attending my recent installation as Archbishop of Westminster,” he said.

Like three of his six predecessors this century as Archbishop of Canterbury, Runcie did not come from a Church of England background. His father _ a Scot who became chief electrical engineer at the Liverpool sugar refiners Tate and Lyle _ had a Presbyterian upbringing that left him with little sympathy for the Church of England or its clergy. Runcie was born in Liverpool in 1921, and as a child attended the local Methodist Sunday school in Crosby, a suburb of Liverpool. His introduction to the Church of England came from his eldest sister who had become a church-going Anglo-Catholic.

After grammar school Runcie won a scholarship to Brasenose College, Oxford,where his studies were interrupted by World War II. He served as a tank commander in the Scots Guards, one of the British Army’s elite regiments. He also earned the Military Cross for rescuing one of his men from a burning tank, and for taking three tanks into the open to knock out a German anti-tank gun that was holding up the Allied advance through the Netherlands.

Back at Oxford Runcie won a first class degree in Literae Humaniores, (Humane Letters) involving the study of philosophy as well as Greek and Roman history.

After training for the priesthood at Westcott House, Cambridge, Runcie served three years as a curate in Newcastle-upon-Tyne before returning to Cambridge, first as chaplain at Westcott House, and then as dean at Trinity Hall. While there he married the Senior Fellow’s daughter, who continued her own career as a distinguished piano teacher. In 1961 he was appointed principal of Cuddesdon, another Anglo-Catholic theological college.

In 1970 Runcie was appointed Bishop of St. Albans, entrusted with leading the Church of England’s dialogue with the Orthodox Churches. Ten years later he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, in which role his gifts for achieving consensus faced their severest challenge.

Though an Archbishop of Canterbury is Primate of All England and head of the Anglican Communion, he has practically no power. Runcie could exhort and persuade, but could not command in the way that, for example, a Roman Catholic bishop is able to do.

During his primacy the Church of England began the contentious process of legislating to allow the ordination of women priests.

Initially, when the matter came before the general synod in 1984, Runcie favored a policy of gradualism and voted against the motion the synod adopted calling for the preparation of legislation to allow women priests. But he changed his mind, and by 1988 when the women priests measure began its long passage through the synod, Runcie had come to the view that women should be ordained.

In 1992, the year after Runcie retired, the measure was approved.

Runcie’s diplomatic skills were also in demand at the 1988 Lambeth Conference when the Anglican Communion was in danger of tearing itself apart over the issue of the appointment of the first women bishops. That the Communion did not break apart, and that women bishops were able to attend the 1998 Lambeth Conference, was a tribute both to Runcie’s leadership.

Runcie’s critics often accused him of being indecisive and sitting on the fence. But Runcie was actually a genuine liberal who could see all sides of an argument, said Richard Chartres, Runcie’s first chaplain at Lambeth and who subsequently became Bishop of London in 1995.

Runcie is best known abroad for conducting the 1981 wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, and he frequently butted heads with former English Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher over issues such as his insistence that Argentinian soldiers also be remembered in a memorial service for those killed during the Britain’s 1982 war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands.

He was also an ardent ecumenist and often drew criticism within the church for advocating closer ties between the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches.

He is survived by his wife Rosalind; a daughter, Rebecca; and a son, James. His funeral will be held July 22 at the cathedral in St. Albans.


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