SPCK, a leading publishing company of theological and Christian books, asks Bishop David Wilbourne to go behind the scenes of his biography of the inimitable former Archbishop of York, John Habgood. 

This biography has been a long time in the making – can you tell us a bit about what it was like writing it?

I have been a John Habgood observer for 37 years, ever since he became Archbishop of York on my new wife’s birthday in 1983. I remember watching his enthronement at York Minster on my TV in darkest Middlesbrough, stealing away in the middle to take a funeral, and then returning, thinking, ‘This is my sort of guy.’ Maths and Physics are my first loves, so it was great to have a scientist as my boss. Eight years later he asked me to be his domestic chaplain (a cross between Bernard and Sir Humphrey of Yes Prime Minister fame) and we worked closely together for four years. Basically I never let him out of my sights, so I really got under his skin and probably on his nerves! When he retired SPCK kindly published my affectionate and humorous Diary of our time together. Work done, I thought.

Except so many memories and stories kept bubbling up, which filled my bi-monthly diary column in the Church Times. In 2005 John was hit hard by the untimely death of his wife Rosalie’s brother, and became acutely aware of his own mortality, wondering how he would be remembered. He asked me to suggest a biographer, only to dismiss all my carefully researched suggestions.  This sort of thing had happened occasionally in my time as chaplain. Normally I was quiet and obedient, but when thwarted too many times I used to snap and say, ‘In that case, I’ll have to do the job myself.’ Which is what I said this time, and John and Rosalie responded with surprising and great enthusiasm: ‘That’s what we’d hoped all along.’

For four years we met over coffee and lunch and tea on several occasions, with me scribbling down John’s memories, and nodding and trying to look wise whenever he explained some tricky aspect of Physiology or Theology to me. He had kept meticulous records and dug out salient documents which I took away, which amounted to several towers of files. I also interviewed lots of contacts and having mentioned what I was up to in the Church Times, several people kindly wrote to me with their memories of John.

After four years I managed to complete just one chapter, on the notorious Crockford Preface. Since I planned to write 23 chapters, I realised at that rate of writing, the project would take nearly a century! To make matters worse in 2009 I was surprised to be appointed Assistant Bishop of Llandaff, working with the Archbishop of Wales, which filled my time 24/7, meaning the biography was put on the back burner and during my time in Llandaff I never opened a single one of John’s files.  I was however reflecting deeply on John’s massive take on episcopacy as my own role as bishop unfolded.

In 2017 my time in Llandaff ended as surprisingly as it had began, and we moved to our present home in Scarborough. In 2012 DLT published my Helmsley Chronicles and in 2017 Pan MacMillan my Shepherd of Another Flock, and I felt I had found my genre, setting out parabolic anecdotes which caught the poignancy and humour of ministry. I realised this was a very different genre from biography, as I explained to Alison Barr, SPCK’s long-suffering publisher, just after John died in March 2019. ‘Why not write it in your anecdotal style?’ she bravely suggested. It was as if a light was switched on, and the words flowed. I guess they had been cooking for a very long time, and it was simply a case of taking them out of the oven. My wife, Rachel, nobly worked with me doing research and checking my script and I wrote non-stop for three months. It wasn’t as if nothing else was going on in our lives: our new vicar had fallen ill, so I was covering Lent and Easter in the parish; I was also running two Lent Courses and planning and delivering two retreats; oh yes, and two of our daughters were getting married

You knew John Habgood well yourself. While writing this, were you surprised by anything you discovered about him?

I keep asserting that I played a grasshopper to his giant, so everything surprised me! In researching his family tree, going back to the 13th century, I came across giants galore, most momentous, some so very funny that I still cry with laughter as I re-read their story.

I enjoyed discovering that John had kept all the exam papers he ever sat at Cambridge (with the questions he attempted marked with tiny ticks) and I attempted to answer all the Maths and Physics questions, just to get into his head and into the head of 1940s undergraduates.

I was also very surprised by his friendship with Madrè, his landlady from his time as a curate in Kensington. Without giving too much of the plot away, it was a very intense and close relationship, and they had a long correspondence for years after John left Kensington. Without doubt it set him on the path to be Bishop of Durham – and inhabit Auckland Castle, a utterly colossal and unmanageable place.

You describe John Habgood as a man who ‘wasn’t led by science, but forged it’ – could you explain what you mean by that?

Our PM Boris Johnson, like John an old Etonian, defends all his responses to the Coronavirus as being necessarily led by science. John belonged to that heady post-war group who, whatever their scientific discipline, made the bracing discoveries which changed the world. Often they had to practise ‘kitchen science’, manufacturing their own complex apparatus out of this and that – one home-made rectifier used to pick up BBC Light Programme’s Whistle while you work as well as measuring nerve impulses! Yet all this Heath Robinson-ish equipment resulted in some mind-bending equations and universal laws. I think it gave him a cool-headed confidence that no problem was unsolvable, everything could be fixed – even the Church of England!

Do you see parallels between John’s time as Archbishop of York and the world today?

The Coronavirus pandemic takes me back to the AIDS pandemic which rolled out in 1986/87, when there was a terrifying UK Government advert with a grim apocalyptic message that if we didn’t abstain from sex, we were all doomed. John Habgood kept his cool urging us to keep calm and avoid any over-reaction which scapegoated minorities and blamed them for the epidemic. For instance, he was against banning the common cup at Communion for fear of catching AIDS, because he felt all life necessarily involved risks, and neurotically trying to eliminate those risks ran the risk of eliminating life itself!

I guess John would have baulked at Church of England priests and people being banned from visiting their ancient and hallowed churches, where the prayer of centuries is soaked into the stones. Canon Senior, my esteemed predecessor as Vicar of Helmsley in the North York Moors, used to talk of a spiritual steam engine driving his prayers in Rievaulx Abbey. In a keynote address for the Decade of Evangelism in 1994, John, quoting Professor David Martin, described churches ‘as the only institutions that deal in tears and concern themselves with the breaking points of human existence.’

What do you think we can learn from John’s life and work?

From time to time God gifts us with a Shakespeare or a Mozart or an Einstein, and John is in that league. The trick is to look out for the superb gift and treasure it.  In many ways John was the last patrician. His time was a very different time from our own, and whatever time, I believe one is always met by grace, with that grace coming from surprising directions.  I am greatly impressed by the deep spirituality and wisdom of many present-day bishops who have helped and encouraged me with John’s biography, including Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury; John Inge, bishop of Worcester; Graham Usher, bishop of Norwich; and Kenneth Kearon, former Secretary General of the Anglican Communion and now bishop of Limerick. They carry John’s torch and our church and world are very safe in their hands.

Join Bishop David to hear more anecdotes and tales from his biography at our upcoming talk: Just John