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Robert Alexander Kennedy Runcie, Baron Runcie PC, MC (2 October 1921 – 11 July 2000) was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1980 to 1991.

Early life

He was born and spent his early life in Great Crosbymarker, a suburb of Liverpoolmarker, Lancashiremarker, to middle class and rather non-religious parents. He initially attended St Luke's Church, Crosby (where he was confirmed in 1936), before switching to the Anglo-Catholic St Faith's Church about a mile down the road. He was educated at Merchant Taylors' School, Crosbymarker before going up to Brasenose College, Oxfordmarker.

He earned a commission in the Scots Guards during World War II, serving as a tank commander and earning the Military Cross for two feats of bravery in March 1945: he rescued one of his men from a crippled tank under heavy enemy fire, and the next day took his own tank into an exceptionally exposed position in order to knock out three anti-tank guns. In May 1945 he was among the first British troops to enter Bergen-Belsenmarker.

After the surrender of Nazi Germany, he served with the occupying forces in Cologne and then with the boundary commission dealing with the future status of the Free Territory of Trieste.

On his return to Oxford, he surprised many by taking first class honours in Greats. He was a member of both Tory and Socialist societies at Oxford, and through that he had his first dealings with the young Margaret Roberts, a relationship which was to prove pivotal during his archiepiscopate.


Runcie studied for ordination at Westcott House, Cambridgemarker where he received a diploma, rather than a second bachelor's degree in theology. He was ordained in the Diocese of Newcastlemarker in 1950 to serve as a curate in the parish of All Saints in the wealthy Newcastle upon Tynemarker suburb of Gosforthmarker, then a rapidly growing suburban area. Rather than the conventional minimum three year curacy, after only two years Runcie was invited to return to Westcott House as Chaplain and, later, Vice-Principal. In 1956 he was elected Fellow and Dean of Trinity Hall, Cambridgemarker, where he would meet his future wife, Rosalind, the daughter of the college bursar.

In 1960 he returned to the world of the theological college, becoming Principal of Cuddesdon, near Oxford, where he spent ten years and transformed what had been a rather monastic and traditionally Anglo-Catholic institution into a stronghold of the liberal catholic wing of the Church of England. In this period his name became more and more strongly spoken of as a future bishop, and speculation was confirmed when he was appointed Bishop of St Albans in 1970.

Like Gosforth in the 1950s, the Diocese of St Albansmarker was a booming suburban area, popular with families moving out of a depopulating Londonmarker. As well as diocesan work, he worked with broadcasters as Chairman of the Central Religious Advisory Committee, and was appointed Chairman of the joint Anglican-Orthodox Commission.

Archbishop of Canterbury

Runcie was selected as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1979. Ironically, in view of his future relations with the Conservative government, there is evidence that Runcie was actually the second choice of the Crown Appointments Commission, the first choice, Hugh Montefiore, having proven politically unacceptable to the then newly elected Conservative government.

During his time as Archbishop of Canterbury he witnessed a breaking down of traditionally convivial relations between the Conservative Party and the Church of England, which was habitually if rather inaccurately described as "the Tory party at prayer". This was due mainly to the Church's pronouncements on political matters and Margaret Thatcher's support for the ethos of individualism and wealth creation, and her claim that "there is no such thing as society", which many in the Anglican church thought was uncaring and anti-Christian. However, this seven word phrase, extracted from a 1987 interview with Woman's Own magazine, has a subtly different impact when taken within the context of the interview as a whole.

In 1981 Runcie officiated at the marriage of Charles, Prince of Wales to Lady Diana Spencer, despite suspecting privately that they were ill-suited and that their marriage would not last.

With a dramatic gesture of goodwill, he knelt in prayer with Pope John Paul II in Canterbury Cathedral during John Paul's visit to Great Britain in 1982.

In 1985 there was friction between the Church of England and members of the Conservative Government, in particular Norman Tebbit, over the Church's report "Faith in the City", which criticised the government's handling of social problems in British inner-city areas. As a result of this, Tebbit became a strong supporter of the disestablishment of the Church of England, claiming that institutions affiliated to the British state should not express what he saw as overtly partisan political views.

Much of the middle period of Runcie's archiepiscopate was taken up with the tribulations of two men who had been close to him - the suicide of Gareth Bennett, and the kidnapping of Terry Waite.

When Runcie visited the Pope in 1989, he set out to reconcile the Church of England with the Church of Rome. Runcie advocated the Papacy as having a 'primacy of honour' rather than 'primacy of jurisdiction' over the Anglican church, a proposal consistent with the report of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission. The Pope did not go along with this, however, claiming that the Papacy already has primacy of jurisdiction over all other churches regardless of whether or not this is officially recognised and also that the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church would not change to accommodate Runcie's proposals.

In terms of internal Anglican matters, much of Runcie’s archiepiscopate was taken up with the debate over whether to proceed with the ordination of women in the Church of England as well as the fallout from the ordination of women priests and consecration of women bishops in other parts of the Anglican Communion. Runcie's position on the matter had been described as "nailing his colours firmly to the fence" – his liberal catholic theology conflicting with his instinctive conservatism. As a result, he often seemed like a rabbit in the headlights, mistrusted by both sides of the debate. The traditionalist wing of Anglo-Catholicism, in particular, felt that he had betrayed them by not becoming a forthright opponent of women priests and resented him as a result.

The church's attitude to homosexuality was also a divisive issue during this period, although it did not assume the crisis proportions it would in the late 1990s and 2000s. Although in public Runcie stuck to official Church of England policy as set out in the publication Issues in Human Sexuality, that homosexual practice was not ideal for lay people and unacceptable for clergy, in private he held a more sympathetic view and consciously ordained a number of openly gay men as priests.

Retirement and death

On his retirement as Archbishop of Canterbury, he was created a life peer, as Baron Runcie, of Cuddesdonmarker in the County of Oxfordshire, enabling him to remain in the House of Lordsmarker where he had previously sat as a Lord Spiritual. He died of cancer in St Albansmarker in 2000, and is buried in the grounds of St Albans Cathedralmarker.


Lord Runcie's widow, Rosalind, whom he married on 5 September 1957, was formerly well-known as a pianist. They have two children: James Runcie, a novelist, and Rebecca Runcie, as well as four grandchildren: Rosie, Charlotte, Matthew and Edward.


In the postscript of Humphrey Carpenter's biography:

I have done my best to die before this book is published. It now seems possible that I may not succeed.


See also

  • Richard Chartres, Lord Bishop of London since 1995, was Runcie's Chaplain in the 1970s and '80s at both St Albans and subsequently Canterbury

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