By John Martin
Tributes have poured in after the death of John Habgood, Archbishop of York from 1983 to 1995, at age 91. John Sentamu, Archbishop of York since 2005, called Habgood “a towering presence.”
A scientist and theologian he made important contributions to ethics debates in the United Kingdom’s life as a member of the House of Lords.
He was an advocate of women priests but chaired the General Synod debate that passed the 1992 Act of Synod. That act made provision for opponents with provincial visitors, colloquially called “flying bishops.” Some advocates of women in the priesthood considered that a betrayal.
Many thought that Habgood, as the Church of England’s second-most senior bishop, would succeed Robert Runcie as Archbishop of Canterbury. He called himself “a conservative liberal” and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher thought the evangelical George Carey was better suited to lead the church through the Decade of Evangelism.
His natural shyness worked against him; The Church Times once called him “a cold fish.”
Before his appointment to York he was Bishop of Durham, a role often occupied by significant theologians.
Habgood found faith at Cambridge University, where he joined the Christian Union. He earned an honors degree in natural sciences and became a demonstrator in pharmacology. He completed a PhD in the physiology of pain in 1952.
In 1953, pursuing a call to ordination, he studied for 18 months at Cuddesdon College near Oxford, did a curacy at St. Mary Abbots parish in London, and returned to Cambridge as vice principal of Westcott House. He married Rosalie Barton in 1961 and the couple had four children. She died in 2016.
After a time as rector of Jedburgh in the Scottish border region, he returned to theological education as principal of Queen’s College in Birmingham. Three years later it merged with the Handsworth Methodist College to become the U.K.’s first ecumenical training college.
Many thought he was at his best in this role, but in 1973 he was called to Durham on the sudden death of Ian Ramsey. With this came automatic membership of the House of Lords. He wrote a number of books, including Science and Religion (1964). He retired from the House of Lords in 2011, having sat on the cross benches.
He once said he could usually see six sides to every theological argument.