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Tribute to Lord Habgood – Bishop David Wilbourne

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Tribute at Lord Habgood’s Thanksgiving Service on 27 June in York Minister
by Bishop David Wilbourne, – Chaplain to the Archbishop of York 1991-1997

‘Woe unto me if I preach not the Gospel.’
John lived those lines of St Paul.

No death has ever affected me as much as John’s.
Just one hour after he had died,
the Publisher from SPCK rang and said,
‘You’d better get on with his biography!’
Since then John has filled
my every waking and sleeping moment,
our home has been littered with towers of papers
bearing strange insignia such as
Westcott Compline 1957
– add milk and heat over stove;
House of Bishops Homosexuality, Adelphi Hotel, 1988
– that sounds like one great party;
and Cuddesdon Retreat 1966.
As well as being the year of that World Cup,
’66 was the year of theological college wars.
‘They think it’s all over, it is now!’

It wasn’t all over for Queen’s College, Birmingham:
ecumenical John created a veritable kingdom outpost there.
Before Queen’s, at Queen’s and after Queen’s
John had no truck whatsoever with bland bishops
who told him this couldn’t be done, that couldn’t be done:
John did it.
Our Lord’s Last Supper plea, ‘That they may be one,’
drove him, lock, stock and barrel.

The biography is complete, 75,000 words,
I guess too many for this morning.
Time fails me to tell of John phoning 10 Downing Street
brokering an offer from the Durham miners
which would have saved Ted Heath’s government
and spared us the Lib/Lab pact and Margaret Thatcher.

Time fails me to tell of John proposing to persuade
Saddam Hussein to draw back from the brink of war.
Hussein presumably got wind of John’s searing silences
and promptly invaded Kuwait instead.

Time fails me to tell of John secretly meeting
with both sides during the Troubles in Northern Ireland
persuading North and South to adopt
the European Convention on Human Rights
assuring fearful minorities
they had at least a basic respect and dignity.

This morning I want to dwell on just one thing.
Whilst Terry Waite languished in his Beirut cell,
for forty days each year for four years
I was incarcerated in a silent metal cage, six by eight feet
which I had to share with two other men,
one of them John, the other Gordon, our driver.
We travelled around twenty thousand miles each year,
silence in the car was the absolute rule,
which made for four hundred hours,
forty working days
if you work ten hours a day.
A Lent every year.

Forty days of fast since we never ate in the car.
I once came armed with a pack of bacon sandwiches
and offered one to the Boss.
‘No thank you,’ he replied,
giving me the withering look Saul must have given
David when he asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage.
‘I’ve put tomato ketchup in them,’ I reassured him.
‘That makes me even more determined to resist.’

We broke our fast only once,
at a Little Chef outside Wrexham en route for Oswestry,
where St Oswald, King of York, had died horribly in battle.
It was Sunday lunchtime, the place was packed,
but within one minute of me and John striding in
in his gorgeous purple cassock – Rosalie’s phrase –
the cafe emptied.
I guess the punters feared it was a Fresh Expression
and John had a tambourine
hidden in his cassock’s ample folds,
little knowing that John wasn’t a tambourine sort of guy.

I used to sit in the front of the car and watch him
in the rear view mirror.
We were jumpy about being ambushed,
the IRA were active at that time,
so I had to keep an eye out
for what was hurtling towards us.
Gordon, an ex sergeant major looking for a skirmish,
even used to poke a stick under the car
with a mirror on the end checking for bombs.
Never mind the IRA,
John had said some cutting things about Evangelicals
and you do not want to mess with those guys.
I watched him for four silent Lents.
Could you not watch with me for four Lents?

Often he was pouring over the Bible
thinking of something arresting,
which would refresh the Gospel and refresh his audience:
Tell the truth, but tell it slant…
On the way home he poured over the New Scientist,
hallowing it like Scripture:
‘I will consider the heavens, even the works of thy fingers: the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained.’

Always he’d be either thinking or praying.
When he was fashioning the Act of Synod,
the trickiest of balancing acts between two integrities,
his eyes darted around, his eyebrows danced,
a veritable Einstein figuring out his theory of relativity.
In 1993 it was the Church of England’s version of Brexit,
and John fixed it.
If only you had been here, Lord (Habgood),
our nation would not have died.

When we returned from Wydale Hall
after giving his charge to York’s first 39 women priests,
– affectionately known as the 39 articles –
he had that look of an errant husband
concocting an excuse
to pull the wool over his wife’s eyes.
Wonderful Rosalie was fiercely against women priests:
‘This had better be good.’
At Eastertide 1989 Chris Armstrong was chaplain
for the heavy journey to Sheffield Cathedral
to mark the terrible Hillsborough Disaster.
They’d been held up by a major traffic jam on the A1,
and a voice came from the normally silent back seat,
commanding Gordon to break the speed limit.
God so loved Liverpool that gentle John did a ton.

Whenever we neared home, our journey almost complete,
John looked like a boy, anticipating Christmas day’s dawn.
All archbishops eventually have to return to base.
The 95th Archbishop  of York coming home,
surrounded by his 94 predecessors,
portraits galore beaming down upon him.
Since we are surrounded
by so great a cloud of archbishops…
Late December 1953,
Cyril Garbett returns, looking piqued,
anticipating a ship’s biscuit with his acerbic sister,
the chaplain shivering, thinking,
‘Oh God, we’ve still got to say Evensong.’
Garbett piping up,
‘Thank God, we’ve still got to say Evensong!’

Donald Coggan once lectured his clergy:
‘When I return to a chilly Bishopthorpe,
there’s nothing I like better than rushing upstairs with Jean,
stripping off our outer garments
and having a stiff and vigorous game of table tennis.
That soon warms me up.’
How we laughed!  How Donald sadly didn’t.

John looked like Odysseus
sighing with relief, another long epic journey over,
yearning for Rosalie, Laura, Francis, Ruth, Adrian,
hoping his lovely family would remember him.
Sometimes Rosalie lost track of where in the world
the love of her life had got to now.
The Border terriers,
probably mere pups when he had left,
yapping down the corridors at his return:
To the Bishop: Are you going out again tonight?
Can Laura and I watch Top of the Pops, please?
I hope you are well!  See you soon!
All best wishes, Francis” 

He’d briefly greet the family,
and then straight up to the office
to answer mail and write the latest talk.
‘Oh, A cup of tea would be nice, Mary.’
‘Hail Archbishop’s PA, so full of grace,
the cup that cheers is with thee,’


He always had that same look,
like when he celebrated communion or confirmed a child.
A happy-in-his-skin look, a look of wonder.
I once spotted him over our garden wall,
looking at his pet tortoise.
For fifteen minutes, just wondering at it.
Where are the bishops who will be silent like John,
silent like Mark’s women at the tomb
rendered mute by the sheer stupendity of the Easter God?

Where are the bishops
who will be silent like Christ on Trial:
For Rowan Williams,
Christ’s silence is eloquent because otherwise
‘What is said
will take on the colour of the world’s insanity.
It will be another bid for the world’s power,
another identification with the unaccountable tyrannies
that decide how things shall be.
Jesus described in the ways of this world
would be a competitor for a space in it, part of its untruth.’
Poor talkative little Christianity!

On his 65th birthday we were both travelling to London
and tried to get him a place in the driver’s cab.
British Rail declined.
I guess they didn’t think the driver could bear his silence
all the way down the East Coast.
Instead they treated us to a First Class breakfast
complete with a loquacious hostess called Karen
whom we’d picked up outside W H Smith’s kiosk
at seven in the morning.
Karen encouraged John to dunk his eggs
as we sped through Doncaster.
‘What’s that you’re reading, luv,’ she chirped.
‘Hansard,’ came the reply, like ice.
‘Not very chatty, your Boss, is he?’
she said when John had gone to the loo at Grantham.
He always went to the loo at Grantham.
I guess it was his way of paying the place back
for spawning Margaret Thatcher.
There was usually quite a queue.


It was a fearful and terrible thing
to fall into the hands of one of John’s silences.
You felt judged, you felt an idiot,
you filled the silence with babble.
But also you felt affirmed,
tremendously affirmed
with a love beyond words.
The word became flesh and was stunned into silence.

If I had to sum him up,
it would be a picture of a visit to Whitehaven.
A Sri Lankan priest there
had had major brain surgery,
and hadn’t got long.
He was mute, in a wheelchair,
with his dear wife tending him, looking so very sad.
John commissioned him for a ministry of prayer,
and then knelt down before him almost in homage,
held his hands in his and looked into his eyes,
beautiful dark pools of black,
saying nothing.
The silent before the silenced.

And that a higher gift than grace
should flesh and blood refine,
God’s presence and his very self
and essence all divine.

Praise to the holiest in the height,
and in the depth be praise,
in all his works most wonderful,
most sure in all his ways.

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