The Archbishop of Canterbury and I

In my second year at Queen Mary College I managed to get a place in a University of London hall of residence in Bloomsbury. Commonwealth Hall was situated in Cartwright Gardens just up from Russell Square. It was the custom of the Hall to have formal dinners a few times each term with guests from outside the university. These were pleasant occasions when members of the academic staff would invite some of the students to join them, and it was usual for the students to act as hosts with the external guests.

I was pleased to receive an invitation to one such event, but taken aback when the Warden informed me that I had been chosen to host … you’ve guessed it … the Archbishop of Canterbury. Having been a convinced agnostic since about the age of eight or nine, I had no idea why this had fallen to my lot, but I was determined to give it my best shot.

Michael Ramsey was Archbishop of Canterbury at that time in the sixties. He was an imposing figure. Tall and impressive, a fine-looking man with strong features, he struck me as having the appearance of an Old Testament prophet, which I suppose was not entirely inappropriate.

My first duty that evening was to greet the Great Man in the entrance hall and conduct him to the senior common room where we would ‘take sherry’ (remember those days? Sadly, I do) before processing in to dinner. As soon as I saw my guest for the evening my heart sank. While he crossed the pavement from his chauffeur-driven limousine, he looked every inch the spiritual leader of the Church of England. I secretly dreaded finding any subject of mutual interest that we could talk about while I played the attentive host.

A friendly welcoming exchange over a handshake, and it was so far so good as we mounted the stairs together. My private fear was that that might have been the high point of the evening. In the common room I managed to make civilised introductions, hoping that the Warden would not live to regret asking me to host the guest of honour.

It was almost surrealistic to find myself raising a glass in that august company, but to my surprise the Archbishop inclined his head towards me and spoke in an undertone.

“Can I ask you something? Do you know anything about cars? Do you have one perhaps?”

Was he already thinking of making a quick getaway?

“I do have a car, your Grace. It’s a Morris Minor.”

“Did you see my car this evening?”

I had a vague impression of something large and black.

“Was it an Austin Princess?” I ventured.

“It was. So you do know about cars. What do you think of that one?”

I had no real opinion, but had seen them used for weddings, funerals, those kinds of formal occasions.

“Probably quite comfortable, I would imagine,” I suggested.

“Rather grand, d’you think?”

“Not as grand as a Rolls-Royce, a Bentley or a Daimler, perhaps.”

“But for a man of the cloth,” the Archbishop added.

“You think it’s too … er, grand?”

“I’ve told them I wanted something less grand.” He did not specify who ‘they’ were. “They’ve suggested an Austin Westminster. Do you know them?”

“Three litre engine, six cylinders, very spacious, hydrolastic suspension, similar overall concept to the Mini, but much bigger, of course.”

The Archbishop reflected on this before speaking again.

“I was wondering about the Austin Cambridge,” he said. “Any thoughts?”

“A medium-sized family car,” I observed. “Bread-and-butter sort of car, really.”

“What kind of car did you say you have?” he asked.

By now I was noticing that some of the other people present were eyeing us curiously. Perhaps they were wondering what we could have in common that led us to such a prolonged and intense private conversation.

“I have a Morris Minor,” I replied. “It’s ten years old, but a nice enough little run-around. Definitely not grand.”

At that point we were invited in to dinner and, as we took our places at high table, I found myself going over that strange conversation in my head. I wondered if I would one day be telling my grandchildren about my meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury and talking about cars like two blokes in a pub, or something like that.

I recall nothing more about that evening, except that as I escorted the Archbishop out of the building to where his car – his Austin Princess limousine – was waiting to transport him back to Lambeth Palace, he turned and spoke for the last time.

“Thank you for this evening. I enjoyed our conversation. Most illuminating.”

That was the last time we spoke, but not the last time I saw him.

It was a few years later when I was working for the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) that I was walking along a corridor in County Hall on my way back from a meeting. It was the day of the Leader’s annual garden party. It is not widely known that there is a vehicular access into the side entrance of County Hall from Westminster Bridge. When the gates are open, cars enter on a circular driveway. On that day guests were arriving and being deposited by their drivers at the internal entrance before being led through to the large courtyard garden beyond. I paused for a few moments to watch one or two cars drive in. I was just turning to continue on my way when I noticed something unusual. A small vehicle rolled in, drove halfway round the circle and drew to a halt by the entrance opposite where I was looking down, from several floors above street level.

I suddenly realised that the small car was in fact a Morris Minor 1000. To my surprise, a chauffeur in uniform leapt out from the driving seat, walked round to the pavement and opened the rear passenger door. To my greater surprise – or rather astonishment – who extricated himself from the rear of the car but the Most Reverend Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury. There was no doubt about it.

As I hurried on my way, my thoughts went back to a summer's evening in Commonwealth Hall a few years earlier and my conversation with the spiritual head of the Church of England. Could it be that . . . ? Surely not.

I suppose I'll never know. But I do wonder.

© Leo McNeir 2019