David Hope's triumph of faith

An intimate picture of the retiring Archbishop of York is out this week. Religious Affairs Correspondent Michael Brown takes a look at the account of Wakefield-born David Hope, who is the Church of England's second-in-command. HE almost never made it. As a baby, David Hope developed pyloric stenosis, a narrowing of the stomach outlet that obstructs the passage of food. Alarmed, his parents summoned Clifford Hamer, the vicar of Lupset, Wakefield, to their home in Thornes Lane and the ailing

When I interviewed the Archbishop of York in October 1995 he definitely said it was a basin. Now Rob Marshall, David Hope's press officer of almost 20 years, says it was a tin. Which just goes to show that you can't believe everything that official Anglican spokespersons tell you.

There are other eyebrow-raisers here, too. At least twice there's a gaffe about the Church of England having an Archbishop's Council – the apostrophe before the s – when, as everybody in the land must know, it's an Archbishops' Council, the apostrophe coming after the s. And then in the index, the Queen is said to be HRH. Oh dear.

There's also a nomenclatural oddness. Almost throughout, Rob Marshall refers to David Hope as Hope. This seems brutal and old-fashioned. What's wrong with Christians using each other's Christian names?

The book is chatty, chummy, admiring, even adulatory. Indeed, there's the temptation to say that this slim offering (154 pages) borders on the hagiographical. Certainly, it's plain for all to see that Rob Marshall thinks the world of David Hope.

But enough carping. And anyway, it's little wonder that Marshall holds his subject in high esteem and considerable affection. David Michael Hope, the son of a Wakefield builder, is an affable man and one of the best Archbishops of Canterbury that the Church of England never had. It's of immense sadness to many that after sitting on St Paulinus's throne he never went on the sit upon St Augustine's.

But he never wanted to. As Marshall reminds us, David Hope was 62 when George Carey announced that he was off. In normal times, the Archbishop of York would have succeeded. But the times were not normal. The erstwhile Bishop of Wakefield and former Bishop of London had been in the episcopate for almost 20 years. And he wanted less pressure, not more. Then, with more and more women training for the priesthood and being appointed to senior positions, the traditionalist David Hope's views on women priests reflected a minority view. Finally, there was unfinished business on the gay issue. And that, as Marshall perspicaciously observes, was something his boss "simply would not have wanted to deal with".

Marshall doesn't avoid discussing the gay issue: the book is well-peppered with references to it. And arrestingly down-to-earth some of them are. Discussing David Hope's time as principal of St Stephen's House, Oxford, the author refers to a Sunday paper quoting an anonymous source saying:

"...the place was Sodom and Gomorrah. Rampant buggery everywhere and nearly everyone sodden with gin."

David Hope, to his credit, cleaned the place up and after seven years in Oxford became Vicar of All Saints', Margaret Street, the so-called "cathedral of Anglo-Catholicism" in London's West End. And there, guess what? Yes, more gays. As Rob Marshall quotes David Hope saying: "I became friends with a good many of them...they were very much part of the parish and community."

But the bachelor vicar's friendships were not too close. They couldn't be. As Marshall candidly says: "There were rumours about Hope's sexuality, about his relationships, and a desire to root out a partner, either boyfriend or girlfriend. Because of this, Hope found it impossible to develop close friendships or to have any visitor from out of town – straight or gay – staying over with him."

Then there's great chunks about the abortive attempt by Peter Tatchell of the militant gay group Outrage! to "out" David Hope when he was Bishop of London. It was, Marshall tells us, "one of the worst experiences of his personal and professional life". Outrage! wrote letters to him "couched in confrontational terms and he responded as best he could". Single and celibate, Hope was "aware of rumours that he was gay and that there had been frequent suggestions that x or y was a partner," says Marshall.

Being celibate, he "became angry and anxious about the rumour mill". He "feared for the future of platonic friendships and recognised that, as Bishop of London, he had to be incredibly careful as Outrage! began communications with him."

After 10 bishops had been outed, Tatchell wrote to David Hope saying: "Although Outrage! had been passed a lot of detailed information about your personal life which would have enabled us to confidently name you...we chose not to do so".

After that it did not, according to Rob Marshall, take the future Archbishop of York long to realise that the writing was on the wall and that the focus would soon turn on him. He decided to challenge Outrage! to prove what they were alleging – to put up or shut up.

So the media were called to a press conference, the correspondence between David Hope and Peter Tatchell was shown to them and Hope read a prepared statement expressing his angst, frustration and hurt. Questions followed. "So you're not gay?" "How long have you been celibate?" "Have you ever had a relationship with anyone?"

And then the question which David Hope answered openly and, Marshall avers, without equivocation. "But Bishop, if you were not celibate, how would you actually describe your sexuality?" The Rt Rev and Rt Hon 131st Lord Bishop of London could have said: "It's none of your business." But he didn't. He said: "I would have to describe my sexuality as a grey area."

The press conference was over. The journalists had their soundbite. The headline writers had their headline: Glad to be Grey. The Bishop of London had denounced Tatchell and his team. And not long after the Church of England meetly and rightly did its bounden duty and made this builder's lad the 96th Lord Archbishop of York, Primate of England and Metropolitan.

Now David Hope, having done nine years at York, is about to become Vicar of St Margaret's, Ilkley. So Rob Marshall's intimate, chummy portrait appears at just the right time. It will be savoured by thousands of admiring Anglicans, and thousands of admirers in other Christian folds, as a fitting tribute to a good and gifted man who enjoys not the trappings of high office but the simple life like shopping in Tesco's at Dringhouses.

On the dark night of his birth – April 14, 1940 – when David Hope was baptised in a Yorkshire pudding tin or whatever, the baptism was done at the behest of doctors who feared that the infant was suffering "some kind of complication".

He suffered other kinds of complications during his time in high office in the Church. But he had the grace – together with dollops of Yorkshire good sense – to triumph over them.

Hope the Archbishop, by Rob Marshall (Continuum, 16.99). To order a copy from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop, call freephone 0800 0153232. Postage and packing is 1.50.