When you: apply for a new job, don’t you just hate it when you ask for the Person Specification and it turns out to require a mixture of Richard Branson, Albert Einstein and Mother Teresa? Does it ever happen the other way round? Of course it does. I for one remember having a job interview cut short because they thought I was over-qualified. But nothing can beat this famous anecdote.
The story goes like this. In the old days, bishops in the Church of England were chosen by the sovereign alone, but usually from a shortlist prepared by ‘people in the government.’ In 1961 the Archbishop of Canterbury, the no-nonsense managerial type and ex-headmaster of Repton, Geoffrey Fisher, announced that he would retire. As was his right, he sought to advise the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, on his choice of successor.
Of all the likely candidates he knew of, one in particular struck Fisher as being totally unsuitable. This was the then Archbishop of York, Michael Ramsey, who had studied under him at Repton. Ramsey later told a friend what Fisher had said to the Prime Minister:
- “I have come to give you some advice about my successor. Whoever you choose, under no account must it be Michael Ramsey, the Archbishop of York. Dr Ramsey is a theologian, a scholar and a man of prayer. Therefore, he is entirely unsuitable as Archbishop of Canterbury. I have known him all my life. I was his Headmaster at Repton.”
- “Thank you, your Grace, for your kind advice. You may have been Doctor Ramsey’s headmaster, but you were not mine.”
David Hein, in his book Geoffrey Fisher: Archbishop of Canterbury 1945-1961, says that “several different accounts of this meeting have been handed down.” One version is given in a review in the Church Times some years ago by Kenneth Leech.
Whatever the truth, Ramsey was appointed to Canterbury and occupied the chair of St Augustine until 1974. He was a great and good man, as the present Primate has confirmed in a recent piece. Which leaves the question: what do you have to be like if you’re Archbishop of Canterbury?