John (Stapylton) Habgood was born on 23 June 1927 at Stony Stratford, Buckinghamshire where his father was a general practitioner. He was educated at Eton College (1941–1945) and then went straight to King’s College Cambridge on a State Bursary where he read the natural sciences tripos (physics, chemistry, physiology and mathematics in part 1 and physiology in part 2) and obtained a double first. The college awarded him a major scholarship, plus a research studentship, which he used for research on the physiology of pain. At this time he was also nominally employed by the Medical Research Council in lieu of National Service. In 1950 he was invited to become University Demonstrator in Pharmacology, a post he held concurrently with his research in physiology until 1953. In 1952 he was awarded a Ph.D. and a research fellowship at King’s College from 1952 to 1955. He was subsequently made an Honorary Fellow in 1986.
Though brought up as a member of the Church of England, religion meant little to him until he encountered and became a member of the Christian Union in Cambridge in 1947. The experience of teaching medical students and helping at boys’ camps, in addition to the political uncertainties of the time led him to question whether he was in the right job. In 1953, therefore, he offered himself for ordination and went for eighteen months’ training at Cuddesdon Theological College Oxford. He was ordained to a curacy at St. Mary Abbots Kensington in 1954, and in 1956 returned to Cambridge to teach theology as Vice-Principal of Westcott House. While there he was a member of the group of Cambridge theologians responsible for the publication of Soundings, a landmark volume of essays critical of the currently fashionable biblical theology. In 1961 he married Rosalie Boston, a musician and music teacher. In 1962 they moved to a parish in Jedburgh Scotland, where three of their four children were born.
In 1967 he was invited to become Principal of Queen’s College, Birmingham, a recently enlarged theological college with everything except students. Negotiations for a merger began immediately with Handsworth Methodist College, and in 1970 Queen's became the first and only ecumenical theological college in the UK. Habgood also lectured on ethics at Birmingham University in partnership with John Hick.
In 1973 he was appointed Bishop of Durham and at the same time became a member of the House of Lords. He was also much involved in the British Council of Churches and later in the World Council of Churches which made him Moderator of its Church and Society Sub-unit. In 1983 he was appointed Archbishop of York and among many other activities chaired the body which brought both Roman Catholics and Pentecostals into the ecumenical movement in Britain. It was a time of acute tension between the Church of England and the Thatcher government but he was pleased to be able to play a positive and significant role in the passing of the Human Fertilization and Embryology Act. On retirement in 1995 he was made a Life Peer and for three years chaired a government committee on xenotransplantation. He was awarded honorary doctorates by the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Durham, Aberdeen, London, Hull, York, Manchester, Huron and York, Pennsylvania.
The Right Reverend and Right Honourable Lord Habgood passed away in March of 2019.
His books are Religion and Science (1964; U.S. ed. Truths in Tension); A Working Faith (1980); Church and Nation in a Secular Age (1983); Confessions of a Conservative Liberal (1988); Making Sense (1993); Faith and Uncertainty (1997); Being a Person (1998); Varieties of Unbelief (Bampton Lectures 2000); and The Concept of Nature (Gifford Lectures 2002).