December 02, 1974 12:00 PM

One day this week a procession will descend into the musty depths of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. There, before the crypt holding the enshrined remains of Nelson, Wellington and other British demigods, Frederick Donald Coggan will be invested as the 101st Archbishop of Canterbury, Primate of the Anglican church. The ceremony will be the next-to-last step in an ancient ritual of elevation that began with Coggan’s nomination by Queen Elizabeth II on the recommendation of British Prime Minister Harold Wilson (himself a Congregationalist). Next month Coggan will be formally enthroned at Canterbury Cathedral, in which his predecessor Thomas à Becket was murdered in 1170.

Many observers believe the 65-year-old Coggan will serve as a mere caretaker Primate until his expected retirement at 70. But those who know him best suspect that he may stay on to leave as indelible a mark on the Anglican church as another “caretaker”—Pope John XXIII—did on the Roman Catholic Church. (Canterbury recognized the supremacy of Rome until King Henry VIII separated the Church of England in 1534.)

A personally modest man, Coggan is equally the effective administrator and the evangelist of zeal. He also holds forceful views on his new responsibility in a demoralized Britain. Bluntly he cites the prophet Hosea. “His mission,” Coggan declares, “was to check corruption in morals, religion and politics, and to save from decline a nation which had acquired great prosperity.”

Coggan has been an unblushing meddler in temporal matters in his 13 years as Archbishop of York, and he plans to push ahead at Canterbury. He is appalled by the imbalance between the nations of plenty and those of poverty, preaching what he calls the “theology of enough”—the belief that there is a reasonable standard of living beyond which lies selfish excess. He favors the ordination of women to the priesthood. He has no patience with uncontrolled pornography, and believes Britain will enjoy a healthy society “only when it starts living by some rules again. There’s a lot to be said for the Ten Commandments.” Coggan’s firmness, however, can be tempered with startling expressions of tolerance. He astounded BBC radio listeners last year by declaring that many Anglican clergymen were homosexuals. “We must treat them,” he proclaimed, “with great sympathy and understanding.”

Coggan prefers a gray pin-striped business suit over a purple ecclesiastical waistcoat to the flowing robes of his expansive predecessor at Canterbury, A. Michael Ramsey. A good listener and an adept problem-solver, Coggan keeps a tape recorder handy for instant dictation and always carries a piece of notepaper on which to scribble impromptu personal reminders.

A humble man who in a tight spot will ask aides to “pop up a quick prayer for me,” he agonized four days before accepting his appointment. “The prime minister wanted a quick answer, and I knew I was keeping him waiting,” says Coggan, “but I wanted to be sure I was ready to do the job.” Married 39 years, with two adult daughters, he and his wife, Jean, are determined not to let his new position interfere with their quiet personal lives. “Don’t give us halos,” pleads Mrs. Coggan. “We’re very ordinary people.”

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