Item of Interest: Crisis at Christmas – 50th Anniversary

This poignant Christmas-themed Item of Interest comes from Emily Rumble (Archives Assistant at Lambeth Palace Library), who is exploring the historic link between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the charity Crisis.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the charity Crisis.

In 1967, in response to heightened public awareness about homelessness, the Crisis charity was founded by William Shearman and Iain Macleod. The charity is well-known for its campaigns to aid homeless people in finding shelter and employment. At the time, it was estimated that 13,000 single people were homeless, 1,000 of whom were sleeping rough.

Their most famous campaign is the Crisis at Christmas campaign, which began in the early 1970s. Its aim was to provide one day a year, on Christmas Day, when single homeless people could have access to food, shelter, clothes and companionship. The campaign has run every year since 1972.

The Archbishops of Canterbury’s involvement began in 1969 when, to raise funds, Crisis organised a ‘reverse pilgrimage’ from Canterbury to London. At 9:30am on Sunday 14 December, the walkers were joined by Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1961 to 1974, who saw them off at the beginning of their 65 mile trek to raise money for the charity.

This began the traditional ‘Bishops’ Walk’ which has taken place every year thereafter. Following Ramsey’s resignation from the role of Archbishop of Canterbury, his successor, Donald Coggan (in office from 1974 to 1980), continued to be involved in the annual pilgrimages. Even when he was unable to attend the event himself, the Archbishop would send a message to the walkers at the start of the pilgrimage. By 1977, the event had grown in size and 340 walkers set out from Canterbury Cathedral. At this time, the Gatehouse at Lambeth Palace was also being used as part of the campaign to house donations of food and clothing for Open Christmas, ready for use in the parish church of St Mary’s next door. A letter from the charity’s chair, Casper Wherly, indicates that Morton’s Tower became quite busy around Christmas time with the amount of donations they received on behalf of the charity.

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Lambeth Palace Library: Coggan 51, f.130

By 1979, the campaign to raise funds and collect resources for Open Christmas had reached further heights as homelessness continued to increase. The launch was an interdenominational affair, with not only the Archbishop pledging his support and making an appearance, but also the Archbishop of Southwark, the Rev. Richard Hamper of the Free Church Federal Council, and the Rev. Lord Soper, representing the Methodist Church. It was believed that the uniting of the Anglican, Catholic, Methodist and Free Churches would raise awareness of the campaign, and the event was attended by the press, television and radio services. The Archbishop gave a short statement at the launch event, in which he highlighted in particular the problem of homelessness amongst young people and those in their 60s and 70s who found themselves without a fixed abode and unable to find work because of it.

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Lambeth Palace Library: Coggan 80, f.61

On 6th December 1980, nine months after being installed, Archbishop Robert Runcie walked the first mile with the walkers from Canterbury, continuing the tradition of involvement by his office. In 1981 Runcie made particular reference in his message about the effects of the recession on young people, and the three million unemployed people in the UK, commenting on how he hoped the walkers felt the momentary discomfort of blisters on their feet was worth it to help fund “a little comfort and good cheer to others” (Runcie/MAIN/1981/182).

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Lambeth Palace Library: Runcie/MAIN/1981/182

By 1982, the Archbishop was asked to be vice-president of the charity. In 1985, 530 people had made the pilgrimage, and the last we see of the annual tradition is Archbishop Runcie agreeing again to start the walk in 1986, but at this point, unfortunately, our collections of the Archbishops’ Papers are closed under our 30 year closure policy, so we are unable to track the Archbishop’s role in the campaigns any further for the time being.

We do, however, know that Archbishop Runcie’s wife, Lindy Runcie, entered into the spirit of Christmas to help fund the campaign. Amongst our photograph collections we find this image of Mrs Runcie clearly enjoying the opportunity to dress up as Father Christmas!

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Lambeth Palace Library: Runcie/Photo/80