The archbishop of Canterbury strode regally out of a sort of broom closet at the Washington Cathedral College of Preachers and appeared headed for freedom, to the alarm of reporters in line to interview him.

But in a few moments the Most Rev. Robert Runcie manfully returned after a breath of air. It was his duty to do so. The primate of all England and the chief cleric of the 47 million souls of the Anglican Communion (including the 3 million Episcopalians of the United States who constitute an autonomous private of the church) is hardly the sort of man to shirk a duty, even if it means another batch of 15-minute interviews in a room that would shame a sardine of Calcutta.

He was born 59 years ago into a Presbyterian family and only later saw the light, as it were, and confessed he has a somewhat scholarly interest in the triple pageantry of theater, court and cathedrall in Shakespeare's day, and had spoken on this to the Folger Library without the slightest interest by the press, and said of course that is not the sort of things people are interested in.

Some people, he was assured, would find that interesting indeed. People may smile at scholarship and study, but at heart cherish it.

"Unfortunately, your grace, in the eight minutes alotted to us it will not be possible to settle all affairs of the world," his interviewer began, thinking it unworthy to ask the question really on his mind, which was why the archbishop had to sit in the tiny room while the cathedral acreage of libraries, reception rooms and no telling what else spread to the horizon. "But you have spoken of nuclear danger, of things that you think divide the church, such as the ordination of women, and perhaps you would tell us if you see signs of divisiveness in the church here in America."

Archbishops rarely reach their eminence by looking for ironies, but the archbishop has detected, indeed, a slight difference of emphasis "in some parishes" in which, he said, the clergy feel called to social action, on the doubtlessly sound ground that a religion cannot be much if it is not reflected into the secular world in god-like acts; and, on the other hand, congregations who call for a clergy to maintain the holiness of worship, the perusal of the Bible, and who feel the social action business often is nothing more than "some limping after the latest liberal" enthusiasm.

In general, he said, he thinks it better for the clergy to tend to religion, leaving it to laymen to represent the church in the secular world -- though there is plenty of room here for discretion, he indicated, and he was by no means saying a priest must celebrate the eucharist and not join any protest. Hardly. But in general, he leans towards leaving social causes to those who have perhaps absorbed from the church a great conscience.

He brought up the prayer book in America as a cause of possible dissension in the church, and said he thought something might have been lost that is "serious" with the revised book which is a bit free-wheeling, though he hardly wanted to seem to be condemning it, since he had found beautiful things in it.

He did seem to question its language, inferior to the old.

"I wish we had a Robert Frost to write it," he said.

"Or much better than Frost, your grace," it was suggested.

"Robert Lowell," the archbishop ventured.

"Better than Lowell, your grace. Writers as fine as the ones who wrote the original, don't you think?"

"Can such men be found?" he said. "We do not live in an epic age for language."

In England, he said, the old prayer book, which for four centuries has been a chief bond holding the church together, is still an option. People there do not have to worry what sort of nonsense will be said over them when they die, not that the archbishop said so.

"There is a part of the solemnization of matrimony," he said, "in which the young couple are reminded to enter marriage not lightly but 'reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God,' but there was an elaborate wedding in England in which this had been changed to 'after due consideration.'"

Which, the archbishop observed, is not quite the same thing.

He smiled. The foibles, sins, balderdash and general orneriness of the world are hardly new to him. Indeed, the archbishop smiles a good bit, starting back of the eyes, you might say, and lighting up the whole face and frame. Sometimes, even, he raises a right hoof to rest it on a chair, in which he is sitting. His blue eyes never stray from anyone he is speaking to, which is remarkable since five television people, possible in the revival of a neglected medieval torture, had raised the temperature of the room to medium rare with their lights, and from time to time stuck one of their instruments here and there. None of which the archbishop allowed himself to be annoyed at. A man of uncommon patience and humility, one might believe.

He spoke for a second of the terrible divisiveness between rich and poor, the poor southern one. This concerns him, and so does the admonition of the church's Founder to be one flock; the archbishop is keen to advance to union of Christian churches when possible.

When the allotted 74 seconds or some such time was up, a polite hard man arrived to say so.

Caring for the enormous Anglican flock has caused his grace to neglect his herd of Berkshire pigs, he is sorry to say. He used to have about 70 but is now down to two or three. First things first, of course, and yet any right-thinking man who ever knew or loved farm animals must regret the archbishop's loss of so innocent and warm a pleasure. Especially since pigs are intelligent, affectionate and manageable, not given to unseemly --

"I shall be visiting Des Moines," the archbishop said. "I am told they want to give me a baby pig to take home. I don't know. A Duroc, I believe."

Durocs, his grace was assured by a country-boy type, before being led out somewhat faint into the fresh air, are really as good as they come.