Murder in the Cathedral

Anthony Howard

  • The Crockford’s File: Gareth Bennett and the Death of the Anglican Mind by William Oddie
    Hamish Hamilton, 232 pp, £14.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 241 12613 4
  • Absent Friends by Geoffrey Wheatcroft
    Hamish Hamilton, 291 pp, £15.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 241 12874 9

The most revealing moment at the recent meeting of the Church of England’s General Synod occurred during an impromptu speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Dr Robert Runcie was speaking against an amendment urging the Church to delay re-submitting its Clergy (Ordination) Measure to Parliament until ‘after the next Parliamentary General Election’. The point at issue concerned not women priests but the anomalous position of divorced candidates for the Ministry – anomalous because, although current clergy can be divorced and continue in their calling, no one under the present rules can be ordained if he has either been divorced or, indeed, is married to a divorced person. On the occasion of his winding-up speech it was not, however, the merits of the argument that concerned the Archbishop. He was preoccupied solely with the unwisdom of the proposed delaying tactic. ‘It would seem to me,’ he declared in that hesitant but oddly effective manner of his, ‘that this amendment depends on certain assumptions about the date of the next election, which I would regard as hazardous, to use a wholly neutral phrase.’

Immediately, there was the sound of incipient clerical chuckles, which gradually swelled into a gurgle of laughter engulfing the whole assembly. What had not passed his audience by was the hidden meaning of the Archbishop’s last remark. It carried – as Dr Runcie had indicated by the relish with which he rolled it round his tongue – a personal as well as a political message. By the time of the next election it is now no more than an evens bet that there will not be a new Archbishop installed in the chair of St Augustine.

Dr Runcie’s own time as the 102nd Archbishop of Canterbury is, in fact, drawing – if not especially peacefully – towards its close. Since, unlike his colleague at Chichester (at 74 the doyen of the episcopal Bench), he was translated too late to enjoy any bishop’s freehold, convention will require him to retire by the time of his 70th birthday, which inconveniently falls at the beginning of October 1991. Until a few months ago it had looked as if the whole matter could be tidily arranged: following her own precedents set in 1983 and 1987, the Prime Minister would call an election in June 1991, and there would thus be at least a chance that the next archbishop might be appointed by a new prime minister rather than by Mrs Thatcher. The Government’s recent troubles have, however, led to a widespread expectation that the next election will come later rather than sooner – and that, uncomfortably, puts Dr Runcie on the spot. Does he intimate his intention to retire – thereby setting the machinery for the selection of his successor in motion – in an inevitably politically-charged pre-election atmosphere, or can he somehow still contrive to win his own personal race against the electoral clock?

Revealingly, the word among the Archbishop’s own entourage is that the convention about retirement at 70 need not perhaps be taken wholly literally. After all, by the autumn of 1992, when any general election would have had to have taken place, Dr Runcie would still be in his 70th year – and if Dr Eric Kemp at Chichester can linger on well beyond three score years and ten, who is going to object to allowing an Archbishop just a little flexibility?

There are, moreover, sound reasons for favouring such a course, quite apart from the secular vagaries of the political calendar. Through no fault of his own, Dr Runcie is reaching the end of his reign at Lambeth with a weight of unfinished business still on his hands. The item which has dominated his archiepiscopate from the beginning is the issue of women priests, and it is hard to see any advantage to the Church in changing its leadership before that argument is resolved one way or the other.

A vivid reminder of the cost of that whole struggle to the Anglican Church is contained in Dr William Oddie’s unhelpfully-timed evocation of the Crockford’s Preface affair of two years ago. It is a curious work, in which the first half appears to have no other objective but the placing of Canon Gareth Bennett – the anonymous author of the 1987 Preface who committed suicide when threatened with exposure – on some sort of martyr’s plinth. To most outside the embattled ranks of Anglo-Catholicism Oddie’s efforts to depict the former Dean of New College even as a figure more sinned against than sinning is bound to smack of special pleading. If ever a man brought his troubles on himself, Gary Bennett did. For his story is not, as Oddie would have us believe, that of a man who spoke the truth which lay in his heart and then paid a terrible price for it. Rather is it a far more Gothic tale of frustrated ambition leading to bitterness and finally to the betrayal of a friendship that had endured for some thirty years.

That friendship, damningly, was with the Archbishop himself: the two men had known and liked each other since they were both at Westcott House, Cambridge back in the Fifties – Bennett as a theological student and Runcie as a kindly-disposed vice-principal. The obligations of friendship do not appear to rate very high in Oddie’s own scale of values. While he records that Bennett’s feelings for the Archbishop were ‘real’, he fails to detect any discrepancy between the existence of such feelings and the tart (even malicious) expression they were given in the notorious Crockford’s Preface.

Fortunately, a rival assessment of Bennett – the opening and longest essay in Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s engaging book of character sketches Absent Friends – is a good deal more forthright. A former history pupil of Bennett’s at New College, Wheatcroft writes with sympathy and understanding of the man who, even by the time he encountered him in the mid-Sixties, had already become something of an Oxford character. But that does not blind him in any way to his old tutor’s faults. Bennett’s mind, he roundly declares, ‘ran to conspiracy, intrigue, blackguarding’, and quite sufficient evidence is given of the impact his various machinations had on his enemies within the New College senior common room to make him appear a rather singular form of Christian martyr. Nor is Wheatcroft any less robust when it comes to meeting the central charge made out against his subject in that strange, ecclesiastical cause célèbre of just two years ago: ‘If anything “killed” Gary it was his own incaution and lack of judgment, added, I am sure, to a sense that he had in one respect behaved badly. Dr Runcie has said that there was nothing in the Preface which Bennett had not previously said to him in effect and also that he guessed the author. That does not alter the fact – one of the keys to the episode – that he and Gary Bennett were not strangers or even remote acquaintances but friends and that whatever else may be said in its favour the Preface was a sharp personal attack, bred out of disappointment.’

Maybe there are moments when humanists can see things rather more clearly than theologians. Certainly, that passage contrives to put Bennett’s conduct in the context of personal morality – something that Oddie, for all his laboured Christian apologetics, signally fails to do. In giving his version of Bennett’s life-story, he is additionally hindered by the adoption of a prose style almost worthy of Barbara Cartland. Here he is, for example, on an incident which, as Wheatcroft reveals, never took place at all:

At 8.45 a.m. a heart-stopping event occurred. The telephone rang. From the instrument came the unmistakable tones of the Archbishop of Canterbury himself. Gary paused in an agony of indecision: then he gently replaced the receiver.

It is only fair to add that Oddie displays a slightly surer touch in the second half of his book – a discussion, as he sees it, of the crisis that is facing Anglicanism. Here the charges are familiar enough: the lack of any form of authority binding together the Anglican Communion; the threat posed by ‘the liberal ascendancy’ currently prevailing in both the Church of England and the American Episcopal Church; above all, perhaps, the undermining of the old dogmatic tradition by the claims of ‘contextual theology’.

Over the last, in particular, Oddie manages to develop a fairly powerful case – though, again, it is hardly a new one. It is, after all, over half a century since Dean Inge declared: ‘The Church that is married to the Spirit of the Age will be a widow in the next.’ It is a warning that has too often been ignored – and not only by the David Jenkinses and the Spacely-Trellises of today’s Ecclesia Anglicana. For they, too, of course, had their predecessors. The Bishop of London who declared at the outbreak of war in 1914, ‘This is the greatest fight ever made for the Christian Religion – a choice between the nailed hand and the mailed fist,’ was attempting to identify himself with the Spirit of the Age just as clearly as any right-wing populist bishop inveighing today against ‘loafers in TV soap operas’.

It is precisely in this area that the Anglo-Catholics – and their co-belligerents on a growing number of issues, the Evangelicals – display one quite remarkable blind-spot. Whatever may be said against the way in which the Church of England has been led over the past ten years, it has hardly been characterised by any obvious desire to affiliate to the dominant political ethos. When in 1982 Robert Runcie held out against turning the post-Falklands service in St Paul’s Cathedral into a victory celebration, he was almost certainly representing a minority rather than a majority viewpoint. (He was doing the same at an even more exposed level when he vainly tried last summer to save a leading Anglo-Catholic priest – publicly branded by the Murdoch press as a homosexual fantasist – from having to resign his living.)

Far from subsuming its own witness in that of any Thatcherite ‘moral majority’, the Church of England this past decade can claim to have held fast to its own vision of the truth. The one criticism that cannot be levelled against it is that it has traded its principles for a mess of passing popularity. Indeed, if anything, it did the reverse – not so much ignoring the Spirit of the Age as refusing to join in it.

Therein, of course, in some eyes, lies its crime – and, two years on, the entire bizarre human tragedy of Gary Bennett begins to look rather less naive and innocent an episode than it at first seemed. Naturally, the unhappy, lonely Oxford don was never the conscious instrument of any political purpose. For one thing, he was, as Wheatcroft persuasively argues, far too ‘chippy’ a figure to feel wholly at home in the Conservative Party. Yet his wholesale indictment of the more liberal aspects of Dr Runcie’s regime provided its right-wing critics with the best chance they ever had of mobilising a populist assault against it. They certainly fell upon it with eagerness – the Thatcherite newspapers ringing with calls for a change to be made at Canterbury without further ado. The closing days of 1987, in fact, witnessed the nearest thing to an attempted putsch against an archbishop since the rather more violent era of Thomas Becket and Henry II.

The plot failed, of course, largely because Bennett himself let the side down. Whatever may have been true of his pursuit of vendettas in the New College senior common room, he simply lacked the resilience and stamina to withstand the pressures brought to bear upon him once he was cast as the prime suspect in a newspaper detective mystery. But that the story should have ended up in this way was both his own choice and his own responsibility. In recalling this aspect of the affair, Oddie is reduced to striking a sententious note, self-righteously declaring: ‘I have not taken it upon myself to offer any considered judgment, as others have not hesitated to do, on whether or not it is right to tell lies under certain circumstances, and whether or not such circumstances existed to justify Dr Bennett’s denials of authorship.’ That can only appear a strange abdication of responsibility, especially for a moral theologian – but one can understand Oddie’s difficulty. For the awkward fact is that it was Bennett’s lies – not just to the press but to at least two close friends as well – that made his position so vulnerable. He at least displayed some awareness of that, even if Oddie cannot bring himself to do so. In Bennett’s own diary, two days before he killed himself, we are told that he wrote: ‘My God, what a mess, and basically my own fault. I shall be lucky to weather this business through without disaster and some sort of personal exposure.’ The expression of that sort of personal anguish ought, no doubt, to disarm criticism. But there is a difference between withholding censure and rushing forward to proffer a martyr’s crown.

It is a distinction that William Oddie – from his position deep in the C of E’s own Cave of Adullam – could hardly be expected to observe. Whether, however, he has done the cause of his fellow discontented agitators much good by recalling with such propagandist venom one of the least salubrious episodes in the Anglican Church’s recent history must remain an open question. The lesson, for at least some of his readers, is likely to be how lucky the Church was to have a leader who behaved with total propriety throughout – and how unfortunate it will be if the business of nominating his successor falls into the hands of a prime minister who, like Oddie himself, gives every sign of regarding today’s Anglican Church as a fractious child in need of discipline.