Garry Bennett and the Crockford’s Affair

JOHN CROCKFORD, the obscure nineteenth-century publisher after whom Crockford’s Clerical Directory is named, would have been surprised to learn that his name became most widely known in the tragic and bleak circumstances of Dr Gareth Bennett’s suicide ten years ago, following the publication of what became the last Crockford’s Preface.

I first heard Gareth Bennett’s name when I was an ordinand at Cuddesdon in 1968. The then Principal, Robert Runcie, with whom I had talked about my future ministry, suggested I meet Dr Bennett as New College, Oxford, was looking for an Assistant Chaplain, and were prepared to contemplate the possibility of a deacon. So it came about that I began my ministry at New College under Garry Bennet’s guidance and spent four years there as his assistant. I was encouraged by him, as he had been encouraged by Eric Abbott, his spiritual mentor, in the discipline of prayer and priesthood, and in the ministry of friendship which is at the heart of the pastoral ministry of a college chaplain. He would come to my rooms late on a Saturday evening to assess and criticise my sermons for the College Communion the next day (I can remember him saying of an Advent sermon on Judgement, that I seemed to think the Last Judgement was something to be avoided and better postponed – it was, he said, exactly the opposite, a consummation devoutly to be wished). His own preaching was a model of clarity and conciseness, drawing on the rich resources of his knowledge of church history. No natural ascetic, he enjoyed his creature comforts, and I have memories of him complaining about the cold at Hillfield Friary on a College retreat, and being somewhat out of place – though encouraging – on a vacation project to construct an adventure playground in an inner-city Birmingham parish. Rooted in the classical Anglicanism of the seventeenth-century, he was always sacramentally centred but restrained in his liturgical practice, and it was only after his death that I learnt from a short autobiographical memoir among his papers that he had been touched as a boy by the richness and mystery of Anglo-Catholic worship in his native Southend, and later by Little St Mary’s when he was an undergraduate at Cambridge.

He was an able church historian, with considerable clarity of mind, and had gained the highest honours at Cambridge. Although at the time of his death many described him as a ‘theologian’, he was first and foremost a church historian, and like all historians he had a deep sense of roots and history. It was one of the underlying themes of his critique of the Church of England that it had forgotten its history, that church history was treated as an optional extra, and marginalised by culturally relativist theologians. In the obituary of him that I wrote for The Independent I quoted his own words in his study of the eighteenth-century Bishop Atterbury in which he set out his task as an endeavour to ‘penetrate behind the slogans of Tory and Whig, High and Low Church, to discover the real nature of the great Anglican crisis after 1688. As I went on to comment, ‘his Crockford’s preface is a similar attempt to uncover, what he perceived as a crisis of Anglican identity, authority and coherence, in our own day.’

An only child, who had had a rather lonely childhood, disturbed by moves necessitated by the war years, his experience of the secular mockery of the academic world had boned his ability for sharp repartee, so that it was easy to forget that the sometimes sharp tongue could conceal a sensitivity and genuine pastoral concern.

In 1987 as a member of the Standing Committee of the General Synod he was already concerned about the pressure to push ahead with legislation for the ordination of women to the priesthood. He noted in his diary in January after a Standing Committee meeting: ‘the bishops are planning to bring forward the ordination of women legislation without any safeguards. I made some testy interventions and during the meeting I felt myself becoming increasingly angry.’ At the same meeting in a discussion of appointments, he recorded that the archbishop had said that the church needed ‘articulate and attractive people’. ‘I said we need more people with principles and a coherent message.’ The same day, Graham Leonard, whom he had criticised over his visit to Tulsa on grounds of church order, tried to make it up with him were he to admit that his criticisms were wrong, which he was not willing to do. In a dark mood he noted, ‘a bad day in general, I think that a move to be a Catholic becomes nearer and nearer,’ though, as he noted later in the year, ‘what would they do with an Anglican church historian?’ It is a typical, occasional reference after experience of moments when the Church of England seemed to him to be betraying its theology and history, though the evidence of his diary shows little sign of continuing agonising, and no conversations with Catholic priests about conversion.

Garry Bennett was already working on the Crockford’s Preface, which he had been invited to write as part of a conscious move to represent a spectrum of views over the years, now that the appointment of the preface writer fell to the Secretary-General of the Synod (Derek Pattinson) and James Shelly of the Church Commissioners, rather than to Oxford University Press, the previous publishers). Having determined to treat the preface rather differently, as an analysis and critique of the workings and power-structure of the Church of England – the preface to the annual Church of England Yearbook with its annual review of the previous year having made the Crockford’s biannual review unnecessary – he wrestled with its contents. In February he had a discussion with Derek Pattinson, who was clear that any worthwhile analysis had to include some assessment of the leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The February Synod meeting, which voted to introduce legislation on the ordination of women to the priesthood, left him depressed. On the train back to Oxford he felt quite panic stricken. ‘What now? I am clearly in a lost minority in a church which has changed itself into a Liberal-Protestant sect.’

His concern to write a powerful and accurate analysis, combined with a sense that the church of which he was a priest was pressing hard in a direction which seemed to him to betraying its Catholic inheritance, weighed heavily upon him. His diary has numerous references to mornings and afternoons spent wrestling with the problem of writing: ‘Crockford’s troubles me;’ ‘I cannot seem to get on with Crockford’s’; ‘in the evening got a little panic-stricken over Crockford’s’; ‘Crockford’s is in a desperate state, and I shall need extra time.’ With the May 31st deadline approaching he was still not satisfied: ‘I worked on Crockford but it is not right. It sounds shrill.’ At the end of the month, with the preface still not finished, he wrote ‘this wretched Crockford’s has hung around me like a shadow.’ After more anxiety through June a reassuring call from Derek Pattinson gave him more time to play with, though the stress was still there: ‘all this pressure of work on Crockford’s is getting to me, and I am taking short cuts on things that I should do better.’ A full text was finally finished on July 2nd. All that remained was to edit it. He cut down the first part quite severely before he gave the text to Derek Pattinson at the York meeting of the Synod. ‘I warned him that it might be thought wicked and he said that it did not matter at all. But he has not yet read what I had written about him” He noted later in the month that he would have to brace himself for its publication in December, ‘it could cause an explosion.

Garry Bennett had shared with me some months previously, as he had with Fr Philip Ursell, the Principal of Pusey House, that he had been asked to write the Preface, but having shared the secret he did not pursue any discussion of the issues, and I heard nothing more of it until I was shown the text towards the end of July. It struck me as sharp and perceptive, but it never crossed my mind that it would create the furore that eventually ensued. Garry Bennett, however, from the evidence of his diary, continued to be anxious both about the effect of the publication of what he had written, and about reproducing analyses and arguments he had used in the Preface in other contexts with the consequent risk that his authorship might be detected. At a meeting of the Synod Standing Committee he deployed some of the Crockford arguments, and was concerned that they would be noted after publication: but my hopes of a job are now nil, and I am really not at all sure at my age I now want a different job.’ He had a restless night ‘consumed with anxiety’ regretting that ‘at least 2 times yesterday I may have blown my cover on Crockord’s by presenting arguments very similar to the text! I should have kept quiet. But I was going to be suspected any way.’

The anxieties seem to have diminished in the intervening months, with only one reference at the time of the November Synod when a well-received speech critical of the Changing Britain report elicited the comment that he had stirred something up but ‘it will be nothing to Crockford when it comes.’ Publication day was December 3rd. Two days earlier Bishop Graham Leonard, who had received an advance copy of Crockord’s rang to ‘ask whether he could congratulate me as the author of the Crockford preface! I swallowed hard and decided to deny it! He said it sounded like me and I was one of the few people he could think of who could write it! He was highly pleased at the references to himself and read bits out to me. I said it sounded good and would look forward to reading it in full! Help! I suspect that come Thursday, I shall have an awkward time with the Press on to me, and much speculation about authorship. I shall have to deny it through thick and thin because it will be highly unpopular in certain exalted quarters.’

The following day, Wednesday, brought further pressure, with a series of telephone calls from various newspapers asking if he was the author of the Preface. ‘They concentrate entirely on the attack on the Archbishop, ignoring all the rest of it. I simply denied that I was the author! When asked who could be, I said I had not read the text. Clifford Longley unnerved me most of all; he said he thought it was I because of the theology, the style and attack, and because I had the experience of the Church’s administration which the preface revealed. I said I had not written it. What was the alternative?… More telephone calls and more denials. They seemed to accept this tho’ the hunt is on.’ The BBC described the preface as ‘an unprecedented attack on the Archbishop!’ but he was relieved that they gave a slightly fuller account. The Bishops of Peterborough (Bill Westwood) and St Albans (John Taylor) described the preface as ‘disgraceful and a cowardly use of anonymity.’ He feared that the Archbishop will read between the lines.’ He spent ‘a very restless and sleepless night, consumed with anxiety and regrets over this wretched article.’ The papers the next morning gave him little comfort. ‘The general view was that the Archbishop has been “savaged.” I suppose I was naif not to have anticipated this furore! The telephone rang at 8.45, the archbishop’s tones (not ‘time’ as Humphrey Carpenter transcribes it), and I did not answer.’ (Whatever the explanation of the telephone call – a hoax, an anxious mishearing – it is a call Robert Runcie says he never made). Later in the morning Clifford Longley rang to say that Lambeth were saying ‘off the record’ that he was the author. That will set the Press on me! I sat and pondered on a scene of disaster. Obviously the Archbishop thinks it is me, and has set his dogs on me. So I am right out of the Church of England. I shall linger on, and not put up again for the Synod…. I came home at 6 and listened to the radio.’ The Archbishop of York was denouncing the “scurrilous” anonymous contributor … Brian Brindley rang up to say that he thought it did sound like my opinions. I denied again but I do not think he believed me. A reporter from THE MAIL rang up to ask to come to see me. I agreed for Monday, but instantly regretted it! My God, what a mess and basically my own fault. I shall be lucky to weather the whole business through without disaster and some kind of public exposure. I rang back to THE MAIL and cancelled the appointment. George Austin rang to say it was not he, and to report that Lambeth was giving out that it was me. I rang Derek Pattinson but got an answer-machine. Very low indeed. The more I think about it the more bloody foolish I know I have been. But the pressure of last summer was very great and other people ought to have warned me. Derek rang back at 12 midnight to say that I must persist in denial; we would keep in touch. He said it would blow over after the weekend. He was obviously a bit shocked by news of the Lambeth “off the record” disclosure.’

Another restless and sleepless night is almost the last entry in the Bennett diary. He went to buy the morning papers, finding more coverage of the Preface, ‘with denunciations’ but also ‘editorials saying that real issues had been raised.’ A reporter from The Mail rang up to offer me £5,000 if I was the author and wished to go public with them. He said that an announcement was to be made in the next 48 hours.’

It was with this weighing on his mind that he went on that Friday evening to a feast at King’s College, Cambridge, the sister foundation of New College. Further press speculation that he was the author of the Preface appeared on the Saturday morning. He told Fr Philip Ursell that he didn’t know if he could take much more of it. ‘It’s getting pretty close and pretty nasty.’ On his return to Oxford he rang Derek Pattinson and left a message to ask him to telephone him urgently. Derek Pattinson now says that had he been able to do so he would have supported him in a public admission of his authorship.

Two days later, on Monday, December 7th I had almost finished a long day interviewing entrance candidates for Theology, and was discussing the outcome with a colleague, Dr Sue Gillingham. At around 9.00 pm. the telephone rang. Philip Ursell told me that Garry Bennett had been found dead in his car in the garage at his home. I can still remember vividly that moment of shock, my hand dropping with the receiver – and then the need to telephone the Archbishop (at Canterbury with the Ecumenical Patriarch, Dimitrios, who was on an official visit) and others who needed to know, and then to Keble Chapel to hold it all to God. The subsequent sequence of events seemed both very long and curiously compacted, with press enquiries, for I found myself Garry Bennett’s sole executor (he had asked me to be so in a typically casual way some years previously going down the staircase from his rooms in New College, and I had no idea whether this was a passing thought or had been put into effect).

The funeral arrangements were put in place – the body brought into New College chapel the night before, a eucharist for members of the College and friends, and then the Requiem the next morning, on a bitterly cold day. A picture in The Independent captured the atmosphere brilliantly, showing the celebrants of the funeral mass as a tiny procession beneath the tall lancets of the Chapel windows. ‘Every man’s death diminishes me’, but the tragedy of this death and its circumstance blending the pain of a lonely and vulnerable priest with the pain of many in the Church, had a particularly poignant quality of diminishment. The contrast was sharply focused in coming out of the Chapel with the coffin to face a battery of press cameras, from the black of the Requiem with its prayers for mercy and forgiveness to the dazzling of dozens of flash bulbs, a garish intrusion into mourning and grief And then to a simple committal at the crematorium, and back to New College where I found myself alone, drained and wandering like a zombie. I had to go to London that evening to give a lecture on Fr Mackonochie at St Alban’s, Holborn, in one way foolish, but in another something for which I was grateful, for to focus on the ministry of a great priest of the catholic revival seemed in some way a fitting tribute for one who was so concerned for the catholic continuity of the Church of England and who had tried, to the best of his ability, to speak to the church of his concern.

Looking back, ten years later, on the whole affair, and re-reading the Preface, it seems almost incredible that it should have provoked the furore that it did. Sharp it may have been, but no more so than other prefaces in the past, and certainly milder than many strongly argued pieces in church debates in other centuries. ‘You cannot have religion and not have differences’, wrote John Henry Newman, ‘the question is how we handle those differences.’ Garry Bennett wrote as he did because he cared about the church and about the Anglican inheritance. As Professor Henry Chadwick forcefully argued in the Synod debate on the Crockford Preface in February 1988, ‘the church was the servant of the gospel and Gareth Bennett wanted to remind them that the church had no authority to invent its gospel or its ministry.’

The issues raised by the Preface had to be properly faced. Thus the Preface was about far more than a personal agenda, though none of us can write without that playing a part. In my homily at Garry Bennett’s Requiem I said that all were under judgement, ‘friend and Fellow, bishop and journalist.’ I could and should have said the Church also, for as Christians we have no choice but to pray, Kyrie eleison!, Lord have mercy! – a prayer which we should surely offer for Garry Bennett on the tenth anniversary of his death.

Geoffrey Rowell is Bishop of Basingstoke