Philip Ursell remembers a friend who, though unwisely ambitious and sometimes vain, loved the Church he served
ON ADVENT SUNDAY just over ten years ago, the preacher at the Pusey House High Mass was the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie. Those who were present remember the occasion well. The Chapel was full and the Archbishop preached on the customary Advent theme of the Four Last things, ‘Heaven, Hell, Death and Judgement’. “Today,” he said, in adenoidal tones more than usually emphasised by a dreadful cold, “I am going to give Pusey House ‘hell'”. It brought forth the cheap laugh he intended. For Lord Runcie, his visit was in the way of a nostalgic trip to an institution he had loved as an undergraduate, and which – he always claimed – had influenced him greatly during the formative years of his Christian life.
But for some of us directly, and for the Church of England as whole, during the following week that occasion was to take on a significance none of us suspected as we went through the lovely Advent liturgy that morning. We sang “Come, thou long expected Jesus”, “Lo! he comes with clouds descending”; the Advent Prose; the Communion Motet was “Hosanna to the Son of David” by Gibbons, and the setting was Palestrina’s “Missa Brevis”. The Archbishop was the celebrant at the High Mass, and during the course of the service gave Communion to Dr Gareth Bennett, a fellow of New College, for the last time. It was a poignant moment we have clearly recorded on video.
The two men had known one another since Bennett’s long-vacation terms at Westcott House at the time Runcie was Vice-Principal. “I never lost touch with him,” Dr Runcie said. “I knew I could resort to him when confronted with an address which called for some historical reminiscence or allusion.” What he was really admitting was that Garry Bennett was one of his several speech and sermon writers.
After the service, upstairs in the Frederic Hood Room, the two of them exchanged greetings and chatted politely. Garry did not “hog” the Archbishop but left him to move around talking to undergraduates. However, during the course of the next few days, after an unprecedented furore in the press, Dr Bennett was headlined as having “savaged the Archbishop” under the cloak of anonymity, and after just over a week he was discovered to have committed suicide. The medium for the “attack” was the Preface to Crockford’s Clerical Directory.
Its publication caused an immediate sensation . . . it was read and discussed in common rooms and episcopal palaces. There was intense speculation on the identity of the anonymous author.
The words are not about the Crockford Preface, but are a quotation from The Letter to a Convocation Man, which appeared in 1698, the work of an angry clergyman, Francis Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester. They are from The Tory Crisis in Church and State, 1688-1730, by Atterbury’s biographer, Gareth Bennett. “It was not difficult,” Bennett wrote, for a writer of Atterbury’s “incendiary talent to make out a case that the condition of religion in England required an urgent remedy.” Dr Bennett was a trained historian with a careful and analytical mind, and his writings are of enormous interest simply in themselves, but they take on an eerie fascination after the events which ten years ago followed the publication of the biennial Crockford’s Clerical Directory.
Crockford, the Church’s Who’s Who, contained by tradition an anonymous Preface which commented intimately and freely on ecclesiastical questions of the day. The Preface would be discussed among the clergy, there would be a guessing-game as to who was its author, it might be referred to in a Times or Telegraph leader; little more than that. But this Preface was different.
On Thursday, 3 December 1987, The Times covered the Preface not in its leader columns but on the front page, describing its “remarkable personal attack” on Dr Robert Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom the author of the Preface held responsible for the rudderless drift of the Church and for the prevailing tone of secular liberalism. Dr Runcie, said the Preface, was “taking the line of least resistance on each issue”; his position was “often unclear”.
“He has the disadvantage”, the Preface continued, “of the intelligent pragmatist: the desire to put off all questions until someone else makes a decision. One recalls a lapidary phrase of Mr Frank Field that the Archbishop is usually found nailing his colours to the fence.” That all seems pretty true to most people now, as it did to many of us then. Particular attention to the Archbishop had been drawn by the insertion of newspaper-style sub-headings which had formed no part of the original text, and so distracted from the many other profound comments about the state of the Church.
There was intense speculation as to the authorship of the Preface, and some of the most nervous and uncharitable pronouncements came from episcopal lips as they closed ranks to defend the patron whom, the Preface asserted, had brought them their preferment. “Sourness and vindictiveness” were the words of Dr Habgood, then Archbishop of York; “anonymous, gutless malice”, said John Taylor, then Bishop of St Albans; “the vultures are circling around this man”, said the soft-voiced Thought for the Day, Bill Westwood. Yes, the bishops really did talk like that. A raw nerve had certainly been touched!
The one name repeatedly mentioned as the likely author was that of Canon Bennett. His contract, and tradition, required him to deny authorship. On Friday he went with a group of us to a College Feast in Cambridge, and I remember him being very irritated at having to drop me off at the local radio station to record a piece about the Preface for the Radio Four Sunday programme. Most of the papers on Saturday morning were naming him as the author, and after he had driven us back to Oxford, he was never seen alive again. On Monday he was found to have committed suicide, and the following day the publishers of Crockford acknowledged that he had indeed written the Preface.
What was it all about? Most people had very mixed feelings about Garry Bennett. He was neither a loveable or a clubbable man, but he was undoubtedly an enormously gifted one, which is why Dr Runcie was prepared to make so much use of him. He was not attractive or inspiring, but he was a thorough and a good tutor who took great pains with his students. But he had become bored with teaching, and even considered the possibility of buying a house in Chichester, where he was a canon, and coming back to Oxford to do his teaching in three concentrated days mid-week.
Those of us who knew him, especially those of us who knew him best, would not wish to elevate him to the status of a martyr or a saint. It does not hurt anyone ten years down the line to say that he could be irritating, vain, self-centred, and with ambitions beyond his ability. He certainly found it frustrating – as many others have done – to see mediocrity rising to the top in the Church of England. But he would, himself, have been a hopeless bishop because he didn’t really like most people, and he would have been an infuriating dean as anyone who ever sat with him on a committee will confirm. Nevertheless, to some of us he was a loyal and valued friend, a generous host and excellent company.
Garry had a first class mind and was an excellent writer, and of how many members of the episcopal bench could that be said? He believed (probably wrongly) that he had been passed over for the bishopric of Durham, and believed that he was a man of academic merit but that the successful contender was a clown. “It’s done for dons”, he muttered resentfully. He had hoped for the Deanery of Winchester. But Garry was not promoted. He ended his career tragically, in the same post as he had begun it, a history don at New College. But there is something wrong with a church which nowadays has such little intellectual ability not using and ignoring someone who had so much.
His Preface was written from an anguished heart. It struck a chord with all who read it, not least those who so violently disagreed with it. It articulated, for the first time, with a scholarly precision, the crisis in which the Church of England still finds itself. Ten years on it is frightening to read how prophetic and accurate it was.
It is an awful anniversary worth re-visiting. The degree to which Humphrey Carpenter’s otherwise pretty light-weight biography of Robert Runcie so much vindicates that prophetic Crockford Preface is astonishing. In those pages Runcie frankly admits to what he calls “cronyism” – the fact that as Archbishop he appointed people he knew, and surrounded himself with a liberal élite: and it is demonstrably without doubt that there is what the Preface describes as ‘a virtual exclusion of Anglo-Catholics from Episcopal Office’.
Consciously or unconsciously, Bennett saw himself in terms of Francis Atterbury, the eighteenth century bishop of Rochester on whom he was the great authority. He might have remembered the words he himself had used describing Atterbury, “The very style of writing, with its brilliant paradoxes, telling witticisms, and smooth plausibilities, made it clear who the author was”, for they were words which exactly described his own writing.
Looking back on the Preface, ten years on, it still comes across as a sharp and trenchantly accurate analysis of the state of the Church of England, its current malaise, the direction in which it was moving, and the causes of its liberal drift. It was written with scholarly and restrained passion by one who cared from the depth of his being about the catholic continuity of Church of England, and tried, with the particular gifts God had given him and to the best of his ability, to speak to the church not only of his concern, but also the concern of many an ordinary church-goer.
Philip Ursell is Principal of Pusey House