George Austin offers some personal insights into the controversy surrounding the sorry state of church appointments in the late Eighties especially as it came to light in 1987

On 3 December 1987, the 1987/8 edition of Crockford’s Clerical Directory was published with the customary anonymous preface surveying the present state of the Church of England. As usual, the preface was comprehensive in its appraisal, and critical – sometimes severely so – in its judgement. It had always been thus, and archbishops and bishops had not been immune from the trenchant criticism it always contained.

This year there was a difference, which in the end was to cost the author his life. For his observations were not from the viewpoint of a liberal commentator but rather as an orthodox and traditionalist writer, concerned at the direction into which the church he loved was being driven by an increasingly powerful and intolerant liberal Establishment.

So far in this series I have written as impersonally as I could, even though I lived through the changes in the church from 1950 onwards, being ordained deacon in 1955. But I was too involved in the controversy following the publication of the preface to be able to do the same in this account of the late Eighties. Moreover, so important was the effect of that period on the Church of England that it must be completed in next month’s issue.

Personal preferences

The story really begins in 1970 with the appointment of Robert Runcie as Bishop of St Albans. Shortly before he came, I had accepted the offer of St Peter’s, Bushey Heath, and I was his first appointment. I soon began to realize that had the offer been delayed until he was in post, it would not have been made at all. After all, I was not the ‘right sort of chap’ – state school, Lampeter for my degree and Chichester as my seminary.

He was at St Albans for ten years and during that time not a single appointment was made to any major parish or to any senior post of anyone without a public school education or an Oxbridge degree and who had not been trained at Cuddesdon or Westcott House theological colleges. With one exception (who was anyway a Westcott man) only one of these appointments was made from within the diocese and many good priests stagnated.

Runcie moved to Canterbury in 1980 and it quickly became apparent that the same practice was being followed in episcopal appointments. Many of those whom he had brought into the diocese of St Albans now found themselves fast-tracked to the purple, and those for whom even he could not find such preferment, even as suffragans, were made deans and provosts.

Runcie was a genial man who could laugh at himself and in his biography (by Humphrey Carpenter) he jokingly acknowledged his ‘first act of cronyism’ to be the appointment as his chaplain of Nicholas Coulton, one of his Cuddesdon students and later to be provost of Newcastle.

Emerging pattern

It became so obvious that I began to list all senior appointments and almost always there was the Runcie connection. A fellow General Synod member was Canon Gareth Bennett, a history don who represented Oxford University. Both of us were elected in 1986 to the Standing Committee, together with a third member of the Synod Catholic group, the exotic Canon Brian Brindley. We agreed that as none of us was ever going to be considered for the episcopate, we need not try to toe the liberal party line, even had we been inclined in the slightest so to do.

I mentioned to Garry Bennett the survey of appointments I had been recording and he innocently asked for a copy. Unbeknown to me an evangelical member of Synod, Michael Saward, had been doing the same exercise and had come to a similar deduction, and this Bennett also obtained, confirming his own suppositions.

These were echoed in one of the most critical (and criticized) paragraphs in the preface: that Runcie’s ‘clear preference is for men of liberal disposition with a moderate Catholic style which is not taken to the point of having firm principles. If in addition they have a good appearance and are articulate over the media he is prepared to overlook a certain theological deficiency.’

Angry reception

It was by no means the most serious criticism in the piece, but it was the one causing the most fury. It was quickly dismissed as ‘sour, scurrilous and vindictive,’ ‘anonymous, gutless malice,’ ‘a cowardly, disgraceful attack,’ the work of ‘a disappointed cleric’ – these attacks all from senior bishops and probably orchestrated centrally.

Against the wishes of the Chief Press Officer and Derek Pattinson, the Synod’s Secretary General, the broadcasting officer flatly refused to circulate the text to the radio and television newsrooms and was supported in this act of censorship by his Board chairman, Bishop Taylor of St Albans.

As a result, when on that first morning I was invited on the BBC Today programme to be interviewed by Brian Redhead, the only text either of us had was a fairly lengthy extract printed in The Times. I was asked who I thought was the author and I could truthfully say that I had no idea.

And final tragedy

Later that day when speaking to Clifford Longley, religion correspondent for The Times, I said I now wondered if the author might be Bennett, but Longley said he was convinced it was not. He held this view until some days later when he telephoned to warn me that ‘Lambeth are saying, Don’t ask us, ask Garry Bennett.’

Who at Lambeth made this statement I have no idea, though I believe it was not on the instruction nor with the knowledge of Runcie. In one leader, The Times was to speak accurately of Runcie’s ‘quiet and dignified manner throughout [that] will have won him many admirers.’ I suspect it was a collaboration between the York and Lambeth press officers, who later orchestrated a similar attack on me when I had preached against the progressing development of the liberal agenda.

I warned Bennett of this, though learned later that he had already become aware of this new attack. On the evening of Saturday 5 December, Pattinson returned home to find a message on his answer phone from Bennett asking him to return the call as soon as possible. There was no reply.

By then Canon Gareth Bennett was dead, driven to commit suicide by the church he served. No one could have imagined that there was worse was to come.