A Liberal and Godly Dean: The life of Edward Carpenter
Gloriette Publications £10*
*from Church House Bookshop, www.chbookshop.hymnsam.co.uk; phone 020 7799 4064
THOSE who were fortunate enough to know Edward Carpenter when he was Dean of Westminster will be aware of what a difficult task will have confronted any biographer.
He was a man to whose career many conventional labels could be attached: intellectually brilliant, promoted early in life (aged 31) to a prestigious Westminster canonry, historian, philosopher, socialist, pacifist, courageous public debater, innovative and imaginative, personally warm and approachable — all these are correct, yet seem to leave unmentioned what was truly notable about him.
Unconventional, eccentric — these words too spring to mind; yet the ways in which he broke the mould of ecclesiastical life at the heart of the Establishment were themselves such that no single word conveys them.
A dean who might wear tennis clothes under his red cassock so that he could play with the choir men immediately after a service; who would regularly explore London on his bicycle late at night; who would arrive at the last moment to greet the Queen at the door of the Abbey — tearing himself away from writing at his desk — with a huge ink stain on his surplice (replaced just in time by his faithful and attentive verger) — such a dean was not so much eccentric as one whose behaviour was consistent with the priorities he set himself, one of which was transforming any occasion that risked being purely formal or official into a moment of personal warmth and encounter.
In response to the Chatila massacre in 1982, he organised, at a day’s notice, an hour’s silent vigil in the Abbey, attended by representatives of all three faiths involved. By dint of spending all day on the telephone in personal invitations, he secured a last-moment attendance of a thousand.
After Margaret Thatcher announced, to general surprise and some consternation, that there was to be a service in the Abbey to mark the 40th anniversary of VE Day, to which only victorious allies would be invited, Edward instantly secured the support of church leaders to insist on representation from all sides in the war, and transformed the occasion from a mere victory anniversary into an occasion for reconciliation, former enemies processing side by side the length of the nave and exchanging the Peace with the Archbishop of Canterbury and each other before the high altar.
These priorities extended to daily routine and private life. During the day, the Deanery was open to any caller, who would be given the impression that nothing was more important than this unexpected visit; and Edward’s inner stream of consciousness, which embraced a continuing conversation with Dr Johnson, Byron, Shelley, and a host of other writers, past and present (as well as passionate enthusiasm for Chelsea Football Club), instantly drew in the visitor, whether royal or humble, well-read or sparsely educated; each would be made to feel somehow a significant participant in it.
The challenge of putting all this into a short biography was valiantly taken up by the late Michael De-la-Noy, an experienced biographer, at the invitation of the Carpenter family, and was completed in 2002, four years after Edward’s death. But the book had to wait until it was privately published last year.
Readers will find there a faithful sketch of a very unusual life. Much attention is given to Edward’s undeniable disappointment, and that of his many admirers, that he was not made Dean of St Paul’s in 1967. Yet those who knew him as Dean of Westminster will never be inclined to regret that he was still available for that position when Eric Abbott retired in 1974.
They will concur with this book’s title: he was certainly “a liberal and godly dean”; but they may well feel also that a host of other adjectives
are required to give a true picture of one whom his biographer does not hesitate to call “a great dean and a great man”.
Canon Anthony Harvey is a former Sub-Dean of Westminster Abbey.