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A Liberal and Godly Dean by Michael De-la-Noy

by
03 March 2017

Anthony Harvey recalls Edward Carpenter’s inspired eccentricity

A Liberal and Godly Dean: The life of Edward Carpenter
Michael De-la-Noy
Gloriette Publications £10*
(978-0-9957190-0-2)
*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.

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