ADAM SISMAN states that The Professor and the Parson is not intended as a cautionary tale. “My purpose has been to entertain, not to instruct,” he writes. But, despite his disclaimer, this far-from-everyday story of university and church folk is, as The Archers started out to be, an instructive kind of Dick Barton — except that the villain of this gripping narrative is not fictional, and his pursuer is an Oxford don, not a lantern-jawed special agent.
In November 1958, the path of Robert Peters, an unfrocked priest and serial bigamist and pretender to academic laurels, crossed with that of the Regius Professor of Modern History, Hugh Trevor-Roper (later Lord Dacre). The author knows, because he had access to Trevor-Roper’s papers to write the latter’s biography (published in 2010). For this new book, however, it has already been noted that he was refused access to the relevant Lambeth Palace files (Letters, 7 June).
It was Peters who made the first contact, to complain of being victimised by the Bishop, Harry Carpenter — an unwise step, since Trevor-Roper, though no admirer of churchmen, was a former secret-intelligence officer, who would be adept at making enquiries and likely to smell a rat. But Peters, though a crafty operator, was not a judicious character. Like others who have reinvented themselves, he may in the end not have known where reality ended and fantasy began. Sisman concludes that he looks like a textbook case of a narcissistic personality disorder.
MirrorpixA cutting from the Daily Mirror, 24 August 1955, reporting Peters’s conviction for theft. The photo, taken ten years previously, shows him while he was a fugitive from the law, with his second wife, Margaret Gladdish. From the book under review
For the next quarter of a century, until Trevor-Roper’s appetite for the chase appears to have been killed by the public humiliation of verifying the forged Hitler diaries, the don kept a dossier on the globe-trotting con man as he turned up in various guises in his lifelong quest for the status and esteem that he evidently desired.
It was an interest that Trevor-Roper came to share with others around the world, who would discuss with him also those who had given Peters his chances. Trevor-Roper was, for example, scathing about the “misguided Christian charity” of the “asinine” Professor Gordon Rupp at Manchester University. His Toronto correspondent commented mildly: “I can only assume that he must be a remarkably unworldly person.”
If so, it was a quality that others also showed in varying amounts (it was not that Peters had kept out of the press). We are now all too familiar with the idea that concern for a possibly repentant sinner can dull determination to stop a repeat offender. No doubt pity for the wives played a part. With Trevor-Roper off the scent, Peters went merrily on his bogus way into the 1990s and the digital era. At least a certain Martyn Percy asked the right questions about Peters’s Cambridge Religious Studies Centre.
This book reminded me of a seasoned religious journalist who, on her return to the office from covering a particularly heady church conference, said that she had just seen “every lunatic I ever met”. Church Times readers within an age range of several decades will enjoy spotting cameos by (usually sane) acquaintances, living and dead. Even our advertising department gets a mention.
A rare slip or two in ecclesiastical matters is more than compensated for by the salutary footnote (page 188) on the idea (before any reader dare have it) that “It couldn’t happen nowadays.”
The Professor and the Parson: A story of desire, deceit and defrocking
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