Media Watch

* Repeating History

* George Austin on two troubling media suicides

 

WITH the terrible news of Dr Kelly's suicide filling the media, it brought to mind a similar event in the Church which took place on Saturday 5th December 1987. But I thought, Who will remember? Then someone, not at all connected with the central events of the Church of England, commented to me that it reminded him of Gary Bennett.

It was not quite the same, though it was a man hounded to his death by the pressure of exposure. But why drag it up now? Well, it was an event that ought to have been deeply shameful for the Church and somehow was not. Let me remind you.

It was the custom at that time for Crockford's Clerical Directory to begin with a long and anonymous preface, pungent, forthright and penetrating. There were no holds barred, and in previous years senior figures in the Church, including bishops and archbishops, had been taken to task for what they had done or had not done.

The difference this time was that Bennett, in a very small part of the Preface, had attacked not a conservative leadership but a strongly liberal establishment centred on Archbishop Robert Runcie. Runcie, he suggested, had an effective background of the `elitist liberalism of Westcott House in the immediate post-war years', giving him `a distaste of those who are unstylish enough to inhabit the clerical ghettos of Evangelicalism and Anglo-Catholicism' and tended to `underestimate their influence in the spiritual life and mission of the Church.'

 

`His clear preference', he went on, `is for men of liberal disposition and a moderately 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.' That was a fair description of senior clergy appointed during his primacy. Many of us who sat on the General Synod at that time thought it was quite moderate and that more could have been said.

Interviewed on the BBC Today programme, I commented that the surprise was not that it had been said, but that it had not been said before. Before the broadcast I had only been able to read the extended extract published in The Times. Why, I wondered, did they not have the full preface, which had only been released to the press?

There was a simple reason, as I discovered. The Broadcasting Officer at Church House had refused to send it to the BBC because he disapproved of its contents, even though the Secretary General and the Chief Press Officer had told him to do so. He claimed that a `higher authority' supported his action. This proved to be the episcopal chairman of the Communications Committee rather than the Almighty.

There was a natural desire on the part of the press to find the identity of the anonymous author, but it was nothing by comparison with that of the Church establishment. From the start, episcopal vindictiveness was of a depth not seen for many years, perhaps for centuries.

Only Runcie himself came out of it with any dignity. Bennett had discussed the same issues with him to his face, a fact which the Archbishop revealed to two of Gary's friends. Runcie's mistake was not to make public that he was not worried by the Preface, if indeed that was the case.

It gradually became obvious that Bennett's name would be revealed, and the pressure on him mounted. Two days before his death, a senior religious journalist telephoned me to tell me that `Lambeth Palace' were saying, `Don't ask us, ask Gary Bennett' It was all too much for a quiet, introverted scholar, and he garaged his car, put a hose-pipe to the exhaust and quietly died.

As with the suicide of Dr Kelly, there was at first a horrified silence, then a rapid apportionment of blame on the basis of `anyone except me.' But there the parallels cease and the Church's reaction became murkier. The prime candidate for scapegoat was Derek Pattinson, the Synod's secretary-general.

He had had nothing to do with what The Times described as the `growing atmosphere of suspicion, deception and acrimony'. It was not he who had suggested to the media, `Ask Gary Bennett'. It was not Pattinson who was adding to the acrimony but senior clergy who in one breath praised the comprehensiveness of the Church of England and in the next demanded heads on a platter. He had no intention of resigning and did not do so.

With such a tragic death, I really believed that there would be no further denigration of Bennett, but I could not have been more wrong. The same senior clergy, now joined by others, told the media that they had always known Gary Bennett to be unstable and disturbed, and that his suicide was only to be expected.

One even excoriated Benmett's fellow Catholics for holding a requiem mass for him at his funeral, and suggested we were betraying our own principles by allowing this for a suicide victim. What does a verdict of suicide mean to such people and how would they face a bereaved family if they had ever served as parish priests?

The Prime Minister to his credit immediately instituted a totally independent enquiry into the circumstances leading to the tragic death of Dr Kelly, but the Church did no such thing. In his book, The Crockford's File, William Oddie records that it seemed at first that the establishment `had learned the lessons of the preface and its terrible aftermath.'

Certainly the liberal and elitist ascendancy in episcopal appointments was toned down, and if this had not happened neither George Carey nor David Hope would have become archbishops. But it was not enough, as too many younger Runcie-he bishops had been appointed for their influence to show any decline, especially when they appointed as suffragans so many clones of themselves, from whom came many of the next generation of diocesan bishops.

Oddie tells how someone leaving New College Chapel after Bennett's requiem commented that what he had just attended would be seen in years to come `as either the funeral of the Church of England or the beginning of its resurrection' depending on whether or not `they' had learnt its lessons.

We must not arrange the funeral yet. There are faint signs, as yet no more than a cloud the size of a man's hand, that mainstream Anglicans are now realizing they have no need of liberals, that God's truth is more important than a spurious unity.

George Austin war formerly Archdeacon of York.

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