Prophet's sad death

The controversy surrounding the 1987 Crockford's Preface diverted attention from the true focus of its content: the Church of England's abandonment of tradition. George Austin continues his personal account of those events

The suicide of Canon Gareth Bennett when he had believed he was about to be exposed as the author of the 1987 Crockford’s Preface caused such a profound shock in the Church of England that one might have imagined that in a Christian organization it would herald a change. Sadly this was not so.

Bennett’s Requiem Mass took place in the chapel of New College, Oxford, a solemn and emotional event. Vicious sneers were at once made against orthodox Catholics with suggestions that they were breaking their own principles by having a requiem for someone who had taken his own life, even though it was ‘while the balance of his mind was disturbed.’

It was not long before this was followed up by comments, including one from a senior bishop, that Bennett had ‘a naturally depressive disposition’ and another from an archdeacon (soon after to be rewarded with a diocesan bishopric) to the effect that everyone ‘knew’ that Bennett was ‘unbalanced,’ so that as a result his suicide was not unexpected.

Ignored

Several members were applauded when, in a debate in the General Synod on 9 February 1988, they pleaded for an end to this kind of gratuitous contempt where liberals seemed so often to prefer to substitute vulgar abuse for reasoned debate. It took only a day for this to be forgotten when a member ridiculed, to gales of laughter, the Catholic view of the status of the embryo in a debate on the Warnock Report.

Interestingly when a following motion on the Crockford affair was proposed by the Provost of Southwark, David Edwards, that the practice of including an anonymous Preface should be abandoned, this was defeated by 250 votes to 200. This decision was of course ignored by the liberal establishment and never again was one included. It was a risk that dare not be taken, lest a future Preface might again attack the spread of liberalism and secularism in the Church.

Yet in spite of the condemnation of the particular comments about the Archbishop of Canterbury, at least 90% of the Preface had been an examination of wider effects within the Anglican Church.

In theology, Bennett pointed to the abandonment of tradition in the approach to theology, and complained that ‘modern man must live among the ruins of past doctrinal and ecclesiastical systems, looking to Scripture only for themes and apprehensions which may inform his individual exploration of the mystery of God.’ In particular the theological colleges had ‘trained a whole generation of priests with a minimal knowledge of classical Anglican divinity or its methods.’

The prophetic truth of his comments on the impotence of international Anglican bodies to speak with any authority is borne out by events in the years that were to follow. Anglican provinces, he said, ‘tend to look inwards for the formation of opinion and to the concerns generated within their own societies. Having full canonical power to make changes they develop a strong disposition to put into effect what a local majority wishes and then expect the rest of the communion to follow suit.’

He went on to comment particularly on the growth of an increasingly intolerant liberal ascendancy in the Episcopal Church in the United States. To confirm this for the future, seminaries had become ‘centres of a liberalising theology which bears little or no resemblance to traditional Anglicanism; training in the spiritual life is widely discounted and few seminaries have any daily corporate prayer; the sexual mores of both staff and students appear to have broken with the standards usually associated with the Christian ministry.’

Decline

He described Bishop Spong’s interpretation of Anglican comprehensiveness as being that ‘everyone should do what is right to him in conscience and that everyone else should accept it.’ There could hardly be a better portrayal of the spurious ‘inclusiveness’ of present-day liberals, not least in the Church of England.

Even then Bennett could point in England to the decline in church attendance and in confirmations and infant baptisms. Between 1960 and 1982, the rate of infant baptisms for each 1000 of live births ‘fell from 554 to 347’: by 2001 it was by a further 43% to only 198. The annual number of confirmations was down ‘from 190,713 to 84,566,’ a figure that today would astonish overworked suffragans since by 2001 it had been reduced to only 36,387.

It was here that he brought in Archbishop Runcie, describing him as a man of ‘intelligence, personal warmth and a formidable capacity for hard work’; a man ‘who listens well,’ with a range of personal contacts ‘far wider than any of his predecessors’; and who in the General Synod had ‘an ability to influence the course of a debate which can be decisive for the success or failure of a motion.’ Unfortunately he could usually be found ‘nailing his colours to the fence.’

This phrase he attributed to Frank Field MP, though it originated from Bishop Ronald Williams of Leicester, who in a Synod speech had described the Archbishop as one who could ‘sit on the fence while keeping both ears to the ground.’ Runcie had joined in the hilarity that followed.

Prophetic

Because Bennett followed this with the more serious comments that were to cause the uproar and ferocity that drove him to suicide, those who bridled at the criticism of liberal elitism were able, consciously or not, to divert attention from the more important and prophetic arguments that at were the heart of the Preface.

He ended with an appraisal of the General Synod, which he described as ‘virtually powerless and consistently ineffective.’ By contrast it was the House of Bishops whose influence had in the late 1980s ‘increased and is increasing.’ He went on to show how this had been further developed by bishops modelling themselves on the Runcie example.

The result had been that the ‘laudable custom that a bishop would seek to preserve among his senior colleagues a balance between the various churchmanship’ had become ‘increasingly disregarded’ – as we know with catastrophic effect. Fifteen years later, one would be surprised if in most dioceses it was not almost totally disregarded even in the appointment of incumbents.

If a prophet can only be so described when his prophecies are fulfilled, then Gareth Bennett was truly the Church’s last great prophet in the twentieth century.

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