Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 30th June 2013
30 June 2013 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Dr Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence
For my last address in this month’s series of sermons on twentieth-century Canons of Westminster I take someone who spent twenty three years as a Canon here before then becoming Dean for eleven years, so for thirty four years Edward Carpenter was a very significant contributor to the life of this Abbey and, indeed, to the life of the Church of England.
He was born in 1910 in Surrey, where his father was a builder of modest means, and after school there he went to King’s College London, where he read history, which knowledge he was to put to good effect over the rest of his life in writing a number of significant biographies including the major one on Geoffrey Fisher, who was Archbishop of Canterbury for much of Carpenter’s early years at the Abbey. While a student at King’s Carpenter came under the influence of the liberal element in theology and decided to be ordained, serving as a curate in two London parishes before becoming Rector of Stanmore in Middlesex. There he encountered as a parishioner Clement Attlee, who had a house in Stanmore but who was also at the time the Prime Minster in the Labour Government after the war and Attlee developed an admiration for his Rector which led to Carpenter being appointed a Canon here at the relatively early age of 41. Some people here then automatically disapproved of a Canon who was appointed by a Labour Prime Minister, while others were concerned that he had not been to Oxford or Cambridge, and that sort of snobbishness made Carpenter’s early years at the Abbey not wholly happy ones. But he persevered and became both attached to and extraordinarily well informed about this place, and many here became very attached to him and his warm and engaging personality. He took part in the Coronation in 1953, carrying the orb, and in 1959, despite having no real interest in money, was appointed to the office I have held for the last eight years, Canon Treasurer, which post he held until he was appointed Dean in 1974. He retired in 1985 at the age of 75 and died thirteen years later.
Although someone was commissioned to write his biography sadly it has not yet materialised so I have had to rely on comments from others in various publications, obituaries, some of his own books and articles, some personal memories of seeing him lunching with his wife on various occasions in the restaurant that was in the base of Church House when I worked there in the 70s and 80s, but most of all on the diary that he kept while here at the Abbey which someone has kindly lent to me. A clear picture certainly emerges from all of that.
First, he comes across as a slightly eccentric and even absent minded academic. He travelled round London in all weathers on a bicycle, even when he was Dean, and it seems from his diaries he often forget where he was supposed to be preaching and arrived at the wrong church to be sent pedalling off somewhere else. His eccentricities were not confined to that, on a famous occasion when he was Dean he was proposing the health of the Queen Mother who was there in the Deanery and he did so by drinking her gin and tonic, somewhat to her surprise.
More importantly he was staunchly liberal in his views on ethical matters of public policy, such as capital punishment, to which he was firmly opposed and said so in many public gatherings, or his strong opposition to anything that looked like racism, and to his equally strong support for animal welfare societies; he was a vegetarian. He was also liberal in his theology, he was quite capable in introducing a Biblical lesson at Matins or Evensong to say why he thought St Paul was wrong in the passage he was about to read, and in his sermons he was more likely to quote secular authors than to mention the Bible. He also strongly supported the ordination of women well before it became fashionable to do so, so his presidency of the Modern Churchmen’s Union, a vehicle of liberal theology, seemed inevitable and right.
In his diary he was basically generous in his assessment of colleagues but he could be quite sharp, he said of one colleague’s speech on a particular occasion that it was ‘it was flattering, fluent and facile’, and he strongly objected to anything that looked like uncritical support of the military. In a way it was therefore surprising that he was appointed Dean of such an establishment institution as this Abbey, but for the following eleven years he carried out the role with great distinction, deepening the good links with the Commonwealth countries through inviting High Commissioners to come here on their National days to read the lessons, and also developing what he was instrumental in establishing while a Canon, the Abbey’s involvement with Inter-Faith expressions in worship in the annual Commonwealth Day Observance. He was closely involved with the Council of Christians and Jews and the World Congress of Faiths, and his natural humanity and warmth meant he could easily relate well to those of a different faith and welcome their contribution to acts of public worship in a church. That did not endear him to the rigorists of the Church of England, but he did not allow that to disturb him.
Personally I became aware of him as a significant figure when, as theological student, I read an article by him under the title ‘Integrity in Thought and Life’ in a book called ‘Christ for us Today’ published in 1968. The article includes an interesting and careful investigation of what the effect of scientific inquiry had on most people’s psychological approach to questions of truth, and it also examined some basic questions on what might be meant by integrity, and it was amply illustrated by examples where Carpenter thought the Church was not a good example of integrity in what it sometimes demanded of its members. When he was writing there was a larger debate within the Church of England on the role of the Thirty Nine Articles of Region, which clergy were then expected to affirm in total, written though they were in the time and light of Reformation debates. He shared with others a sense that should be changed, which a few years later it was, and he asked ‘Ought not clergy, in their respect for truth and plain speaking, be more scrupulous and not less than others; must not their standard be as absolute as they can contrive to make it?’ I believe that is a fair question still today. And in the context of affirmation of the details of the Thirty Nine Articles he commented ‘At a time when many sincere and humane people outside (and within) the Church feel hesitant to say anything about ultimate reality and the mystery which informs it, dare we affirm so much – much of which, in least in some of its aspects, is morally revolting?’ His words were, and in my view remain, a strong challenge to many of the expressions of the Church’s faith.
But for him in that article integrity was not just about how honestly the church expressed its faith, it also related to how people behaved towards others. He was aware of the way in which people could use their own insecurities and uncertainties to fuel an aggressive desire to dominate and control others, and he recognised, rightly in my view, that Christian people were no less free of that temptation than others. The desire to dominate and control is not unknown even within so called Christian communities. And yet for him real respect for integrity included a respect for the integrity of others to be different. And that did not just mean for some Christians to be different from him, but it provided the basis for that genuine openness to those of other faiths. ‘How’ he asked ‘shall we meet and encounter them? As fellow seekers anxious to learn from each other, or will the desire to dominate obtrude, the more so because of our own doubts and unsettlements.’ And he went on to write ‘The fear of syncretism is understandable and often justified; but it can serve to mask, and make respectable, an exclusiveness which lacks humility, which draws back from a real authentic encounter. Let us make no mistake; if there is to be a fruitful coming together there must be integrity; integrity on both sides and on all fronts.’
Not the least of the reasons why he was a great member of the Chapter and then Dean was that he exemplified that in his own life