Obituary: The Rev Edward Carpenter

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The Independent Culture
EDWARD CARPENTER was a highly original Dean of Westminster who enabled Westminster Abbey to become a shrine welcoming a great variety of good causes. After 20 years as a learned, hard- working and unpushy north London parson he was "discovered" by Clement Attlee and spent 35 years at the abbey, eventually becoming Dean from 1974 to 1986. He and his much-respected wife, Lilian, will go down in the history of Westminster for being so accessible, friendly and prepared to listen.

Carpenter was a thorough Londoner, educated at Strodes School, Egham, and King's College in the Strand. As an historian he published major episcopal biographies as well as being a popular speaker and lecturer. His personal routine included watching Chelsea Football Club, of whom he was an enthusiastic supporter, working through the night on his historical researches and spending time by day on the abbey floor concerned to be with visitors and staff.

Though naturally shy and short-sighted he was always prepared to make new friends and consider new points of view. He injected a happy vagueness into ceremonial occasions which might otherwise have been boring or pretentious and (like the Queen Mother) managed to greet others without impropriety in church processions.

He commended the Christian faith to thoughtful people, where more media- conscious or mission-driven leaders might be off-putting. He understood the objections. He is remembered with affectionate esteem by lay people of all churches, and by humanists and members of other faiths, including Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Baha'is.

Though himself always personally committed, he defended the Commonwealth ceremony at the abbey where the world's religions expressed their beliefs together. His scholarly impartiality in his historical publications is shown in his gentle treatment of Bishop Compton, the last bishop to bear arms, and of the managerial Archbishop Fisher who so opposed the Anglican- Methodist reunion proposals. No reader would guess that Carpenter himself was a pacifist, an ecumenist and a feminist.

However he was a discreet but firm opponent of 20th-century intolerance. When both Downing Street and Lambeth believed that a "realistic" approach to South Africa required compromise, Carpenter would have none of it. When some rejected the ordination of women on the ground that it was unprecedented, Carpenter offered the abbey to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the ordination of the Chinese pioneer priest Florence Li Tim Oi in 1984, eight years before the General Synod and Parliament removed the legal barriers in England. It was characteristic on that historic occasion that it was Carpenter who noticed that there were not enough chairs for the congregation and had more carried in.

He was prepared to face opposition even from scholarly archbishops whom he respected. He did not believe that Archbishop Temple was radical enough in his attitudes to either capitalism or business sleaze. When Michael Ramsey refused to have anything to do with the World Congress of Faiths, Carpenter persisted, without success, in trying to persuade Ramsey to change his mind. Carpenter was committed to faith in the Trinity and in Christ but Ramsey felt this was put in doubt if all "religions" were welcomed. Carpenter was more aware than Ramsey of the variety of spiritual searching in contemporary society.

"Management" was not one of Carpenter's priorities. He did not attend the Church Commissioners. He searched for and gave his mind to bodies where he saw imagination and concern for a happier human future. So he was an energetic member of the Modern Churchpeople's Union, the World Congress of Faiths, the Shelley Society, the Byron Society, the United Nations Association, the Council for Christians and Jews and the Council for the Welfare of Animals. His determination to help women's education was shown in his Chairmanship of the Mary Buss Foundation, the North London Collegiate School, the Camden School for Girls and the St Anne's Society. The fact that occasionally he might arrive breathless by bicycle or have simultaneous appointments did not decrease the warmth of the welcome he received.

In his concern with worship in his parishes and at the abbey he was conscious of the man and woman in the street. He wanted worship to be accessible and urged brevity, time for silence, reflection and meditation - hence his love of the abbey's music. He liked the drive of Cranmer's succinct phrase "whose service is perfect freedom".

For him Christ's teaching reflected in lessons or sermon had the individual ring of spiritual genius about it. Slogans, pressures and hype were all out of place. "There need be nothing dramatic about entering into the kingdom, for in some sense it is equivalent to a new birth, to be raised to the fullness of life, even when one is old."

He felt in happy serendipity, reinforcing his suspicions of codified morals, when he discovered in Barrow School Chapel, before preaching there, a Prayer Book with the Table of Kindred and Affinity on the last page. Against the injunction that "a man may not marry his grandmother" a schoolboy had written "Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law".

Though at the heart of the establishment, both ecclesiastic and political, Carpenter remained surprisingly unpompous and unexpected. He emphasised the freshness of the divine which brings us into new situations in which each person's conscience may require a sacrificial decision. He had no fear of science and greatly admired the wisdom of those 17th-century ecclesiastics who threw their energies into royal society. He pleaded for imaginative understanding of others and commended the children's prayer "O God, make the nice people good; and the good people nice".

It was unfortunate for the Church that Edward Carpenter was 64 before he became Dean but he has left a legacy of tolerant, determined openness as a vital trait of 20th- century Christianity. He and his wife gave themselves unstintingly to others and contributed a happy sparkle in their home at Westminster in their laughter and scholarship.

Edward Frederick Carpenter, priest: born 27 November 1910; ordained deacon 1935, priest 1936; Curate, Holy Trinity, St Marylebone 1935-41; Curate, St Mary, Harrow 1941-45; Rector of Great Stanmore 1945-51; Canon of Westminster 1951, Treasurer 1959-74, Archdeacon 1963-74, Dean of Westminster 1974-85; Lector Theologiae of Westminster Abbey 1958; Joint Chairman, London Society of Jews and Christians 1960-85; KCVO 1985; married Lilian Wright (three sons, one daughter); died Twickenham, Middlesex 28 August 1998.