Lilian Carpenter: Leading figure at Westminster Abbey and supporter of interfaith dialogue

Lilian Carpenter went from the humblest of beginnings to preside over Westminster Abbey alongside her husband, the Rev Edward Carpenter, Dean of Westminster from 1974 to 1985. The Carpenters were widely esteemed for their warmth, accessibility, kindness and originality, and were among the most admired and cordial leaders of Westminster life.

Her approach at the Abbey was one of openness and practical enthusiasm. She worked with her husband to establish an Abbey "family", made up of all the people who lived and worked there. They initiated a sense of genuine community and a spiritual outreach to the man and woman in the street. Carpenter had a great love for the Abbey and her knowledge of its history and monuments was prodigious.

The Carpenters were firm supporters of the interfaith movement, sharing a belief that the coming together of world faiths was the surest way to achieve world peace. The Dalai Lama was a guest at the Deanery on several occasions at a time when his cause was not supported by the establishment. Lilian's graceful hospitality and loving care inspired the Dalai Lama to call her his "English mother".

She was born Lilian Wright, in the West End of London, where her father, a cobbler, worked out of a tiny shop. As a child she lived in extreme poverty with her parents and five siblings in two basement rooms. But from a young age she adored music and poetry and was an avid Girl Guide. Inspired by teachers, she won awards at drama festivals, and later, during the early years of her marriage, trained as a drama teacher at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. The skills she acquired there were used to great effect in organising events at the Abbey.

Carpenter left school at 14 in order to earn a living, her jobs including working in a dyers and cleaners, a veil shop and a milliners and assisting at a children's hospital. She met Edward Carpenter before the Second World War, when he was curate at her local church, Holy Trinity, Marylebone. After a long courtship, sharing a love of people and poetry, they were married in 1941. Carpenter served as a rector in north London before being appointed a Canon of Westminster in 1951. The Abbey was to be the couple's home for the next 34 years.

Lilian Carpenter had the rare quality of treating everyone who crossed her path – whether a tiny child or ancient churchman – with the same interest and respect. She loved people and nurtured their best qualities, inspiring many who had lost their path to find it joyfully again. A lifelong vegetarian, along with her husband, she worked to better the lot of animals, encouraging animal organisations to work together and giving animal-themed poetry readings in the Abbey. She adored St Francis of Assisi and accompanied her husband to Italy to personally deliver a petition on the welfare of animals to the Pope.

Carpenter had a strong will and inner discipline that enabled her to bring up her own family and still contribute greatly in public life. Always independent, she went on a search through the religions and discovered that the most important thing was the ability to love everything unconditionally. She felt that this search enabled her to worship with any of the faiths. On leaving the Abbey in 1985, she became a member of the Bahá'í faith, a religion that sees everyone as part of one human family.

Ruth Copland

Lilian Carpenter: born London 25 February 1917; married 1941 the Rev Edward Carpenter (died 1998; three sons, one daughter); died London 2 December 2008.

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