Obituary: The Right Rev Harry Carpenter
Saturday 29 May 1993
DESPITE his rather dry and pedantic manner, those who knew Harry Carpenter, the former bishop of Oxford, personally would be likely to describe him as a dear man. He was absolutely without side or pretentiousness, and he combined sympathy with complete straightforwardness in a way that endeared him to those who came into contact with him in either an administrative or pastoral capacity. He was a down-to-earth, no-nonsense, man.
The son of a Hampshire butcher, Harry won a scholarship to Churcher's College, Petersfield, where he proved something of a prodigy. As a result of what he used to describe wryly as 'schoolmasterly incompetence' he was advised to enrol at Southampton University College at the age of 16, without being told that he would need to teach himself Greek as a condition of matriculation. Characteristically, he did what was required and eventually got a First in the external examinations of London University. His residence in Southampton qualified him to sit for a Southampton Exhibition to Queen's College, Oxford, and he went up in 1921 to read Mods, Greats and Theology, in all of which he gained Firsts.
After a year at Cuddesdon, he was ordained deacon in 1927, but the hard work involved in getting four Firsts in a row then led to health problems. Nevertheless he was fit to take up a curacy in Leatherhead soon after ordination, but a few months later he was invited to fill a sudden vacancy in the theological tutorship at Keble and he then spent 12 happy years as a tutor and, after 1930, a Fellow at the college.
'The Carp', as they called him, was popular with undergraduates of all sorts, even if they were somewhat in awe of him. The college soon realised that it had a conscientious tutor, a willing and efficient administrator, and an excellent scholar, though unfortunately his other duties allowed him less time for writing than might have been hoped.
In 1939 he was the unanimous choice to succeed Warden Kidd and, though the college buildings were commandeered for the duration, he found himself fully occupied at a time when many of his younger colleagues were away at the war. Always a shrewd man of affairs, he realised that the future of the college depended on its obtaining full collegiate status, which was impossible so long as it was run by a Council consisting of external members. With a mixture of tact and firmness, and the assistance of Vere Davidge, the law tutor and bursar, he persuaded the Council to vote itself out of existence - no mean task - and in 1952 Keble became a full college of the university.
In 1955 Carpenter was appointed Bishop of Oxford. With his stoop and the characteristic forward thrust of his head, he was not impressive to look at and he lacked a public presence or any real gift of oratory; and there was a certain flatness about him which led some to underestimate his qualities. What the diocese gained was an efficient and far-sighted administrator, a scholarly bishop with all the necessary grounding in theology, a man of total integrity, a father in God who could always be relied on to be fair-minded but considerate, and above all a churchman of deep piety.
He was anything but an establishment prelate, and could be observed after services in parishes happily conversing with parishioners of all sorts and ages, though it was fatal to invite him to address children en masse.
By personal conviction he was an Anglo-Catholic of the old school, and by temperament a reluctant changer who liked to ponder issues at length before coming to a decision. It was the more significant, therefore, that he strongly supported plans for the closer union between Anglicans and Methodists and was deeply disappointed when they came to nothing.
In informal contexts, when the guard was down, both he and his lively wife Urith, who came from the celebrated Trevelyan family, were entertaining conversationalists. They both had a sharp eye for hidden agendas and for people's foibles, which they would discuss in perceptive and amusing, though never uncharitable, terms. An hour with either of them was always entertaining, and it is a pity that this was a side of Harry that many did not see.
He was always an extremely hard worker and when he retired at the age of 70 he was too exhausted to enjoy retirement for long. His health soon began to deteriorate and so, later, did Urith's. His last years were spent, with Urith, who survives him, in a home in Cowley run by Anglican nuns. Their son Humphrey is the well-known bandleader, biographer and broadcaster.
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