On Sunday 6 December 1987, the Reverend Doctor Canon Gareth Vaughan Bennett returned home after spending a most agreeable weekend with friends in Cambridge. On the way he had given a colleague a lift home, and made arrangements to meet up later that evening. He had also popped into New College Oxford, where he held the comfortable and undemanding post of Professor of Church History, to pick up his mail. There he spoke to another colleague, who later recalled that Bennett seemed in perfectly good spirits.
And why wouldn’t he have been? His salary from New College and his stipend as a Canon in the Church of England allowed him a comfortable lifestyle and promised a serene and unruffled future. Bennet’s was a career straight from the pages of an Anthomy Trollope novel, and seemed set fair to continue just as interminably and as devoid of significant incident. All was very much right in the world of the Reverend Doctor Canon Gareth Vaughan Bennett.
On arriving at his house Bennett put his briefcase at the bottom of the stairs and draped his overcoat, with the letters from New College still unopened in the pocket, over the bannister. He went into the sitting room, where he poured and drank a glass of wine and killed his cat. He then left the house by the back door and went into the garage. He attached a length of hose pipe to the exhaust of his car and fed it through the driver’s side window and started the engine. He went to the passenger side of the car, put the front seat to full recline, climbed in and closed the door. He was found there the next morning by a neighbour, stone dead from Carbon Monoxide poisoning.
Bennett was born in suburban London in 1927 into circumstances which, though modest, enabled him to receive a public school education. He took a degree in history at the University of Cambridge and accepted his Fellowship at New College in Oxford. He was ordained in the Church of England and secured steady preferment, becoming chaplain and Dean of Divinity at New College, canon of Chichester Cathedral and a member of the Church of England’s General Synod and its standing committee. The crowning achievement of the Church has been to perpetuate Victorian-era levels of caste privilege into the twenty-first century.
But then Bennett was asked to write the preface for the latest edition of Crockford’s Clerical Directory.
Crockford’s Clerical, like Debrett’s and Who’s Who, is one of those quintessentially English literary institutions that serve no real purpose other than allowing the members of those classes that have floated to the top of society the gratification of seeing their egos enshrined in print. It lists all English, Irish, Scottish and Irish benefices and churches, and details the biographies of around 26,000 current incumbent clergy. Hardly earthshaking stuff.
But Crockford’s does have one little quirk: the preface. This is written anonymously and is intended to be a general review of recent events within the Anglican Communion with, perhaps, a little spice in the form of waspish or gently humorous commentary. Bennett, however, went a bit too far.
In Bennett’s preface, which he acknowledged in advance might be thought wicked, he described the then Archbishop of Canterbury as ‘resolutely nailing his colours to the fence’ in every debate. Bennett also accused Archbishop Runcie of cronyism, appointing to high office only those who Runcie had known from a handful of theological colleges and the Dioceses of St Albans and Canterbury. Although Runcie himself was not upset by the preface when it saw publication, it was said that a number of other senior figures in the church were angry to the point of incandescence.
The story goes that these unnamed figures deduced that Bennett was the culprit, and alerted the newspapers to the scandal. A shy and retiring man by nature, Bennett was hounded by the press and, unable to cope with the glare of publicity, took his own life. Certainly the Coroner presiding over Bennett’s inquest thought so.
The Coroner, a Mr Gardiner, sat without a jury and on at least several occasions guided witnesses in that direction, and blatantly closed off avenues of questioning which should have been investigated. The neighbour who found Bennett’s body had noted that Bennett’s home office was very untidy, contrary to its usual orderly appearance, and gave every indication of having been hastily riffled through. ‘But it didn’t have the appearance of somebody else going through the papers?’ asked Mr Gardiner. It is not clear how the witness was expected to tell if Bennett or a third party had disarranged the documents, but there the matter ended.
Likewise the manager of the hardware shop where the connector that was used to link the hosepipe to the exhaust of Bennett’s car was purchased. The sale was made about two hours before Bennett arrived home, although the shop was not a two hours’ drive away. The connector was of an uncommon type and was rarely asked for, but the manager reported having sold two that day. The manager was unable to identify Bennett from a photograph although he did remember the customer as being polite and very easy to serve, and that he knew exactly what he wanted. He was not asked about the other customer.
Mr Gardiner showed no interest in the fate of Bennett’s cat either, stating that the inquest was to do with the death of a human not a cat, and he ordered the cat to be destroyed before any tests could be done nor were the remains of the food in the cat’s bowl tested. Perhaps Mr Gardiner may have been correct, and the death of the cat was just a curious coincidence. But prudence suggests that a little more investigation might have been appropriate.
And every single one of Dr Bennett’s friends and colleagues who was called to testify stated that they did not believe he would have been capable of the act of suicide.
There were many more aspects of the case which were just dismissed out of hand. Dr Bennett’s garage was normally full of junk and his car always stood outside. It would have required a considerable amount of rearrangement for the car to be able to be driven in and Bennett’s neighbours were not asked if they were aware if he had done this, nor were they asked if they had heard the noise of the car engine idling for hours until the fuel ran out. Mr Gardiner was determined it was a case of suicide, and that was that. The police, who were expecting at least an open verdict, were particularly surprised.
I note without prejudice that Bennett’s autopsy was performed by the branch of the Coroner’s Service that would later come to the same verdict in the case of another potentially troublesome non-medical Doctor, who went for a walk in the woods and who was found dead in circumstances which can be fairly described as unsatisfactory. But I digress.
Whilst no church has ever routinely rid itself of turbulent priests by in-house assassinations [Cough! – Borgia Popes – Cough!] digging a little deeper into the Crockford files reveals that perhaps the case is not quite so simple as a spiky article regarding grievances about being passed over for promotion leading to a media storm, and the suicide of a quiet man when faced with the spotlight of publicity.
Dr Bennett lived through the period during which the Church sought to align itself to the ideals of modern Liberalism, and the God-free relativist theology of the likes of the Bishop of Newark, Jack Shelby Spong. Bennett was not a combative man and it was by a process of the rest of the Church drifting towards Crypto-Marxism, rather than Bennett consciously standing in opposition to this direction of travel, that towards the end of his life Bennet found himself identified as a key figure in what we might call the conservative wing of the church. Most especially so regarding the ordination of women, which was then becoming a very divisive issue.
Is it, perhaps, not quite beyond the bounds of possibility that one of this first generation of Social Justice Warriors within the church saw Bennett as a roadblock on the way to progress, and in their enthusiasm took a little too literally the Biblical injunction ‘One man, one problem; no man, no problem’?
I really could not possibly say.
Certainly it is not impossible that somebody with the required skillset might have already held a position within the church. People from many different backgrounds eventually turn to religion. I happen to know a chap who used to be a Hells Angel but who now is the Vicar of a little parish in the Pennines, and he is one of the better sort in my opinion.
Be that as it may, if his Bishop ever wanted an ounce of Red Leb or a motorcycle part of dubious provenance then the Revving Rev could be relied upon to at least point him in the direction where these sorts of things can be obtained. Utilising your team members’ unique skills is simply effective management. And once establish a principle, all you need to do subsequently is negotiate the extent.
And I freely admit that the whole notion has an Ealing Comedies charm about it. Imagine, if you will, black and white footage of an old maid cycling to Holy Communion along a misty autumnal lane. The camera tracks parallel to her for a while and then halts, leaving her to pedal out of frame. For a moment all is still, but who is this who emerges furtively from the hedgerow? It is Alec Guinness, reprising his role as the outwardly urbane but inwardly unhinged and murderous vicar. He glances around him to ensure that he is unobserved, then from his jacket he takes an ornately carved blowpipe.
He learnt the use of this weapon when he was a missionary in the Amazon Jungle, and the manufacture of the deadly toxin with which the dart is tipped. He turns in the direction of the cyclist, takes a deep breath and then lets the dart fly. There is a muffled squeak off-screen and the sound as of a bicycle being ridden into a ditch. For a second we have a close up of Guinness piously raising his eyes to heaven and uttering a few words of thanks to the Almighty, then he fades back into the undergrowth and it is as if nothing had ever happened.
Chuck in a hulkingly menacing Bernard Bresslaw squeezed into a Verger’s robe a size too small for him and who, if perhaps not able to wrestle with a theological conundrum, is clearly more than capable of beating one to death, and you’ve got a box office classic.
And here I see that our time together must end for today, my young friends, for there are two gentlemen in clerical garb walking up my drive. It must be that nice vicar and his curate, come to solicit contributions for the Church Roof Fund. I shall invite them in, and we will discuss parish matters over a pot of tea and a plate of scones.
Good day to you.
The foregoing is a blatant and tawdry attempt to curry the approval of my peers through the use of so-called comedy, and I already wish to distance myself from the slurs and calumnies contained therein. I also freely and fully repudiate the ludicrous notion that sectors of the Establishment would collude to rid themselves of one of their own who has become an irritant or a threat to them.
Furthermore I would like to state that I am sound in mind and body, and in the best of spirits. And also that the act of suicide is one that I would under no circumstances consider.
Therefore should my body ever be found in a situation which suggests a ‘felo de se’, you may be sure that it was not by my own volition and that dark actors were at play.
© bobo 2021
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