The Church of England, noted for Trollopian gentility and benign tolerance of conflicting views, is in the midst of its biggest furor in memory, following a scathing personal attack on its spiritual leader, the archbishop of canterbury, and the subsequent apparent suicide of the cleric who wrote the anonymous assault.
A coroner, who opened an inquest Wednesday into the death of the Rev. Gareth Bennett, 58, said he would need to know who wrote the analysis in the 1987-88 edition of Crockford's Clerical Directory, a handbook of the Church of England clergy.
By long tradition the preface to the volume is written anonymously. That tradition seems likely to be abandoned in light of the uproar caused by the attack on Archbishop Robert Runcie, who was accused of being a spineless and indecisive leader during a crisis over issues such as ordaining women to the priesthood and homosexuality among the clergy.
The coroner's demand forced the disclosure of Bennett's identity from the two men who knew it, and whose own positions now appear to be on the line. They are Derek Pattinson, 57, secretary-general of the General Synod, an elected body that makes policy for the state church, and James Shelley, 55, secretary of the Church Commissioners, who control financial affairs and are responsible for the publication of Crockford's.
"In accordance with Crockford's tradition, the preface as published was the text as he gave it," they said in a statement.
For five days, Bennett, a historian at Oxford University, had denied to friends that he wrote the article. He was found dead in his car Monday with a hose leading from the exhaust. The bachelor priest's cat was found dead in his house.
Reg Evans, chairman of the church's press and public affairs panel, said it appears Bennett took his life "in anguish over the furor his article had caused -- either because he could not face exposure or, as friends suggested, because he was so distressed at being forced into a situation where he had to lie."
Runcie, 66, who has not commented on the attack against him, called Bennett's death "a tragic loss of an exceptionally gifted man."
Bennett was a member of the "high" or Anglo-Catholic wing of the church, which stresses the value of tradition and authority. He accused Runcie of despising both the high church tradition and the evangelical wing of Anglicanism, which stresses the authority of the Bible.
Instead, he said in the Crockford's preface, the archbishop's "clear preference is for men of liberal disposition with a moderately Catholic style which is not taken to the point of having firm principles. If in addition they have a good appearance and are articulate over the media he is prepared to overlook a certain theological deficiency. Dr. Runcie and his closest associates are men who have nothing to prevent them following what they think is the wish of the majority of the moment."
Some prelates called the attack sour, vindictive, cowardly and discourteous. It was the violence of the backlash that drove Bennett to his death, according to the Rev. William Oddie, a fellow priest.
Bennett said in his preface that the fact he could write anonymously was "a fortunate circumstance."
"It is not easy for any individual churchman to write such an independent survey in his own name," he wrote, "for inevitably it will point out matters which are not for comfort and it must extend to deal with personalities."
Bennett's death may add a new dimension to the controversy. If a verdict of suicide is handed down by the coroner, Bennett could be denied a church burial unless the coroner declares he was also under extreme mental pressure.
Presiding over a committee of inquiry into the affair, Runcie said on Thursday a lot of damage had been done to the Church of England.
But the committee cleared Pattinson and Shelley of wrongdoing or misjudgment in the tragic outcome of the incident.
"The committee expresses its very great grief at the tragic death of one of its members, Dr. Gareth Bennett. His views were well known to the committee, which had valued greatly his contribution to its discussions and his personal friendship," the archbishop said in a statement after the meeting.