LONDON, JAN. 10 -- The office of the archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Church of England, said today that it paid more than $20,000 last year to two alleged hoaxers who said they could help arrange the release of missing church envoy Terry Waite.

The church reportedly decided it had been duped after learning that the same two men, both believed to be Britons, had proposed a similar deal in 1985 to Roman Catholic Church officials in the United States on behalf of American priest Lawrence Jenco, who was being held hostage in Lebanon. The U.S. Catholics, who said they had paid no money, said the two had nothing to do with Jenco's 1985 release.

There has been no confirmed information about Waite or his whereabouts since he disappeared in Beirut last Jan. 20 while trying to arrange the freedom of remaining western hostages in Lebanon, and he is generally believed to have been taken hostage himself.

Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie has said repeatedly that he believes Waite is still alive.

Runcie's secretary, John Lyttle, confirmed a report in this morning's London Sunday Times that the church had made two separate payments last spring to John Entwistle and Charles Armstrong, who said they were in contact with those holding Waite and could help free him.

Lyttle said that Entwistle had contacted Runcie last March with their proposal. Lyttle said he had informed the London Metropolitan Police and the Foreign Office. Both advised against dealing with the two.

But in April, the church paid them $18,000 for expenses to arrange a meeting in Cyprus between Lyttle and their alleged Lebanese contacts. When Lyttle arrived for the meeting, he was told the Lebanese had "just left." Lyttle made another fruitless trip, and paid approximately another $3,600 before information from the American contacts convinced him that the two were con men.

Armstrong, reached by British television reporters today in Berkshire, where he was said to be living above a stable, reportedly said he was "no con man," and insisted he had acted in good faith. Entwistle was described by the Sunday Times as "a former scrap merchant" who is in prison for illegally exporting computer equipment to Eastern Europe.

"I don't regret it in the sense that I think it is right that we should follow up every possible approach that we can, because we are dealing with a very strange situation," Lyttle said today of the transaction. "These hostages are . . . kidnaped by particular kinds of people. Their lives are at stake, and it is important that every possible lead should be followed up."

"They said they had contacts who were in close touch with the captors," Lyttle said of Armstrong and Entwistle. "We never got proof of actual access to Terry Waite or any of the other hostages."

Asked why he had not withheld payment until the men's assurances were verified, Lyttle said, "In this kind of situation, you can't play everything by a textbook."