The Rev Sir Derek Pattinson

Able Secretary-General of the General Synod turned priest whose career was twice tainted by scandal

Published: 17 October 2006

William Derek Pattinson, priest and church administrator: born Barrow-in-Furness, Lancashire 31 March 1930; Associate Secretary-General , General Synod 1970-72, Secretary-General 1972-90; Kt 1990; ordained deacon 1991, priest 1992; Assistant Curate, St Gabriel's, Pimlico 1991-2000; Principal, Society of the Faith 1992-2001; died London 10 October 2006.

For 18 years Derek Pattinson was one of the two most influential laymen in the Church of England. Yet a career which started promisingly in the Civil Service and later took him to the heart of the Establishment was twice tainted with scandal, resulting not from malpractice but, more surprisingly, in view of his considerable gifts and ambitions, from extraordinary lapses of discretion and judgement.

As Secretary-General of the General Synod of the Church of England it was Pattinson who was responsible for commissioning the eccentric and ultimately fatal preface to the 1987 edition of Crockford's Clerical Directory, publication of which led to the suicide of the preface's author, Gareth Bennett. And in 1992, two years after his retirement and in the same year that he was ordained priest, it was disclosed that he had been living with a former member of the House of Laity, Barnaby Miln, a drug user and homosexual activist.

By the time news broke - in The Independent - of Pattinson's relationship with Miln, Pattinson, knighted in 1990 on his retirement from the General Synod Office, was serving as a non-stipendiary assistant curate at St Gabriel's, Pimlico, and he was immediately sent on six weeks' sick leave by the Bishop of London, David Hope. Pattinson was Vice-President of the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge and his position and reputation were further compromised by allegations that two years previously, while still Secretary-General of the General Synod, he had been accompanied by Barnaby Miln on a visit to South Africa made on behalf of SPCK and had contrived to get SPCK to meet Miln's expenses as well as his own.

The likelihood was that Pattinson, perhaps foolishly, regarded initial payment of Miln's expenses by SPCK, as a result of the use of his own credit cards for the pair of them, as an auditing convenience, and that he reimbursed the society. This was what he always asserted, and his friends believed him.

William Derek Pattinson was born in 1930 and grew up in Barrow. After receiving a grammar school education he graduated in 1952 with a second class degree in History from Queen's College, Oxford, having previously been awarded the Stanhope Historical Essay Prize, and immediately entered the Civil Service, working for 18 years in the Inland Revenue and the Treasury.

From childhood he was a committed Christian, at first adhering to the evangelical wing of the Church of England but becoming, as an undergraduate, a staunch Anglo-Catholic. He was actively involved in church affairs long before transferring from the Civil Service to Church House, most prominently as a member, from 1966 to 1970, of the Archbishops' Commission on Church and State.

Pattinson was only 40 when he was interviewed by Archbishop Michael Ramsey and selected to train under Sir John Scott, Secretary of the old Church Assembly, the intention being that he should succeed as Secretary on Scott's retirement. This he did in 1972 - by which time the Church Assembly had become the General Synod and he was appointed Secretary-General.

After assuming this prestigious office (the holder of the post, together with the Archbishop's appointments secretary, are the two most influential laymen in the Church) Pattinson continued to serve the Church in a large number of personal capacities, as a member of the British Council of Churches, for example, from 1972 to 1990, and as a member of the London Diocesan Synod from 1972 to 1991. No one ever doubted the deep sincerity of his Christian faith; and it came as no great surprise to those who knew him well to discover that within the archetypical civil servant was a late vocation to the priesthood struggling to get out.

The general consensus was that Derek Pattinson was extremely able and not to be trifled with, a secretary-general who was regarded by bishops, clergy and laity alike with awe and affection. "He was very much in control, very much the Sir Humphrey," one cleric recalled. "He had a very brilliant mind and made himself master of all the trivial details of Synod business."

Pattinson served under three archbishops of Canterbury, two of whom (Ramsey and Robert Runcie) were Catholics, one (Donald Coggan) an evangelical, and his dealings with all three were loyal and open-handed. He saw himself as the professional servant of the Synod, and its members as sometimes rather tiresome amateurs who needed to be told how to proceed. But he would step aside when some controversial subject in which he was involved, like Freemasonry (he was himself a Freemason) came up for discussion.

Always attired in black jacket and stripped trousers, he nevertheless presented rather a scruffy appearance, which many thought refreshing after the stuffy pomposity of Sir John Scott. There was something unmistakably Pickwickian about his girth and manner which never seemed incongruous with his concise knowledge of standing orders and of ecclesiastical affairs in general.

Having mastered his Synod brief, Pattinson expanded into the convivial world of clubland. He became a Freeman of the City of London, was elected to the Athenaeum and the Savile, and acquired a well-merited reputation as a jovial and generous host. He was an accomplished cook, and much excellent claret was consumed at his dinner parties. At the same time, he worked for the Synod long hours beyond the call of duty, expending pastoral concern for the most junior staff, on terms - surprising for a former civil servant - of social equality and genuine friendship.

It was in 1987 that the first serious shadow was cast over Pattinson's career, when he commissioned from Gareth Bennett, a disenchanted Anglo-Catholic member of the General Synod and chaplain at New College, Oxford, an anonymous preface - as it then always was - to Crockford's, giving him carte blanche and guaranteeing editorial freedom. What Bennett turned in was a kind of 17th-century religious pamphlet, a lengthy article which took a disdainful look at developments in liturgical practice and poured scorn on what he saw as a liberal erosion of morals. Unfortunately it also contained some fairly astringent criticisms of Robert Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury, accusing him of pragmatism and of unduly influencing the appointment of bishops.

This polemic, with much of which fellow mavericks like Pattinson would themselves have agreed, coincided with a general agitation in the press against Runcie, whose less then fervent embracing of Tory ideology the right-wing press was anxious to attack at the behest of Margaret Thatcher. Had Pattinson exercised a more sophisticated attitude towards the press he might at least have warned Bennett of the possible consequences of publishing the preface as it stood, but neither he nor Bennett anticipated the furore which would arise.

Initially, other Anglo-Catholics who believed that much of value, like the Book of Common Prayer itself, had been sacrificed on the altar of modernity regarded the preface as rather good fun, wishing they had written it themselves. It reflected, in fact, a sizeable chunk of opinion. Soon, however, a witch-hunt to discover the author was under way and, almost certainly in the belief that a church he had loved and served faithfully had decided to disown him, Bennett killed himself.

The Standing Committee of the General Synod exonerated Pattinson but his reputation for sound judgement had received a severe dent. A colleague averred that one of his failings was an inability to admit ever to making a mistake ("he was very much the infallible oracle"), and certainly on this occasion he never brought himself to admit to any responsibility for the disaster whatsoever.

On his retirement, Pattinson was offered a knight bachelorhood, which he accepted knowing he was shortly to be ordained. Had Pattinson been knighted after being priested he would not have been able to accept the accolade (no priest can do so and remain in holy orders, for it involves the promise to take up arms in defence of the sovereign), and it is customary for distinguished clerics to receive not a knight bachelorhood but appointment as KBE or KCVO, without the accolade or assuming the title "Sir".

Eyebrows were raised at Buckingham Palace when the newly knighted Sir Derek Pattinson was so soon ordained deacon, in 1991, by the then Bishop of London, Graham Leonard. Leonard in fact accepted Pattinson after he had spent just two terms at a part-time training centre, St Deiniol's Library in Wales, and without Pattinson's even attending a bishops' selection conference. He was ordained, on his own, at St Gabriel's, where he was to serve as unpaid assistant curate, a reporter from the Daily Mail banging on the door to demand if it was true that Pattinson was a homosexual (no canonical bar to ordination, as it happens), and the bishop telling the organist to play louder to drown any possible disturbance.

A year later, again on his own, Pattinson was ordained priest in the same parish church by the new Bishop of London, David Hope, who had at least sent him for a term to the College of the Resurrection at Mirfield.

"Very honourable", "not a fraudulent person", "taken for a ride by a nasty piece of work" were how friends reacted when suggestions ware made that Derek Pattinson might have behaved improperly over financial matters affecting SPCK. So far as the revelation in 1992 that he was homosexual was concerned, this would have come as no surprise to those fellow establishment homosexuals in the know, and not as much of a shock to others not privy to his private life. For Pattinson to have indulged in a homosexual affair while a layman would have been permissible according to the bishops' 1991 Statement Issues in Human Sexuality; only if he had continued his sexual liaison with Barnaby Miln after ordination would he have been acting in breach of the bishops' ambivalent guidelines many clergy were already openly defying.

"Derek Pattinson was a man of tremendous judgement," another London cleric said at the time. But it was his errors of judgement that throw out of balance a reasoned assessment of a good and clever man, and of a distinguished and in many respects selfless career.

Michael De-la-Noy

* Michael De-la-Noy died 12 August 2002

Interesting? Click here to explore further

Advertiser Links...

Editor's Choice

Sir Bobby Charlton

My choice for the next England football manager

A heads-up on biz speak

"Anyone who uses the word 'workshop' is a wanker"

Script arguments

Brad Pitt quits film version of BBC's 'State of Play'

A serious matter

Saunders bemoans absence of female stand-up comedians

Swanky Twanky

Panto is increasingly attracting stars of serious theatre

Werner Herzog

Why his new film reopens the wounds of Vietnam

Great disinfectant

... but don't drink Irish moonshine

Day in a page

Find articles published on:
The Web