Edward Carpenter






John Peirce

On Sunday July 11th 2010 a small contingent of people connected to the Edward Carpenter Forum joined the congregation of St. Edward’s church Cambridge for their morning service.  The service was set out as a memorial of Edward Carpenter who had been curate of this church in 1871-1873 under the then vicar F D Maurice who is known as a prime mover in the Christian Socialist Movement.  More is known to historians and to the present congregation of Maurice than of his curate - though it is arguable that the latter has had more abiding influence than the former.

This service followed from a visit by the Forum to Cambridge last September when we were welcomed to Carpenter’s old college, Trinity Hall.  It was here that he had been both as an undergraduate and as a junior fellow.  In order to take up his fellowship Carpenter had been obliged to become ordained – at that time a natural progression.  He was attached as curate to St. Edwards – a church which back in Tudor times had been transferred to Trinity Hall as part of a land swap with the adjoining King’s College.  As a result St. Edward’s church has historically been independent of the Church of England’s diocesan structure and so has been freer to accommodate liberal and radical teaching.  Carpenter was suitably well placed there.  Our September day had also included a visit to the church.

On this second visit to St. Edward’s, after opening sentences and a hymn, Thomas Dixon, an academic historian formerly of Cambridge and now at Queen Mary University of London, gave an exposition of the context of Carpenter’s life and thought.  He also drew out some of the parallels and disconnections between Edward Carpenter and Oscar Wilde.

The service itself continued with an anthem by Gustav Holst, Bible readings and prayers.  It also included extracts from a sermon preached by Edward Carpenter in that very church read on this occasion by John Baker.  The present Vicar, Canon Fraser Watts also preached a sermon demonstrating Jesus as Carpenter’s role model in service and love.

Refreshments and an informal wide-ranging discussion led by Thomas Dixon followed the service.  Both congregation and Forum members took part in this and we could have gone on talking constructively for much longer.  How did Carpenters ideas then lead in to our experience now?  Did he have a body of formalised or systematised ideas from which he taught or was he feeling his way from the ferments of the time to new constructs for the future?  References were made to his views on the equality of the sexes, his socialism and anarchism, his concern for sustainable work and care for the environment, his commitment to loving friendship (especially among men), his understanding of homosexuality – and to much more beside.  A practical suggestion raised was whether it would be appropriate that St. Edwards should have some more permanent reminder of Carpenter’s time there.

A group of us then went on for a shared lunch at the University Club.  It was a lovely hot, sunny day and Cambridge was crowded with tourists.  We had gathered from many parts of the country and looked forward to meeting again with many others at Leeds in September.  Every time we meet we get deeper into Carpenter’s thinking, we make more connections, meet new people and find more mutual support.  This is perhaps what the Forum is about!