TERRY Waite, personal envoy of the archbishop of Canterbury and a contemporary folk hero for the British people, has become a fiercely controversial figure since he disappeared in Lebanon. Nobody in this country impugns his strength of character, personal skills, and Christian commitment to heal world situations. In recognition of his efforts for peace, a group of parliamentarians of all parties has nominated him for the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize.
Nor has this genial mountain of a man, known for his gentleness and humor, ever underestimated the enormous risks he faces in the Middle East.
But since Mr. Waite's disappearance more than two weeks ago, the tensions over his personal approach to diplomacy are coming to the surface.
The British Foreign Office, which has been ambivalent all along about Waite's independent diplomacy because it cuts across conventional channels, is angry with Lambeth Palace - headquarters for the archbishop of Canterbury - for allowing Waite to go to Lebanon. Waite went to Beirut despite the fact that the British ambassador in Beirut, John Gray, expressly traveled to London to urge Waite not to go.
Authoritative Foreign Office sources are treating reports about Waite's confused situation with care. They are refraining from calling those who have custody of him as captors or hostage takers, for fear this could limit his subsequent maneuverability should he become a free agent again.
The lay preacher, who has a gift for establishing contacts on personal trust, said of the hostage takers with whom he has dealt: ``You have to meet them under rather extreme circumstances. It's rather difficult to create a situation in which mutual trust can be developed to establish a dialogue when they are very jumpy and it's very difficult to calm them.''
In an interview with this correspondent in October, Waite indicated how much easier it was to work with the Iranian leaders and Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi because they are in control of their countries than with the disparate group of terrorists in Lebanon who, presumably, are now his captors.
But Waite's recent arrival in Beirut coincided with a rapid escalation in hostage taking. This has tended to overshadow his previous success in helping to obtain the release of such American hostages as the Rev. Lawrence Jenco and the Rev. Benjamin Weir.
Waite's latest mission has indirectly aggravated Britain's position. While Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is adamant there will be no deals on hostages - even where Waite is concerned - she is expected to come under increasing pressure to strike a deal if he does not resurface soon.
Waite has no real bargaining chips. He offers neither guns nor money nor, as an independent negotiator, does he have the power of a major country behind him. But his credibility as a successful Middle East negotiator is widely recognized as second to none.
After he obtained the release of four Britons held in Libya in February 1985, the weekly Guardian wrote: ``Terry Waite's diplomacy in Tripoli has been all the more impressive because he went there having nothing to concede. All diplomatic missions rely to some extent on the personal qualities of the envoy, but Mr. Waite's depended entirely on them.''
Still, even the British media, which have consistently admired Waite for his courage and his unpretentious manner, and have built him into something of a folk hero, are in some cases convinced that Waite's latest walk into the lions' den was an act of naivet'e and folly.
The Sunday Telegraph took the unusual step this week of printing a brief front-page comment: ``We pray that Terry Waite is returned safely and, with almost equal fervor, that he never repeats his ill-conceived rescue exploits. Courage is a great Christian virtue, but when not combined with realistic assessment of the enemy it can do more harm than good. In the future, Lambeth Palace must realize that its saintly meddling in Middle Eastern intrigues is no less dangerous than Machiavellian free booting from the White House basement.'' Since Christmas 1980, Waite has been associated with securing the release of at least 10 hostages or political prisoners in the Middle East (four in Iran, four in Libya, and two in Lebanon).
But the release of the 11th, David Jacobsen, was muddied by White House reports that Waite was involved in a US arms-for-hostages deal. Waite denies it, saying he has never used arms or money and has relied solely on personal skills. But the fact that he had some contact with Lt. Col. Oliver North, the central figure in the US-Iran arms scheme, is seen as the factor that has most militated against his success this time.
Ironically, Waite's skill as a negotiator is credited to his ability to distance himself from the diplomatic establishment and build up personal relationships on the basis of trust.
Waite's recognition of the importance of religion in international relations is another point of departure with conventional diplomacy.
Waite says there are three attributes of God which he uses as a platform on which to build relationships in the Middle East. ``With Colonel Qaddafi I was trying to establish three very simple attributes of God to which we could both subscribe. God as a God of compassion, mercy, and justice,'' he said.
But Waite has never assumed that his independence or his religious association would exempt him from difficulties.
Several years ago, long before he set out for his latest dangerous mission, he indicated that he had dictated a note to his secretary in the ``event of my going missing.''
``I wrote that no one must come after me at all,'' Waite said.
``There must be no ransom paid for me if I am kidnapped. There must be no deal over me. I come here, though, fully expecting to leave freely.''