Waite was the Assistant for Anglican Communion Affairs for the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, in the 1980s. As an envoy for the Church of England, he travelled to Lebanon to try to secure the release of four hostages, including the journalist John McCarthy. He was himself kidnapped and held captive from 1987 to 1991.
He is president of the charity Y Care International (the YMCA's international development and relief agency) and patron of AbleChildAfrica and Habitat for Humanity Great Britain. He is also president of Emmaus UK, a charity for formerly homeless people.
The son of a village policeman in Styal, Cheshire, Waite was educated at Stockton Heath County Secondary school where he became head boy. Although his parents were only nominally religious, he showed a commitment to Christianity from an early age and later became a Quaker and an Anglican.
Waite joined the Grenadier Guards at Caterham Barracks, but an allergy to a dye in the uniform obliged him to depart after a few months. He then considered a monastic life, but instead joined the Church Army, a social welfare organisation of the Anglican Church modelled on the Salvation Army, undergoing training and studies in London. While he was held captive in the 1980s, many Church Army officers wore a simple badge with the letter H on it, to remind people that one of their members was still a hostage and was being supported in prayer daily by them and many others.
In 1963, Waite was appointed Education Advisor to the Anglican Bishop of Bristol, Oliver Tomkins, and assisted with Tomkins's implementation of the SALT (Stewardship and Laity Training) programme in the diocese, along with Basil Moss. This position required Waite to master psychological T-group methods, with the aim of promoting increased active involvement from the laity. During this time he married Helen Frances Watters. As a student, Waite was greatly influenced by the teachings of Ralph Baldry.
In 1969, he moved to Uganda where he worked as Provincial Training Advisor to Erica Sabiti, the first African Anglican Archbishop of Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi and, in that capacity, travelled extensively throughout East Africa. Together with his wife and their four children, Waite witnessed the Idi Amin coup in Uganda, he and his wife narrowly escaping death on several occasions. From his office in Kampala, Waite founded the Southern Sudan Project and was responsible for developing aid and development programmes for this war-torn region.
His next post was in Rome where, from 1972, he worked as an International Consultant to the Medical Mission Sisters, a Roman Catholic order seeking to adapt to the leadership reforms of Vatican II. From this base, he travelled extensively throughout Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe, conducting and advising on programmes concerned with institutional change and development, inter-cultural relations, group and inter-group dynamics and a broad range of development issues connected with health and education.
Waite returned to the UK in 1978, where he took a job with the British Council of Churches. In 1980, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, appointed him the Archbishop of Canterbury's Assistant for Anglican Communion Affairs on the recommendation of Tomkins and Bishop John Howe. Based at Lambeth Palace, Waite again travelled extensively throughout the world and had a responsibility for the archbishop’s diplomatic and ecclesiastical exchanges. He arranged and travelled with the archbishop on the first ever visit of an Archbishop of Canterbury to China and had responsibility for travels to Australia, New Zealand, Burma, the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and South Africa.
In 1980, Waite successfully negotiated the release of several hostages in Iran: Iraj Mottahedeh (Anglican priest in Esfahan), Dimitri Bellos (diocesan officer), Nosrat Sharifian (Anglican priest in Kerman), Fazeli (church member), Jean Waddell (who was secretary to the Iranian Anglican bishop Hassan Dehqani-Tafti), Canon John Coleman, and Coleman's wife. On 10 November 1984, he negotiated with Colonel Gaddafi for the release of the four remaining British hostages held in the Libyan Hostage Situation, Michael Berdinner, Alan Russell, Malcolm Anderson and Robin Plummer and was again successful.
From 1985, Waite became involved in hostage negotiation in Lebanon, and he assisted in successful negotiations which secured the release of Lawrence Jenco and David Jacobsen. His use of an American helicopter to travel secretly between Cyprus and Lebanon and his appearance with Lt Colonel Oliver North, however, meant that he was compromised when the Irangate scandal broke. Against advice, Waite felt a need to demonstrate his continuing trust and integrity, and his commitment to the remaining hostages. He arrived in Beirut on 12 January 1987 with the intention of negotiating with the Islamic Jihad Organization, which was holding the men. On 20 January 1987, he agreed to meet the captors of the hostages as he was promised safe conduct to visit the hostages, who, he was told, were ill. The group broke trust and took him hostage on 20 January 1987. Waite remained in captivity for 1,763 days, the first four years of which were spent in solitary confinement. He was finally released on 18 November 1991.
Following his release he was elected a Fellow Commoner at Trinity Hall, Cambridge where he wrote his first book, Taken on Trust, an account of his captivity in Lebanon. It became a best-seller in the UK and internationally.
Waite decided to devote himself to study, writing, lecturing and humanitarian activities. His second book, Footfalls in Memory, a further meditation on his captivity in Lebanon, was published in the UK in 1995 and also became a best-seller. His latest book, published in October 2000, Travels with a Primate, is a humorous account of his journeys with his former boss, Robert Runcie. Waite has also contributed articles to many journals and periodicals, ranging from Reader's Digest to the Kipling Journal, and has also supplied articles and forewords to many books.
In January 1996, Waite became patron of the Warrington Male Voice Choir in recognition of the humanitarian role adopted by the choir following the Warrington bomb attacks. Since then, he has appeared with the choir for performances in prisons in UK and Ireland to assist in rehabilitation programmes. Prison concerts have become a regular feature of the choir’s Christmas activities.
He is also a co-founder of Y Care International, a development agency linked to the YMCA movement. In 2004, he founded Hostage UK, an organisation designed to give support to hostage families. He is also president of Emmaus UK, and patron of the Romany Society.
On 31 March 2007, Waite offered to travel to Iran to negotiate with those holding British sailors and marines seized by Iran in disputed waters on 23 March 2007.
In 2004, Waite returned to Beirut for the first time since his release from captivity. He told the BBC, "If you are bitter, it will eat you up and do more damage to you than to the people who have hurt you." 
Waite travelled again to Beirut in December 2012 to reconcile with his captors and lay to rest what he described as the ghosts of the past.
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In 1992, Durham University made him an honorary Doctor of Civil Law. In 2001, Anglia Ruskin University awarded him an honorary Doctor of Philosophy. On 30 May 2009, at a ceremony in Ely Cathedral, the Open University made him an honorary D.Univ. He was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Chester in 2009.
Friends and colleagues of Anglican Church envoy Terry Waite on Thursday sent him a belated birthday wish published in the independent newspaper An Nahar. Waite, who was kidnapped in Lebanon two and a half years ago, spent his 50th birthday on May 31 in captivity