NEXT month, I shall have
been a "regular" in these pages for 50 years. Looking at a
formidable row of file copies over that half-century - with the
exception of five years under a particular editor - there are very
few issues in which my byline does not appear. I gave up collecting
cuttings decades ago, but memories remain.
In fact, the Church
Times has been an important part of my life for longer than
that. As a very young, shy, and unconfident woman, I married into
an Irish Catholic family in the bad old days before Vatican II, and
this paper became my lifeline.
From a non-church
background, I had found my own way into the Church, but as a naval
wife I was a non-person to both local clergy and naval chaplains.
Yet I was being bombarded with Catholic Truth Society pamphlets,
and the assurance that the whole family of in-laws were praying
daily for my "conversion".
Mention of the Church
Times had cropped up in novels about vicars, and I daringly
ordered one. I fell on it with gratitude for its reassurance that
the Church of England was something worth sticking with.
It was a funny old paper in
those days, under Rosamund Essex's editorship. You could count up
to 14 miscellaneous news stories on the front page, and the
classified ads included requests for "artificial teeth (old)". But
it was offering a much more congenial version of belief and the
Church than those CTS pamphlets.
It followed me to Singapore,
where, for two years, I really got involved in local church life,
and started a parish magazine. When we returned to the UK, I began
submitting the occasional article to the then editor, the Revd
Roger Roberts. It was in March 1963, the month after this paper's
100th anniversary, that Canon Roger Lloyd, himself a regular
contributor, suggested that I become a reviewer, and I was sent my
SOON, I was asked to write
an "Editor's Table", a weekly essay-review that appeared
anonymously, as did all reviews. Roberts was a kindly and
encouraging editor, and was going some way to broadening the
sympathies of the paper, from its traditional and stalwart
I did, however, sample his
wrath, when I had the nerve to protest against his vilification of
Honest to God, which, to me, had come as a revelation of
theological good sense.
I soon graduated to
features, but have no record of when I became a weekly columnist,
which I was to be, on and off, for some 20 years. I was certainly
in full weekly flow with my 1500-word "As I see it" half-page by
Bernard Palmer, fourth
generation of the Palmer dynasty that had founded the Church
Times, had been editor-in-chief during Roger Roberts's time,
but had become editor in 1968, and was turning it into a paper of
much wider Anglican sympathies and much better design.
He was equally encouraging,
and, in those heady days, would reward me (as well as with
reasonable pay) with three bottles of Fleet Street's El Vino sherry
at Christmas. I wrote about anything and everything that had caught
my interest during the week, and more than once Bernard referred to
me as "the little bit of secular leaven in the heavy ecclesiastical
It was the late 1960s, and
into the early 1970s, at the time of social revolution. I plunged
into it with enthusiasm, as many of the old shibboleths were
undermined by the new generation of young people who no longer saw
themselves as adults on probation, but as monarchs of the
LETTERS flowed in, many in
appreciation, and arrived in shoals from fellow-sufferers when I
wrote about (a) my stammer and (b) my phobia of spiders. But those
were the days when there really were people who wrote in green ink
and capital letters (always, for some reason, addressed to me as
Mrs Mary Duggan), deploring my over-liberal views.
Even so, I don't really
think I deserved the one that accused me of being "obsessed with
drugs and sex and a blot on an otherwise fine church newspaper".
And I remember even the editor asking me not to write so often
about the "environment" (a new idea at the time), as it made me
"sound like a crank".
But there is one "first" of
which I am proud - although I think it was in a feature rather than
my weekly column. I was the first to write sympathetically in the
Church Times about homosexuality, even though I did use
the word "queer", the term a gay friend of mine always used. It
drew quite a number of letters from gay clergy, grateful to write
openly to someone on the subject.
November 1970 brought the
inauguration of the first General Synod, and, for those first five
years, I was a member, although I frequently migrated upstairs to
the press gallery to lend a hand to John Trevisick, the Church
Times news editor, who was single-handedly reporting the
debates as he had done the Church Assembly.
I now look back in amazement
at those early optimistic days in Synod. Bliss was it in that dawn
when we felt that anything was possible, and there was real
excitement in the passing of Canon B15a, which allowed communicants
of other Trinitarian Churches to receive communion at our altars.
It really seemed as though a new world had begun.
THE optimism of the Synod
spilled over into Church House in a time of young Turks. Derek
Pattinson, in his heyday, was an excellent Secretary General, and
always welcomed the press with a glass of sherry and a good line in
Among the Secretaries to
Boards, I remember referring to John Arnold (later Dean of
Rochester and Durham) as the Nijinsky of Church House. The lovely
Giles Ecclestone, of the Board for Social Responsibility (of which
I was a member), in spite of his immense charm and kindness, had a
mind like a parliamentary filing cabinet, and died far too young
after he left to be ordained. For the first time, the Church Press
Office had, in John Miles, someone who knew how the media worked,
and welcomed us rather than cast himself as guard dog.
I was a member of the Church
Information Committee for 20 years or so, humbly representing the
church press among high-powered professionals from the national
media. But it was one of the most enjoyable committees I have ever
been on. I watched - and was occasionally able to contribute to - a
growing professionalism in the Church's relationship with the
I was invited to the first
ever press lunch at Lambeth Palace, held by Archbishop Michael
Ramsey, who never found small talk easy. At the end of the main
course, his press secretary, Michael De-la-Noy, invited any of the
religious-affairs correspondents to ask a question of the
There was a long awkward
silence, then one brave journalist came up with: "And when do you
expect to retire, Your Grace?" Ramsey might have been socially
awkward, but there was nothing wrong with his sense of humour.
FOR a brief while, 1973-74,
I was assistant editor at the Church Times, at short
notice replacing Alan Shadwick, who had had a severe stroke. The
paper still had its home in the elegant Portugal Street office that
had been specially built by the Palmers.
On the first floor was the
spacious, white-painted library, full of church history and
political biographies, and on the top floor were five Linotype
machines in the composing room. It was probably the last newspaper
in London to be set in hot metal on its own premises.
We rattled around in an
over-large building, only two of us - John Trevisick and me - on
the first floor. Much as I loved the paper, I was lonely after the
much more sociable working conditions at a large missionary
society, where I had been before, and frustrated in having so
little editorial input. When Alan unexpectedly made a quick
recovery from his stroke, Bernard and I amicably agreed that I
should return to my former freelance relationship.
But he kept me busy. I did
endless blockbuster feature series - four or five long articles to
each - on the various institutions of the Church: theological
colleges; religious orders; church schools; the Church
Commissioners; and Church House itself.
There were also several
overseas press visits to Jordan, Israel, Turkey, and Switzerland;
and Brussels to be chatted up about the Common Market. Here, I
remember a journalist from another church newspaper haranguing the
Brussels bigwigs about the defects of a German-made saucepan she
had recently bought.
But the most regular
engagement was the General Synod - of which I never missed a day
for 30 years, and at which my attendance has only recently tapered
off. By this time, Susan Young had replaced John Trevisick, and
Betty Saunders had also joined her - both highly competent
journalists who were revolutionising church news.
THOSE optimistic early days
soon faded, as Synod became obsessed with its own controversies.
There was a real revival of interest during the time of Archbishop
Robert Runcie, when the Synod became regarded as the real
opposition to Margaret Thatcher's government, and addressed many
The press gallery overflowed
with UK and overseas religious correspondents. There were even
rumours that the Sun newspaper had produced such a person.
But, with the witty and wise - and so often underrated - Robert
Runcie gone, and further changes in personnel, Synod became
inward-looking and tedious, although I kept on going. I was also
still writing a shorter weekly column, "It Seems to Me. . .", which
continued to bring me more correspondence than I could cope
To my great regret, Bernard
Palmer decided that he should retire in 1989, and that the paper
should be sold to Hymns Ancient & Modern. John Whale, from the
BBC, a former leader writer on The Times, became editor,
determined to turn the Church Times into "an intellectual
paper for an intellectual readership".
Within days, he had sacked
Susan Young. The first words he said to me were: "I want no more
opinion pieces from you," but he said that I could carry on with
Synod, and occasional profiles of church personalities.
For the five years of his
reign, I had little enthusiasm for his way of working. I went to
edit a magazine with a much wider readership, and did only the
John Whale left in 1995 on
health grounds, and the present editor, Paul Handley, took over. A
couple of years later, I gave up full-time editing, and he asked me
to be the Church Times anchor at the 1998 Lambeth
Conference. My close relationship resumed.
As well as General Synod, I
took on, first, the Church in Wales Governing Body, and then the
Scottish Episcopal Church's General Synod - both of which I have
recently given up - and confess to enjoying them far more than the
C of E Synod in recent years. And then I started the weekly "Real
Reflecting the real life of
the Anglican Church in the UK and Europe is a weekly enjoyment.
Most weeks of the year, I am flooded with stories (don't let me put
anyone off) of what really goes on in the parishes, with all their
quirks, inventiveness, and imaginative care for their
I am astonished at the
amount of money that parishes can raise when they have taken a
cause to their hearts, or the sacrificial time they are prepared to
give to those in need.
It all leaves me tremendously optimistic about the Church of
England, and with a huge admiration for the devoted, innovative,
and sometimes crazy lot who are our clergy.