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50 years before the masthead

by
08 February 2013

Margaret Duggan reflects on the changes she has seen during half a century as a contributor to the Church Times

 

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 first book.

 

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 Anglo-Catholicism.

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 June 1969.

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 lump".

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 world.

 

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 judicious indiscretion.

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 media.

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 Archbishop.

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 social issues.

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 with.

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 minimum.

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 Life" page.

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 communities.

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.

 

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