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Colonel Robert Hornby

by
21 August 2015

Canon Roger Symon writes:

ROBERT HORNBY, who died on 11 June, aged 96, was a distinguished pioneer in the field of Christian communication and church relations with the media.

In 1960, he became the first person to be appointed to the dual post of Chief Information Officer to the Church Assembly, and Public Relations Adviser to the Archbishop of Canterbury. He brought a wealth of PR experience and wide knowledge of the press to Church House and Lambeth.

After war service in India and Burma — he was a veteran of the Battle of Kohima — he held senior PR positions in the War Office, NATO, and the Far East Land Forces, before being recommended to Archbishop Fisher in 1960.

Undoubtedly the highlights of his brief time at Westminster and Lambeth were the visits made by Archbishop Fisher to Pope John XXIII in 1960, and by Archbishop Ramsey to Pope Paul VI in 1966. He later wrote a remarkably entertaining and colourful memoir of these two historic journeys (in which he acknowledges his debt to their biographers, Edward Carpenter and Owen Chadwick) and other crises in the two primacies (Features, 10 September 2010).

As with all modern archbishops, both Fisher and Ramsey had their share of unsuspected tricky public issues to deal with: e.g. for Fisher the Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend furore, and for Ramsey, John Robinson’s Honest to God. Hornby’s unpublished memoir reveals his own highly effective combination of determination and diplomacy under pressure, and both Archbishops later acknowledged how much they valued his support.

Besides being a safe pair of hands and a shrewd judge of character, Hornby was well able to catch the atmosphere of the moment, and see an acceptable way through a problematic situation. He had a realistic appreciation of the diverse gifts of two very different archbishops: admiration for Fisher, awe for Ramsey, and affection for both.

Ramsey asked him to come out of retirement to accompany him to Rome in 1966, and Robert agreed, “as the idea of Ramsey going on a three-day visit to the Vatican without a press adviser was too much to contemplate”.

His stories reinforce their reputations. At the same time, he exemplified the qualities needed in the best traditions of public service.

Hornby was also concerned with what he saw as the Anglican clergy’s general scepticism about the press, and set about trying to convert this suspicion into a new attitude that regarded journalists as potential friends to be won over. Very soon after his appointment, he wrote a brief booklet for the CIO, The Church in the News, which sought to open the eyes of the clergy to the opportunities the new media gave them for spreading the word, and to give them a better understanding of the legitimate interests of the press.

After acting as fund-raising consultant for Westminster Abbey in 1965, he was appointed Director of Development at the University of Warwick in 1967. In later life, he was involved in the Farmington Trust for Religious Education at Oxford, and the Dulverton Trust, London. He spent his final years in Cheltenham, and is survived by his wife of 74 years, Jean.

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