Glyn Paflin writes:
“YOU can write whatever you want about me,” Rachel Boulding, Deputy Editor of the Church Times, who has died, aged 52, declared firmly once. We were talking about an obituary of a contentious public figure, and how far we should conform to the principle of De mortuis nil nisi bonum. Rachel favoured the utmost frankness.
The gulf between her former career — of religious book-editing — and newspaper work (even of a scrupulous religious kind) is not one that it is obviously natural to bridge; but Rachel crossed over, and was able to do so because she learnt quickly, was well-organised (invaluable about photo agencies), cherished truthfulness, had an eye for detail, kept her head when sabres were rattled in her direction, and had her own supply of steel hidden away.
Amid the changes and chances of recent decades, her work colleagues increasingly discovered, she had put down deep roots of faith; and the gift of courage, which we saw at first in her work, was greater even than we imagined. But she had none of the outer flintiness that can flaw those whose religious outlook seems to have been thoroughly formed in their youth.
To borrow a phrase (originally about a congregation) from one of the many writers with whom she had a creative working relationship, the late David Self, she might perhaps be categorised as an Anglo-Catholic who was liturgically and doctrinally conservative but socially liberal. Politically, she was distinctly not a Thatcherite.
Although she was familiar with the ecclesiastical culture of “You know how firmly we believe in you” (a line she used to quote wryly from the Roman Missal), she did not view any part of the Church Militant through rose-coloured lenses.
She worked mainly from home, which suited the circumstances of a devoted wife and mother, while I, as the other Deputy, had complementary duties in the office; but it was Rachel that I relied on for her staunch unflappability when the Editor was away, the print deadline loomed, and some wretched cleric was threatening us with a libel suit.
It was to her that one with confidence pinged emails from individuals plugging hopeless opinion pieces, or spitting venom, in the knowledge that she could let them down gently after giving them every possible chance, or with a soft answer turn away wrath.
Most weeks on the Church Times, she travelled by train from Sherborne to help put the news pages to bed, often bringing chocolates and biscuits that were beyond their sell-by date, and passing them about with a disclaimer. Latterly, they were within date, but on principle they were to be eaten only when it was safely past.
On Thursdays, she often lunched with one of her many contacts; and the other weekly fixture was the books meeting, when she joined in the selection of titles and their allocation to reviewers, drawing on her long experience of publishing, and of mixing easily with the clergy (she enjoyed those Nikaean Club dinners). She made meetings fun, even raucous. “Oh, one for your ouija board!” she would exclaim when I thought of a reviewer who would have been just right but was now beyond earthly contact.
We all remember her innumerable kindnesses — such as the postcards sent while on holiday, and often while not, which culminated in the arrival by post on the day before her death of a padded envelope of farewell cards carefully matched to their recipients.
Mirth almost overmastered the two of us once, for some reason, at an Anglo-Catholic History Society solemn mass in St Cuthbert’s, Philbeach Gardens; but it was never far from breaking out when Rachel was on the top of her form.
Prof. Alison Shell writes:
THERE are two “pink Sundays” in the Church’s year, when the liturgical colour is mid-penitential-season rose. Rachel was conceived on one and born on the other, on 13 December 1964, into a lively family of three brothers, Peter, Christopher, and Jonathan, parents Ted and Joyce (an insurance clerk and a primary-school teacher respectively), and a beloved maternal grandfather.
Rachel grew up in the London suburb of Bexleyheath, before moving to Reading in 1972. Four years later, she was awarded a place at the girls’ grammar school, Kendrick, and in time took A levels in English, Latin, and Greek — the last in a class of one.
As a member of the youth discussion group and the congregation of St Andrew’s, Caversham, she laid the foundations of a lifelong faith, and an unwavering — though never uncritical — loyalty to the Church of England.
Her love of reading and drama then led to three happy years at Pembroke College, Oxford (1983-86), studying for a BA in English Literature. The breadth of the Oxford degree suited her, and, though she was self-deprecating about the amount of time she devoted to study, she emerged widely read.
Outside the course, she was drawn into the religious and social orbit of the chaplaincy at Pusey House, at a moment in Anglo-Catholic history which one can see as the summer before the war. When divisions over women’s ordination split the movement apart, Rachel was discreet about her own views on the topic, remaining close friends with those on both sides, including those who took the “Roman option”.
The day after her finals ended, she found her life’s companion in Martin Brooke, then a postgraduate student and junior lecturer in Classics, who lived across the landing in her final-year student accommodation. The wedding took place a year after her graduation. Thirty years later, she wrote that they had never looked back.
After graduation, Rachel spent some months working voluntarily for the Church, as a parish assistant in a deprived part of Sheffield, and then acted as a researcher for the writer A. N. Wilson. Her first permanent post began in 1987, at SPCK Publishing in London.
When Martin became a master at Sherborne School, Rachel stayed in London during the week with Martin’s best man, Ian Tower, and went down to Dorset at the weekends.
Her experiences at SPCK were mixed; at one point, she was subject to treatment which she later described as the worst experience of her life; and her time there contained many reminders that religious professionals were not always admirable people.
She did, though, discover a flair for the craft of editing, and for commissioning authors. During her ten years at SPCK, she was commissioning editor for the main publishing list and the Triangle imprint, specialising in short, accessible titles for church bookstalls, and Liturgy Editor, dealing with the continuing life of the Alternative Service Book 1980. This experience led to her being headhunted in 1997 to work on the Church of England’s new service materials, Common Worship.
She spent three years at Church House, Westminster, including a break for the birth of her son Thomas on 1 January 1999; the following year, she was again headhunted for a newly created post of Deputy Editor of the Church Times.
The move from publishing to journalism broadened Rachel’s editorial experience, and gave her the chance to work as a writer and anthologist. In 2006, she edited The Church Times Book of 100 Best Prayers.
Daily notes that she wrote for the Bible Reading Fellowship (BRF) were collected into a book for the anniversary of the Authorised Version in 2011: Celebrating the King James Version. This was followed by Companions on the Bethlehem Road, Advent reflections (BRF, 2012), another publication that drew on Rachel’s talent for bringing scripture into dialogue with English literature. In a genre that can sometimes feel cut-and-paste, she communicated ideas with stylistic freshness and a rare sensitivity to the readers’ needs.
During this time, in 2006, the family moved to The Digby, a boarding house at Sherborne School, where Martin took over as housemaster. Mindful of Rachel’s independence, he spared her from too great an involvement in the lives of 80 or so teenage boys. But she was able to enjoy living in a big house, in the middle of town, with staff to see to the garden and at least some of the housework.
Life settled into a pattern of working from home three days a week and two days in the office in London. She was an avid theatre-goer, with a remarkable memory of past productions, and the ability to relish bad plays almost as much as good ones.
This was interrupted in 2009 by surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy for primary breast cancer. Rachel responded well to treatment for this, but in October 2014 the cancer returned as secondaries, and spread. The early death of a close friend, Jonathan Smith, had given her an unusually keen sense of mortality throughout her adult life. Obliged to confront terminal illness herself, she wrote some more BRF notes during a period of sick leave, which were collected into a booklet, Facing Death (2017) (Books, 17 February).
With the liturgical aptness that marked her coming into the world, she lived to celebrate Easter, and died as Low Sunday was about to begin. Martin and Thomas were present; she also leaves her mother, her brothers, and a large cohort of friends.
This obituary contains Rachel’s final contribution to the Church Times, since — with typical thoughtfulness and pragmatism — she supplied autobiographical notes for it. But she could hardly have known the powerful effect that she had on other people. Diminutive, femininely clad, with a confiding manner and a rococo imagination, she even had the ability to disarm misogynists. In the social gatherings she loved, she was an animated networker, a crisp talker, a nuanced listener, and a receiver of many confidences. Yet, morally intuitive to an uncomfortable degree, she recoiled ferociously from behaviour she considered cruel, thoughtless, or dishonest.
It makes sense that Rachel should have spent her professional life seeking clarity and repudiating banal expression. She had a keen eye for religious platitudes, tempered with a connoisseur’s appreciation for particularly fine specimens of the genre: I remember one conversation where she deconstructed the obituary phrase “after a brave fight”.
At times, her own final struggle seemed to be more with the clichés of mortality than mortality itself, which she confronted with extraordinary honesty and composure.
Those who talked with her in the period after she received her final diagnosis will know what is meant by a good death, and carry the memory of those conversations to their own graves.