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Obituary: Susan Young

13 April 2018

SUSAN YOUNG, the Church Times’s news editor from 1975 to 1989, who died suddenly on Maundy Thursday, aged 81, presided over a newsroom that was irreverent, intimidating, professional, and uproarious, often at the same time.

She was described by her editor, Dr Bernard Palmer, as “not one of the least among the many maverick characters who have distinguished themselves in the service of the Church Times”. The two remained firm friends until Dr Palmer’s death at the end of last year (News, Gazette, 15 December 2017).

Susan’s journalistic career began on the Oxford Mail at the age of 17. One of her assignments was to interview Dr Billy Graham. She did well, and moved to London to work for the Westminster Press group, becoming their air correspondent. She clocked up more than 100,000 air miles (by no means all in comfort, and she was involved in one crash in Birmingham) before her career took an unexpected turn.

She had interviewed David Hand, then Bishop of New Guinea, about air travel. Afterwards, he asked her to abandon her well-paid job and accept the post of press officer for the diocese of Papua New Guinea, working for little more than her keep. Thus, in 1966, at the age of 29, she began what she later described as “a rather energetic and adventurous life in the South Pacific”.

It was at this point that she first came to the attention of the Church Times, and a short profile in 1966 described her as “the girl that got away from Fleet Street”. Eight years later, she was planning to return when she received a letter from Dr Palmer, who had heard that she would be leaving PNG, asking her to come to the Church Times to work under, and then succeed, the news editor at that time, John Trevisick, who was in failing health.

She arrived in 1974, convinced that, at the end of her six-month trial period, she would be knocking on the editor’s door “and telling him that I propose to move on”.

Three-and-a-half years later, she wrote about why she was still here. “I have enjoyed the job from the first day, but am wholly unable to explain why, since there is so much about the Church of England — especially its colossal inertia and pettifogging obsessions — that should make me loathe the new milieu in which I find myself.

“Perhaps it’s simply that, while religion has restored to me my capacity for being surprised, working for the Church Times has restored my capacity for being amazed — there seems to be no end to the dottiness of the faithful.

“Almost every day you think, now I have heard everything, and almost every other day there is some fresh joyous idiocy to confound you and prove that you haven’t.”

Susan’s capacity to enjoy the follies that she uncovered, combined with her scorn for those who took themselves too seriously, and her fury at injustice and dishonesty, made her a perfect foil to the patrician Dr Palmer.

In his history of the paper, Gadfly for God, he wrote: “A spin-off from the paper’s less partisan stance was that it tended at times to become almost too respectful towards the powers that be. Church officials up and down the country now began to note a more abrasive tone in phone calls from Portugal Street [then the Church Times headquarters]. But the abrasiveness was always touched with humour, and never with malice.”

The church authorities, he said, might be wary of her, but they always found her good fun.

Her love of detective work, which could spot a story even in a clerical outfitters’ catalogue (the marketing of clerical shirts for women before the vote for women deacons had gone through), was combined with tenacity. The more officials tried to conceal an awkward or embarrassing incident, the more determined she was to discover the truth. Folders still in the Church Times archive, such as a thick one from the 1980s when the College of Preachers decided to shed its director, are testament to the volume of work she would put in to confirm a story.

Working alongside Betty Saunders and, latterly, the present editor, these were glory days, when dignitaries were routinely referred to only by their nicknames, such as “High-speed Gas”, who could turn out an opinion piece on any subject, and “The Stag at Bay”, a handsome but distant bishop.

Susan’s warm relationship with Dr Palmer was, sadly, not replicated when he relinquished his ownership of the Church Times to its present owners, Hymns Ancient & Modern, and was succeeded as editor by John Whale in September 1989. Three days after the sale was finalised, in the November, Whale made Susan redundant. She was then 53.

News of her enforced departure circulated quickly, bringing letters of protest (to the editor) and sympathy (to Susan). “Strewth!” a nephew remarked to her. “You don’t half have high connections!” He had just answered the phone to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Despite the fuss, however, and a serviceable pay-off, a job had to be found. Characteristically, Susan ignored various PR openings, opting instead to take a reporter’s post on the Epsom and Ewell Herald at a much reduced salary. She made of it what she could, but there was a degree of drudgery, and cutbacks were beginning to hit local papers hard at that time. After five years, she saw the writing on the wall, and resigned.

By then, Whale had retired as Church Times editor, and Susan’s name began to appear in the paper once more, this time as a freelance contributor. The culture of the paper had changed for good, however, and this period lasted only a year or two before she decided to retire to Combe Martin, in Devon. There, keeping the company of cats (always referred to as “pussycats”), she kept up her correspondence with old friends, comparing notes on parish-pump activities and intrigues, and making sharp observations on national church affairs and the condition of religious reporting.

Her final piece for the Church Times was an obituary of Bishop Hand, although she continued to edit the General Synod Digest while it was a separate publication.

This was a labour of love for someone who had written, 20 years earlier: “Believe me, struggling through the dense thickets of General Synod debates turns out to be in its own way just as hard work as anything which the mountainous jungles of New Guinea had to offer.”

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