Archive of the Month
The Church of Ireland Gazette in the 1980s – ‘A Borderless Church’
by the Revd Clifford Skillen
First, a confession: I am not a child of the ‘80s; oh that I were – I’d be 30 years younger and not recoil in horror every time I pass a mirror. Yet, over four decades later, some of the most iconic and defining world events of that decade still seem so immediate, almost tangible: the Falklands War, Chernobyl, Lockerbie, Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
So too some of the ‘80s’ best–remembered nostalgia: eclectic fashions and a great pop culture; the international debut of Rubik’s Cube; E.T. and Dirty Dancing; and, of course, the launch of Post–it Notes!! But could anything really surpass Gerry Armstrong’s memorable winner for Northern Ireland against hosts Spain in the 1982 World Cup finals?!!
The new decade saw me over halfway through a teaching career in a large, girls’ secondary school in the suburbs of East Belfast and, outside the classroom bubble, I was heavily involved in the life of St Mark’s, Dundela (Down), my home parish, also in East Belfast.
Shortly after the Revd Jimmy Moore became rector in 1975, he asked me to assume the role of Parish Gazette Representative (PGR) to promote the paper and look after orders, distribution and accounts in a large and influential parish where, I soon discovered, many in those days undoubtedly regarded the Gazette as essential weekly Church reading.
Little did I know then that having innocently said “Yes” to Jimmy’s invitation, that PGR post would eventually lead me down paths never remotely imagined or foreseen.
DESPONDENCY AND FEAR
The dawning of a new decade saw no let–up in the inter–communal violence and bloodshed on the streets of Northern Ireland.
The country’s prevailing mood of despondency and fear was captured in the Gazette‘s first editorial of the new decade (‘Point of View’, 11th January 1980), when the writer observed that:
the omens for Northern Ireland in the 1980s are not good … [and] are barren even of hope
This was a reference in particular to recent sectarian murders and the “stenchily stagnant” state of inter–Church relations and ecumenical contact.
The writer’s pessimism was borne out by events towards the end of 1980 and throughout most of 1981, especially when the H–Blocks protest in the Maze prison and the subsequent hunger–strike deaths of Bobby Sands and nine of his fellow–republican prisoners led to an upsurge in violence and greatly inflamed passions in already bitterly divided and polarised communities.
The Gazette‘s ongoing coverage of events expressed strong condemnation of both the actions of the hunger strikers and some comments of the Roman Catholic hierarchy.
The issue of 8th May 1981 carried a statement from the Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Revd John Armstrong, in which he described Bobby Sands’ death–fast as “one of the most calculated pieces of moral blackmail in recent times”. A ‘Point of View’ of the same issue pulled no punches, speaking of “the degree of indiscretion” shown by Roman Catholic Church leaders and of leadership “characterised by a great deal of vacillation, muddle and foolishness”.
However, even in the midst of often depressingly bad news, the Gazette still sought to present as far as possible good news of the ongoing life and work of the Church. This was done through an abundance of long–established features and articles – the staple diet of the Gazette for many years – coupled with large numbers of photographs (often of lots of bishops and clergy, but not always of the best quality in those days – the photographs, that is, not the bishops or clergy!!).
Two new features introduced in the early ‘80s are noteworthy: ‘In focus on people and places’ showcased the work and witness of clergy and laity throughout the country, and ‘God’s people together’ was a devotional series on various aspects of Church life, liturgy and worship, with contributions by Bishops Robin Eames, Sam Poyntz and Edwin Owen.
It was all change in the editor’s chair early in 1982, when the Revd Houston McKelvey, who had been editor of the Gazette since 1975 (see the 1970s presentation on this link), was appointed Secretary of the General Synod Board of Education (Northern Ireland).
He was succeeded by the Revd Cecil Cooper, who had been assistant editor for the previous 15 years, overlapping in part the long editorship of the legendary Archdeacon Andy Willis, whose death in August 1984, Cecil wrote in a moving tribute, “brings to a close a long chapter spanning almost thirty years in the life of the Gazette”.
At the time of his appointment, Cecil was rector of the parish of Magheradroll (Ballynahinch), Diocese of Dromore, and also Diocesan Registrar for Down and Dromore. A few months later, he moved to the incumbency of Drumbeg, Diocese of Down, and was appointed a canon of Down Cathedral in 1986.
The editorial of 19th March 1982 – titled ‘A New Beginning’ – praised the outgoing editor as one who “since 1975 has steered the fortunes of this paper with a professional skill both in the mastery of words and in presentation that few, certainly within our own Church, could in any way emulate”.
In the same issue, the new editor introduced himself and spoke of his plans for the future:
By improving the content, where possible, of the paper, I hope to widen the appeal of the Gazette so that our very diverse and widely spread readership, holding so many different viewpoints, may come to realise more fully what it means to belong to the family of the great and ancient Church of Ireland
Whilst all this was happening, I was generally minding my own business, beavering away in the classroom and St Mark’s, but change was on the horizon for me too. Over time, my PGR role had given me a working knowledge of the Gazette set–up and brought me into contact with members of the team and as I already knew Cecil from times past, you can guess what’s coming next!!
He began to include me more and more in the work of the paper – primarily with himself and Sheila McCormick, now editorial assistant, in addition to her previous responsibilities for accounts, circulation and distribution. (The Revd Nigel Waugh had served as assistant editor for a short time from 1983–84.)
Cecil always had ‘wee jobs’ for people and so I soon found myself writing book reviews and the occasional article and, especially during school holidays, doing some proof reading.
How could you say “No” to Cecil? With his trademark beard, immaculate grey suit and sartorial pocket square, permanent laugh and personality plus, he became ‘Mr Gazette’, overseeing the paper for 19 years until he retired in 2001 and putting his stamp on what he believed the Gazette should stand for and seek to achieve.
Initially under him, the paper took on a slimmer, less cluttered appearance, with the front page now generally becoming one large photograph with a related caption.
The traditional contents all remained, with some new features gradually added, the most notable being the introduction of a new columnist, ‘Markus’, whose column, ‘Crannóg’, was designed as a southern balance to the more northerly perspective of ‘Panorama’, the long–established column of the indefatigable, indomitable and often controversial ‘Cromlyn’, of whom insight has already been provided in both the 1960s and 70s Borderless Church presentations.
In addition, the number of weekly book reviews increased, with an expanded books section at Lent, Easter and Christmas, and extra letters pages encouraged more debate and discussion among the usual, letter–writing enthusiasts.
From July to September 1985, the Gazette published in eight parts an essay by Valerie Jones, later to become Dublin and Glendalough Diocesan Communications Officer, entitled “Communicating the Gospel – An Evaluation of ‘Time to Tell’ ”.
The essay, for which she won the Sophie Taylor Prize in 1984, formed a detailed critique of ‘Time to Tell‘, the Report of the Commission on Communications presented to General Synod in 1983.
In her analysis specifically related to the Gazette (16th August 1985), Valerie repudiated both the Commission’s assertion that there was no longer a demand for the paper in its weekly form and its recommendation that it should be replaced by a monthly magazine. Quoting words used in the editorial of 29th April 1983 which set out the Gazette‘s response to ‘Time to Tell’, she affirmed that:
the Gazette has not failed the Church but the Church has failed the Gazette
Whilst acknowledging that there was room for improvement in a number of aspects of the paper’s production and content (correctly pointing out that the printing of the paper was often poor, particularly the quality of the photographs), she praised its “valuable service” which was deserving of “wholehearted, enthusiastic support”, and wondered “what difference it would make if the bishops and clergy, now and again, gave the Gazette a ‘plug’ in their sermons or conversations”.
Cecil always believed that communication had to be a priority of the Church of Ireland and to that end, he used the issue of 25th October 1985 to launch a major drive to increase the Gazette‘s circulation throughout Ireland under the slogan, ‘You need this paper’.
Over a five–week period, copies were sent to almost 200 parishes which did not take the Gazette at all and extra copies were sent to those parishes which already had a regular order.
Markus and Cromlyn both joined the cause, stressing the importance of all–island contact. The former commended the Gazette‘s reporting north and south:
The person from the shores of Lough Neagh can be more acutely aware of the situation of the people beside the Lakes of Killarney …
…and Cromlyn praised the paper for playing:
a significant part by keeping open the line of communication between North and South …
The initiative continued into 1986 and I was invited by the Gazette Board to assist by being available (outside teaching time) to visit parishes in both Connor and Down and Dromore to give a promotional talk on the Gazette and raise the paper’s image. (Blair Halliday was to do likewise in Dublin and Glendalough.)
In the event, I visited a number of parishes in both dioceses, with some success in increasing orders. It was especially pleasing to be able to heighten the paper’s profile in parishes where previously there had been no Gazette tradition or where, surprisingly, the Gazette was largely unheard of.
Adhering to his belief in “the family of the great and ancient Church of Ireland”, and always mindful of the importance of the ordinary person in the pew, Cecil never wavered from covering the small, more localised Church activities.
The Gazette always ensured that the ‘big’ Church events embracing the whole island were covered in detail; however, space and time constraints here must limit mention to just a few.
ALTERNATIVE PRAYER BOOK
The Orwellian year of 1984 took on a whole new meaning when, with the Church of Ireland, not to mention Big Brother, watching with a combination of anticipation and apprehension, the long–awaited Alternative Prayer Book (APB) was officially launched at a special service in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, on St Luke’s Day, 18th October.
As a run–up to the launch, the Gazette carried from January 1984 a monthly ‘countdown’ bulletin, ‘Nine months to APB!’, written by the Revd Edward Darling, dealing with various aspects of the new prayer book in an effort to inform, respond to queries and calm the Room 101 fears and misgivings of clergy and laity!!
To mark the occasion, the Gazette produced a special issue (26th October 1984), partly printed on white, high–quality newsprint, with features, articles and a copious supply of photographs.
In the same issue, ‘Point of View’ praised the book as “finely produced, launched in faith …” with the potential to become “a great spiritual blessing to many”, but expressed the concern that “there will develop from now on what we may call ‘Prayer Book Parishes’ and ‘Alternative Book Parishes’ and appealed for “watchfulness and balance” to be maintained at parish and diocesan level, a view reflected in the many letters on liturgical worship before and after the publication.
HISTORY–MAKING GENERAL SYNOD
In 1985, General Synod was held in Belfast’s City Hall, the first time in Synod’s 115–year history it had met outside Dublin.
Beginning on 10th May, five successive issues were virtually devoted to this groundbreaking event, with reviews, reports, columnists and photographs galore.
Almost without exception, writers commented on how General Synod in Belfast had brought the Church of Ireland together as one, and on the tremendous atmosphere, warmth and depth of feeling experienced by members.
The editorial of 10th May spoke of “an experiment very much to be applauded and welcomed … one small step towards a correction of any ‘separatist’ outlooks”, and asserted:
The Church of Ireland can afford no such luxury as North–South differences … Them and Us are words which have no place in the vocabulary of what is in deed and in reality, as well as in name, the Church of Ireland
Valerie Jones, writing ‘The Belfast Synod – a Southern impression’ (7th June), admitted having concerns and fears over security considerations beforehand, but concluded: “New friendships were formed, fresh insights were gained and much North/South understanding brought about with this memorable synod.”
A hard–hitting editorial of 29th November 1985 was given over to the signing of the Anglo–Irish Agreement. The writer castigated Unionists and many members of the Church of Ireland for choosing to withdraw from various education and health boards – “a very obtuse way of making their protest” – and affirmed that the stance of the Church “must be one of critical appraisal tempered with love, understanding and patience …”
Over the following months, the whole topic featured extensively in reports of many diocesan synods and in a large number of letters, making a change, if nothing else, from endless letters on baptism and clergy pensions!!
‘THE RIGHT MAN…’
The Gazette had always given detailed coverage to the comings and goings of the House of Bishops (and of clergy in general) and the appointment and enthronement of Archbishop Robin Eames (translated from the Diocese of Down and Dromore) as Archbishop of Armagh was no exception.
The Archbishop gave an in–depth interview to the Gazette on the eve of his enthronement (18th April 1986), in which, whilst acknowledging “the spiritual challenge of leading a Church in two jurisdictions”, he pointed to “the way in which the General Synod can, once a year, envelop so many different political outlooks and still maintain a unity which is by no means artificial”.
The editorial of the following week, headlining ‘The Man for these Times’, called him “the right man in the right place at the right time”, going on to remind him – and Church members – that though “Archbishop of an undivided Church within a divided community … the Primacy is not a political office but a spiritual one [and] the Primate’s first and continuing priority … will be for the welfare of the Church in all its aspects and ramifications”.
The Gazette began 1987 in confident mood. The first ‘Point of View’ of the year (9th January) announced changes to the paper’s makeup and format, responsibility for which was now assumed by In House Publications, Portadown (which has served the Gazette outstandingly in that capacity ever since).
The use of more up–to–date technology led to noticeable improvements in the paper’s design and layout, not least in the quality of the photographs, and the contents became more attractively and imaginatively presented.
A new series – ‘Do you know?’ – was introduced in which the Gazette sought to answer readers’ questions on aspects of Church life and worship, a series which, judging by subsequent letters, proved to be extremely popular. Discussion and debate over the question of the ordination of women had been a common feature of Gazette reporting during the mid–1980s, as it also had been from the mid–1970s. This culminated in the issue of 19th June 1987 which carried a detailed and insightful feature by Ginnie Kennerley (who was ordained a deacon in 1988) on Katharine Poulton, prior to her ordination as the Church of Ireland’s first woman deacon later that month.
However, the year ended on a sombre note with the horror of the Remembrance Sunday bombing in Enniskillen.
The editorial headline of 13th November 1987 was ‘Plumbing the depths of depravity’, with the writer expressing…
a sense of horror at the atrocities that human beings inflict on each other
The editorial two weeks later – ‘After Enniskillen?’ – suggested, perhaps somewhat optimistically, that “the tragic and brutal murders … could prove to be a watershed … but only if more and more people in both communities respond in a positive way by creating the mutual understanding and accommodation which will isolate and starve terrorism and enable people to live together in common respect and tolerance”.
NO FREE LUNCH
I had left the teaching profession in June 1986 prior to entering the then Church of Ireland Theological College in Dublin in October of that year. In 1988, I spent several months with Cecil in Drumbeg on a parish placement to observe and experience parochial life and worship in preparation for ordination the following year.
For Cecil, there was no such thing as a free lunch. Whilst subjecting me to virtually every aspect of parish life – along with lavish rectory and parish hospitality – his quid pro quo was to involve me more and more with the contents and production of the Gazette, with his infamous ‘wee jobs’ at the ready, many of them brought back from his attendance at the Lambeth Conference in July and August 1988 as a member of the Lambeth Communications Team.
It was this involvement, gradually developing and increasing from the time of his appointment as editor in 1982 – coupled with our close working and personal relationship – which enabled me to see at first–hand the ongoing work of the Gazette and what Cecil was trying to achieve in and through it.
A REGULAR SOURCE OF REPORTING
Cecil wasn’t afraid to put his head above the parapet to make known the Gazette’s view on controversial issues of the day; nor was he backwards in reminding Church leaders from time to time of both the responsibility and privilege of leadership.
He rejoiced in the Gazette‘s proud history – the oldest weekly Church paper in Ireland – and in its independent voice, though the media at large often took it, incorrectly, as the official mouthpiece of the Church of Ireland.
In those pre–social media days of the ‘80s, the person in the pew relied on the Gazette as one of the few means available of communicating Church news and information.
Thus, the paper journeyed through the highs and lows – and in–betweens – of the 1980s primarily as a regular source of reporting and presenting news about Church life, people, organisations and activities (and also wider society and world affairs, though perhaps not as much as one might have expected) to those within and beyond “the family of the great and ancient Church of Ireland”.
At the same time, the paper served as a forum to encourage respectful and informed debate and discussion on a wide range of ecclesiastical, social, moral and political issues affecting the Church at home and abroad. Two particularly fine examples of this were published in 1986. The address given by the Very Revd Victor Griffin, Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, in the Chapel of Trinity College Dublin on the subject of ‘Christians and the Anglo–Irish Agreement’ placed a high emphasis on reconciliation and was reproduced in full in 4th April edition. To view it as it appeared, click here.
A few months later, again promoting the need for reconciliation with an all–island focus, the paper delivered by Archbishop Robin Eames at a Social Studies Conference held in Clongowes Wood College, Naas, Co. Kildare, was also reproduced in full. To read this as it appeared under the title: ‘Reconciliation in Northern Ireland: The Future: The Contribution of the Christian Churches’, click here.
Underpinning all this was Cecil’s primary aim of presenting a balance of news and views from all quarters of Ireland, thus widening the paper’s appeal north and south, uniting members of the Church family and lessening the sense of isolation which many Church members undoubtedly felt in those days.
Markus put it succinctly in one of his October ‘85 columns when he wrote that…
the simple fact remains that the Gazette, despite its faults, is a regular and frequent organ of contact throughout the Church of Ireland
Of course, there were shortcomings, as Cecil himself was only too well aware. However, notwithstanding that, I sometimes think it was a miracle that a paper was actually produced every week without fail, given its slender resources, that the editor was also the incumbent of a busy parish (with additional diocesan responsibilities) and the small number of Gazette staff were all part–time.
Those ‘backroom’ people never gave anything less than great effort, enthusiasm and loyalty to the many different aspects of the paper’s work and the Church at large owed them at the time, and still owes them, a great debt of gratitude.
As I left the 1980s behind, and now within the clergy bubble, I was to journey, though unknown to me at the time, with Cecil and the Gazette team throughout the following two decades, culminating in my appointment as assistant editor in 1999. This afforded me two years working with Cecil in that official capacity before he retired in 2001, after 19 years at the helm, and I remained in the assistant editor’s chair until I retired in 2015.
BRIDGES OF UNDERSTANDING
In a Gazette editorial early in 1987, the writer quoted the renowned journalist and broadcaster and former BBC religious affairs correspondent, Gerald Priestland, as having defined the Gazette‘s weekly function as…
… building bridges across which people may reach out and understand one another
On reflection, perhaps those twelve words best encapsulate all that the Gazette through Cecil sought to accomplish in the 1980s.
It was a special privilege to have served the Church with Cecil through the medium of the Gazette during the 1980s and beyond and in so doing to have been a part, in however small a way, of building bridges of understanding within “the family of the great and ancient Church of Ireland”.
To view the Church of Ireland Gazette search engine, click: https://esearch.informa.ie/rcb
The Revd Clifford Skillen taught history at Dundonald Girls’ High School in East Belfast, prior to his ordination for the Church of Ireland ministry in 1989. He served as Assistant Editor of the Gazette from 1999 until retirement in 2015.