Obituary: Dr Bernard Palmer

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DR BERNARD PALMER was the last of a dynasty to which the Church of England owes a very great deal. He was the last of four generations of his family to own the Church Times, and was its editor from 1968 to 1989. It was he who was most of all responsible for broadening the paper’s outlook from its Anglo-Catholic origins to the paper that caters for the great breadth of Anglicanism as it does today.

It was his great-grandfather, George Josiah Palmer, a struggling printer, failed bookseller, and deeply committed Anglo-Catholic, who founded the Church Times in 1863. Three of “G.J.’s” sons took over from him in 1887, of whom Frederick Bernard Palmer became manager and eventually sole proprietor, employing a succession of like-minded editors. He remained in autocratic control until 1940 when, aged 78, he reluctantly handed over the proprietorship to his son, Christopher Harold Palmer, whom he had always — in Bernard’s words — treated as a dogsbody. Christopher became proprietor in his turn: a much gentler personality, and with no intention of hanging on as his father had done.

He retired at 61, making the eldest of his five sons, Bernard, managing director in 1957 when Bernard was only 27. In 1968, Bernard took over as editor and remained so until his retirement in 1989, when, with no suitable family successor, he sold the paper to the charity Hymns Ancient & Modern, and the Palmer dynastic control came to an end. But it was Bernard who had already changed the paper’s stance.

From prep school in Hindhead, Bernard Palmer won a King’s Scholarship to Eton, and from there, after National Service in the Army, went on to King’s College, Cambridge. He had already had a brief spell working at the Church Times. In the months between leaving school and joining the Army, he stood in as proofreader, quickly learning some of the technicalities of newspaper production, and undertaking occasional reporting assignments for the then news editor and future Prime Minister, Edward Heath.

Two years in the Army brought Palmer into contact with a wider range of social classes than he had yet experienced, and it added to his liberal views. But it was at Cambridge, he recalled, that “I experienced my first unhappiness with the Church Times’ editorial policy.” It had been triggered by the paper’s hard-line comment on Anthony Eden’s second marriage, after divorce. He was walking down King’s Parade in Cambridge, with a fellow-undergraduate, Simon Burrows, the future Bishop of Buckingham, when Burrows “castigated the paper in no uncertain terms for its ‘unchristian’ attitudes to Eden’s remarriage”. Palmer tried to defend the paper, but realised that he secretly agreed with Burrows.

Early days: Bernard Palmer as a young man

“From then on, I felt sure that the paper ought to moderate its intransigent views, or at least the language in which it expressed them.” It was, however, another six years before he was able to have any influence.

He returned to the Church Times newsroom in 1952, not intending to stay for long, and looking for a job on a secular newspaper. It was not a happy time: three of his father’s co-directors opposed his appointment. They were so hostile that his father took legal advice to reactivate an article of association that Frederick Palmer had used to maintain complete control of the paper, and convened an extraordinary general meeting. The majority of voting shares were held by the Palmer family, and the three enraged directors resigned. Only an open-minded priest, the Revd Meredith Dewey, remained to form a two-person board with Christopher Palmer until Bernard was made a director.

In mitigation of the unpleasantness, Bernard found in the newsroom a fellow reporter, Jane Skinner, a descendant of bishops, and his own age. It took a year to woo her, mainly with visits to the theatre. They were married in 1953 and began a very happy union that lasted until Jane’s death in 2006. Sadly, Jane found that they could not have children of their own, but it did not take long for them to adopt first Rachel, and then Nicholas.

Rosamund Essex was the editor with the Revd Roger Roberts as assistant editor. Essex, who had started from a position of extreme Anglo-Catholicism, always believed she had moderated the paper’s stance more than she actually had. It was she who had written the vehement attack on Eden’s remarriage. Roberts had joined with the intention of broadening the paper’s ecclesiastical sympathies, but in many ways remained very much a conservative.

Three years after Bernard Palmer’s arrival, Roberts took over as editor, and Palmer later admitted that he came to admire him “to the point of idolatry”. They worked well together, and the paper broadened considerably in its general views, though Roberts’s theological conservatism remained strong to the point of fury, as revealed at the time of the controversy after the publication of John Robinson’s Honest to God.

By this time, Palmer’s father had retired in his son’s favour, and Palmer was in the curious position of being both junior reporter and managing director and, later, editor-in-chief. On Dewey’s retirement, Bernard and Jane Palmer became the only members of the board, and remained so until the sale of the paper in 1989.

Palmer finally became editor in 1968, Roberts remaining as editorial consultant. The Church Times offices were still at 7 Portugal Street, half of a five-storey substantial block built for it in 1903 with the composing room on the top floor. It was eventually the last hot-metal composing room left in central London.

By that time, too, the building was extravagantly large for the size of staff, editorially composed of Palmer with Alan Shadwick as assistant editor, and John Trevisick as news editor. With a secretary, five compositors, and a handful in advertising and despatch, there was room for an impressive library and a lot of space. Palmer, on a floor above his two editors, maintained a wide range of contributors and, at last in control, ensured that just about the whole of the wide spectrum of Anglican churchmanship found a voice in the pages, though its central liberal Catholicism remained.

But, for all his wide sympathies, the fact that Palmer had never worked in any other environment meant that he continued to run the Portugal Street offices almost as his Victorian forebears had. Everything was routine, nothing was questioned. At Christmas, he and his wife would tour the offices with formal festive greetings to each member of the staff while their children doled out appropriate Christmas boxes.

The feudal regime proved too much for Margaret Duggan, who briefly replaced Shadwick when he had a stroke, and she was thankful to go back to freelancing for the paper and an editorial job elsewhere. But Palmer was always generous to his regular contributors. Appreciative postcards would arrive after each major piece, and three bottles of good sherry from El Vino each Christmas. On special occasions, there might even be a bottle of champagne and a packet of smoked salmon.

Honoured: Dr Palmer with his wife, Jane, outside Buckingham Palace after he received an OBE

Real changes began to take place when Susan Young replaced John Trevisick in 1975. Palmer had had his eye on her as an experienced journalist with a good knowledge of the Church of England when, for some years, she was serving as press officer to the Bishop in Papua New Guinea. When Trevisick’s health began to fail, he invited her to join the staff as assistant news editor in 1974, and she succeeded to the senior post the following year.

The General Synod had been inaugurated in 1970, and Trevisick had reported it single-handedly (as he had always done with the Church Assembly) with occasional help from Margaret Duggan, actually a Synod member for the first five years. Palmer had always considered the Church Times a paper of record. When Susan Young took over, working in partnership with Duggan, Synod reports started to become comprehensive and authoritative.

Betty Saunders, another experienced journalist, Anglo-Catholic and formally a reporter on the Daily Mirror, whom Palmer recruited as assistant news editor in 1977, joined the Synod team, and for the remaining 12 years of Palmer’s editorship, the Church Times produced the most comprehensive coverage of the whole of Synod business.

But the advent of Young did more than raise the standards of professionalism in Portugal Street. Irreverent, eccentric, and abrasive, noted for her often outrageous language, she took nothing for granted and questioned all the petty routines of the office. She also proved to be an investigative reporter of a standard that had not been known on a church newspaper before; and, while she was respected and her company was enjoyed, she came to be treated warily by the church authorities.

All this had a profound effect on Palmer himself, and on the atmosphere of the office. He began to share her irreverence, and most of the old-fashioned stuffiness largely vanished from the office. They developed a friendship that lasted long after they were both retired.

Roger Roberts, principal leader-writer for the paper, had finally retired in 1976 and Palmer looked for his successor. He could hardly have chosen a more radical one. David Edwards, as editor of the SCM Press, had published Honest to God, which caused such a furore in the 1960s, and had been at loggerheads with the Church Times in support of fellow radicals. He became Dean of King’s College, Cambridge with a growing reputation as a church historian, and later Canon of Westminster, Rector of St Margaret’s, and Chaplain to the House of Commons. To Palmer in 1976 he seemed just the right leader-writer to broaden the editorial views of the paper. He became a salaried member of staff, and soon after, resigning his canonry at Westminster, became successively Dean of Norwich and Provost of Southwark. As leader-writer and the contributor of extended book reviews, he was all that Palmer hoped, giving the paper a robust and balanced view of current ecclesiastical and secular affairs.

Regular contributors included Ian Dunlop, Chancellor of Salisbury Cathedral, writing mostly about devotional matters, Douglas Brown on current affairs, Margaret Duggan, whose regular columns he referred to as “the little bit of secular leaven in a heavy ecclesiastical lump”, who also did regular features on the range of church institutions from the Commissioners to the theological colleges, and Rosamund Essex, with a column of ecclesiastical gossip and anecdotes. Each month, he carried commentaries from a Roman Catholic and a Methodist correspondent, and his widely spread net included Richard Holloway, the controversial Bishop of Edinburgh, and the equally controversial Monica Furlong.

Occupying a great deal of space during Palmer’s time were two major ecumenical schemes, Anglican-Methodist reunion and the proposals for a Covenant with the Free Churches. Though his own liberal instincts would have taken him along with the Anglican-Methodist scheme, ardently supported by Archbishop Michael Ramsey, editorially Palmer thought it wise to hedge his bets, especially when it became clear that a sizeable minority of the clergy would not take part in a service of reconciliation of ministries with the Methodists. When it failed in the General Synod, the following week’s leader was headed “No need to despair”.

The proposed Covenant with the Methodist, Moravian, and United Reformed Churches ten years later suffered a similar fate. Palmer had written to Graham Leonard, the Bishop of Truro, later of London, and later still to join the RC Church over his opposition to women priests. He asked Leonard to contribute an article explaining his opposition to the scheme, which Leonard declined to do. Palmer’s response was to publish an open letter from David Edwards begging Leonard to change his mind, and would have published a response in the same issue, but Leonard still refused. When the Covenant was turned down by the Synod, a leader (by David Edwards) declared it to be a tragedy for English Christianity and for the Church of England.

During all this time, the circulation of the Church Times remained at a remarkably steady 44,000 to 45,000, rising slightly during Palmer’s editorship while other church newspapers among the denominations were mostly in decline. Yet its relationship with the church hierarchy was never a very easy one. For one thing, it was always completely independent — a stance that some editors of other church papers could never comprehend. For another, while Palmer could be a charming host, he was not naturally sociable. Even his staff never knew where he lunched; and he was rarely seen at great church events, and never in the habit of hobnobbing with bishops.

But he was a loyal churchman, and while he was happy enough to publish controversy, he was very much more reluctant to advertise scandal. “Naughty vicar stories” beloved of the secular media had the scantest coverage, if any.

It was only gradually during Palmer’s years that the Church itself began to get its act together in its relations with the media, though, even then, it could be very cack-handed. When the Archbishop of Canterbury, Donald Coggan, decided to launch an evangelistic “Call to the Nation” in 1975, he wined and dined and consulted senior representatives of the national and provincial press while trying to keep the church press from knowing what it was all about. Palmer’s letters of protest were ignored, and Susan Young’s outspoken protest merely drew the Archbishop’s wrath.

A similar storm blew up about whether the Falkland Islands were to be made a diocese separate from the South American mainland. Lambeth Palace stonewalled for months about what was going on. Relations were much happier when Robert Runcie succeeded Coggan at Lambeth, as Dr Runcie not only appointed a highly professional press secretary in Eve Keatley, a former BBC producer, but also understood how the media worked. It was from Runcie that Palmer received a Lambeth doctorate in 1988. Another honour was the award of an OBE. (He once said that a newspaper editor should not get any honour higher than an OBE.)

Yet the Church — still more, many of its ordinands — had reason to be very grateful to the Church Times. Back in the time of Rosamund Essex as editor, a modest Ember Pence fund for training priests, suggesting no more than sixpenny donations, had been set up. That had grown into the Train a Priest (TAP) Fund that, every Lent until the present day, has raised funds especially to support married ordinands with families through their time of theological training. Money soon started to pour in, from individuals and parishes, and by 1984 the overall total had reached £1 million. Each Lent was drawing well over £0,000, to be distributed according to need by the Board for Ministry in Church House.

Another more minor benefit to the Church had also been launched in Miss Essex’s time, though always warmly supported by Palmer: the Church Times Cricket Cup, played by clergy between dioceses. It could be such a feature in some dioceses that advertisements for curates could specify that a slow bowler was preferred. The competition was reported week by week during the season, and the final played (as it still is) at the Southgate Cricket Club in North London, Palmer presenting the trophy.

By the late 1980s, Palmer was beginning to consider his own future and that of the paper. In 1989, the year he reached his 60th birthday, he would have done 21 years as editor. In addition, the lease of the Church Times at 7 Portugal Street (his father had sold the building in 1954 and leased it back) would expire the same year. It seemed the right year to retire, especially as it was high time to move from hot-metal printing to new technology.

Neither of his children, nor any other members of the Palmer family, showed an interest in continuing the dynasty, and the most promising among many offers that Palmer received for the paper was in a letter from Henry Chadwick, Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge and chairman of Hymns Ancient and Modern. The deal was agreed, and Palmer relinquished the editorship on 8 September 1989, his 60th birthday, and his ownership of the paper two months later.

But that was not the end of his concern. The new editor was John Whale, who had been head of religious broadcasting at the BBC and with ITN and The Sunday Times before that. Palmer was won by his charm and his obvious professionalism, but said later that he did not recognise Whale’s lack of sentimentality. The offices were moved to Islington, minus the Linotype machines and all but one of the compositors. Palmer watched with some dismay as Whale had already set about redesigning the paper to a more uniform layout, removing the one touch of colour, the episcopal purple masthead that Palmer had introduced. He also dispensed with the Roman Catholic and Free Church commentaries and the Young Readers column, along with the regular contributions from Douglas Brown, Ian Dunlop, Margaret Duggan, and even David Edwards, while introducing a higher theological content. Unlike Palmer, who had always believed that the Church needed a popular paper of record for clergy and laity, Whale declared his aim was to produce “an intellectual paper for an intellectual readership”.

But what upset Palmer most was the way in which, just a few days after his final departure, Whale made Susan Young redundant, the news editor who had won the respect and wary affection not only of the movers and shakers of the Church of England, but internationally across the Anglican Communion.

But he did not allow his distress about his beloved newspaper to prevent him and his wife, Jane, enjoying their retirement. They had moved from Kent to the village of Charminster in Dorset. Palmer had never driven a car, Jane only from necessity, but both were determined walkers and cyclists, enjoying the Dorset countryside besides tending their large garden. Hitherto, all their holidays had been walking and cycling in many parts of Europe, but in retirement they became more adventurous each year, starting with the Trans-Siberian railway, trekking in the mountains of Peru and Bolivia, then Honduras and the Caribbean, Morocco, China and Mongolia, and the Khyber Pass.

Back at home, Palmer became an almost compulsive author, starting with his history of the Church Times, Gadfly for God, and then a string of biographies of lesser-known Anglican luminaries and bishop-making prime ministers, for which unfashionable enterprise he found it increasingly difficult to find publishers, though it was long before he gave up authorship that included family memoirs and a biographical sketch of Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey.

He also continued to review a steady stream of books, mainly of Victorian church history and biography, for the Church Times, whose staff found him ever eager to help when they needed to pick his brains. He also made substantial contributions at landmarks in the paper’s history, most notably for the 7000th issue in 1997.

The equally energetic Jane died in 2006, and Palmer moved to Witham in Essex to be near his family. A decline in his health, however, and particularly the loss of his eyesight, brought his journalistic activities to an end in 2015. His last piece for the paper was a review of a biography of John Stott’s secretary, Frances Whitehead.

He secured his legacy on the paper in another way, however: the present editor, Paul Handley, was an appointee, originally working as third reporter under Young. Palmer’s regular letters of support and commendation were a constant encouragement, and the great enterprise that Palmer had begun during his time in charge — making the Church Times a unifying force for the Anglican Church — continues to this day.

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