Friday, 19 May 2023

WORLD, FAITH, CHURCH: The genius of THE TABLET John Tidey


 As part of the Spiritual Reading group program, John Tidey delivered this paper on The Tablet of London at the Carmelite Library, Melbourne, on Tuesday morning, the 16th of May 2023.


My paper this morning has been a work in progress for 61 years. I arrived in England for the first time in 1962 and that was when I encountered The Tablet through an organisation of Catholic journalists and writers in London called The Keys. I didn’t meet the editor, Douglas Woodruff, but I did meet Tom Burns, a future editor who would change The Tablet’s direction and tempo; among others there at different times were distinguished journalists of the calibre of Patrick O’Donovan (then a columnist at The Observer) and Howard French, editor of The Daily Sketch.

My recollection – at this considerable distance – is that The Keys met regularly in a room at a pub called The Cardinal which was not far from Victoria Station and Westminster Cathedral. I realised at the time what a privilege it was for a 22- year- old from the south side of Brisbane to be in such company.


After spending my working life in the newspaper industry I am well aware of the collapse of trust and confidence world-wide in much of the mainstream media. Painfully well aware in fact. And I agree with Tom Brokaw, the veteran American journalist, when he said: ‘I think the most extraordinarily powerful tool and the most destructive element in modern life is the current media. Everybody has a voice ……but there is no way to verify what’s true and what’s not.’

Of course there are bright spots, among them magazines such as the Economist, Atlantic, The Spectator, The New Statesman.  It may be in a smaller league, with a niche of its own, but among the most admired and respected is The Tablet, the London based international Catholic weekly. It is a gem. In print and digital versions.

Last year a loyal reader wrote to The Tablet asking: ‘How can one magazine cover the Catholic Church, in its beautiful and maddening complexity, with such skill, such depth and such gorgeous prose and do so with such a modestly -sized staff? The Tablet is a minor miracle and a necessity for all thinking Catholics.’

To some extent my remarks this morning are an attempt to address that very perceptive question.  I am happy to email my paper to anyone who would like a copy.  

THE Tablet was founded in 1840 making it the second oldest surviving weekly journal in the English language. [The SPECTATOR appeared 12 years earlier and describes itself as ‘the oldest weekly magazine in the world and the oldest general-interest magazine continuously in print.’] The Tablet’s closest Catholic contemporary in the United Kingdom is – or was – a weekly newspaper called The Catholic Herald which first appeared in 1888. These days it is a monthly magazine titled, simply, Catholic Herald.


It is hardly surprising that in its 183 years of publication The Tablet has had several changes of ownership and a number of “near death” experiences. Throughout those years its position on the major issues of the day has varied according to the stance of the editors, at least four of them converts to Catholicism. In fact, The Tablet has had just eleven editors – a number of them quite remarkable – and their legacy is the rich heritage of the publication we know today. A glance at the style and contribution of each of them helps explain how The Tablet survived - and why it survived.   

The first issue of The Tablet appeared on Saturday May 16, 1840, a decade before the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in England. The editor, Frederick Lucas, was a lawyer and a former Quaker and his creation was a journal radical in politics but traditional in religion. It was Lucas who chose the name and at 6d a copy it was an expensive purchase for that time. Just in case anyone doubted its independence a quotation from the philosopher Edmund Burke was inserted under the masthead of The Tablet. It declared: ‘My errors, if any, are my own. I have no man’s proxy.’

In its early years Lucas managed to fall out with the local hierarchy, object to the establishment of diplomatic relations with the papal states and successfully advocate the establishment in England of the recently founded St Vincent de Paul Society. After a turbulent start the paper moved from London to Dublin but its second proprietor and editor John Wallis (also a lawyer and also a convert) brought it back to London where it remains to this day. From the beginning The Tablet was robust, direct and a champion of the underprivileged. But as Michael Walsh, author of the magazine’s commemorative history noted, it was more remarkable for its invective than its wit.

[ Walsh’s history of The Tablet was published in 1990 and covered 150 years of struggle, achievement, turbulence and controversy. Cardinal Basil Hume, Archbishop of Westminster at the time and a great admirer of the magazine wrote the foreword. The commemorative history, he said, helped dispel any lingering illusions about a united and confident pre-conciliar Church.]

In 1868 The Tablet was purchased by the Rev Herbert Vaughan, just before the first Vatican Council which defined papal infallibility. Vaughan – later Cardinal Vaughan – was a fairly well-to-do member of an old Catholic family.

At his death Vaughan bequeathed The Tablet to the Archbishops of Westminster, any profits to be divided between Westminster Cathedral and the Mill Hill Missionaries, the British Catholic missionary society that he had founded. It would be nearly 70 years before the paper was in lay hands again.

From 1884 – 1920 The Tablet was edited by John George Snead-Cox who occupied the chair for the longest period to date in the journal’s history. It seems that his editorship consolidated the position of The Tablet and raised it to the rank of a first- class periodical. As one observer noted:  The absolute and arbitrary tone now disappeared altogether and the contents of the paper were characterised by lucidity, courtesy and dignity. 

In the 50th anniversary edition – 17 May 1890 – Snead-Cox outlined the paper’s vision of its role and purpose when he wrote:  The first object and the last – the only reason for the existence of such a paper as The Tablet – is the hope that it may render some humble but effective service for the cause of God’s church.

The Snead-Cox era saw a great strengthening of the intellectual and literary content of The Tablet. The editor - by origin an English country gentleman and a relative of the Vaughan family - was naturally and by conviction a Conservative.  Controversies around “the Irish questions” of those times resulted in many Catholics (‘particularly those of Irish origin or Irish associations’) being strongly opposed to his views. Snead-Cox was also strongly opposed to the Women’s Suffrage Movement. It seems that on all major issues Snead -Cox as editor and Vaughan as proprietor were “in almost instinctive agreement.” Snead-Cox also worked harmoniously with Cardinal Bourne who followed Vaughan.     

 By the early 1920s The Tablet was in serious trouble – subscriptions drifted down, its financial situation parlous and savage cuts in expenses considered necessary. In 1923 Snead-Cox’s successor (James Milburn) died after less than three years in the chair and Ernest Oldmeadow was named editor. In fact , G.K. Chesterton was (briefly) considered for the role.  In a previous life Oldmeadow had been a non-conformist minister in Nova Scotia, wrote several novels and founded a successful wine business. But the paper’s decline continued. While The Tablet had never been “particularly sympathetic” to the Church of England, under Oldmeadow it was even less so – scandalous on occasion according to Walsh in his commemorative history of the paper.

Oldmeadow famously launched a savage personal attack on the writer Evelyn Waugh, condemning his comic novel Black Mischief. Waugh was a recent convert to Catholicism and Oldmeadow declared it ‘a disgrace to anyone professing the Catholic name.’ But he refused to print the book’s title or to name its publisher! A galaxy of Catholic writers and intellectuals rushed to Waugh’s defence in The Tablet and elsewhere. People like the Jesuits Martin D’Arcy and C.C. (Cyril) Martindale, as well as Eric Gill, Christopher Hollis, Tom Burns and Douglas Woodruff. Eighteen months later Oldmeadow was at it again counselling readers to spend ‘no money and no time’ in acquiring and reading Waugh’s new novel, A Handful of Dust. 

By 1936 Oldmeadow was gone (albeit unwillingly) and quite suddenly The Tablet was back in lay hands; it was sold to a group headed by Douglas Woodruff and Tom Burns – both of whom subsequently edited it, Woodruff first. He had previously been on the literary staff of The Times. The distinguished (London) Observer journalist Patrick O’Donovan said of his old friend: ‘One thinks of him (Woodruff) as the great last survivor of the Belloc, Chesterton and Baring group of joyous and combative and confident Catholics who made being a Catholic for a time almost over-exciting and a matter for the sort of pride that goes to support football teams. They made the (Catholic) Church in England almost top heavy with lay brilliance.’ 

Back in lay hands The Tablet became less “churchy.” The paper took on a distinguished look, redesigned by Burns under the influence of the typographer Stanley Morison. Leading Catholic writers, literary figures and historians – both clergy and lay – appeared regularly, among them Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, Hilaire Belloc, Ronald Knox, the historian Christopher Dawson and the Jesuit Martin D’Arcy.  

Waugh and Woodruff had met at Oxford and Waugh contributed reviews, commentaries and letters to The Tablet while his friend was editor. At the end of World War Two the first chapters of Waugh’s novel Helena were published in The Tablet. After they appeared Woodruff urged him to continue, declaring: ‘Ronnie Knox says it is the only book he has ever read which gave him the feeling of what upper class 3rd Century life was like.’

Waugh and Graham Greene had been friends since the late 1930s – Oxford contemporaries, Catholic converts, their relationship “warmly formal” according to the biographer Martin Stannard. When his novel The Heart of the Matter appeared in 1948 Greene offended many Conservative Catholics but Waugh presented a courageous response, defending his friend in The Tablet.

Greene’s contribution to The Tablet was quite substantial and is preserved for the general reader in an attractive volume Articles of Faith: The collected Tablet journalism of Graham Greene. His novel Monsignor Quixote developed from a short story Greene gave his friend Tom Burns for a Christmas edition of The Tablet. After Greene’s death Burns wrote of him: ‘It was always a stimulus to me that I had Graham’s moral support and general approval throughout my editing of The Tablet. It was shown in innumerable ways and not least by his agreeing to become a trustee of The Tablet Trust.’

In 1989, not long before Greene died, John Cornwell had interviewed him for The Tablet on his faith, doubts and beliefs. He asked Greene: ‘What, in the final analysis, does your religion mean to you”? 

‘It’s a mystery,’ Greene replied. ‘It’s a mystery which can’t be destroyed, even by the Church.’  

 Woodruff was to edit The Tablet for 31 years. Every week it opened with what has been described as ‘a lengthy and magisterial survey of foreign affairs’ written by him.  According to Woodruff there was not a British embassy abroad nor a foreign embassy in London where the paper was not read. A free copy was sent to the Pope each week via the diplomatic bag to Rome.   

Under Woodruff the tone of the paper – and its politics – could be described as conservative (with a small “c”) but he never let The Tablet become a party political paper. By the 1950s The Tablet was flourishing as never before. Circulation had crept up to 13,000. And how remarkable is this? In 1951 the cover price increased for the first time since 1840 (sic). It jumped from 6d to 9d a copy!

Conservative or not, there was a storm of criticism when The Tablet condemned the 1956 British and French invasion of the Suez Canal zone, in concert with the Israelis. Woodruff insisted that the United Nations was the appropriate forum to resolve the dispute with Egypt. The great event of Woodruff’s final years as editor was The Second Vatican Council. He attended every session, filing regular reports and commentaries. Yet as Michael Walsh wrote in his commemorative history:  ‘Despite all the positive reportage which The Tablet gave to the council under Woodruff’s editorship, for him Vatican II destroyed the institution which he had loved from his earliest years.’ 

Tom Burns was named editor of The Tablet early in 1967 despite attempts by Woodruff to prevent the appointment. The two old friends fell out over the future direction of the paper but Burns prevailed. As John Wilkins, the man who would succeed Burns put it: ‘This was a springtime of the Church as renewal launched by the Second Vatican Council took effect and Tom was in his element.’ Burns had known both Chesterton and Belloc and loved to recall that part of his past. But for him Vatican II was the fulfilment of his dreams for the Church.   

Burns was 61 when he took charge. He had spent his working life in publishing apart from wartime years in Madrid where he was the British press attache. Woodruff, he thought , was not a great editor ‘but as a leader writer he was beyond compare.’ Burns claimed that in those final years of Woodruff’s editorship, which lasted through Vatican II, The Tablet had failed to represent the emergent Church.  Woodruff’s concern that the new editor would change The Tablet radically turned out to be well founded.

In the last issue before Burns took over The Tablet had published a leaked copy of the report of the commission that advised Pope Paul VI that the Church’s traditional ban on contraception could not be sustained. The following year, 1968, Pope Paul set this conclusion aside and restated the traditional teaching against contraception. The Tablet respectfully disagreed in a powerful front page editorial entitled Crisis in the Church. Years later Burns would write: I suppose that never in the 150 years of the paper’s existence has an editor of The Tablet been presented with a problem of conscience and policy so grave as that which confronted me with the publication of Humanae Vitae, the Pope’s final word on birth control.

Yet Burns said that he had received no word of reproof from Cardinal Heenan or any other authority in the Church; and in his memoir, 25 years after the event, he noted: Catholics at large have given their judgement. The question is now in the forum of individual conscience. The Tablet Burns edited changed policy on both Israel and Ireland, having previously been generally unsympathetic to both; and it courted controversy with its position on the Falklands dispute (at least until the shooting started) and the Nigerian Civil War of the late 1960s.

After an upheaval in the holding company of The Tablet the paper was sold to Burns in 1971, its penultimate change of ownership before The Tablet Trust was established as a registered charity. It was an indication of the paper’s authority and respect – despite a worrying slide in circulation following the Humanae Vitae editorial – that Burns was able to assemble an outstanding group of trustees. The Trust was initially chaired by the Duke of Norfolk and included in its ranks Sir John Hunt, the British Cabinet Secretary at the time, Graham Greene and the writer and economist Barbara Ward. [The current Directors – 10 men and women – are listed on the title page of The Tablet.]

By the time Burns retired (at age 76) the paper’s circulation was creeping up again but the outlook was not good.  John Wilkins’ appointment as the ninth editor of The Tablet probably saved it from closure. It was 1972 and not only did he turn the paper’s fortunes around but it was said that his ability to distinguish between news and Church PR made The Tablet essential reading, even in the Vatican. Wilkins was a convert to Catholicism – like so many of his predecessors – the difference being that he was inspired by Vatican II. He had worked on The Tablet before spending ten years at the BBC and then returning to edit the paper with great distinction. In his earlier years Wilkins had served in Aden and Cyprus as a national service officer in The Gloucestershire Regiment (he was an army boxing champion) and then read classics at Clare College Cambridge.

Catherine Pepinster, the next editor, found Wilkins a hard act to follow; his passion for his work and his great pride in his writers were an inspiration to her. Pepinster was the first woman to edit The Tablet and before her appointment in 2004 had been executive editor of Fleet Street’s Independent on Sunday newspaper. She was also well qualified academically: an honours graduate in economic and social science with an M.A. in philosophy and religion from the University of London.

During her 13 years in the chair Pepinster (remarkably) was responsible for The Tablet’s coverage of THREE papacies: the death of John Paul II, the election of Benedict XVI and his surprise resignation and the election of Pope Francis. And during her tenure The Tablet was redesigned and – very important this – the paper’s online presence greatly expanded and its social media arrangements created.

As she left Pepinster told readers: ‘It has been a pleasure and an absolute privilege to edit The Tablet for the past 13 years. I have led a brilliant and committed team of journalists who have reported as history is made in the Catholic Church. The Tablet is able to draw on an unrivalled pool of writing talent from around the world to explain to our readers what these changes mean and why they matter.’

For the past six years The Tablet has been edited, with style and authority I would say, by Brendan Walsh; the paper’s eleventh editor brought a formidable set of skills and experience to the task. Walsh was a former Head of Communications for CAFOD the Catholic Aid Agency, had been Publishing Director of Darton, Longman and Todd and was for five years Literary Editor of The Tablet. On taking the editorial chair he vowed: ‘I will do all I can to cherish and protect The Tablet’s values and the quality of its journalism’. At this distance he certainly appears to be doing so.

Pope Francis once described the Church as “a house with open doors.” Walsh sees The Tablet in the same way: taking a lively interest in everything and everyone.

To deliver this vision he has at his disposal a small tight knit team comprising a deputy editor, a chief editorial writer (Clifford Longley) a couple of assistant editors, a full time Rome correspondent (Christopher Lamb), a couple of production journalists, a couple of reporters and arts, letters and literary editors. [The small management team is headed by a Chief Executive Officer Amanda Davison-Young] The Tablet correspondent in Australasia is Mark Bowling, an author and former foreign correspondent who now works in Brisbane for The Catholic Leader.

Part of the genius of The Tablet – perhaps the most important part – is its ability to combine deep affection and attachment to the Church while maintaining demonstrable independence.  Nowhere has this been more in evidence than in its coverage of the scandal of sexual abuse of children. Readers coming to The Tablet for the first time might be surprised at the quality and extent of its arts and book pages, an illustration of Walsh’s view that Catholicism is a matter of the imagination, as much as of the intellect.

As it has in the past The Tablet is able to tap an outstanding stable of contributors, both writers and reviewers: A.N. Wilson appears regularly. So do Mary Kenny, Paul Vallely, Rupert Shortt and the Australian Jesuit Richard Leonard. There are dozens of them from the UK and abroad. Guy Consolmagno SJ – Director of the Vatican Observatory – is a regular columnist. Food for the spiritual journey (as Brendan Walsh describes it) might be provided by Erik Varden, Sara Maitland or the Dominican Timothy Radcliffe. John Haldane and James Alison write on philosophy and theology. 

For well over 20 years Jonathan Tulloch’s nature column Glimpses of EDEN has been published weekly, these days on the back page. It is brilliant in its wonder and its simplicity and more often than not is where I start perusing my print copy of the paper each week. There are two pages devoted to readers’ letters each week and they invariably illustrate what a broad readership The Tablet enjoys. I can’t think of any other publication that publishes such a wide range of intelligent views and opinions, many of them at odds with its own stated positions. In one edition a few weeks ago those two pages included letters dealing with: The hierarchy and the Latin Mass, the Ukraine conflict and the idea of a “just” war, Scotland after Nicola Sturgeon, a plea for married clergy and – one on top of the other – headings that noted “A season of joy” and “the nature of hell.” Something for just about everybody there!   

In 2017 The Tablet established a Development Fund which has seen gifts and pledges targeted to projects designed to strengthen and secure the paper’s future. One remarkable result is that a complete archive beginning in 1840 is now available to subscribers. It is easy to navigate and fully searchable. The Fund is also supporting major investment in new digital products, outreach activities to schools and parishes and a young journalist’s intern scheme. Frederick Lucas would surely be pleased ([perhaps surprised) to learn that after 183 years the future of his creation seems assured.

I will close by quoting from a recent letter to The Tablet which illustrates how much and how widely  this iconic  publication is loved and appreciated. It begins:

The Tablet has helped me greatly in the different ministries in which I have served. It creates a space for people to develop critical thinking that will enable them to see their faith as a dynamic aspect of their life. I particularly appreciate how, in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, The Tablet looks at the issues facing the church from an ecumenical perspective. It engages and challenges the reader to nurture an authentic commitment able to stir up hope and communion in our divided world.

The writer was Archbishop Ian Earnest. He is Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Personal Representative to the Holy See. THANK YOU.

SOURCES for this paper include:

The Tablet back issues from the archives via Exact Editions.

The Tablet: A Commemorative History, 1840-1990 by Michael Walsh, The Tablet Publishing Company, 1990.

The Use of Memory:  Publishing and Further Pursuits by Tom Burns, Sheed & Ward, London, 1993.

Articles of Faith: The collected Tablet journalism of Graham Greene. Edited with an introduction by Ian Thomson. Signal Books, Oxford, 2006.

Evelyn Waugh: No Abiding City 1939-1966 by Martin Stannard, J M Dent and Sons, London, 1992.

Patrick O’Donovan: A Journalist’s Odyssey, Esmonde Publishing Limited, London, 1985.

Graham Greene – A vacillating believer, by Ann M Begley in America magazine March 30- April 6, 2009.

Celebrating 150 years of continuous publication, by John Tidey, The Catholic Leader, Brisbane, July 29, 1990.  


·         John Tidey is a Melbourne journalist and author and a parishoner at OLMC Middle Park.  


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