Back in September we decided to put Worth School in Sussex on the cover of our education supplement. A first. Not long after, I was invited by the school’s headmaster, Stuart McPherson, to address the entire school and staff at their weekly Monday morning assembly. My talk was in the first week in December and took place in a modern chapel which seats 640 pupils plus staff.
Having recently rewatched John Cleese in Clockwise as the hapless teacher whose first address at the headmasters’ conference turns into a road-trip disaster after he gets waylaid en route, I took the precaution of spending the night at the Norfolk Arms in Arundel, around 40 minutes away. There I enjoyed a dinner hosted by the Herald’s own recipe columnist, Tessa Balfour. I noted that the book on the desk in my hotel bedroom was a paperback of A Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Indeed. What had I learnt along the way since I left Downside in the mid-1980s?
I wanted to see Worth myself as it is clear that you cannot just talk about the Big Four Catholic schools any more – namely Ampleforth, Downside, St Mary’s Ascot and Stonyhurst – as Worth is now the only surviving Benedictine school with an active monastic community – whose average age, admittedly, is over 70 – involved with the spiritual mission of the school. It is also far from being a “daughter” prep school and abbey to Downside Abbey. Indeed, Worth now has significantly more pupils than Downside, which has around 370 (two-thirds boys to one-third girls). The wheel has turned.
As I drove in through the stately gates, entering a 500-acre estate (formerly known as Paddockhurst) with views over the South Downs, I was met by cranes, a building site and gardeners busily turfing a new lawn. As I stood outside the nearly finished Spencer Building, I learnt that this new sixth-form building and library had been donated by ex-pupil Michael Spencer (now Baron Spencer of Alresford), the billionaire financier founder of the NEX Group, previously ICAP. The magnificent red-brick building has cost over £6 million and is a gift to the school for what the Benedictine monastic ethos instilled in him during his formative years.
I suppose pupils seeing this Medici-like act of generosity being erected through the pandemic may have thought: if an old boy can make that much money being in finance, I had better go into the money-go-round world too. But in fact I went to Worth to make the exact opposite career pitch – the case for religious journalism. Whilst during the 1980s almost all my contemporaries went into the City – some even working for Spencer at ICAP – today I’d argue that there has never been a better time to have a vocation to be a religious writer. Not least because there are so few today – other than Worth alumnae like Christopher Lamb and papal biographer Austen Ivereigh – as national newspapers no longer hire religious correspondents. So you have the chance to specialise – the key to success in journalism – and rise to the top.
This January I will have been editor of the Catholic Herald for exactly a year. Being editor of one of the world’s oldest Catholic magazines is a role I never even considered applying for. But such are the mysterious ways of divine providence. The point I made in my speech is that being a religious journalist is like being a war correspondent in the 1930s because it means being in the trenches of the fierce cultural and religious media war that currently divides the Church and secular society – not helped by having two Popes, one traditional and one liberal.
In August 1964, in the midst of the Second Vatican Council, five years after Worth separated from Downside in 1959 and became an independent school, the Catholic Herald published a letter from Evelyn Waugh – two years before he died on Easter Friday in the lavatory after receiving communion. In his letter, he lamented over those who celebrated Vatican II as a victory of “progressives” over “conservatives”. Waugh saw it as the defeat of theological principle to cultural fashion.
One thing I have learnt since becoming editor of the Herald is that as we head towards the 60th anniversary of Vatican II, the battle lines that will define the future history of the Church are now well drawn. The next few decades will be a critical time for informed Catholic journalism. Waugh was concerned about the decline of faith and tradition and the relationship of Catholicism to secular populist culture.
Back in the late 1980s, when I was an English literature student, I read Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities in which Wall Street bond trader Sherman McCoy talked about New York being the “irresistible destination of those who insisted on being where things are happening”. Today, it is religion that is increasingly shaping the political and cultural agenda, and that is why reporting on these stories – from Cop26 to the US Supreme Court and abortion wars – is more important and exciting than ever.
Religion has come out of the shadows. It is where things are happening, from the circus of the Vatican Becciu trial to the Roe v Wade ruling being debated across America. At heart, much of religious journalism is still old-fashioned reporting. You can source your stories from the papal plane, or from lunching with retired Monsignors in the best trattorias in Rome and Washington.
This article first appeared in the January 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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