Richard Cunliffe: In Memoriam (1)

Mark Dowd

You were always one for beautifully typed letters on immaculate Basildon Bond. Dear Richard. If you had lived until one hundred and twenty, I still suspect you would never have succumbed to email, inboxes and internet service providers. I once mentioned “spam” to you and you began to engage me in a passionate conversation about declining standards in luncheon meat. You were, to the very end of your very rich life, very much your own man. How we will miss them (the letters.) And how we will miss you. The world is a poorer place without your presence.

I first came across Richard Cunliffe when I joined Quest in the early 1990s and, to be truthful, I had very little contact with him in those early years, occasionally passing pleasantries with him and with Keith at various conferences. It was only when it was mooted I might become chair that Richard and I started to talk and it was only then I appreciated his penchant for gently persuasive telephone conversations. I think it’s true to say that Richard liked to cultivate people  and to that end he was quite an operator (I say this only as praise.) How else, several years after Quest had been removed from the Catholic Yearbook, could it be possible for several Quest committee members to gather for a private meeting with a well placed Bishop to discuss urgent matters and ponder how Quest could best serve the interests of the Church? Only because Richard enjoyed excellent relations with many of them and could make a well placed call and cut through all the tedious formalities. He was a great “behind the scenes man”, a quality he shared with one of his great heroes, Cardinal Basil Hume, another Catholic hero with whom he shares, might I suggest, more than a few personal qualities. The man with the typewriter ribbon certainly carried weight in many circles, even if his message was a times an uncomfortable one for the princes of the Church who saw in the vexed subject of homosexuality a potential time bomb. Many of the people Richard spoke to I am sure gave him very strong personal assurances while constantly looking over their shoulder at Rome lest ambitions be compromised and copybooks blotted by a careless public utterance.

Generous he was and he more than once asked me to dine with him at his beloved East India club in St James’ Square to discuss “important business.” He’d been a member for decades and was one of the best known visitors. I was always struck by the affection and respect shown to him by the staff there. They knew how he liked his food served, his preferences for seating in that resplendent dining room and he always treated them with the utmost courtesy. Moreover, when it came to Quest business he had a great eye for detail. Sloppy phrasing, ambiguous sentences which might be mischievously misinterpreted – all these were excised at the drop of a hat once he had carefully had a read of a first draft of a document and would, always with care, “make some careful amendments.”

I think Richard for me will always be remembered as a great servant. Yes, he could be like a dog with a bone at times and would stand his ground and make his case, but he was always prone to listen to people and if he sensed his views were not shared, I never felt he wanted to impress them unfairly on his fellow members. Hours and hours, days and days he must have spent amassing all that archive information (I have never seen the collection up at St Bees, but we must be talking of hundreds, may thousands of letters and documents since the 1970s.)

We need more like him. He was doggedness and determination personified. He strove for justice and bore witness to the truth in his civil partnership with his beloved companion Keith MacMillan. May his soul rest in peace. Praise to God for all the great works achieved through your quite amazingly unique servant.

This text was originally published in the Quest Bulletin, no. 64 (Autumn 2012)