Richard Cunliffe: In Memoriam (2)

Elizabeth Stuart

Several decades ago I became a member of Quest because of Richard Cunliffe. I had written a letter to the Catholic Herald on gay matters and shortly after that a parcel arrived from a C.R.A. Cunliffe accompanied by several copies of the Quest Journal (which he edited) and an invitation to join. When I subsequently met Richard I did not know quite what I was expecting but he hardly resembled your stereotypical Catholic activist. He looked like an Oxford don of the 1950s and he spoke like one too.

Richard once told me that the reason why he left the seminary (he trained at Oscott) had nothing to do with issues of sexuality but was the result of a realisation that what attracted him to the priesthood was the study of theology and philosophy and that alone. He went on to have a distinguished career in education including as an academic specialising in the philosophy of education until he took early retirement from Digby Stuart College in the 1980s and began to focus his energies on Quest. Richard believed in the power of the mind and the authority of reasonable argument. His mission was to convince the authorities that the Vatican’s stance on homosexuality was unreasonable and the result of poor theology. He did this by encouraging Catholic theologians to engage with issues of sexuality. Quest conferences were always noted for their keynote addresses often given by highly distinguished theologians recruited and briefed by Richard for the task. Richard also spent a great deal of time in dialogue with the bishops and enjoyed a particularly warm relationship with Cardinal Hume. Some questioned the value of dialogue in a time of extreme homophobia but because he had utter faith in the power of good argument Richard always preferred the jaw over war. He also realised just how much pressure the bishops in England and Wales were under from the Vatican to take a harder stance on homosexuality and felt that they need encouraging rather than cajoling. However, when push came to shove he could be steely. He supported Quest’s decision to refuse to bow to pressure from the Bishops’ Conference to change its stance to remain included in the Catholic Directory but he continued the dialogue.

Richard’s influence on the Catholic Church was not confined to matters of sexuality. He was an early advocate of the use of the vernacular in the liturgy. He was actively involved in the Vernacular Society of Great Britain and in 1956 edited English in the Liturgy: A Symposium. A paper Richard wrote on the topic was widely circulated at the Vatican Council. His 1956 publication has now found a new audience with the furore over the new translation of the Mass. The approach adopted in the book is a very typical of Richard; thoughtful, cautious, considered, balanced and resistant to easy answers. While advocating the vernacular Richard and his fellow contributors were anxious that the Latin tradition was not lost and also concerned that any translation preserved the beauty of the rite.

In his work for Quest, in his advocacy of the vernacular in the liturgy and in his work for Catholic education Richard promoted the role of the laity in the Church. He believed that the laity had a right and duty to speak, to teach and to aid the clergy in the development of good theology and practice and that the hierarchy had a duty to listen. In this respect he embodied the spirit of Vatican II.

Richard’s life was characterised by faithfulness; faithfulness to his Church, to the army in which he had served (his Christmas cards were always from the Army Benevolent Fund), to his seminary (I believe he was the first lay person to lead the Oscotian Society), to his friends and, of course, to his partner, Keith.   I once had an almighty row with Richard. But he forgave me and I found it impossible to stay angry with someone I found so loveable.  Like many, I have been the recipient of his concern, kindness and hospitality and that of Keith.

Twenty years ago Richard and Keith were present at the high-profile launch of my book, Daring to Speak Love’s Name. As usual they were undoubtedly the best dressed people there and their photograph was splashed across the national papers the next day, Richard sporting his monocle. I believe that this precipitated a hasty exit from their London club early next morning! I was looking forward to seeing them both at a lunch later this year to mark the anniversary of the launch. It saddens me that I will not see Richard coming towards me and greeting me, as he always did, with ‘Liz, my dear . . . .’

Richard was a valiant servant of the Lord and I feel privileged to have known him.

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