Margaret Thatcher, Yehudi Menuhin, Joan Bakewell, Diana Rigg, Bernard Levin, Denis Norden, Lord Longford…the list reads like the guest-list for a very important event, or the personal contacts of a prominent politician – not a working class clergyman from Liverpool. In fact, these are just a few of the famous names that crop up in the recently catalogued archive of the Reverend Joseph McCulloch.
Perhaps best-known for the Bow Dialogues, a series of public debates featuring well-known personalities that were recorded weekly at the St Mary-le-Bow, London, between 1964-1979, McCulloch was also a prolific writer, broadcaster and passionate campaigner for Church reform. From the beginning of his career McCulloch was a controversial figure, and was once described as the enfant terrible of the Church of England.
Born in Liverpool in 1908, McCulloch read Theology at Exeter College, Oxford, before being ordained in 1933. Early on in his career he ran into difficulty due to his outspoken nature. As a young curate he was obliged to leave one parish when his parishioners recognised themselves in a pseudonymous novel that he had written and he had to leave another curacy when the Rector, returning from abroad, was upset by some of McCulloch’s initiatives in his absence. Later, he was dismissed as an army chaplain in World War Two for sending the Chaplain General a critical report on religion in the armed forces.
McCulloch’s published work, broadcasts and opinions on Church reform were spirited and compassionate, and did much to establish him as a household name. He was a regular columnist for She magazine, several local newspapers and was often commissioned by the BBC. McCulloch wanted the church to become more open and accessible and was an early supporter of women’s ministry. He published an abridged version of the Bible and many other works, seventeen of which are held in the Library’s printed book sequence, and the manuscripts and drafts of several other works can be found in his papers.
McCulloch’s later positions were very successful. As Rector of Chatham, Kent, a very large parish, McCulloch was challenged to increase the tiny congregation. He did this in a typically exuberant manner, setting up drop-in sessions in the local pub and putting on plays and recitals which he had written. In 1959 he became Rector of St. Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside, which was still derelict after World War Two bomb damage. McCulloch campaigned tirelessly to raise funds to restore the church and the iconic Bow Bells. He was successful and the church was re-consecrated in 1964. Part of the renovations included two pulpits which McCulloch put to great use as a platform for topical debate that came to be known as The Bow Dialogues.
Material relating to the Bow Dialogues accounts for a substantial part of the newly catalogued collection. It contains extensive correspondence, both personal and more formal, with an array of very well-known names from the sixties and seventies, including Germaine Greer, Enoch Powell, Margaret Thatcher, Judi Dench, Lawrence Olivier and Tom Stoppard.
McCulloch was a character who often pushed the boundaries with his opinions but was genuinely motivated by a passion for the Church and above all great love for humanity. The archive is a fascinating and unique insight into the world of a man who is woefully under-researched.