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12-RENNIE-MCOWAN

Former SCO editor Rennie McOwan, 1933-2018

Bob Chaundy writes on the death of a former SCO editor, Church communications officer and trailblazer

Rennie McOwan was an esteemed outdoorsman, journalist, writer and broadcaster who was steeped in the history and culture of his native Scotland. He converted to Catholicism as a young man and served much of his career as a journalist in the Catholic media, most notably in the Scottish Catholic Observer, The Universe, The Tablet and as communications director of the Scottish Catholic hierarchy.

He was born in 1933 in the Hillfoot village of Menstrie, near Stirling. He went to the primary school of which his father was headmaster. His mother was also a primary school teacher and the couple were both from a long line of Presbyterians. McOwan’s parents instilled in him a strong sense of self-reliance, free-thinking and egalitarianism.

During the Second World War, the McOwan household became a centre of activity in which visiting Allied soldiers would frequently be invited for supper.

The family formed an especially close bond with many of the Polish servicemen stationed in the village. Many had been academics before their country was invaded and some of the friendships would last into McOwan’s adult life. He would watch them going off to Mass, the first time he’d had contact with Roman Catholics.

His interest in Catholicism grew when, as a young man, he met several Catholics during his National Service in the RAF in England in the early 1950s. He had an inquisitive mind and began to reflect on the different religions he was encountering. Later in Edinburgh, while working as a journalist on The Scotsman newspaper, his future Faith began to shape in his mind.

A friend introduced him to his wife-to-be Agnes, a firm Catholic who impressed him with her conviction and the way she defended her Faith. Agnes was a firm advocate of civil rights at a time when Catholics were discriminated against in such matters as housing and employment. The words ‘no Catholics need apply’ were not uncommon in employment notices.

At about the same time, he became friends with Fr Lawrence Glancy, an Oxford graduate and linguist who would remain a mentor for much of his life. Glancy sensed a vocation in his friend. In 1958, McOwan was received into the Catholic Church. He decided that Catholic journalism was to be his way forward.

In 1962, at the age of 29, he gained his first editorship, of the Scottish Catholic Observer and succeeded in making it the voice of secular, modern Catholicism. One national daily declared his tenure as ‘a period of editorial brilliance.’

The circulation grew rapidly though McOwan put this down to its new sports section under former Scotland defender Willie Toner whose brief had been ‘not just Celtic!’ In the same year, he helped raise funds for a church for the exiled Ukrainian community. The first Ukrainian Roman Catholic Church was opened in Edinburgh and the community presented McOwan with an icon in recognition of his work.

He left the Observer for a four-year spell in Liverpool editing The Universe. Then in 1968, McOwan beat more than 300 other applicants to become the first communications director for the Catholic Church in Scotland. He succeeded in his aim to make the press office a magnet for all media enquiries. On one occasion, he took the entire Scottish hierarchy to lunch at the Press Club in Glasgow.

The job was not without its challenges. In Rome, while handling the elevation of Archbishop Gordon Gray to cardinal, the first Scottish cardinal for 400 years, he discovered to his horror that all the Vatican press releases were written in Latin. A hasty summoning of a translator was required to subdue the expectant English-speaking press corps.

On the same visit, Pope Paul VI granted him an audience (left) and was intrigued by a convert achieving his important position. During his tenure, McOwan forged closer links with other churches, and stressed the importance of dealing with the media to several organisations including an assembly of the entire Catholic hierarchies of the UK countries.

While on an assignment to east Africa in 1971, he had a narrow escape in Uganda at the height of the Idi Amin era. When soldiers began beating up members of his convoy while travelling through the country with a missionary priest, he had to pretend he was a priest too to avoid a similar fate. Despite this, he developed a love for Africa and he wrote a regular column for the Kiltegan Fathers St Patrick Missions magazine, Africa.

During his time as communications director, McOwan made a point of forging close relationships with his opposite numbers from the other churches. Yet, he came to disagree with the Vatican’s stance on birth control, and, with sadness, left the press office to return to secular journalism.

He continued to write for Catholic newspapers in a freelance capacity, including for many years The Tablet. He would comment on current issues such as the ordination of women priests, which he supported. He also became the first port of call for his opinions on Catholic affairs from the secular press both at home and abroad. He was a man of great conviction who would also champion causes such as Scottish nationalism and the Right to Roam that were not widespread but would become mainstream.
Rennie McOwan was a modest, unassuming man, egalitarian to his core who possessed a strength of will and a generous and engaging personality that endeared him to his friends and readers alike.

Archbishop Leo Cushley of St Andrews & Edinburgh Archdiocese said he was ‘very saddened’ to learn of McOwan’s death.

“Many people knew and admired Rennie as a distinguished writer, broadcaster and outdoorsman but he was also a great trailblazer in attempting to use modern communications at the service of the Church, both as editor of the Scottish Catholic Observer and as the first communications director for the Catholic Church in Scotland. I would very much like to assure Rennie’s family of my prayers for the repose of his soul and that they may find divine consolation during these days of mourning. May he rest in peace.”

Robert Rennie McOwan was born on January 12, 1933 and died October 2, 2018. He is survived by his wife Agnes, one daughter, three sons and five grandchildren.

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