Monica Furlong (1930-2003)

Monica Furlong lived at 11 Station Road, Penge, for many years and once edited Spire, the newsletter of Holy Trinity Church, Lennard Road.

In her time she was a distinguished journalist with many talents: a best-selling writer on religious affairs, a religious programmes producer for the BBC, a biographer, novelist, poet, film critic, writer of children’s stories, a feminist, an activist, Moderator for the Movement for the Ordination of women and a communicant member of the Church of England.

A debilitating stammer undermined her career as a broadcaster and public-speaker. She managed well enough when she had to although speaking on the telephone always held unknown terrors.

Monica Furlong was firmly defensive of Penge, loved living here, and once wrote an article in the Guardian defending Penge as a place to live. This article was cited as recently as 2017 by Rose Wild in her positive piece about Penge in The Times.

The Times – Stop Sniggering at us Say the peeved of Penge

Monica Furlong was born on 17 January,1930, in Kenton, north-west London. She was educated at Harrow School for Girls but rather than try for university, she obeyed the advice of her parents and trained as a secretary. Lacking in self-confidence in her youth, she married young and had two children. As she grew up she developed a love/hate relationship with the established church and was to criticise its lack of engagement the real problems of its followers. Her first book With Love to the Church (1965) delineated her concerns.

In her 30s she dabbled in the drug LSD, searching for spiritual enlightenment as was common in the early sixties. Her book Travelling In (1971), recounting the experience, was banned by the Church of Scotland. Nevertheless she continued to be fascinated by mysticism and wrote well-received books on the Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1980), the Catholic saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1987), and a book about a variety of women mystics through the ages. She founded the St Hilda Community which gave a platform for the expression of female spirituality. With her unorthodox and idiosyncratic approach to the Christian faith she made as many enemies as life-long friends. One of her staunchest supporters was the journalist and media guru Bernard Levin.

Monica Furlong wrote for the Daily MailThe SpectatorThe GuardianTruth magazine, John O London’sTime and Tide and The Tablet. Her writing style is known for its wit, insight and compassion. If she recommended a film in her film criticism, you went to see it.

She was an activist for the ordination of women priests and once chained herself to the railings of St Paul’s cathedral, was arrested and carted off by the police. She often said that had been born earlier, she would have been a suffragette.

Her book C of E: The State It’s In (2000) is a trenchant critique of the established church in its contemporary setting. Considered reactionary in its time, it proved to be only too prophetic. When Rowan Williams became Archbishop of Canterbury she was delighted, envisioning a new period of dialogue and accessibility within the hierarchical structures. Her marriage sadly came to an end as she became more successful. Her new-found friends were constantly amused by her embroilment in the strains and stresses of parish life in Penge.

Her remarkably candid biography Bird of Paradise was published in 1995. Always regretting that she had never studied for a degree, she was delighted to be awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity from the General Theological Seminary in New York in 1986 and a Doctor of Literature from Bristol University in 1995.

Monica Furlong died of cancer in 2003 at the age of 72. She had moved away from Penge to Umberleigh in Devon in the final stages of her illness to be looked after by family. Obituaries acknowledge her brilliance at being ‘one of the foremost religious writers of her time’. (The Telegraph). She is fondly remembered by next-door neighbour Jean Taylor as ‘a lovely lady, friendly, intelligent and forthright’.

For further reading:
The Telegraph: