Obituary: John Wilkins - Catholic newspaper editor who embraced Jewish culture

Genial character who tripled circulation of journal The Tablet while remaining equally respectful of other views


As proof of his long-standing interest in Jewish issues, John Wilkins, for 22 years editor of the Catholic Journal, The Tablet, employed a Jewish affairs correspondent — unusual for such a publication. For many of these years I occupied that role, continuing under Wilkins’ successor editor, Catherine Pepinster.

My contributions covered articles on Israel, the rift between the Orthodox and Reform denominations following the death of Reform Rabbi Hugo Gryn, the eruv, and the search for my husband’s ancestry in Central Europe. General Jewish topics and book reviews of Jewish interest were all part of the remit.

Wilkins, who has died aged 85, was originally a Protestant but converted to Catholicism in 1965, inspired by Vatican II (The Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican) and Pope John XXIII, who was a great hero for him.

A photo of Pope John stood in his office, and it was what he saw as the pope’s “saintly simplicity” that led to his conversion. However, he did not wish to be known as a “Catholic convert”. This, he explained, was because he considered his real conversion had happened some years earlier and that was from doubt to Anglicanism.

I became acquainted with him through his friendship with my late brother, Jonathan Solomon, whom he first met at Clifton College, Bristol.

He was two years older than Jonathan, but they would have been contemporaries at Cambridge as Wilkins had done two years of National Service with the Gloucestershire Regiment in Aden. Like Jonathan, he studied classics but later took up theology.

Wilkins’ visits to our family home gave him a taste of Jewish life from many aspects, including the newly acquired Orthodoxy of my sister.

After graduating from Cambridge, he worked for Esso Petroleum for two years and then joined Frontier, an ecumenical journal.

In 1967, he became assistant editor of The Tablet but left to join the BBC. For nine years he wrote features for the BBC’s External Services, which later became the World Service, and as a producer for Radio 4 he won an Ondas award.

In 1982, he became editor of The Tablet. During Wilkins’ editorship, the circulation of the paper almost tripled. As the journalist and occasional contributor to The Tablet, Melanie McDonagh comments, he made a huge effort in commissioning and editing and in searching for the right people to write and to interview.

He was born the eldest of three in Cheltenham. His father was a manufacturing chemist who ran a plastics business; he was a Congregationalist but later became an agnostic. His mother was a ‘prayer-book Anglican’.

When he retired after the Christmas edition in 2003, the valedictory address at his leaving party was made by the late Lib Dem peer and SDP founder Shirley Williams, who paid tribute to the breadth of his political and social sympathies.

Wilkins never married. As some have commented, much of the time and energy that would have been consumed by a family was devoted to the journal he edited and to his friends.

He was equally comfortable with all elements of Catholic worship, traditional and modern. While The Tablet was liberal in its politics, he was equally respectful of other views and his language was always temperate. In fact, in the opinion of some friends, he looked and sounded like a benign don.

He was a very good listener, interested in what everyone had to say. Indeed, at dinner parties people would confide in him and tell him all their problems because he would focus intently on them. He greatly enjoyed conversation. His one great passion was birdwatching, something developed since childhood, in the wake of an extended illness —rheumatic fever.

This had left him paralysed down his back for some time and his mother would put a camp bed in the garden when the weather was good and he would spend time there, looking up to watch the sparrows under the eaves of the house.

As he recounted, he was fascinated by “their courting, lechering, chattering and bringing in long wisps of hair for their nests”. Indeed, birdwatching held an almost spiritual significance for him, even curing him of depression.

He was a good public speaker and anxious not to mislead. Strangely, he confided in a friend during his retirement that he felt he was a failure. Nevertheless, other friends enjoyed his sense of humour. Indeed, his email was ‘Johntabletista’.

John Wilkins: born December 20, 1936. Died April 26, 2022

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