Publisher who oversaw the creation of the Revised English Bible
Wednesday 15 May 2002
Roger Coleman, publisher: born London 16 June 1929; Publishing Director of Bibles and Religious Books, Cambridge University Press 1975-89; Secretary to the Joint Committee of the Churches 1982-89; married 1957 Mary Hayns (one son, two daughters); died Taunton 7 May 2002.
As secretary to the Joint Committee of the Churches and Publishing Director of Bibles and Religious Books at Cambridge University Press, Roger Coleman played an important role in the creation of the Revised English Bible of 1989.
The Oxford and Cambridge presses had been engaged since 1947 in the organisation and publishing of the New English Bible. The New Testament appeared in 1961, and was much read – and criticised; the Bible in 1970. But this was just the first phase. The antagonism was partly because this was not the classic text of 1611; but there were also scholarly criticisms. The original panels of translators were succeeded by revisers who took up the work under a new Director, the Rev Professor W.D. McHardy, who took office in 1973 just before Coleman joined the publishing staff at CUP.
McHardy was as amiable, shrewd and sensible as he was learned; wheelchair-bound, he was the reverse of disabled, almost demonic – an oxymoron, but "angelic" would be too mild – and the spectacle of Coleman pushing the wheelchair to and from McHardy's car and operating a skilled transfer while the director continued serenely to direct became familiar both at the Printing House in Cambridge and in the Jerusalem Chamber at Westminster Abbey where the regular meetings of panels were held.
The Chairman of the Joint Committee of the Churches, and so the overall commander of the making of the new Bible, was Donald Coggan, who had been appointed in 1968 while still Archbishop of York. In 1982 Coleman became officially Secretary to the whole enterprise. In effect, it was run by the triumvirate Coggan-McHardy-Coleman, who got on extraordinarily well, with Coleman doing the administrative work, and in due course supervising the printing and publishing operation.
The Revised English Bible appeared in September 1989, three months after Coleman retired from the Press. For all the criticisms of the 1961 New Testament, the REB will come to be seen as one of the most accurate and useful versions in English. In 1989 the Cambridge and Oxford university presses published Coleman's New Light and Truth: the making of the Revised English Bible – a brief account of a great enterprise, and now a memorial to him.
Roger Coleman was born in Blackheath, in south London, in 1929 and educated locally at Colfe's School. He read Modern Languages and Law at Clare College, Cambridge and then worked for Shell. In 1964 he joined the Cambridge University Press, on the staff of the Printing House, under Brooke Crutchley as University Printer.
Coleman was responsible for customer relations – in effect he sold the printing service to potential customers. This involved travel, especially to the United States where there were important customers for Bibles and Bible-printing: it was stressful, and gave him an early heart attack, which for the rest of his life prescribed self-discipline. In 1975 he crossed over to the Publishing Division, then being reorganised and reinvigorated by Geoffrey Cass, to take responsibility for Bibles and Religious Books. Here he came into his own.
He was a gentle, open, friendly man; a devout Anglican; also a keen musician. He sang cheerfully rather than well, and would attempt any keyboard. He is remembered by Cambridgeshire children to whom he introduced the trombone-like instrument the sackbut, and groups of them found themselves successfully playing ancient music on ancient instruments.
"Bombardier Coleman is no soldier and his tour of duty in the army has not been a pleasure to him." So wrote my father's Commanding Officer in the Royal Artillery in his discharge notes to the bombardier's not hugely distinguished National Service career after the Second World War, writes Nick Coleman. Indeed, despite being endowed with obvious administrative ability, natural efficiency and a rather nice personality ("He is in possession of considerable charm of manner and dignity and has always been found at his best when dealing with Lieutenant-Colonels and above"), it was noted by the CO that this was a man not best suited in nature to the haulage and deployment of 5.5in field-howitzers around the dunes of North Africa. Well, no, you can say that again.
It might have been similarly observed 30 years later that Roger Coleman was not the man best suited in nature to be the marketing director of a major university press, despite all that ability and charm. But he did the job anyway, even though it made him less than happy. He had a family to feed and a duty to perform. No matter that his innate gentleness and principled modesty made the very idea of marketing about as attractive to him as lugging heavy ordnance about the desert, he got on with it and made the most of it. It was in my father's nature to do the right thing.
In the end, though, his right thing came to him. As CUP's Publishing Director of Bibles and Religious Books, he found his natural place in the publishing world – a situation enhanced by his appointment in 1982 as Secretary to the Joint Committee of the Churches on the vexed subject of the forthcoming Revised English Bible. No better place than this, you'd have thought, for a gentle, principled, erudite, spiritual, obscurely witty man.
So it proved. He loved it. And he worked absurdly hard, regularly completing a 10-hour office day, then coming home to get down to it again in his study throughout the evening. He read the entire REB out loud to himself, all the way through, twice, to ensure that it included no verbal infelicity that might trip the tongue. He also made sure that the REB had no asses in it, because a large number of its readers were to be American.
I suspect, however, that his greatest pleasure in the REB arose from his dealings with his fellow editors. He adored both "Mac" McHardy and Lord Coggan, both of whom shared my dad's scholarly enthusiasms and utterly arcane sense of humour. My family has a lovely photograph of him and Lord Coggan, the latter clearly enjoying the moment of having just cracked a splendid joke. Dad is in the act of getting it. He's turning, beginning to lift up the corners of his mouth, only fractions of a second from bathing the company in a huge, twinkling, slightly distracted grin, which will serve for the next few seconds as cover for him to work on a suitably witty extension to the crack – one which will run and run. We were inordinately proud in 1991 when the then incumbent Archbishop, Robert Runcie, awarded my father a Lambeth Degree. And so, secretly, was my father.
Still, however much he loved his work and those men, he loved his family above all things, and we knew it. We are all grateful.
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