A MERE 500 issues back, I noted in this column that milestones in the history of the Church Times had a way of creeping up on its editorial staff while they were minding other people’s business.
That seems to be even more applicable to the current, 8000th, issue, in all its multi-platform glory, than it was to the 7000th, an amazing 19 years ago.
In 1997, we hadn’t heard of Twitter, Facebook, smartphones, apps, or even the term “social media”. But No. 7000 launched the first Church Times website with all the visual fanfare that a maximum of eight pages in full colour would allow.
Our weekly online sampler of the paper’s offerings had a parchment background and typography that imparted a faux-antique flavour. No surprise, in hindsight, that it soon looked as if, having steered on to the information superhighway, we had got shunted on to the hard shoulder by a lorry-load of Gutenberg Bibles.
But we weren’t alone in finding change and decay, our stock in trade, much harder to keep up with in the digital era than in the days when print was king.
That few people now seem to have much time to think about anything they say before it pops out into the public square and blows up in their face is a fact of modern life. Whether it is a healthy thing, I leave our readers to decide.
But it does mean, to my mind, that there is still a place for weekly religious journalism (provided there is a way to pay for it), not least because only the insane could want official church media releases and clerical blogorrhoea drip-fed into their lives 24 hours a day.
A bit of perspective on life is a godsend, and I don’t have to remind our readers about the stature of waiting. Moreover, if your paper Church Times arrives on Friday, as most of them do these days, you have something to gut your herrings on.
Digital space age
AS THE Church Times is not in its salad days, we don’t have to remind ourselves that we said we wouldn’t look back. Newsprint takes up space, though — as also, I might add, does electronic data storage (which needs electricity, too), though it’s almost rude to mention it.
As I look down the arches of the years, one of the many differences between the Church Times office when I first crossed its threshold, somewhere around No. 6600, and now is that, in those ancient times, our predecessors’ deathless prose lined a room: a series of dark-blue annual volumes had been growing like Topsy there since 1903.
This was the elegant Edwardian library, the former Editor’s room (and briefly so again, when John Whale and Dr Bernard Palmer overlapped), at 7 Portugal Street, WC2. The walls sported photos of past contributors with bushy mid-Victorian beards or advanced 1920s birettas. A mahogany lectern that soon went off to Sotheby’s always displayed the day’s issue of The Times.
It was in some ways easier to browse in such conditions, and to lose oneself in ecclesiastical battles long ago. You just can’t beat a real book: the pages flick over so quickly, although the indexing, before Dr Palmer had got a grip on it, had a random quality.
But it was only for the privileged: we couldn’t let just anyone wander in to thumb those delicate folios. Only the right sort of folk — such as Alan Shadwick, Edward Heath’s successor as news editor in 1949, who was still popping in, and Valerie Eliot, whom we spotted in her twinset one day on the landing — were allowed to do that.
But within a couple of months we had moved to a new and less spacious berth above a building society in Islington, and most of the back issues were consigned to storage at the Norfolk headquarters of Hymns Ancient & Modern. I was driven to asking hopeful enquirers who wanted to find some gem of Anglo-Catholic odium theologicum whether they were lucky enough
to live within reach of Pusey House.
In that dark age, if we realised at the last minute that the 100 Years Ago column for the first issue of the new year was needed, but we hadn’t sent for the volume, our last hope was that someone was still in the Norwich warehouse to fax over a page or two before heading homeward to their Delia Smith dinner.
A Millennium issue that was planned to evoke the 20th century with Church Times extracts required a day in the Church of England Record Centre in Bermondsey, where every story that had not been accessible by other means had to be transcribed by hand.
Then, a new era dawned with the paper’s 150th anniversary. The Board had decided to celebrate by having the entire archive put online. A special issue that advertised this fact was compiled with minimal access to the back volumes, as most of these were being scanned for UK Press Online in Wakefield.
It was the cross we had to bear, but the people’s triumph; for you, dear readers, can now delve into the archive for yourselves, and enjoy all those sermons by Archdeacon Denison, Canons Newbolt and Body, and Frs Waggett and Mackay, all that efficient slapping down of Rome by Dr Littledale and Fr Ross, all those stories bishops didn’t want printed, all that liberal pass-selling since our famed woman editor Rosamund Essex threw her Tractarian bonnet over a South Indian windmill, and all those other long articles and thousands of book reviews that shaped the thinking of generations of the C of E.
So much in it
AND at least there was a lighter side to it all: mysterious and sometimes brusque answers to correspondents (our predecessors didn’t print the questions); hymns like pastiches of J. M. Neale on an off day, which strangely, unlike “Onward, Christian soldiers”, never made it into the hymn books; Donald Maxwell’s whimsical travels with his ever-open sketchbook, the Anglo-Catholic Iain Sinclair of his day; recipes by “Henri”, the cooking parson; literary competitions that displayed, if not always dazzling wit, the remnants of many a classical education; Urbanus, the Horatian alter ego of our top-hatted theatre critic Canon C. B. Mortlock; would-be uplifting Christmas stories that even Barbara Pym found it hard to pull off; and all those barbed letters and comments.
Sidney Dark, who came from Fleet Street to edit the paper in time for the Great Depression, thought that Church Times readers were the rudest he’d ever known. And I’m pretty sure he was on the button, because I read the sackfuls of post in the days when John Whale took over the editorial chair and instigated a rather unpopular revolution — never mind the day when I picked up the phone and caught the full force of Fr Tooth’s biographer.
And I mustn’t forget the children’s page. It never entertained me much when I was a child, by which time it had become the Young Readers’ quarter-page, edited by the redoubtable Joan Selby Lowndes (assisted by McGregor the donkey), who got the editorial chop from John a month after I arrived on the staff. But I see that, over the years, and taken all round, this part of the paper puts Messy Church, Alpha, and probably St Mellitus, too, in the shade.
I have found the cut-out-and-keep paper priest with his clip-on robes and vestments (from 9 and 16 September 1988) particularly useful for our talent pool. Today’s Church of England hath need of him.