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Are parish magazines dying a death?

09 December 2022

Are we in the dying days of the parish magazine — or might there be a brighter future? Peter Crumpler reports

Bob Peters /St Andrew’s Church Sonning Archives

The current Sonning parish magazine

The current Sonning parish magazine

IN JANUARY 2009, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, praised parish magazines as they celebrated their 150th anniversary.

Dr Williams hailed them as “the most widely read Christian publications in the country”. Many people, he said, read them without ever setting foot inside a church. “A good parish magazine is a wonderful resource that places the local church at the heart of the community it serves.”

The first edition of The Parish Magazine, produced by the Revd John Erskine Clarke at St Michael’s, Derby, in January 1859, is widely considered to be the first such publication. By 2009, parish magazines had an estimated combined readership of more than 1.3 million, greater than many national newspapers.

Today, however, their future looks less clear. Web-based communications, social media and email bulletins have caused magazines to close and editors to give up. Many believe that the parish magazine’s days are numbered.

Others, though, believe that they will have a part to play for many years to come. Various factors — such as the sharp decline in local journalism, which leaves the field clear for community-based communications, and the switch to hybrid production, print and online — may be giving grassroots magazines a new lease of life. Print itself could be increasing in popularity as people seek a break from screens.

During Covid lockdowns, the Church of England advice was that parish magazines should not be delivered. This accelerated the trend for publications to go online. Many have remained web-only or have simply ceased publication.

But are there brighter days on the horizon?

Newt magazineThe cover of Newt magazine

The parish magazine serving Charvil, Sonning and Sonning Eye, Berkshire, is believed to the be oldest continually published parish magazine in the country. The first issue was published in January 1869. Its current editor, Bob Peters, is vice-chair of the Association for Church Editors.

He is upbeat. He told me: “I believe there is a great future for parish magazines. In the current climate there is an opportunity for them to fill a huge gap in the marketplace where local newspapers are on the decline or going online.”

Jane Woolley and John Hindley, who together edit the parish magazine for St Peter’s, Hambledon, Surrey, are also positive. The secret of a good parish magazine, they say, is “having keen, inquisitive and imaginative editors, a strong community, representing both the civil and the church parish, with plenty of widely-supported social, sporting and voluntary activities plus a vibrant church, village shop and pub, and news, photos and plenty of contributors, as well as supportive advertisers”.

Another positive example comes from St John and St Stephen’s, Reading, which produces NEWT — short for Newtown — a colour magazine distributed to homes and schools in the parish.

NEWT, the church explains, “aims to allow people to share their lives and stories locally and to explore themes that open up the strengths and the possibilities of our communities. Both the local primary schools are regular contributors and there are frequent inputs from other faith communities and local groups, reflecting the sparkling diversity of our area.”

The Revd Claire Alcock, Vicar of St John and St Stephen’s, says: “The magazine is one of the chief ways we reach out to our parish, as it goes through every door. We try and showcase local initiatives, especially our primary schools, and promote a sense of cohesion. We produce nearly 4000 copies four times a year and have no advertising.

“It’s hard work and takes a lot of resources, but we have a fantastic editorial team and a fascinating community to connect with, in which we frequently encounter the sometimes surprising presence of God.”

Anne Coomes also takes an optimistic view. She edits Parish Pump, which supplies a wide range of online resources to parish magazine editors. “Although we have seen the number of subscribers drop, there are also some very upbeat churches out there, who seem determined to carry on with their magazines,” she says. “Several new church magazine editors have joined us, both from across the UK, but also from Florida, Ireland, Switzerland, and New Zealand.”

Covers designed by Revd Hana Amner, Curate at St Mark’s, Lache cum Saltney, for Bangor Cathedral’s magazine

But there are gloomy indications, too. December 2021 saw the final edition of The Sign, a publication that had provided material for parish magazines since 1905. At their peak, The Sign and Home Words — the two combined towards their end — had a joint circulation of more than 500,000 readers. When the decision to close was taken, they were down to just 13,000.

The retirement or resignation of the editor is the commonest reason given for the closure of parish magazines, and it is becoming increasingly hard to find people to take on the role. Churches often lack the money to continue publication and choose to rely solely on their online communications.

The Rev Dr Pete Phillips, a Methodist minister and director of the Codec Research Centre for Digital Theology, Durham, argues that, while print may be effective for internal audiences, “In places where, for example, there are lots of new homes going up, we need to create digital comms channels — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram — to break through into their media consumption. Otherwise, how will they even hear of us?”

Some ministers spoke of the use they had made of social media to reach beyond their congregations. Gill Poole, a Reader active in the diocese of Sodor & Man, told me: “Facebook posts feel relational. You see page updates that you’ve chosen to follow and are able to respond, and it’s easy to ask for more information or clarification. Also, the page can share local community information, and be seen to do so by people beyond the church family.”

The Revd Rickey Simpson-Gray, Team Vicar of the Claydons, in Buckinghamshire, said: “Facebook creates a ‘multiplier’ impact on our communications. As a rural parish of three churches, we’re able to harness our communications and ‘reach’ for ministry within limited resources to good effect.”

Operating on social media channels and the web can also be much cheaper than producing print, unless sponsorship or advertising support can be achieved.


SO, WHAT could be the future for parish magazines?

One parish took the innovative step of recruiting a journalist to join the church’s staff, to report on local news across a range of social-media channels.

The Revd Nathan Ward, Vicar of St Margaret’s, Rainham, in Kent, said: “For thousands of years it is stories that have kept communities together. Sadly in recent years local journalism has been under increasing pressures, which reduce the amount of truly local content.

“Our community journalist has been the best investment the church has made in engaging and connecting with the local community. It places the church firmly back in the public square, demonstrating it is relevant and cares about those in our community.”

Hambledon Parish magazine

In addition to publishing online, St Margaret’s also produces a quarterly booklet, with news of church services and events, and encouragement to join with morning and night prayer.

Nicola MacKinnon, an experienced communicator for Christian and charitable organisations, believes that the future may be hybrid. She said: “We are in a blended world when it comes to print media. It’s ‘retro’ to have a hard copy — in a good way — and convenient to download it instantly. There will be those who like to read it on their phone on the train to work, and those who prefer to pick up a hard copy at the back of church on a Sunday. The beauty of technology is that we can provide both, easily, using things like QR codes that you can scan from your phone to link easily to online material.

“The parish magazine plays a dual role: it builds connection between the church family, and it’s a window into that family to anyone curious to learn more. Done right, they have a vital role in building community.”

Another supporter of hybrid communications is the church consultant John Truscott. “Print can be valuable,” he told me. “I was in a church the other day where they had a welcome pack for newcomers to the parish which had a range of literature in an envelope, plus a bar of chocolate. You can’t do that online.

“I have this sense that e-letters and texts just do not get their message through in quite the same way as print because there is such a crowded marketplace.”

There is also a growing trend is for community-based groups to produce “hyperlocal” publications.

Phil Creighton, who edits two hyperlocal newspapers in Berkshire, said: “Modern technology enables everyone to become their own publisher. It’s a very exciting time as a result. But it’s one thing wanting to produce a publication, be it online or in print, and another knowing what to put into it.

“Any church looking to produce a hyperlocal title that is aimed at an audience beyond the pews should think carefully about the content and how it’s written. Sometimes, for example, something so obvious to the insider can be meaningless jargon to the casual reader.”

To many parishes, such a project is a pipe dream. But hyperlocal is a growing trend, and there could be scope for some better-resourced churches to explore this area. Parishes that are less well endowed, could make sure that they work in partnership with others who are following the trend.


BUT what about the quality?

Bob Peters, vice-chair of the Association for Church Editors, says that innovation for parish magazines lies in PCCs’ seeking to identify an editor “who has a flair for writing and is able to recognise stories of general interest rather than asking a willing helper who knows how to use a word processor to reproduce routine reports from local clubs and associations”.

He believes that initial investment in design and layout software, and using it well, will pay for itself with increased advertising from local businesses, and a growing congregation. Over time, he says, “the magazine should become self-financing.”

And there are signs that the quality of writing in parish magazines may be improving.

During Covid, St Clement’s, Cambridge, published a daily bulletin in which the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, wrote a weekly reflection. These were later published by SPCK as Candles in the Dark and provided some of the most poignant reflections on life during lockdown.

The award-winning novelist Susanna Clarke, the author of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and Piranesi told The New Yorker that she had begun writing “short, witty essays” on spiritual topics for a church newsletter. (“Jesus talked to lots of women,” a recent piece notes, “It was one of the things he did that worried people.”)


THOSE who see the importance of both digital communications and paper publication include Nick Edmonds, deputy head of news at Church House, Westminster.

Mr Edmonds, who wrote the chapter on communicating effectively for the book How Village Churches Thrive, explained: “While most parishes now use digital platforms, a good magazine can still be a valuable part of mission and outreach in both rural and urban settings.

Bob Peters /St Andrew’s Church Sonning ArchivesThe first Sonning Parish magazine, printed in 1869

“Magazines tend to have a longer shelf life in homes than electronic content, and are vital for those who are either not online or who enjoy a break from the screen.”

Gareth Ward, managing director of the trade publication Print Business Media, wrote an article headed “Prayers for the future of the print industry”, in which he extolled the value of print for churches. He said: “Print is a key part of the occasions when the Church touches all our lives, with orders of service to celebrate a baptism or wedding or to commemorate a life that has come to its end. Just as churches are worried about declining attendance, so print is losing customers to digital alternatives.”

Print is a multi-sensory experience, Mr Ward believes, and communicates in a more profound way than digital.

Take the example of Bangor Cathedral, which has commissioned a series of cover designs from an artist, the Revd Hana Amner, Curate at St Mark’s, Lache cum Saltney, in Cheshire. She explains: “I used elements of the liturgical year, whilst praying for the Cathedral and taking key words from their sermon series, and turned them into imagery.”

Evidence that print may be making a comeback also comes from Parkrun, an organisation that puts on weekly running events at hundreds of locations across the country. It recently launched a new paper magazine. Parkrun, likened by some to a new “church”, said it had chosen to go into print as a way of encouraging people to find time away from their screens.

Kirsty Woodbridge, Parkrun’s head of communications, could have been talking about parish magazines when she said: “The magazine is a tool for us to engage those who might be on the fringes of society, who might be thinking about taking those first tentative steps into getting active or are looking for free and inclusive ways to be a part of their local community.”


The Revd Peter Crumpler is Associate Minister of St Paul’s, St Albans, and a former Director of Communications at Church House, Westminster.

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