Bob Little provides a brief history of church magazines - exploring
not only their origins and uses but also their place in the churches
and local communities of tomorrow.
From there to the future
In the beginning - as we all know - was the Word. But it was not in the
form of a church newsletter. That came much later.
What constitutes a 'church newsletter' or a 'church magazine'?
Some people might argue that Paul was writing church newsletters when
he writing about the regular activities that went on in various
churches. After all, chronicling a church's regular activities is one
of the key purposes of a church newsletter.
Indeed, the first things that are actually called 'church newsletters'
are rather more like Paul's letters than the newsletters we know today.
Two fairly recently published books are: 'Newsletters from the
Archpresbyterate of George Birkhead' (Camden Fifth Series) (Hardcover),
published by Cambridge University Press, 1998, and 'Newsletters from
the Caroline Court, 16311638: Volume 26: Catholicism and the Politics
of the Personal Rule: 26' (Camden Fifth Series) (Hardcover), Edited by
Michael C Questier and published by Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Birkhead's book contains a series of Jacobean newsletters written,
between 1609 and 1614, by members of one of the most important Catholic
clerical factions of the period.
These newsletters shed light primarily on matters which most
immediately affected the English Catholic community:
strife between different Catholic factions;
conflict between Catholics and the State (especially over the Jacobean
oath of allegiance), and
possibility of obtaining some form of toleration.
newsletters also give us Catholic 'glosses' on other news which could
be taken to have a bearing on the prospects of English Catholics, such
as Court politics, the conduct of Jacobean foreign policy towards
European Catholic states and controversies within the Church of
The newsletters printed in Questier's book were written by Catholics
who had access to the Court of Charles I and Henrietta Maria during the
1630s. The letters' principal concern was the factional strife among
English Catholics, particularly over the issue of whether they should
be subject to the authority of a Catholic bishop appointed by the
papacy to live and rule over them in England.
But these letters also contain Court news and gossip, information about
foreign policy issues, and comment on the contemporary Church of
England controversies over theology and clerical conformity. They are
an important source for the study of the ideological tone of the
Caroline Court, and of the ambition of certain sections of the Catholic
community to secure a form of legal tolerance from the crown.
What we would begin to recognise as 'modern' church newsletters and
magazines started to appear after about 1860.
According to Suffolk's official website - www.suffolk.gov.uk - the
earliest parish magazines that exist for Anglican churches in Suffolk
date from the 19th century. The site states that these record events
connected with churches, including changes in the fabric.
Other churches - from St John's and St Peter's Church with Ladywood
ARC, Birmingham, to Tabernacle Congregational Church, in Haverfordwest,
Pembrokeshire, record having church magazines from around 1889.
The earliest surviving edition of the church magazine for St Mark's
Church, Gillingham, in Kent, is dated 'December 1866'. This edition
advised that 'a banner of less startling character is in preparation
for Christmas and the lion will not leave the guardianship of the
vestry on that festival'. (Apparently, many people had been distressed
that the Lion of St Mark 'has not a more amiable countenance').
The magazine of St Paul's Church, Wood Green, Wednesbury, was published
regularly between 1876, the year after the formation of the parish, and
2006, when the publication went 'digital' - being published only on the
So 'parish magazines' as we now know them have been around for some 140
to 150 years.
The impetus for them came from the movement towards mass education -
and mass literacy - that characterised the mid-Victorian era. As more
people could read, so more things were produced for them to read -
including church newsletters.
My personal involvement with church magazines is, of course, much more
recent than the mid-Victorian era! My father was a Baptist minister
and, as a boy in the 1960s, I remember going with him, more than once,
to an office - it happened to be in Hemel Hempstead's Bank Court block
of offices. There, my father handed in an envelope containing typed
stencils of our church's newsletter for the women there to put on
something called a 'Gestetner' machine, which would then produce the
200 or so copies of our newsletter. It began as a quarterly publication
but soon became monthly.
That was almost the sum total of my experience with church newsletters
until the cusp of the 21st century.
In the intervening years, I'd grown up and become a freelance
journalist and an editor of trade publications. Latterly - in 1990 -
I'd started a public relations agency (www.boblittlepr.com). I'd
written some articles for various church newsletters but I'd never
become involved with editing one.
Then, in 2000, the church where I am in membership - Marshalswick
Baptist Free Church, in St Albans - was looking for an editor for its
monthly magazine. My wife and I took on joint responsibility for
editing it and we've been doing so ever since - so we've just (this
month) produced our 100th edition.
The content of church newsletters may not have changed a great deal
over the years.
There are always lists and rotas; people to pray for; points to ponder,
and so on. But the way these newsletters are produced has changed out
of all recognition in the last 40 years or so.
In the 1960s, we had special typewriters that cut letter spaces out of
stencils. Those stencils were then put on a machine with a drum which
rotated and produced often imperfectly inked pages - which could be a
bit difficult to read. There was no opportunity for using different
fonts or sizes of type. Pictures were only available on the cover -
perhaps because the covers were printed in bulk and wrapped around each
edition. The result was a publication that looked like a letter -
albeit a long one.
Nothing much changed but, by the end of the 1980s 'new technology' was
beginning to have an impact of church newsletter design. Pictures and
other illustrations were beginning to appear throughout an edition.
This was not just because of improvements in production - the growth of
photocopying on plain (not chemically treated) paper - but also because
of developing skills with the art of 'cutting and pasting'.
You could now subscribe to church news services which produced articles
and devotional 'snippets'. You could cut these out, paste them on a
piece of paper and then 'Tippex' around the edges, so that, when the
page was photocopied, the dark edges disappeared. You could now fill
pages in the way of 'real' magazines and newspapers, rather than
leaving gaps on the page if an article fell short. It was the
beginnings of 'page make-up' for church newsletters.
By the mid-1990s, the personal computer was beginning to make its
presence felt within the church newsletter editing community. This
allowed not only for some variation in font and type size (perhaps
following the Guardian's style of headlines in one font and body copy
in another) but also - in theory - it reduced the number of 'typos'
because a page could be read as a whole on computer screen before being
The spread of computers was followed by a plethora of 'desk top
publishing' software packages. These allowed newsletter editors to
include pictures - not just grainy photocopies but actually 'scanned'
pictures - in their publications. Today, in their desktop computers,
church editors have all the production capabilities of a specialist
typesetting house and printers of the 1980s at their disposal.
Whether they have the skills to use these capabilities is another
matter but, in theory, today's church newsletter could - in production
terms if not content - be compared with any magazine found on a
newsagent's shelf. We've come a long way in terms of the technology
available to us to produce our newsletters.
Production technology changed little from the days of Paul, through the
church newsletters of the 17th century, until the middle of the 19th
century. Demand for more reading matter for more people from the 1860s
saw more pressure put upon the existing production technology. Even so,
nothing much happened in technology terms until after the Second World
War - with the advent of duplication technology which had a lower unit
cost than that associated with 'traditional' sheet fed printing.
It is only really in the last ten years that production technology has
accelerated at an astonishing rate. While we're still catching our
breath after the amazing technological breakthroughs of the last ten
years, we need to give some thought to the future of the church
We need to be clear about what the church newsletter is, what purpose
it serves - and what it competes with for its readers' attention. As
production techniques have developed, and technology advanced, so the
audience for any kind of 'produced material' has become more
sophisticated in its tastes. We wouldn't dare to give our readers a
church newsletter that looks like a newsletter of the 1970s -
regardless of its content. They would laugh at us! And the purpose of
the newsletter would be completely negated.
future for newsletters be purely online, as St Paul's Church, Wood
Green, Wednesbury, has decided?
be a combination of hard copy (for church members or parishioners) and
online (for those further afield - including people living thousands of
miles from that church)?
the newsletter's content be 'pushed' to readers' mobile phones, PDAs
decision will determine the content of your newsletter and the way that
you structure and present that content.
My view - as a career journalist and editor who has tried to apply many
of the lessons of that career to producing a church newsletter - is
that, whatever you decide about the production and distribution
technology for your newsletter, it is vital that your newsletter's
structure is appealing and its contents are relevant to its readers. It
must be able to compete: visually; in terms of content, and in terms
presentation with anything else that your readers' read, whether that
be in hard copy form or online.
People don't read church newsletters because they have to. They read
them because they want to. That argues for church editors who are
skilled in journalistic, sub-editing, editing, picture editing and,
perhaps, advertising sales skills.
Just as people judge organisations, products and services by the
quality of their marketing material, the church is also being judged by
these criteria. To be effective, it needs not only to make its
time-honoured point on an interpersonal level but also via the
(relatively) mass communication medium of its newsletters.
Church newsletters are a vital part of the church's 'marketing mix' or,
if you prefer more 'theological language', they're a vital part of its
outreach and witness activities. They have been around for 2,000, or
400 or 150 years - depending on your definition of a church newsletter
- and should be around for many more. To misquote Shakespeare's Sonnet
number 18: 'So long as men can read and eyes can see, So long lives
news to, Lord, illumine Thee.'
By Bob Little