Before Twitter, Facebook, blogs, web pages, tablets, computerised cell phones and You Tube – all or some of which churches use to inform their members of the latest news and views, promotions and courses – there was the parish magazine and its poorer cousin, the church newsletter.
I suspect the parish magazine has gone the way of Hymns Ancient and Modern and the church newsletter may well suffer the same fate. After all, who wants a church magazine or newsletter when you can text, twitter or tweet?
It’s only digital immigrants like me who eschew the latest forms of communication. Yet, as historians, archivists, biographers and genealogical ferrets tell us, such humble magazines and newsletters are a lively and vital source of information about people, places and events.
It’s easy to be cynical about them. Such cynicism is not new. The late Canon “Dick” Sheppard of St Martin in the Fields Church in central London used to say that whenever he came across a parish magazine he tore it up to prevent it doing any more harm!
Despite such cynicism, it was estimated in the 1950s that the circulation of all the parish magazines in England equalled that of the largest popular daily newspaper.
In the beginning of my ministry I subscribed to The Religious Book Club. Started by the Student Christian Movement press (SCM), the club regularly published books on a wide variety of subjects concerning the Church and the world. One such volume was Hedley Hodkin’s, The Saving Name. Hodkin, an Anglican vicar in the diocese of Sheffield, England, wrote in his parish magazine over a period of 10 years a series of articles on issues he considered important. The SCM press regarded them as so worthwhile they gathered them together and published them as one of their RBC volumes. Imagine any publisher doing that with today’s church newsletters?
Still Life is a newsletter that goes out to our retired Baptist ministers and missionaries, quite a few of whom meet several times a year in Auckland and Christchurch.
Indeed, the group began as a newsletter, the brainchild of George Beilby and Rex Goldsmith. Realising the need to keep in touch following retirement from service in ministry and mission they began producing Still Life in October 1982. The triple pun, as editor Rex Goldsmith pointed out, suggests gratitude for being still alive, recognition that retirement doesn’t mean inactivity and loss of creativity, and the importance of stillness for “wasting time with life.”
The names that appear in that first issue sound like a roll call of well known 20th century Baptist ministers and missionaries. They are ministers and missionaries who would, in the main, be, unknown to the new 21st century generation of Baptists.
The first Still Life newsletter indicates how, though retired, they continued to serve the Church through congregational life, community organisations, short-term pastorates, overseas missions and a host of other activities.
There are also the inevitable reminders of death, ill health and sadness in those retirement years. A hint of the changes that have happened since that first letter is indicated by a note in the second issue saying the publishing expenses included a box of stencils for the Gestetner!
The newsletter continues some 29 years later and this month the 100th issue will be in the hands of the current crop of more than 200 retired missionaries and ministers, most of whom receive their copy by email.
What’s all this got to do with the byline of this column, “Looking at life and faith through the lens of literature”? Humble publications such as newsletters and parish magazines help us realise our debt in the journey of faith to a large number of Christ’s servants, many of whom are unknown or forgotten.
Likening such newsletters to the letter to the Hebrews is drawing a long bow. Yet both, in their way, fulfil the same purpose.
A guest at one our Assemblies some 30 or so years ago was Dr Raymond Brown, genial and scholarly principal of Spurgeon’s College, London. He wrote a commentary on the letter to the Hebrews entitled Christ Above All. It was one in a series of New Testament commentaries edited by the late John Stott.
Hebrews, he said, outlines the danger of Christian believers falling away, wilting under the pressure of persecution, and shrinking back from their earlier commitments to Christ.
Yet the writer to the Hebrews, says Raymond Brown, is at great pains to stress the legacy of faith enshrined in those who stood firm even though the names of many of them may be lost to us. He stresses what church newsletters tell us.
“God’s valiant host does not consist solely of outstanding leaders, patriarchs, judges, kings prophets and martyrs. We are introduced to a vast company whose names we may never know but whose faith will be not only remembered but treasured.”
Still Life newsletters, like their parish counterparts, will not make it into the next edition of the New Testament or be found on any best-selling list. But they remind us we are part of an innumerable and often insignificant host whose lives, encouragement and labours have helped hold us in the faith and encouraged us to keep “looking to Jesus upon whom our faith depends from start to finish.”