Both newspapers and the Church of England are under threat: But journalists' church of St Bride's has thrived nonetheless - Press Gazette

Both newspapers and the Church of England are under threat: But journalists' church of St Bride's has thrived nonetheless

The newspaper industry is not unlike the Church of England.

Both are beloved institutions which seem to be in irreversible decline.

Most would rather shop than worship on a Sunday. Surveys suggest increasing numbers of Britons neither believe in God or in what they read in newspapers.

But the journalists' church of St Bride's on Fleet Street appears to have thrived despite the decline of both.

Canon David Meara retired late this summer after 14 years at St Bride's. A familiar face at industry events throughout that period, he was recognised by the world of journalism last month when he was made a lifetime fellow of the Society of Editors.

When he arrived at St Bride's in 2000 most of the journalists had already departed from Fleet Street.

It is a parish church, rather than a guild church with an official tie to an industry. So why did he continue to maintain the association?

“When I came it would have been possible for a new rector to say that was then, this is now. But I thought that would be, for all sorts of reasons, very foolish and short sighted.

“There were strong links, the press still regarded St Bride's as their church. I made a conscious decision when I arrived that I would maintain and develop those links.”

At that time the current journalists’ altar was the hostages order, which had been a focal point for vigils which had been held for Terry Waite and John McCarthy during their captivity in the 1980s.

Under Meara it was turned into an altar dedicated to journalists who have been killed or imprisoned who are also remembered at an annual memorial service.

In 2010, Marie Colvin addressed that service when the names of 48 journalists and media workers killed covering the wars of the 21st century for the British media were read out.

A little over a year later Colvin herself was killed reporting from the besieged Syrian city of Homs for The Sunday Times.

Meara says: “I think it is a good thing that there is somewhere journalists are remembered, because there is really nowhere else where the industry can gather to do this.”

Other annual features in the St Bride's calendar include the annual carol service for the Journalists’ Charity, held this year from 6.30pm on Monday, 15 December (no pre-booking necessary).

Attendees at the various industry events at St Bride's will know the tone is broadly spiritual rather than preachily Christian.

Meara says: “In a way the fact that all the newspapers have dispersed around London has made them appreciate a place like St Bride's even more.”

He says the church tries to be “open and inclusive”. Memorial services have been held their for journalists of Muslim and Jewish faiths and it has tried to have a “can do” attitude to weddings.

Meara says: “If people are happy to come to us we are happy to welcome them.”

It’s an indication of the extent to which Meara has become embedded in the media that he is happy to venture views about secular issues such as the press regulation and the future of newspapers.

On the former, he says he has a clear position “very much in favour of press freedom” and against “statutory regulation”.

Meara says his instinct is to “support IPSO…I think that’s the right way forward".

On the latter, he says: “It seems ironic that just at the point where newspapers as a product have become immensely sophisticated, well designed with excellent content they have become endangered.

“If you look at newspapers in their supposed heyday in the 1930s, 40s and 50s they are a pale shadow of what they are now.”

The future of St Bride’s at least seems assured. A re-endowment appeal started ten years ago raise some £3.5m, enough to provide the church with an income of £140,000 and support its choir and musical tradition.

The Inspire Appeal started two years ago to support the church building, including its famous spire, has so far raised £1m out of £2.5m.

While media owners have continued to support St Bride's it can also nowadays draw on its new parishioners of bankers, accountants and law firms – including Goldman Sachs.

Asked about parallels between the challenges faced by the newspaper industry and the Church of England, Meara says: “There are similarities. There’s a graph which shows a general decline, it’s true of newspapers and true of the Church of England. Generally numbers are going down.

“But within that there are centres of excellences, there are shining examples of good practice and things we can be really proud of and areas where there’s growth rather than decline.

“Both institutions that are  facing quite a lot of pressure at the moment. Both institutions that are very valuable for the health of society. We need the fourth estate to be in good health.”

Canon Dr Alison Joyce was installed as the new rector of St Bride's on 3 November.

St Bride's facts

  • Built by Sir Christopher Wren in 1703
  • It is the eighth church on the site and is believed to have been a place of Christian worship since the second century AD
  • It was largely destroyed by an incendiary bomb in the Second World War and restored in the style of Wren, re-opening in 1957
  • Rebekah Brooks was married there, as was Andy Coulson
  • Samuel Pepys was baptised there.
  • Its spire is reputed to be the inspiration for the tiered wedding cake. A baker’s apprentice working on Ludgate Hill, William Rich, is said to have made the first one inspired by St Bride’s in the late 18th century.