A Loyal Opposition

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At the General Assembly in 1988 I was appointed editor of this magazine. With restructuring of church offices looming on the horizon, the Administrative Council had requested that all new appointments be interim appointments. However, the Assembly decided to exempt the appointment of the editor from this decision.

Before allowing my name to stand for editor I asked several people the same question: “What is the role of a church magazine in the church?” The answer that stuck with me over the years and, in many ways guided my decisions, was the response of Al Forrest, then the editor of the United Church Observer. He said the role of a church magazine was to be the loyal opposition. It was not always an easy task to be both critical of what the church said and did and still be loyal.

I soon discovered that when the church began to restructure church offices. I wrote what I considered a bland editorial stating that while restructuring could be a useful tool we should not be overly optimistic that it would solve all of our challenges and problems. Soon afterwards I received a visit from the chair of restructuring who declared that I was not a team player.

Over the years the magazine has had a useful role as a helpful critic of the church. It is something the average church member and the staff of the church often find hard to understand. There is the assumption among some that the church, as a “divine” institution, should be above criticism. Recently the sins of the church that have come to light should have finally disabused us of this notion.

When I was appointed editor some felt I was too liberal. After serving a few years, others believed I was too conservative. This encouraged me to believe that I was at least fair. Ken Bagnell, former editor of the Imperial Oil Review, told me he enjoyed reading the Record because it always tried to be fair to all views in the church. I think this was what the first editor of the Record, James Croil, had in mind when he wrote in 1872 that he saw no reason why “The Presbyterian Church in Canada may not hope to establish and maintain a model magazine, one liberal enough to give expression to every shade of opinion consistent with essential principles, catholic enough to commend itself to Christendom and cheap enough to find its way into every Presbyterian family.”

john-congram-mod-coverDuring my 14 years as editor we operated with a staff of about half the size of the present staff of the Record. Though small they worked with a sense of calling and dedication to the magazine. Despite a slow decline in subscriptions we were able to retain a higher percentage of our constituent membership as subscribers than other major church magazines.

Over the years I have witnessed the demise of a number of excellent church periodicals. Often their death did not relate directly to either the quality of the magazine in design or content. By almost any measure the present magazine would be considered of high quality yet we gather to bid it goodbye. The remarkable amount of money that the present editor raised in support of the magazine over the past few years indicates a significant amount of goodwill towards the Record still resides in the membership of our church.

The role of the editor of a church magazine is many faceted. It involves not only writing editorials but interviewing and writing articles, managing a staff, preparing budgets and promotion, promotion, promotion. I think that promotion allowed us to keep our financial head above water during my time. We also cut corners by using newsprint and little colour except on the cover.

During my time, the Record Committee decided that the magazine should be established as a corporation. This was done for two reasons. There was a constant fear that the federal postal subsidy might be withdrawn from church publications. Some actually had lost this subsidy. The Canadian Church Press, of which we were a member, advised that if possible member publications should incorporate as a way to signal to the federal government that we were not simply an in-house publication of the denomination. Our church had always allowed the Record this semi-autonomous existence but this would formalize it. This would also ensure this independent existence for the magazine would continue. A number of times over its existence, including most recently during restructuring, the suggestion was made that the Record should become a part of a church committee. This idea was always rejected by the Record Committee and the church.

In preparing this piece I have had the opportunity to look over some of the issues during my time as editor. What a wonderful array of stories and writers. One of the longest running columnists who creatively and effectively wrote the “You were asking?” column was Tony Plomp. Ironically his death coincided with the decision of the Record corporation to cease publication.

The demise of the magazine is sad for many reasons: for the present staff who will no longer have a job, for the subscribers who found the magazine was a way for them to participate in their church, and for the many contributors to the magazine. Where will they find creative expression for their talents? Where will a variety of views, especially dissident points of view, have an opportunity to be heard widely in our church?

Typically, when a church magazine ceases to publish, the national church attempts to fill the void by producing a newsletter for the church. But few of these are able to replace the many functions of a church magazine. And none of them that I have read have succeeded in retaining that critical voice that helps to keep the church healthy and honest, to provide in Al Forrest’s words, the loyal opposition.

Goodbye dear friend, you left us too soon.

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About John Congram

Rev. John Congram was the Record’s editor from 1998-2002.