As part of the Anglican Journal‘s 140th anniversary milestone, I was tasked with sifting through the newspaper’s substantial archives in search of stories significant to the history of the Anglican Church of Canada, and to the history of the Journal itself. As I read and leafed through old issues of the Journal that are kept in the General Synod Archives—many frayed and yellowed with age—I couldn’t help but reflect on my own history with the church and how I found it related to working at the newspaper.
As the son of not one, but two Anglican priests, my upbringing afforded me a somewhat unique perspective on both the church and the church’s place within the context of the wider world. I was quick to discover that my status as a clergy brat afforded others a rather unique perspective on me, as well.
From the second grade public school teacher who was delighted that she finally had a student who could help her lead the class in morning prayers—she was soon to be sorely disappointed—to the consternation writ large across a high school peer’s face when he questioned, with great sincerity, how a woman could be a priest, my connection to the church has never failed to garner a response of some kind.
But the reaction that I have most commonly encountered is something I can best describe as confused apprehension. Many people, upon discovering my parents’ shared profession, become amusingly unsure of how to behave around me.
This period of bizarre behavioural amnesia is thankfully brief, but it has made a lasting impression on me. It speaks, I think, to the way the church is often perceived by modern secular society as a largely anachronistic institution. It is thought of as being in the world, but perhaps no longer particularly relevant to the here and now.
My internship at the Journal has garnered very similar reactions, with friends and acquaintances alike questioning what exactly fills the pages of a church newspaper—the unspoken implication, of course, being that stories published by a church-funded paper couldn’t possibly have relevance in the real world.
My time in the archives, particularly with those issues spanning the late 1950s and beyond, has refuted that assumption.
Granted, the very early editions of the paper—then called Canadian Churchman—at the tail end of the 19th century were not exactly what I would term an auspicious start. Cover pages were entirely devoid of actual news, and instead were peppered with ads for dentists and surgeons and miraculous shoes that claimed to prevent the formation of corns. Inside, stories skewed toward warning good Anglicans against the nefarious papist presence in Canada, or detailing the duties and role of the good and proper churchwoman.
Gradually, major world events found coverage in the paper. The outbreak of the First World War was the subject of a markedly restrained editorial, in which the writer lamented that “the original cause [of the conflict] is long lost sight of,” in the rush to arms, and praised “the spirit and method of our King and his statesmen in pressing for peace.” There is no mistaking the fact that he believes God to be on the side of England, but a call for peace in the midst of the notoriously pro-war rhetoric of the time is notable. On the whole, however, Canadian Churchman remained, by and large, an insular organ, written for the church and the church alone.
A sea change came in 1958 in the form of incoming editor and general manager Gordon Baker. Baker came to the paper with a mandate to speak to Anglicans as a whole, rather than to clergy or church interests alone. Canadian Churchman‘s format was changed to that of a tabloid newspaper. Professional lay journalists were engaged to write columns on current events, politics, economics, social policy and entertainment. Political cartoons, the tone of which ranged from the comically irreverent—as in a 1977 cartoon published at the height of René Lévesque’s separatist movement that featured a boy praying the government didn’t “blow the national unity” like the Anglicans did with their United counterparts—to the wrenchingly poignant one about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968.
Most importantly, Baker introduced the concept of editorial independence, a move that served to raise the ire of church hierarchy, but paved the way for a newspaper that could engage with and hold to account the institution on which it reported, rather than simply toe the line.
The policy of editorial independence shaped the paper’s course in the years to come. The 1970s and ’80s saw stories on abortion reform—including letters published to and from pro-choice advocate Henry Morgentaler while he served out his prison sentence—and homosexuality in relation to the church, published to huge controversy.
They were controversies that often played out over months and months in the Letters to the Editor section. Editorials themselves often served to fan the flames of controversy, both within Canada and abroad. One particular 1979 column, entitled The mother church no longer, was directed at the Church of England’s refusal to allow women priests visiting the country to officiate openly, and stridently questioned whether a church “which so condones discrimination on the grounds of sex has the right any longer to be regarded as head of the Anglican Communion.”
The paper also began to place more emphasis on international stories, particularly when it came to issues of human rights in Africa and the Middle East.
Funding cuts took their toll in the ’90s and early 2000s, and the pages of the Journal were reduced, but issues of social justice and that ideal of journalistic independence retained priority, including extensive coverage of the Anglican Church of Canada’s role in the legacy of the residential schools.
The common thread from Baker’s arrival in the late 1950s up to the present day is that of a paper that is very much of the church, but unafraid—seemingly duty bound, it sometimes appeared—to challenge it. The church, as I’ve observed throughout my life, can be perceived by outsiders as impenetrable or archaic, an institution that exists quite apart from the concerns and realities of everyday life. An independent paper like the Journal, with its ability to challenge, its ability to provoke and engage, is an essential element, I think, in changing that perception.
Ben Graves worked as an intern for the Anglican Journal until August 2015.