The Mission

The 180-year-old United Church Observer remains a shining light among religious publications. As congregations dwindle, however, how long can it continue to tackle controversy and wrestle with the meaning of faith?

Christal Gardiola
Spring, 2009 | Comments (0) - Report an Error

After a Sunday service in December, about 70 people from the Bloor Street United Church congregation gather in McClure Hall for their monthly luncheon. Barb Janes, Pat Janes, Bev Peters and two other churchgoers sit at a table, munching from plates piled with vegetarian lasagna, salad and dessert treats. Their conversation swerves from the federal Liberal leadership to why westerners hate Torontonians to the state of the United Church of Canada.

When Pat Janes, a former Catholic, mentions how much this United Church differs from her former church, everyone nods. "It's more community-oriented," says Barb, Pat's stepdaughter, visiting from Winnipeg for the weekend. "It's not as strict," adds Peters, Barb's lesbian partner. But the quintet also acknowledges the Church's biggest problem: churchgoers are dying faster than new ones can join, a common predicament at congregations across Canada. Like most of the people in the pews this week, all five diners at the table are over the age of 45.

In between sips of coffee and bites of cookies, the discussion shifts to The United Church Observer-both Bev and Barb are subscribers. Barb remembers how the Observer, under late editor Hugh McCullum, drew her back to the faith.

Stuck in "one of those phases" of rebelling against the church, a teenaged Barb stumbled upon stories about the Ethiopian famine crisis and left-wing Christianity. With her eyes wide and arms stretched in the posture of reading a double-page spread, she recalls thinking, "If this is what the Church is about, then I'm in."

Religious publications such as the Observer are staples in the lives of Canadian churchgoers. "Sometimes people find much more meaningful stories in the Observer or in the Anglican Journal than they do in the mainstream media," says Douglas Todd, a Vancouver Sun religion and ethics writer. By covering stories that secular media ignore and offering followers a place to debate and discuss church-related issues, religious publications maintain a respected position in Canadian journalism. "It's not a substitute for a daily newspaper, but it's a supplement," says Glen Argan, president of the Canadian Church Press association. "Church publications bolster the faith and sometimes they challenge that faith too."

Although it has gone through several transitions in its 180-year existence, the Observer stands as a shining example among the flock. Editorial independence allows it to run bold stories and free-thinking commentaries that stir the peace in congregations and sometimes influence United Church decisions. But with attendance for most denominations in decline, a pattern has emerged that threatens the relevance of the Observer and magazines like it: with fewer people in the pews, religious publications have fewer readers.

A parking lot separates the Bloor Street United Church from the three-storey Observer office. If not for a sign that screams the magazine's name, the building could easily be mistaken for a residence. On the mantel above the fireplace in editor and publisher David Wilson's large second-floor workspace, a bobble-head Jesus stands still. A figurine like this one popped up in a recent United Church recruitment campaign covered extensively (and critically) by the Observer. Sitting on a green couch, Wilson, who has been with the magazine for almost 22 years and at the top of the masthead since 2006, succinctly explains the essence of the Observer: "Independence has been the hallmark of this magazine."

But the path to editorial freedom took more than a century. The Observer debuted in 1829 as the Christian Guardian. When the United Church of Canada formed in 1925, Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist publications collaborated to produce The New Outlook; then, in 1939, Church leaders hired an editorial staff and changed the magazine's name to The United Church Observer. The magazine calls itself the oldest continuously published magazine in North America. It's had only five editors: A.J. Wilson (1939-55), A.C. Forrest (1955-79), McCullum (1980-90), Muriel Duncan (1990-2006) and Wilson. In 1986, the monthly loosened ties with the Church and became independently incorporated. The departure left a scar. "Some of the Church leaders felt we were withdrawing from them," Duncan admits. "But we were always reporting as if we were independent." She says the move toward separation began in the late 1960s under Forrest's guidance. "He started being more critical and departing a bit from where the Church was standing." When Forrest died, McCullum took things even further. During General Council meetings, for example, he would sit apart from Church leaders to symbolize the separation between the Observer and the Church.

This autonomy puts the Observer-and other indie church titles, such as Geez magazine-in a higher realm than the house organs that dominate most churches. Official periodicals are often fully funded by their denominations, making it difficult to run stories critical of the powers that be. The United Church of Canada, for example, produces two major periodicals: Mandate and the Observer. Daniel Benson, publisher of Mandate, a Church mission quarterly, admits the two magazines have different purposes. "Mandate is an instrument to help the Church," he says. "The role of the Observer is really captured by its name and that is to offer an arm's length critical eye and commentary on the world through the Church's perspective."

The Observer strikes a balance between covering Church affairs and contentious issues in society at large. It sets aside a section for the brethren's updates called This United Church, which regularly includes event listings, death notices and classified ads for new ministers and church supplies-as well as touching on budget problems and failed missions. In May 2008, it ran a short piece about a study that showed how aging ministers were crippling the Church's long-term disability fund. And in December 2008, it looked at how the United for Peace fund was struggling to meet its goal of raising $2 million.

The magazine is not immune to cheerleading, however. Last September's cover story concerned seven young people "rising to the challenge of leadership" in the church-a soft, feel-good feature not unlike the ones that regularly appear in Mandate. But the same issue also included a feature that sharply compared the United Church's aging population to the Pentecostal Church's relatively youthful congregation.

Every now and then, the magazine runs a story that truly sets it apart from its counterparts. On August 28, 2007, the Toronto Sun ran a front-page story about Maggi Montgomery-Heersink, a former United Church minister charged with seven counts of unlawfully solemnizing marriages and seven counts of theft under $5,000. While the Sun article outlined the basics of the case and Montgomery-Heersink's life, Sabitri Ghosh's February 2008 piece in the Observer dug deeper, examining both the scandal and the church's faulty system for screening ministers.

"Montgomery-Heersink's brief, troubled ministry raises a host of questions," Ghosh wrote. "Among them: Are the checks and balances for screening prospective ministers working? Are there different ways for different jurisdictions in the church to communicate better? But the most basic question has to be: Who really is the woman behind the smile?"

The story upset some readers. A letter published two months later stated: "It was a good article, but I feel I read it in a newspaper, not the Observer. I didn't expect the Observer to be part of a process where a Christian is vilified." With its willingness to assign investigative stories, the magazine has attracted award-winning writers such as Richard Wright, David Macfarlane and Larry Krotz.

Under Wilson's direction, it typically carries features that look at both church and larger world issues. The November 2007 cover story analyzed a $10.5-million United Church campaign called "Emerging Spirit," which attempted to entice 30- and 40-somethings to attend weekly services. Kylie Taggart assessed the campaign a year after it launched, touching on everything from the controversial bobble-head-Jesus ads to how the millions were spent. (The Observer also polled its readers: "Is Emerging Spirit working for your church?" Seventy-six percent said no.) In the same issue, Krotz penned an article about the lack of war reporting in countries such as Congo and Zimbabwe. "I write for the Observer because it's interested in things beyond religion," says Krotz, who has contributed little to other religious publications. "It's been a good outlet for the kinds of stories that I like to write, even though by and large, they're not church-specific stories."

Running hard-hitting features by experienced journalists has brought acclaim. Over the years, the Observer has garnered eight honourable mentions and three silver prizes at the National Magazine Awards (Wilson himself received two honourable mentions). At the 2008 Canadian Church Press awards, the Observer snagged 13 victories, including the A.C. Forrest Memorial Award, named after the former Observer editor. The prize goes to the best article about religious ethics and Krotz won for a piece entitled "Death by design" about euthanasia.

Despite this recognition, some critics remain unimpressed by the quality of religious periodicals and say the days when these publications deviated from church beliefs are now long gone. Tom Harpur, who covered religion at the Toronto Star for over a decade, says the Observer had more bite to it under Forrest's leadership in the late 1960s and early '70s. Although Harpur read some religious publications during his time at the Star, he has lost interest in most of them. "I follow them from time to time, but I find them rather dull," he says. "They're more conservative than they were before. It seems to me they're more interested in preserving the status quo than taking on controversial issues."

Aiden Enns, co-editor of national non-denominational magazine Geez, thinks the mainstream media perceive religious magazines as weak, but perhaps with good reason. "They are seen as self-serving and replete with the small agenda of a political institution." A quarterly launched in 2005 and published out of Winnipeg, Geez has a small circulation of 2,000 subscribers and targets readers who may be dissatisfied with their place of worship but are still committed to social justice. With stories ranging from an environmental take on a church's monthly bills to a writer sharing her experience of dating a pastor, Geez has received ample praise and three Western Magazine Awards. Lee Simpson, director of operations for the Observer, calls its approach a "breath of fresh air" in religious publishing. But the feeling isn't mutual. Enns feels some publications, including the Observer, need to take advantage of their autonomy by publishing more stories that challenge doctrinal beliefs and hold religious leaders accountable.

For his part, Wilson acknowledges there's room for improvement. "A lot of church magazines don't have the editorial budget or generate the kind of advertising that a Maclean's or Chatelaine or Canadian Geographic or any number of publications have," he says. Lack of funding can lead to fewer in-depth stories, especially when a publication doesn't have complete control over its content. "If the denomination pays for the magazine, then the denomination gets to call the shots editorially," Wilson says. "Those factors often add up to the sense that church publications don't measure up to secular publications." Still, he insists the Observer tackles hot-button parochial issues, as any independent magazine should.

In the summer of 1988, after the United Church decided to include gays and lesbians in the ministry, the Observer tackled the biggest-and perhaps most damaging-controversy for both the Church and the magazine. Duncan says the General Council's decision on ordination struck chords, both of gratitude and anger, in the hearts of many. "It did divide the Church. There's no question about it." Numerous ministers and churchgoers left; rallies and petitions soon followed. The Observer, then edited by McCullum, offered a six-page spread covering the aftermath of the vote. Though the magazine never explicitly took a stand, Duncan says the coverage showed it favoured gay and lesbian ordination. (Prior to the vote, the magazine ran a full-page memoir by an anonymous gay minister's mother.) Some readers were not pleased, to say the least. One letter to the editor stated, "Your paper is being returned, and any further publications sent to me will be burned." Wilson says the magazine was just caught in the crossfire. "We took a huge hit in our subscriber base as people who were angry at that decision saw us as the messenger." Between 1988 and 1989 the Observer lost close to 18,000 subscribers and $41,031 in subscription revenue, though the magazine had been losing subscribers well before this episode.

According to Wilson, subscriptions have been declining for the past three decades. In 1980, the Observer had over 300,000 subscribers; today, that number sits at around 60,000, and only one in five United Church households receives the magazine. Wilson says too many followers are dying or are no longer able to read due to their deteriorating eyesight or health. "There's a correlation with declining subscriptions and the decline in the membership of the United Church of Canada."

That membership began to decrease in the late '60s. In 1966, the congregation count was at 1,062,006. Statistics from 2006-the most recent year available-show that number dropped by almost half. The aging, disappearing congregation, combined with a lack of interest from youth, has made life difficult for the magazine. After all, if the Church can't keep a robust membership, what chance does the Observer have of surviving?

Wilson expects some religious publications will fold in the next five years. "Churches or denominations can't afford to publish them anymore," he says. "I think that's unfortunate. I think that the fewer church publications there are, the less variety we have as Canadians." But he is determined to make sure the Observer stays around. In his time as editor and publisher, he's marked his territory by changing the look of the magazine. The paper became glossy, and service pieces directed at young families popped up to entice readers in their 30s. Wilson's arrival in 2006 also coincided with the retirement of five staffers, which allowed him to hire a younger team. During the Christmas holidays in 2007, the circulation department identified 100 churches with low circulation rates and tailored ad campaigns to them. Still, Wilson realizes that solving the publication's problems will take a lot of time and effort. "It's not as if there's one magic bullet," he says, adding that the magazine must keep producing quality journalism and devising more creative marketing initiatives to slow down the loss of subscribers. While he can't control the aging population of the Church, Wilson argues there will always be an appetite for Observer stories. "We know that people want the kind of stuff that we do and we just need to do it as well as we possibly can."

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