Robbie Low looks back on ten tumultuous years
IT WAS February, 1993: three months after General Synod’s vote to permit the ordination of women to the priesthood. Some priests and people had already set out for Rome. A not inconsiderable number of clergy were preparing to lie low or trim before the prevailing wind. The orthodox clergy stayed with their people because of pastoral loyalty and commitment and dug in to see them safely through the crisis. Most traditional believers resembled the prequel to the Tory party after the 1997 election rout – stunned, disbelieving, directionless and leaderless.
Permeating all of this was a sense of betrayal and bereavement. How could a church that claimed to be Catholic, in the course of a day, so recklessly ignore Holy Scripture, cheerfully trash seventy years of ecumenical endeavour with the Great Communions and, without a flicker of embarrassment, prefer a bankrupt secular philosophy to the teaching and example of Jesus Christ?
The first three months
I have never forgotten those three months. Not just because, like every other Catholic believer, I was `considering my position’ but because of a remarkable insight into the hearts of our people that unfolded during that time. Sara (my wife – your editor -increasingly a time share arrangement over the last decade) had made a powerful speech in Synod on the fateful day. To our mutual astonishment much of the subsequent hours, days and weeks were spent dealing with a tidal wave of letters and phone calls from distressed clergy and laity from all over the country who felt betrayed, bewildered and bereaved.
It was a problem repeated, more or less, throughout the orthodox constituency. People who felt they could no longer talk to the bishops who had done this, preferred the company of those who have spoken for them and fought for them.
One of the most experienced parish priests and synodsmen, Father John Broadhurst, realized the urgency of the situation and acted. With a few long-serving colleagues who had prepared for such an unhappy eventuality, he formed Forward in Faith to give a coherence, unity and purpose to the emerging orthodox constituency.
Scarcely had he done this than Broadhurst and his colleagues suffered a major setback. The highly experienced team who would deal with press matters and public relations decided that the Church of England had no Catholic future and went to Rome. Their departure, moreover, coincided with an extraordinary and unlikely opportunity.
Enter the CEN
Meanwhile somewhere in another part of town a seminal conversation was taking place. John Pearce, Rector of Limehouse, conservative Evangelical and notable spiritual director, was lamenting to John Martin, the Church of England’s inability to tell or indeed recognize the truth about itself. The Church Times had become a kind of house journal of the Liberal ascendancy and the Church of England Newspaper (CEN) told Evangelicals what they wanted to hear.
Martin, a laid-back but radical Australian, was editor of CEN and listened carefully. Who gave space and a voice, Pearce wanted to know, to those who dissented from the Establishment? Martin, himself never an opponent women priests, mulled it over and made a brave decision to ensure that, in his paper, the orthodox would be heard. Just how brave he probably did not realize. It was to cost him his job and make him persona non grata with many former friends and patrons.
Martin rang Broadhurst and offered him space- four pages per month initially – to put the other view, to keep the dialogue going, to make those in power answer the questions and be answerable for the fair and just implementation of their policy. With no press or public relations department, Broadhurst rang Sara Low. Could she get together a team to fill the space on offer? After a thoughtful day she rang back to say yes but with these conditions. The proposed supplement would not be a comfortable Anglo-Catholic house magazine. Any editorial board would include a full complement of Evangelicals. The publication was to be editorially independent. The future Bishop of Fulham agreed and those have been the rules ever since.
Just how prescient those conditions were has been underlined almost every month of the journal’s existence. Not being an in-house magazine has enabled us to share the same horizons as the universal Church and, where necessary, be self-critical. Involving Evangelicals has made us work at our differences, strengthen the bonds of fellowship and discover the huge swathes of orthodoxy which unite us and enable us to make common cause.
Editorial independence means that Forward in Faith, its members, flying bishops etc do not have to agree with or justify every word of the magazine. It is a forum for serious debate. It also means no-one can put pressure on us to suppress the facts.
The first meeting was at Faith House, subsequent meetings at CEN’s Clerkenwell offices. Sara’s recruits included Fr Geoffrey Kirk, Fr Francis Gardom, Fr Arthur Middleton, Prebendary John Pearce and David Streater, head of the Church Society. John Martin was taking on a bunch of rank amateurs armed only with their enthusiasm and determination. Only Sara had any professional publishing experience and that was not in newspapers.
It is true to say that from the beginning everyone got on amazingly well, had profound theological discussions across the great divides and looked forward to the monthly meetings which were always times of challenging encounter, much laughter and deepening friendships.
Our first issue was for Easter 1993 and our main article a devotional by Fr Geoffrey Rowell. There were book reviews, parish articles on ministry, liturgy and evangelism, an interview with the future Reform leader, Philip Hacking, and a mighty piece of theology by Fr Arthur Middleton. Geoffrey Kirk created the first of his satirical characters, the Bishop of Western Illinois, Howard H Holland III. Reading it ten years on, it is less a work of satire than of painfully accurate prophecy. The editorial was an expose of the Archbishops’ private letter to episcopal colleagues lamenting the absence of orthodox preferment due to the almost complete absence of orthodox talent. This particular lie continues to be the mantra of most dioceses to this day. All in all, looking back, it was a remarkably uncontroversial beginning.
This did not discourage the opposition. Pressure was put on John Martin to strangle Directions at birth. Pete (later Bishop) Broadbent and Michael Saward displayed their usual forthrightness by writing attacking CEN’s decision to let our voice be heard. We duly published their letter in Issue 1.
Most of the opposition was not as honourable as that and operated the more familiar cowardly backdoor pressure. Martin was unmovable. He didn’t agree with us but the Church of England had two integrities and both should be heard. The CEN was not the house journal of General Synod or the Establishment. Though he did not realize it, Martin had effectively written his own professional death warrant.
About three months later he confided to the monthly meeting that he was very perplexed. People had begun to snub him, attacking him behind his back and avoiding his company. I can remember putting my hand on his shoulder and saying how glad I was that an independent journalist now had some idea of what it was like to be an orthodox in the Church of England.
Within two years Martin was gone, a victim of a carefully staged palace coup. The Establishment made sure the doors were shut against him. Trying to get work in the Anglican world as the begetter of Directions was like carrying a leper’s bell.
Martin still does not agree with us but stands by his decision to give us a platform. The personal cost to him remains huge. Martin’s advice, encouragement, chastisement, correction and sheer integrity made it possible for us bunch of amateurs to dream of doing a professional job. We all owe him an enormous debt. The Church of England owes him too for trying to make the institution more honest and less covert than it naturally tends to be.
Looking back on the first two year’s issues it is difficult to see what all the fuss was about. Articles ranged from Pentecostalism to Porvoo proposals, from the Roman option to Reformers, from the freehold to human fertility. 30 Days was scarcely a gleam in the Editor’s eye and the most irreverent piece was a serious open letter correcting one of our own Catholic bishop’s assessment of the political situation!
Such moderation did not stop the ceaseless attacks, public and private. One of our correspondents was summoned to his bishop’s palace. The prelate stood by his desk, a copy of Directions held, at arm’s length, between thumb and forefinger suspended above the episcopal waste bin. `It is a pity’, intoned the great man, `that such talent should be so opposed to the mind of the bishops!’ and released the magazine into the waiting wicker. Performance over, the offending priest was dismissed from the presence.
A member of the editorial board was invited to see his bishop who was complaining about a story of the way things had been (mis)handled in his diocese. Our trusty hack was subjected to an extensive harangue at the end of which he asked a simple question, `But bishop, is it true?’ `It’s true,’ admitted the bishop, `but you shouldn’t have written about it!’
After two years of learning our trade we took a huge and risky step. We opted to produce our own Tablet-style 28 page magazine which would go out with CEN not in it and free to all our Forward in Faith subscribers. In one fell swoop our circulation shot to 20,000, considerably more than the Tablet. The amount of work involved in the new format was immense. Apart from writing, organizing, commissioning and editing, all the technicalities now fell on Sara and Geoffrey Kirk.
Sara’s commitment became the equivalent of a part-time job. Geoffrey began several years of arduous typesetting and proofreading in addition to his huge creative output. On deadline day the telephone wires burned on into the night between the vicarages of St Peter’s, Bushey Heath, and St Stephen’s, Lewisham, as copy shot to and fro through cyberspace and editorial decisions were made. In all this the immense commitment and reliability of the editorial board were critical.
Two other factors gave us a head start on all other publications. First, all our board and contributors were actively involved everyday in what they were writing about. Second, not one member of the editorial board and not one contributor has ever asked for, or received, a penny piece in payment for their work. They have all done it for love and as their contribution to the battle for orthodoxy. Even at minimum rates of journalistic reward this has saved close on half a million pounds over the decade. Without the generosity of so many people the magazine would simply not exist.
As our circulation boomed, life at the CEN was becoming more difficult. John had gone and the new Editor was under the cosh from a money man who wanted to take paper `downmarket’ and remove Directions. We packed our parachutes. When the parting came we had a soft landing maintaining our substantial domestic circulation, adding a few more and suddenly responding to demand for the magazine in the USA, Australia and South Africa among others. CEN was not so fortunate.
For us, going solo opened up a series of opportunities. We had always delivered the magazine at half the estimated budget, and now we looked for ways of obtaining better value, better use of our time and wider coverage. Over the next three years we changed to a better, cheaper printer able to give us colour photo covers. The saving enable us to relieve Geoffrey of the typesetting and the late Geoff Wright of proofreading. Francis Gardom got us established on the Web.
We also decided, very early on, that we should send a free copy every month to every bishop and General Synod member so that they would be aware of the orthodox views on current and upcoming issues. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this simple decision.
The question of `Tone’
Complaints? Of course, we get complaints. A factual error? A correcting letter will be published. A different theological interpretation and we have offered space for an article to put the other view. Factual corrections have been amazingly rare. This is because we have been very thorough in our checking and a huge number of stories which cannot be fully verified end up in the waste bin or pending further information.
Most complaints are about `tone’. (This seems to be the cardinal Anglican virtue). And most complaints are, predictably, by the backdoor. One of the most regular episcopal complainants (to flying bishops, orthodox clergy and parishioners) actually sits on another committee with the Editor and, in five years, has never had the courage to say a word to her. Honest engagement, one discovers, is seldom the Anglican way. But `tone’ remains an issue and we have addressed it regularly on the Editorial Board and in Forward in Faith Council.
Archbishop Carey brought it up at an early meeting with traditionalists many years ago. My reply was simple, `If Directions had been the simple, quiet, pietistic journal you are advocating, no-one would have taken the slightest notice of it or our people. When you exclude brothers and sisters from the family table and make them stand outside the house, then they have to bang on the window to be noticed and raise their voices to be heard.’ Carey was, of course, simply enunciating the erroneous Anglican assumption that powerful and penetrating criticism of the establishment is somehow `unchristian’. This would have been news to the prophets, news to John the Baptist, news to the Fathers of the Church and centuries of faithful apologists, and certainly news to Jesus.
To appoint heretical bishops, to unchurch faithful Christians, to persecute orthodox priests and parishes, to promulgate ungodly and unscripmral teaching, to preside over a corrupt and failing institution and resist repentance and reform, all these are apparently acceptable, providing they are done in emollient tone. To point this out, however, is not.
At New Directions we have found ourselves at the centre of an information network, national and international, and know, in uncomfortable detail, just what is being done to the Church and by whom. In the circumstances, I would argue that our `tone’ has been remarkably restrained.
As any press man will tell you, 95 per cent of complaints are an indication that you are being read, doing your job and hitting the target. The overwhelming flipside to all this is the enormous appreciation and support we get from regular subscribers and the much wider readership. (Each copy of New Directions is read, on average, by four people and is much passed round.)
In letters and telephone calls and just travelling around to services and events, every member of the Board experiences a warmth and gratitude from our people that is beyond price. At the end of a 14 hour parish day, with the deadline for New Directions imminent and 1,500 words still to write, (or worse 30,000 still to edit) that is what has kept us going.
Over the last ten years we are delighted to have been given the opportunity to be in the front-line of the defence of orthodoxy; it has been an extraordinary privilege to publish some of the best theology around. It has been both exciting and exhausting to be in the heart of the battle as we have launched campaign after campaign for the reformation of the Church.
It has been an immense joy to find ourselves part of the burgeoning network of orthodox believers, Catholic and Evangelical worldwide, who are determined to restore and reassert the authority of the Word of God.
New Directions will continue to be reverent toward the things of God and utterly irreverent to the follies of man. Passionate about the state of our Church, joyful in each other’s pilgrim company and utterly serious about salvation.
Here’s to the next ten years together on the way.
Robbie Low lives and works in Cornwall.