Diversions & Alarms

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“We rarely find that people have good sense unless they agree with us.” — François de La Rochefoucauld

For some, the demise of our ancient (by Canadian publication standards) and often honourable denominational magazine came as a shock. For others, it was almost inevitable.

Are not the print media succumbing to the multiple paths of electronic communication? Macleans goes from weekly to monthly. Chatelaine to bi-monthly. Other magazines in the Rogers fold close altogether.

The Presbyterian Church in Canada’s membership continues to wither rapidly. Presbyterians Sharing receives less support each year as congregations pare back to survive. Support for an Every Home Plan looks like a troublesome frill. Then too, there are the rising costs of production, distribution and especially postage. But consider.

The Presbyterian Record has lost money before. In fact, it was subsidized from general denominational funds for most of its long existence. In the late 1970s, in one of our periodic national crises, I (the then-editor, newly affirmed) was asked to continue publishing without subsidy. I agreed, on the condition that the magazine would keep any profit it made. That condition, being deemed highly unlikely, was agreed to. The Record made money for the next 20 years at least.

Am I hinting that I could have prevented the Record’s end? That is, of course, a temptation—and a vain one, but let me beat about no bushes, especially burning ones. Was it necessary to expand the editorial staff from two to four? And there are four other positions listed on the masthead where there were once two. The magazine was at least as big as it is now.

dec-16-jim-dickeyIn our quest for self-support it took a while before we could afford coated stock (shiny paper). Even then it was not of as high a quality as it has been. That said, I hasten to say that the magazine’s look—layout and design—improved radically under both of my successors. But that hasn’t helped.

To refrain from picking any more nits, I see something more fundamental, more ominous in the fall of the denomination’s print flagship. When I first came to the Record over three decades ago, the Presbyterian Church had already suffered 13 straight years of membership decline. When I asked one of the prominent members at church offices how or why this could be, he replied: “Just dead wood.” The membership has undergone an accelerated fall every year (but one) since. Some forest.

Since then I have been asked as editor and later as congregational minister to promote no less than 12 national renewal campaigns focused on money or growth or both at the same time. Not one has made an appreciable difference.

This has led, of course, to financial straits. I am told that the givings to Presbyterians Sharing have dropped by roughly $1 million in just over five years. People don’t want to give to the central plant when the plumbing at the local franchise is leaking.

Collateral damage. Under the agreement that the Record operate without subsidy, we were empowered to charge the boards and committees of the national church for their advertisements in the magazine. That revenue has all but disappeared.

The slide in everything has been accompanied by a drift to a congregationalist mentality. It has been a constant temptation. “You in your small corner and I in mine,” has never been a principle of Reformed Protestantism. Presbytery has the full authority of a bishop (as in the Episcopal churches) though that authority is vested collectively in a balance between lay and clerical representatives. Yet too many congregations look upon presbytery as a meddling nuisance and too many presbyteries are afraid to act with authority, fearful of controversy. Such debate as exists becomes a vituperative, sometimes vicious shouting match between “the faithful” and “the enlightened.”

All the while, widely accessible national avenues for discussion either close (the Record) or are fragmented into websites, blogs and e-mails. Given the probability that the demographics of the Presbyterian Church in Canada indicate a low response, at least at home, to the new electronic media, where will any centre of communication arise? In time, this will change but how much time do we have?

The technological revolution has made it possible for a small publisher to exist if there exists a base market and some distribution outlet. The break-even point at the smallest level is low. But Presbyterian Publications is a distant memory and the Book Room (sales and distribution) has been closed. For that matter, how many book reviews have you read in the Record?

We seem determined to shut ourselves down and up when, as I believe, our place at the ecumenical table (or within Christ’s body, the Church) was given to the people who thought it central to give reason for the faith that is in you (2 Timothy 4:2-3). It might have made them “stodgy” but it made them solid.

What is our place among other churches now? All in the Western hemisphere have undergone decline. Some have kept their magazines alive and vital. But what are we doing, contributing, daring, that’s different, innovative or even intelligently contrarian?

Denial—happy days are not only here again, they have never left! Name dropping the persons of the Trinity, who somehow are always on the same path as we are, and the refusal to address the ultimate questions. “Why do we maintain our existence and for what?” Or “What are we doing that no one else is doing quite as much?” (or maybe even doing it better) leaves us lamenting the end of our magazine—but, even more, of what we once were but haven’t the mental acuity or the strength of will to sustain. We risk becoming a bookmark in the pages of Canadian church history.

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About James R. Dickey

Rev. James Ross Dickey was the Record's editor from 1978-1988.