Church journalism yesterday, today and tomorrow

The official publication of the Russian Orthodox Church, the "Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate", recently marked its 80th anniversary. The Journal’s Executive Editor, Sergey Chapnin, spoke to archpriest Mikhail Dudko about the publication’s history, its objectives, and its future.

- The Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate recently marked its 80th anniversary, a major milestone. During that time the Journal has changed. I’d like to try to trace briefly with you the path taken by the publication over the intervening decades, during which it has had its highs and lows.

- I would like to go back not just to 1931 when the Journal began to be published, but to 1917, the reason being that by that time church journalism was already established, and virtually every diocese had its own diocesan newspaper. Journals and weekly publications with colored illustrations were also being produced. At the end of the 19th century the Church had begun to issue a journal entitled The Russian Pilgrim which is still in print today. All this came to an end after the October revolution, when the Church was forbidden from issuing periodicals or owning printing works, and its type cases were broken up and dispersed.

After 1917 church publications survived only in those regions where the Soviets were not in power, but from 1922 onwards, with the Civil War over and the Bolsheviks in power throughout the country, there were no more church magazines or newspapers.

Communication became very difficult, not only for remote dioceses but even between neighboring sees and parishes.

There was clearly a need for a church publication, but the Bolsheviks would not give their permission. Later, some concessions were won from the Soviet authorities thanks to a great deal of effort on the part of Metropolitan Sergius (Stargorodsky). One of his most important achievements was to obtain permission for the publication of a journal, albeit with only a small circulation. Nevertheless it became possible to disseminate official church information and the material necessary for the church to pursue its activity.

The goodwill of the authorities did not last long, and five years later the Journal was closed down, and it was revived only after the famous meeting between the Metropolitan and Stalin in October 1943. Since then the Journal has been published without interruption, appearing once a month.

What was special about this journal? For a long time, until 1985, it was the only legal periodical of the Russian Orthodox Church to be published within the former Soviet Union. Of course churches outside the Soviet Union had their own periodicals, and the church within Russia had its unofficial press, but as an official publication this journal was unique.

Through the Journal the Church was able to present quite a wide-ranging panorama of church life. Even today the Journal is a major source of material on the history of the Church in the second half of the 20th century. However, it should not be forgotten that the Journal was subject to strict censorship. For one reason or another it was impossible to print much of what the editors wanted to print or could have printed.

The Journal was probably at its height in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when there was no more Soviet censorship and all the material which had been accumulated over decades by the editorial team and which was simply lying in drawers was finally published.

So if I had to name the high point in the development of the Journal I would say it was the late 1980s and early 1990s.

1989 saw the start of the publication of the Church Bulletin and the beginning of the development of church journalism.

The Journal would find itself in a situation which had not existed previously, as it was to become one of many publications writing about the rebirth of the church.

The Journal still has its official status, and it retained a strong editorial team for quite a long time. But unfortunately a new concept of a church publication failed to take shape either in the early 1990s or even in the 2000s.

- It is quite clear that an official church journal which publishes documents, appeals and so on cannot have a very large circulation. When you were considering the question of the specific place that the Journal would occupy amongst the many publications of the Russian Orthodox Church, presumably you looked at international experience and thought about what must be included in the Journal and what it was important to include.

Thinking about the experience of other churches, maybe not just Orthodox churches, and about the results of your deliberations, how would you summarize the essence of that process, and what, in concise terms, was the main outcome?

- I could talk on this subject for a very long time but I’ll try to summarize it in a few key points.

We went back to the tradition of the official church publications of the second half of the 19th century. I believe that the standard of church journalism in Russia from the post-reform years of the 1860s to the 1910s was very high. The feature of the official church publications which helped them to survive and remain interesting in the 19th and early 20th centuries, is, oddly enough, the very principle which enables the publication to be of interest in the 21st century, and that is the clear division of the publication into two sections – an official and an unofficial section. In some publications before the revolution the pages in the official and unofficial sections were even numbered separately.

We based our journal on the same principle, separating the two sections with a double-page spread entitled ‘The Lesson’.

This is a short extract, about four or five thousand characters in length, from the teaching or preaching of a well-known preacher, theologian or ascetic writer of the 20th century. The double-page spread is printed on tinted paper and features a large portrait, and serves to separate the official and unofficial sections.

The official section adheres to quite a strict format, and up until 2011 we have kept it the same as it was when the journal first started; but we feel that this should also undergo some changes, since the volume of official information is growing and we cannot greatly increase the volume of the journal as a whole.

We have had to find new ways of covering the life of the church, the Patriarchal ministry and the publication of documents so that the official section does not take up two thirds of the whole journal.

The question of what still needs to be done has yet to be resolved.

As for the unofficial section of the journal, I believe that we have reached a clearer understanding of its overall concept.

This section basically includes those issues on which the church does not have a clearly formulated position, issues which are open to discussion and to which there are many answers depending on the situation.

For example, we have embarked on a major topic entitled ‘The church and contemporary science’. We began by looking at how contemporary science understands the history of the world. The topic was initiated by Father Mikhail Dronov who presented an analysis of Darwinism from the point of view of scientific philosophy and logic as it had been developed by the middle of the 20th century, and demonstrated the invalidity of Darwinism even from the point of view of scientific logic.

The subject of death is among future topics. This is a major problem which is exercising scholars not only in the fields of medicine and biology but over a much broader spectrum. What is physical death? Some say it is when the heart stops beating, others say it is when the brain ceases to function. How does contemporary science which already knows a great deal about human beings understand death? What are the ethical issues which go hand in hand with this question? I believe that a Christian should know what leading scholars think on issues of this nature.

And that is only one aspect. There are problems of DNA testing which are very topical at the moment in relation to the remains found at Ekaterinburg. Technology is changing. DNA testing as it was ten years ago and as it is today are based on different techniques. What does this mean? How far should we, or can we, use such testing when the remains of saints are discovered? For example, the burial places of victims of political repression have been discovered in Alatyr in Chuvashiya. Archaeological data has demonstrated that one of the graves contains the remains of a new martyr already canonised by the church. The question is, should we resort to DNA testing, or is the archaeological evidence sufficient, using matching and other forensic techniques? The Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate is not the kind of publication in which complex theological topics have to be discussed, but it must arouse the interest of the clergy in theological problems. How can we do this? Of course, we have to select topics which are on everyone’s lips, which a parish priest would see as relevant to him.

And there is another important factor – that is, using practical experience as a basis, that is, sharing priests’ and bishops’ experience of pastoral activity as it is today, presenting that experience in a way which will help them to understand how to organize their work.

The Journal must provide a platform for sharing experience, and this is what is actually happening. It could be anything at all: problems to do with the preservation of buildings before restoration, when there is no money for restoration but the building needs to be preserved – in a case like this we can provide a strategy; how to organise work with the disabled, for example, with children suffering from Infantile Cerebral Paralysis (ICP); or how to organise collections to help the victims of fires. We write from the point of view of how this kind of work can be organised. We do not simply report, but give to be the first to write the news. If you’re going to write seriously, checking the facts, providing commentaries, carefully selecting photographs, all this takes time, so you can’t be the first. And if you’re not first, then the news is no longer new. This is where the Internet wins and you’ll never keep up with it.

- There are two things which attract readers to a periodical. The first is the news, which is gradually moving over to the Internet because reading the news on the Internet is easier and more interesting. The second thing is authors who write well and with a certain ‘flavour’. People have their favourite authors, and will read virtually anything these authors write. What kind of situation are we now in with regard to authors?

- As far as good authors are concerned, the situation is bad, and, in my opinion, much worse than it was five or seven years ago.

Authors are not being commissioned to write interesting material, editors are not commissioning quality articles. There are no commissions partly because editors have lost sight of the fact that a publication is strong if it has a point of view.

Since there is no demand for a a point by point description of how things should be done, and, if any problems could arise, what those problems might be.

As I have already said, there are a great many publications around today, but there are very few which draw together and analyse the experience of church life. This is a specific challenge, and one which I believe it is for us to meet above all others.

- There seems to be some overlap between the work of the journal and that of the Inter-Council Presence. Is this in fact the case, or is it merely a coincidence?

- This is indeed the case. We work on the same topics as those tabled at the Inter-Council Presence. But I should say that the focus in this first year has been purely on getting the Inter-Council Presence established; in a way what has been happening is an experiment in terms of how the Inter-Council Presence should work and what it will deliver.

We have not yet worked out how we will interact with the Inter-Council Presence, because there is this very rapid and efficient tool known as the Internet. The Internet has meant that the Journal can no longer discuss certain topics which need to be resolved more or less immediately.

Our Commission submitted its documents to the Presidium of the Inter- Council Presence in September last year.

The Presidium worked on them from October until the start of December, and in the middle of December put them out for general discussion for a month, up until Epiphany. We did not have time to publish all these documents in one issue, and in the next one it was already too late. Therefore we cannot be a medium for the active discussion of draft documents; we can only publish these documents after they have been adopted by the Bishops’ Council, with notes for clarification. Our task is to expand and comment on the standpoint of the church which has been presented in summary form.

- This is a question which I wanted to come on to later: all publications, including leading publications with vast traditions behind them, are now faced with the problem of how the printed media can survive in the age of the Internet. This is a serious issue. What strategy does the journal have in order to survive? Maybe it should just move over to the Internet straight away and leave it at that?

- His Holiness the Patriarch entrusted the journal to me about two years ago, and before that I had been publishing a newspaper for ten years. If you’re asking me about the future development of the journal, I would have to say that the journal does have a future in print. In my opinion it is much harder for newspapers. The Internet is cutting the ground from under newspaper publications.

Our newspapers come out twice a month, so in fact although they are newspapers, in terms of their currency they are more like a magazine than a newspaper. Therefore the question of what the Church Bulletin will be like is a critical one.

We are planning to hold a number of round table meetings to try to establish the direction of the future development of such a publication. But it is my belief that there is only one natural direction in which it can develop, and that is as a mass circulation missionary newspaper which will also consist of an official and an unofficial section. The newspaper can survive in this form but it will rely totally on subsidies.

As for the journal, the situation here is much more interesting. I feel that the journals have far from exhausted their potential; they can still develop and have large circulations.

I believe that our main task here is to use the journal to bring together all the event-based and theoretical material there is, including material from the Internet.

These days the very meaning of ‘news’ has changed: how it is written is no longer important, the main thing is journalistic point of view, everything has gone rather flat, either going off into the realm of cultural analysis, where there is no need to have a point of view, or into the realm of the semi-official press or purely informative journalism, where there is also no need to have a point of view. So journalists, as people who can assess the life of the church from a morally persuasive standpoint, along Christian lines, are currently very few in number and we need to bring them on.

- Is the trend for good texts of a high standard on the decrease or the increase these days? Is the trend a positive or a negative one? And what is the reason for this?

- In my opinion the trend is negative. No one is commissioning church articles ‘which take a stand’. People have just switched to other topics, and also the fees paid for writing in the church press are extremely low.

Consequently some authors have begun to write for secular publications, and others who might have written analytical or good reports have lost the ability to write because there are no commissions… And young writers haven’t come along to take their place.

- It is easy to find criticism of the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate on the Internet, mainly concerned with the problem of authors, the standard of the articles and the depth to which topics are examined. If there is no one who can write intelligent journalistic pieces on certain topics perhaps you should listen to those who suggest returning to the concept of the journal as it was in the 1930s, when it contained articles by Metropolitan Sergius offering a profound analysis of theological subjects. The journals could be bound, put on a shelf and read seventy years or more from now with the same interest as when they were first read.

- We’re still at the questioning stage.

I should say that the journal has never been the same as it is today. We’ve raised it to a high standard and it receives the recognition it deserves. Our readership consists mainly of the clergy. What do they want from an official journal? Unfortunately the feedback process is very slow and complicated.

There is a great deal of constructive criticism these days and we publish that criticism. If you take a look at the December issue you’ll see we come under very severe criticism – we listen to that criticism, and we hear what people are saying. But when people say that they like the old Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate I say to them: “That’s fine, bring me the issue of the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate that you like and tell me what is better about it than the journal that we were issuing in 2010”. So far no one has been able to bring me anything in response.

I can more or less imagine the journal as it was in its early stages, and any comparisons will not favour the old editions, but of course there are individual articles which made the journal of the past attractive.

I would like us to have a programme of theological publications, and this is what we’re working on now. Unfortunately it’s very difficult to establish such a programme for twelve months. The challenge is to put in place editorial systems which will function for a certain amount of time, allowing us, for example, to use an existing plan and repeat it a year later.

This is not without difficulties, but we will overcome them.