Subscribing to Faith?
The Anglican Parish Magazine, 1859-1929

By Jane Platt. Palgrave Macmillan. Pp. xi + 268. $90

Review by Richard J. Mammana, Jr.

This almost implausibly interesting book offers a detailed examination — the first of this length and seriousness — of the significance of parish magazines in shaping and responding to English cultural trends in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Independent scholar Jane Platt, whose previous published work includes a history of the Diocese of Carlisle, delves into diocesan archives to explore dozens of instances of what J.S. Leatherbarrow calls an “extremely important and influential type of popular journalism.”

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Platt situates the growth of the parish magazine against the background of the 1851 Religious Census for England and Wales, which found that just half of the early Victorian population attended Christian worship regularly; the same census provides the surprising datum that just a quarter of the English and Welsh population in 1851 reported an affiliation with the Church of England.

Clergymen launched parish magazines in this context for a number of purposes: “to help educate the newly literate; to form a closer bond between Church and people; and to gain a place for the pulpit in every home, since many parishioners were disappointingly absent from Sunday worship.” Platt notes, though, that there was an element of keeping up with others in this endeavor, “with anxiety as its driving impulse” and as “a proactive, aggressive form of self-defence” against nonconformist churches that had adopted the mass-market periodical medium earlier than Anglicans did.

Parish magazines had a remarkable reach during the period Platt reviews, permeating nearly every settled place in their availability, and representing a diversity of church-party alignments and geographical concerns. They “brought the Church permanently into the home,” providing an unparalleled coverage of intensely local concerns, but also bringing the parishioner-reader information about national and international church activities, events, controversies, and trends. Platt contends that despite this rich variety of material parish magazines became increasingly irrelevant after the Great War — perceived as univocal in their support for “the old order: pastoral, agrarian, aristocratic,” redolent with visions of “jolly tea-parties given by the village squire,” and unable to compete with secular journalism of higher literary and production quality.

In her pioneering work to identify and study a subset of Anglican “gray literature” — a genre of printed material produced by organizations for their internal circulation, as opposed to commercially published books — Jane Platt has done something daring and creative. Subscribing to Faith? is a book sure to interest church communicators in all media, students of modern English lifeways, and Anglicans curious about the ways in which our tradition has adapted or failed to adapt effectively to changing patterns of belonging and readership.

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