St Bride's: Sermons

Harvest of the Printed Word

For our harvest we invited national and regional newspapers to send us copies of their publications for display in church.

Sunday October 6th (Harvest)


John 1: 1 - In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.


Spread out on the floor in front of us, contained within these national and regional newspapers are thousands, possibly millions, of words. There are also lots of pictures and cartoons and diagrams, but mostly there are words: newspapers & magazines are Word - machines, engines of communication, because they are written and printed to inform us, to educate us and to entertain us.

Today we are celebrating harvest festival, and in particular the harvest of the printed word, especially the produce of the newspaper and magazine industry. And where better to celebrate that harvest than here in St Bride's, the journalists' church, cathedral of the printed word - the parish in which Caxton's assistant Wynkyn de Worde first set up his printing press in 1500. He died in 1535 a wealthy man, and was buried here at St Bride's: we have his bones in the crypt. And since that time there has bee a special connection between this church and the craft of printing and later newspaper-making.

As early as 1620 Francis Bacon the philosopher pointed out that three inventions had reshaped the world as he knew it, namely gunpowder, the magnet & printing. Gunpowder altered the way wars were fought; the magnet allowed compass navigation to transform land and especially sea travel; and the invention of printing made it possible for ideas to sweep across Europe and the oceans of the world, bringing huge changes to society in their wake.

In the early middle-ages literacy was the preserve of the clergy but by the 15th century reading & writing was spreading fast. With the development of printing, works available only to a clerical elite were now available to a wider readership. Books of learning were produced - pre-eminently the Bible. It is a nice coincidence that today in the church's lectionary we remember William Tyndale, the 16th century scholar who first translated the Bible into English. But, as well as books, newssheets relayed the news of battles, disasters, triumphs, political intrigues and court propaganda - much as newspapers do today. Later radical pamphlets & handbills originated from this area, the first daily newspaper the Daily Courant was produced in 1702, the Daily Universal Register renamed the Times, in 1788, Sunday newspaper followed of which one of the earliest was the News of the World launched in 1843; the latter part of the 19th century saw the rise of the newspaper barons and dynasties - the Northcliffes, Beaverbrooks, the Berry's, Lord Thomson, and now of course Lord Rothermere and Rupert Murdoch; we've experienced the exodus of the newspaper presses from Fleet Street in the mid 80's to the four corners of London, until we reach today with our myriad regional titles, and 21 national and Sunday titles, all spread out before you on the church floor - a rich and varied harvest indeed.

In this parish printing has gradually been transformed from a medieval mystery into a mind-moulding mass communicator. And now there are new technologies, Radio & Television, computers & the internet, mobile phones & GPRS which will inevitably affect the way people receive their daily news, and the sources they look to access information, seek entertainment and find out what is going on in the world.

But however the media develop, whatever new technologies are employed, they all use words & images to communicate with us. Still after 5 centuries the power of the Word, printed, spoken, texted - is very strong & very pervasive to communicate facts & ideas & to mould our minds. "In the beginning", we heard in the Gospel reading, "was the Word". The 'Word' for St John meant the divine principle which gives unity & significance to everything and by which everything is made. It brings life & energy and it dispels darkness. As today we celebrate our harvest of the printed word, we are challenged by the Gospel to reconcile all our words with the Word that is God, the God-made-flesh in Jesus Christ.

What might that mean in today's media world? Lord Puttnam said recently that the media should take much more seriously its role in creating a civil society that we can be proud of, but he added that what is missing at the moment is any consensus about the form of society of which we want to be a part. The philosopher Alastair MacIntyre once said that the right question to ask of any institution is "Of what conversations is it the arena? "So perhaps one way of reconciling the millions of words used in the media with the Word that is God would be for the media - newspapers & TV - to truly be the arena of our shared public conversation on who we are and what kind of world we seek to hand on to future generations. They should have space for stories that enlarge the moral imagination; they should be bold enough to give a hearing to voices that challenge the ruthless imperialism of political correctness; they should be able to include stories that provoke and enhance the society of which we are all a part, and to help foster a sense of community; and they should be unafraid, in the true tradition of Lord Reith, to claim the high ground of moral wisdom and idealism. To the extent that the press & newspapers do this (and many already do), they are helping to create a better-informed , more coherent, freer, more sensitive & gracious society, and are playing a direct role as agents of God's Kingdom.

As we reflect today and give thanks for our own story as the newspaper industry & on St Bride's part within it, and look ahead to the future, we ask for God's strength & inspiration that all our words may be worthy of the Eternal Word, that as St Paul the writer of 2 Timothy says - we may "hold fast the form of sound words."

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