The Church That Remembers

BY ELLE WALLS

LONDON—Years after the British press moved out, one church on Fleet Street remains dedicated to journalists and the industry that once ruled the area until the 1980s. In the front of the church, just left of the altar stands a wooden plaque dedicated to fallen journalists. It’s inscribed with these words: “And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”

This memorial at St. Bride’s Church honors journalists who are missing or have died on foreign duty. “It is part of the Church which I find to have a particularly powerful emotional impact,” said William Greaves, a former writer for Fleet Street’s Daily Mail, in an e-mail. About 20 framed commemoratory letters and photographs of such journalists line the top of the memorial to remind passersby that soldiers are not the only casualties of war.

Greaves knows journalists who have been kidnapped or killed while reporting. He regularly visits the plaque to pay his respects. “Sean Toolan, formerly of the Daily Mail, who was shot dead on the steps of his hotel in Beirut, was a particular friend,” he wrote.

After every Sunday sermon, guild members—men and women who assist at St. Bride’s services—and other churchgoers pray about international trouble spots and the journalists covering them. “We pray for all of the industry, wherever they are,” said verger David Smith, the assistant to the clergy.

Even though the journalism industry has moved from its longtime quarters on Fleet Street, St. Bride’s hasn’t shed its image as the printers’ church. “The connection with [journalism] is not just geographical, but spiritual,” Smith said.

In the 16th century St. Bride’s churchyard bustled with journalists, poets and novelists waiting to use England’s first printing press. Wynkyn de Worde had brought his press here around 1500 because the most literate people, such as the clergy, lived in the area, Smith said.

Soon, publishers and writers moved to Fleet Street to be close to the press. In 1701 London’s first daily newspaper, The Daily Courant, was published on Fleet Street. Many more followed.

St. Bride’s has seen declining attendance by journalists since the 1980s, except for funerals and memorial services. Younger journalists often select St. Bride’s for their weddings or children’s baptisms, even if they never worked on Fleet Street, Greaves said.

Nowadays, lawyers and businessmen flood Fleet Street, cell phones in hand. Their offices now occupy the area. The lunch crowd takes advantages of free classical music concerts, relaxing in the pews or under the trees of St. Bride’s courtyard.

But Fleet Street—and St. Bride’s—will always be associated with the press. “I think that most former Fleet Street journalists who would describe themselves as members of the Church of England still regard St. Bride’s as their ‘spiritual home,’” Greaves said.

Click here for Amanda Soto’s visual piece.

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