“Covering a war means going to places torn by chaos, destruction, and death, and trying to bear witness. It means trying to find the truth in a sandstorm of propaganda when armies, tribes or terrorists clash. And yes, it means taking risks, not just for yourself but often for the people who work closely with you.”
American journalist Marie Colvin spoke these words at St Bride’s Church, London, in 2010. Two years later, the Syrian War would underscore her message, when she and Rémi Ochlik, her photographer, were killed while covering the siege of Homs. The address given at the 2012 Commemorative Service at St Bride’s became a memorial to Colvin and Ochlik, as well as the dozens of other news professionals around the world who had been killed or wounded that year.
For centuries, this renowned church on Fleet Street, once home to nearly all newspaper publishing in London, has actively ministered to those working in the printing and media industries. To Reverend Canon Dr. Alison Joyce, rector of St Bride’s London, there is a natural connection between the work of the clergy and journalists.
“Whenever there’s a major incident, a bomb explosion or so, everybody runs away, apart from journalists and clergy, who run toward it, for different reasons,” Canon Joyce told me when I visited London in March 2022. “We are both there in the mess of life, trying to make sense of it in different ways.”
Knowing the risk to correspondents covering the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War, the church held a commemorative service at the beginning of the conflict as part of their ministry to journalism. As of May, military actions in Ukraine have killed at least twenty-three journalists. But this is an international phenomenon. Already in 2022, the international Committee to Protect Journalists has documented the deaths of forty-three journalists and media workers, including the well-publicized murder of Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian American correspondent in the occupied Palestinian territories.
“Journalists are always under fire, but the war in Ukraine has made us all sit up,” Joyce says. “It has reminded us all, in a particularly stark and startling way, of the real human cost of quality journalism and the risks taken by those reporters, film crews, technicians, and support staff.”
The Ukraine service moved through a traditional Anglican worship to include choral music, hymns, and readings from the Bible. Joyce selected passages from the Book of Lamentations. “It seems very appropriate, you know, the lament from the fall of Jerusalem, a city under siege. It seems a very powerful and appropriate reading echoing that kind of tragedy over the centuries.” Included in the service was a recitation of the Journalists’ Prayer, sometimes ascribed to St. Francis of Sales.
Strengthen and direct, we pray,
the will of all whose work it is to write what many read,
and to speak where many listen.
May we be bold in confronting evil and injustice,
and compassionate in our understanding of human weakness
The main address at the service was given by Caroline Wyatt, a journalist with the BBC and former war correspondent. “We’ve long known that good journalism—eye-witness journalism—matters,” she announced. “And it matters most of all when covering war, when truth is hard to pin down and facts are disputed or even weaponized.”
As the traditional story goes, St. Brigid of Kildare (Ireland) founded the church in the sixth century. This was well before the invention of the moveable-type printing press by Johannes Gutenberg around 1450. In 1476, merchant William Caxton, recognizing the commercial possibilities, transported a printing press to England and set up shop adjacent to Westminster Abbey, which offered a ready customer base of literate clergy.
Caxton’s apprentice Wynkyn de Worde took over the shop after his death and, in 1500, moved it to the churchyard of St Bride’s, a cheaper location. Competing print shops moved into the parish neighborhood, and by de Worde’s death in 1535, printing had become the dominant trade on Fleet Street.
This busy thoroughfare connected the City of London, center of commerce and trade, and the City of Westminster, center of government. A ready ear could pick up lots of gossip and news on the pavement and in the pubs. This access led to the birth of the newspaper “dailies.” By the 1730s, thirty-one papers were printed on Fleet Street. Messenger boys scurried up and down the street. London newsboys hawked an estimated 100,000 papers per week. Over the next three centuries, St Bride’s remained central to the lives of the journalists and printers who lived and worked in the neighborhood. As the industry transformed itself, St Bride’s was rebranded as the “Journalists’ Church.”
In the 1980s, many of the newspaper offices moved to less expensive properties outside of the city, leaving behind plaques to mark the historic buildings of these prominent British press companies.
This could have been the end of St Bride’s ministry to journalists. But it was not.
When terrorists kidnapped British journalist John McCarthy in Lebanon in 1986, St Bride’s held all-night prayer vigils for him and other journalists taken during the Lebanon hostage crisis, which lasted from 1982 to 1992. On McCarthy’s release day in 1991, following five years of captivity, St Bride’s held a service of celebration in thanksgiving. This was the start of the permanent Journalists’ Altar on the north aisle St Bride’s, where photographs of those missing, taken hostage, or killed are displayed, regardless of faith. As there are now so many, the photos are rotated in and out. Engraved on its front panel are the words, “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
Even as the industry has moved out of Fleet Street, London-based journalists continue to make St Bride’s their home church. Simon Greaves has been on staff at the Financial Times in London for thirty-five years and began to attend events at St Bride’s during the work week. “It was walking distance from my office,” he says. “I would go in there for lunchtime concerts, enjoy the sacred space, listen to the music, say a prayer. I got to know people but also realized that colleagues of mine were regular churchgoers there.”
Greaves has been active as a member of the Guild of St Bride since 2004, an organization of church members which provides support services for the clergy and monetary grants to postgraduates in journalism. But as a working journalist, he strives to synchronize these two parts of his life, echoing the words carved in the Journalists’ Altar.
“Whatever we write or broadcast is spread or watched by many people, exposing us to the examination of others. But I think whatever you write or say or present on screen has to be acceptable in the sight of God and a fair reflection of the truth. Having a Christian backbone to my life makes me skip things back to the very simplest arguments. What do we know? What is true? What do we tell our people in confidence? What can we say that will withstand the scrutiny of our peers?”
Each fall, St Bride’s hosts a commemorative church service. The main address is made by an individual active in the media industry; Marie Colvin’s address in 2010 was the first of these. Here the journalists speak of the work they do and the work they hope to do. Woven into their stories of colleagues, places, and incidents are the values of professional journalism, values which flesh out their work in the field and convey the necessity of their vocation.
“I believe in eyewitness reporting by professional journalists,” the BBC’s Lindsay Hilsum asserted in her 2013 address. “And I want to be where history is happening.”
Colvin took this even further: “We send home that first rough draft of history. We can and do make a difference in exposing the horrors of war and especially the atrocities that befall civilians.”
To capture these images and present them in context, the reporter needs to be there. Journalists want to be there, to bear witness as stories unfold in real time.
It is not only the chaos and destruction of a war zone which threatens journalists. In his 2011 address, Mark Austin reported, “Now, it’s clear journalists are being specifically targeted or sought out by those who fear the truth emerging. It’s no longer enough to blame the messenger, it seems. Silencing the messenger is all too often the name of the game now.” At least 2,000 journalists worldwide have been killed since 1944. This number does not include those who have been wounded, kidnapped, held hostage, or gone missing as they researched a story. It also does not include the journalists muzzled by restrictive governments around the world.
In 2018, Peter Clifton spoke to another challenge to professional journalism from the St Bride’s pulpit. “When social media goes into meltdown and twenty-four-hour news platforms are desperate for updates, we need more than ever journalists who can sift the fact from the fake, screen out the noise, and find the voices that speak the truth. We face more pressure than ever from those who dismiss news they don’t like as fake.”
With increasing dangers to journalists and support staff, why do those in the media industry take the risk, continue to put themselves in danger? Hilsum addressed this personal struggle in her speech. “The contradiction between it being worth it and no story is worth dying for does battle in my head—I suspect in many of your heads too, both those of us who go to war zones and those of you, as editors, who send us. Sometimes I struggle to keep the faith.” The work assignments of journalists always involve personal as well as professional choices.
Tim Davie, director general of the BBC, emphasized the importance of this ministry and this parish church for the industry itself. “It’s where we turn in the toughest times, and where our friends and our families can always find comfort, support, and solidarity.” It is in the annual commemorative service at St Bride’s that the doubts, fears, anger, and grief of professional journalists are given voice. It is also a place where they return at the end of their lives. Memorial services and an online archive celebrating the lives of those who worked in the industry are an important part of their ministry.
St Bride’s is a sacred space, separated from the quotidian, where time is of a different measure. That is the function of a sacred space, to focus attention and allow the visitor to experience a depth, richness, and sense of meaning that frequently escapes us in everyday life. St Bride’s has chosen to give special attention to journalists, a role the parish has played since the first printing press was parked in the churchyard.
“Buildings soak that up,” Canon Joyce says. “There is a profound sense of the numinous in this place. It is a thin place, where the boundary between the heavenly and the earthly feels very, very fine.”
As Canon Joyce and St Bride’s Parish offer support to journalists and media workers from their home base on Fleet Street London, the journalists and media workers reporting from war zones continue to face considerable danger. “It really concerns me that we have a whole generation that’s grown up assuming that news is free,” Joyce says. “We’re in danger of losing sight of the true cost of our news, not only the financial cost but the human cost. That’s why I feel this ministry is so important. There’s a socking great price tag attached to the news which we so easily take for granted. Don’t squander it. Look after your journalists.”
As print journalism has adapted to the media industry in the twenty-first century, the struggles for truth continue, and it is the community of journalists and their support staff, the photographers, drivers, translators, and fixers who are on the front lines. As the world watches in real time the death and devastation in Ukraine, the Palestinian West Bank, and around the world, St Bride’s continues its centuries-long ministry to these professionals. In so doing, its clergy reminds the rest of us just how important is the word.
Charleen Smith-Riedel is a volunteer in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Having retired from the tech industry in Seattle, she has picked up on her dated folklore studies, completed at the University of Freiburg, Germany, and is committed to writing on folklife topics for Wikipedia.