Catholic weekly 'The Tablet' re-launches

As Catholic weekly 'The Tablet' seeks to build on its recent successes with a re-launch, Ciar Byrne talks to its editor, and assesses the impact of the Christian press

The case of Abigail Witchalls, the pregnant 26-year-old attacked as she walked with her young son in the Surrey village of Little Bookham last year, gripped the nation's press. But her family were reluctant to talk to the media, fearing their privacy would be invaded.

Knowing that Sheila Hollins, Witchalls's mother and the President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, was a reader of The Tablet, the editor of the Catholic weekly, Catherine Pepinster, asked her to write an article. And when Professor Hollins wrote forgiving her daughter's attacker, national newspapers immediately swooped on the story - the Mail on Sunday made it their splash. Pepinster had shown that the religious press, often perceived as the fusty domain of clerics and churchwardens, could have something to say of interest to the wider public.

Two years after Pepinster joined as The Tablet's first female editor, the title has relaunched to appeal to a new generation of Catholics. Marking the start of an era, the latest issue includes a special supplement on the 100 most influential lay Catholics in Britain today. At the head of the list is the BBC director general Mark Thompson, followed by the Education Secretary Ruth Kelly, the Prime Minister's wife Cherie Booth, the Speaker of the House of Commons Michael Martin, the Tesco chief executive Terry Leahy and the television cook Delia Smith. Pepinster pronounces the success of this new Catholic elite a cause for celebration. "Members of a Church that only 40 years ago was still viewed with some suspicion are now at the heart of British public life," she writes.

If there is a new Catholic power nexus in the UK, The Tablet has positioned itself as the main forum for debate. Contributors include well-known journalists such as Mark Lawson and The Daily Telegraph's Christopher Howse as well as leading academics, while Mrs Blair has also written for the weekly. Illustrious contributors from previous decades included Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. Nor is the readership confined to the Catholic Church. The title is popular with Anglicans, including the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and his wife, Jane, who has written a Lenten reflection in the latest issue.

Since the arrival of Pepinster - a former Independent on Sunday journalist and convent-school girl who took up religion in earnest a decade ago - the magazine's weekly circulation has risen by five per cent to 23,500 with an estimated readership of 65,000. The only Christian weekly to be officially audited by the ABC, this places The Tablet, which is profit-making, on a par with the New Statesman.

When the new editor arrived, the average reader was aged somewhere between 55 and 65. "We can't just sit around and wait for the occasional person to turn up and join, we have to go out and find new readers," Pepinster says. The new readers she wants to attract are Catholics in their thirties and forties who are rediscovering their religion as they become more preoccupied with education and what values to instil in their children. Bearing in mind the recent example of The Sunday Telegraph, which haemorrhaged readers after Sarah Sands alienated the old faithful with a frothy redesign, Pepinster has been careful not to put off existing subscribers.

"It's the kind of publication where you're not going to attract lots of new readers overnight. We want to bring in a new audience without losing loyal readers. We've seen in national newspapers the huge dangers of going for a dramatic change in tone and content," she says.

Consequently, she has overhauled the design, while staying true to The Tablet's reputation for liberalism and intelligence. The new-look magazine is printed on better-quality paper with a new red, grey and black palette and more white space to help navigate text-heavy pages. Picture bylines for columnists have been introduced and there is greater use of colour.

Despite friends in high places, the journal, owned by an independent charitable trust (the Independent News and Media owner Tony O'Reilly is a trustee), has invoked the wrath of some clerics for its coverage of controversial issues including the use of condoms in the prevention of Aids, sex-abuse scandals and contraception. Some parish priests have even banned the title, which has traditionally been sold through churches as well as by subscription. "They think it's a bad influence on their flocks," says Pepinster. "It is particularly annoying when a priest has a subscription and is keeping tabs on us himself, but won't allow it in his church."

While she claims not to feel the weight of being the first female editor of The Tablet, she admits to being annoyed at the "odd one or two priests and bishops who insist on writing to me in letters which start 'Dear Sir'."

While The Tablet has served the highest strata of British Catholics since its foundation in 1840 by Frederick Lucas, a convert from Quakerism, the Herald serves the religion's more traditional elements. Born out of late-19th-century Catholicism, after centuries of repression, the Herald was founded to preserve the identity of the Catholic community and offer news from a Catholic perspective. Like The Tablet, it has impressive journalistic alumni, including the Observer editor Roger Alton and the former Daily Telegraph editor Martin Newland, while current writers include Matt Thorne.

Today, the Herald has a circulation of about 20,000 and a readership of 43,000. The editor, Luke Coppen, says that, thanks to last year's events in Rome which reawakened the interest of many Catholics in their faith, subscriptions have increased by 10 per cent in the last 12 months. "Our readers are mainstream Catholics who fill the pews on Sunday," he says.

In contrast, The Universe and The Catholic Times, based in Manchester, which have traditionally catered for mainland Britain's once largely working-class immigrant Catholic population, have suffered decline.

One of the that reasons leading Anglicans are attracted to The Tablet may be the lack of an equivalent publication in their own church. Anglicanism's leading journals are the Church Times, founded as a high-church mouthpiece and The Church of England Newspaper, which caters for the evangelical wing of the church. Both are read predominantly by the clergy and members of parochial church councils. The Church Times, which has broadened out from its Anglo-Catholic roots, has a circulation of 29,000, while The Church of England Newspaper sells 8,200 copies a week. Other Christian weeklies include The Baptist Times and the Scottish Catholic Observer. The Christian Herald, a Protestant ecumenical title that tried to straddle all denominations, closed at the end of January.

Pepinster believes titles like her own have an increasingly important role to play. "Secular Britain was caught out by September 11 and its repercussions," she says. "We were living in a country which thought religion didn't really matter any more, but it showed that religion still plays a really significant role in the world at large."

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