Keep taking The Tablet

Why are more and more people reading an old-style religious weekly with no photographs, no gloss and seriously highbrow content? Some of them aren't even Catholics...
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The Independent Online
The restaurant is Italian, of course. And the table talk is, naturally, of the Pope. John Wilkins' face is consumed with the impish delight that characterises the intellectual's glee with the abstract. Even before the first-course stracciatella is finished he has dealt with what's wrong with the present pope, what we need in the next one and begun some arcane stuff about the balloting system inside the conclave of cardinals who elect him.

"The present pope thinks that the Western world has been on the wrong track since Descartes," he confides, with the mischievous air of a schoolboy telling a mucky story. "For the next one we need someone who will celebrate, rather than chastise the freedom of the modern world, and then to evangelise it."

You may never have heard of John Wilkins, even though he is the editor of what is undoubtedly the most influential religious publication in the country and almost certainly in the English-speaking world. You may have never have heard of The Tablet, for the Catholic weekly appears rarely on the newsstands. Yet its under-the-counter circulation has more than doubled from around 9,000 when Wilkins took over as editor; it recently broke the 20,000 barrier which puts it hot on the heels of the revitalised New Statesman.

As a circulation figure it may not seem impressive. But its readers are almost all figures of influence. It is now read in Downing Street,where the Prime Minister's Roman Catholic wife is a subscriber (70 per cent of its copies are distributed through the post). And the dialogue with its readers is not one way; Douglas Hurd, when he was a busy foreign secretary, wrote for it on Bosnia. Chris Patten is a devotee, even out in Hong Kong from where he reveals that "a disproportionate number of the articles which have made me feel better informed, highly entertained and even cross" come from The Tablet.

Its editor is advised by what one commentator described as "an extremely tough, intelligent freemasonry" of diplomats, senior civil servants, scientists, academics and thinkers who meet as a dining club once a month. They include the country's senior Roman Catholic, the Duke of Norfolk and the man who was until recently the permanent under-secretary at the Ministry of Defence, Sir Michael Quinlan. The Tablet's directors include the man who was Cabinet secretary to prime ministers Heath, Callaghan and Thatcher - Lord Hunt (he is also Cardinal Hume's brother-in-law).

The periodical's steady rise in circulation is remarkable for a number of reasons. The circulation of most religious publications is going down rather than up. National church attendance is in gradual decline, in all denominations. And The Tablet is the antithesis of most modern publishing triumphs: it is printed on resolutely unglossy paper, it almost never uses a photograph and has only recently introduced line-drawings, its page numbers rise consecutively each week so that it is easier to use as a journal of record when it is bound at the end of the year. It is an old-style journal of record which would rather print news late than risk inaccuracy, and its text - those who glance at it proclaim - is uncompromisingly intellectual. Clearly its success is not part of some Catholic revival on the coat-tails of Father Ted.

Yet it is not a paper which receives universal acclaim. Arch-traditionalists loathe it. "That dreadful magazine, which has been undermining the Church," was the description of the obsessive anti-abortion campaigner, Fr James Morrow. There is nothing new in this. When it was first launched in imperial times the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland described it as the most vituperative publication in the kingdom. Its early founders fell out to the extent that one was caught burgling the home of the other in pursuit of the subscription list. And after a time a Catholic bishop, wealthy in his own right, bought the publication to bring it to heel. In the 1930s it was returned to lay control but controversy continued to dog it.

The first of its modern editors was Douglas Woodruff, a former Times leader writer. Conservative politically and theologically he regarded himself as the last of the Chesterton-Belloc line of English Catholics. But he re-established the paper's independence from the hierarchy.

It was a tradition strengthened by his successor, Tom Burns - a friend of Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene who were all Tablet contributors. Burns embraced with zeal the possibilities for change after Catholicism's great reforming Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. He was politically reactionary (he supported Franco and the Nigerian government's suppression of Biafra). But theologically Burns was a progressive who did sustained battle with the Vatican when Pope Paul VI overturned a papal commission recommending the Church permit contraception. Burns correctly forecast that the issue would provoke a crisis of authority for the papacy. And he brought The Tablet out in support of Gay News when Mary Whitehouse had it prosecuted over a poem she considered blasphemous.

Traditionalist readers revoked their subscriptions and John Wilkins, when he left the BBC World Service to take over the editor's chair, found a periodical that was financially shaky, despite the trust Burns had cleverly set up to tap the cheque-books of the nation's top Catholics. The average reader was also aged 70. In the 15 years since he took over he has lowered that to 56, doubled the circulation and - with the help of a perspicacious business manager, publisher Hugh Kealy - put The Tablet in the black and paid off its accumulated losses. "The overriding reason is the sheer quality of the editorial content," Kealy says.

The result is a paper that mixes interpretation of international events with news of the international church and a leavening of articles which are unashamedly concerned with spiritual matters. It has a rich diet of arts and book reviews (on secular and theological subjects) written by critics as distinguished as George Steiner.

Its ecclesiological politics have shifted leftwards too, though it is far from radical. "It does not always reflect the views of those in ecclesiastical authority," concedes Cardinal Basil Hume, "but it makes an important contribution to any serious debate on matters of vital concern to the Church," he adds with characteristic diplomacy. Wilkins is more direct: "The idea that the church is an exclusive club of people who have the truth is one we have to resist," he says. "It is more difficult with a Pope who leads from the right. It raises questions about loyalty and truth. A real dialogue is needed. I hope that it goes on in the pages." The result is read carefully in the 100 countries in which the paper circulates - and not least in Rome, which does not restrict itself to postal subscription in its anxiety to monitor. "We know the Vatican visits our Web site," says Kealy; the paper is posted on the Internet each week.

This sense of balance extends to more than just church matters. The Tablet was consistently critical of Thatcherism throughout its dominant era. "When the eucharist is your model of community," says Wilkins, "it is difficult to have truck with ideas based on isolated individualism. We weren't doctrinaire. It was just that everyone else went so hard to the right that our position looked left."

It provided a steady anchor for many in a time of shifting political sands. "The media so often portrays a pendulum world, swinging between monumental triumphs and the most horrific examples of disaster, tyranny and shame," says Frank Field, Labour's new minister charged with reforming the welfare state. "Few newspapers observe the swing with a balanced maturity that continues to grow in the face of triumphalism or cynicism. With its intelligent and authoritative open-minded style The Tablet is one of those few." Field is an Anglican, but then so are 18 per cent of Tablet readers.

Wilkins is unsurprised. "Ours is an English Catholicism and it is about developing a spirituality of the here and now. The church's problem is how to be modern and yet how to be above the flux of human history. We need to be in the middle of that discussion"n