In the beginning
The chair of the Open House board offers a personal memoir of the magazine’s origins and its development over 250 editions.
Born in Dundee some 16 years ago, but probably conceived in Aberdeen a good while before that, Open House has reached its 250th edition. The major progenitors were Ian Willock, Denis Rice and Tony Robb, who was the first editor of the magazine; perhaps the Holy Spirit was the midwife. Ian, Denis and Tony had first met in Aberdeen in the 1960s, where Ian had become a Catholic. All were buoyed by the Second Vatican Council and had seen the vision of a reformed church using the talent of all as we strove to realise the Kingdom. The vision was dimming. They were determined to reignite it. I was carried along by their enthusiasm.
They had come up with the idea of a lay-led magazine for Scotland ‘from the Catholic tradition’, a sort of Scottish Tablet, to try to resurrect the vision of Vatican II and provide an outlet for positive lay and clerical thinking on the future of the Catholic church in an ecumenical Scottish environment. From conversations with Ian over the years I knew he had a radical edge; but he was essentially a liberal, with strong views on the increasing failure of the Church to follow through on Vatican II. But he had a great respect for the institutions of the Church. By that stage I had given up on institutions and had at last learned that the Church and God were separable. It did not stop me going to Mass, but it enabled me to devote my energies to secular arenas in which lay people had a voice.
Nonetheless I was attracted by Ian’s idea of attempting a fully lay-led Catholic publication on religious issues. He had a track record in publishing. He had created SCOLAG, a monthly publication on social welfare law in Scotland, for which I had written several articles. This was the first ever legal journal in Scotland not produced by a mainstream publisher and not addressed to the areas in which Scots lawyers traditionally earned their fees. It exists to this day. It seemed to be exactly what the Scottish Catholic Church needed as well. I knew he could do the practical production things, about which I had no clue. I knew too that Tony had a history of delivering contributions on religious matters more radically than Ian, and Denis seemed to stand somewhere in between them. Their enthusiasm was infectious and I caught it. My major contribution in the early days was to suggest the title of the magazine – based on a column which ran regularly in the Scotsman, a newspaper we read at that time.
Ian, Denis and Tony had a large network of contacts in the mainstream and on the fringes of the Church, some of them priests, and I added a few of a slightly younger generation. They had a vision of selling 1,000 copies a month; I was less optimistic and did wonder where the money would come from to finance the venture. It came: some from religious orders and societies who shared our aspirations, some from individuals with the same vision, but most over the years came, I suspect, from Ian. Our model of governance was classic for the time. We didn’t have one. I collected and banked subscriptions. The bank statements went to Ian and stayed with Ian. Whoever did the monthly mailing, including labelling, enveloping and posting the magazine, usually paid for it themselves. This was normally Ian with the dedicated assistance of Elizabeth his wife and Denis. My kids helped me do it several times, but they cost more than the postage.
We have never reached the magical 1000 subscribers, but we have almost washed our face some years, albeit only with the assistance of many people who add a donation to their annual subscription. Ian fought us every time we suggested increasing the annual subscription to cover costs. He was determined no subscriber should ever be excluded for lack of resources and was sure that donations would make up the shortfall. He was almost right, probably at some cost to himself, and we need to address this issue still. Another 100 subs would see us in the black. Our major salesforce is existing subscribers. Get us one new sub each and we are in clover!
When Ian moved towards retiral (in his mid-seventies) Open House received a great gift in the shape of James Armstrong. James literally took over, at the invitation of the then ‘committee’. We needed proper governance and he brought it. There was, of course, a price to be paid in terms of a departure from our Heath-Robinson informality, and it did not suit everyone. It did, however, usher in a new era of proper management, presentation of accounts and development of the product. The ultimate outcome is the magazine of today. We owe James a great debt of gratitude.
And so to today, and, more importantly, tomorrow. To use the market language, we have a product which is professional, inspirational and aspirational; we have an editor who is doing an excellent job in acquiring and presenting a balance of content which reports, reflects upon, and anticipates important issues in the life, spiritual, temporal and international, of Scotland and the world; she also entertains and challenges. We have contributors who give of their time and work free of charge at a level which could clearly attract payment in other sections of the media. We have a committee of dedicated people and an editorial board who turn up at meetings without expenses and work in a glorious harmony to improve the magazine, support the editor and look to the future. And we have a readership which is faithful, responsive and encouraging. All we need is more of them!
We also have a Pope who is re-opening windows pretty well shut by his two predecessors. He wants us as Church to be part of living the mercy of Christ for the whole world. We want that too and Open House gives us a vehicle to express this to all the people of Scotland. One of our bishops subscribes to Open House, but maybe we should reinstate Ian’s original practice of sending all our bishops in Scotland a complimentary copy, a practice Tony and I opposed to no effect, so that, if they do not consult us, we nevertheless advise them. Anybody want to sponsor that?
I suppose I never realised the formality of magazine production when I first became involved with Open House. It was only when I became the subscriptions person and received an official note from the National Library of Scotland reminding me that I had not sent them, as the copyright library for Scotland, copies of issues no 10, 11 and 12 that I realised we had established a new institution. That institution is now in its 250th manifestation. For that, thanks are due to many people – and the Spirit. May she guide us as we continue to become a living Church.
Dr Jim McManus is a former Professor of Criminal Justice at Glasgow Caledonian University and now advises criminal justice authorities in Council of Europe member states.