25 September 2022

Vale to Gerald Davis, inaugural editor of Church Scene 

Gerald Davis was the longtime editor of Church Scene. Picture: supplied 

By Paul Arnott 

14 September 2022

Gerald Davis, 4 June 1939 – 29 July 2022. 

I first met Gerald during my years at Ridley in the mid-1980s. I had quite a deal to do with him in the late 80s and early 90s when I was synod media officer for the diocese of Tasmania. 

Church Scene was officially launched in February 1973, following the demise of The Anglican newspaper. Christian businessman and founder of Kerby Furniture Alan Kerr put together a group of businesspeople who were willing to fund the paper, including Edgar Coles and Gerald’s father Ralph. The Anglican bishops of Bendigo, Perth and Wangaratta were each willing to contribute $3000 of diocesan money to enable Church Scene to begin publication.  

The paper would be edited and run by Gerald Davis. Gerald had trained as a journalist, first at a local tri-weekly newspaper in Kyneton, then in Rupert Murdoch’s new suburban operation and briefly at The Australian in its early days. From childhood, he’d felt he would end up in some form of fulltime Christian service, but had no idea what shape it would take 

As managing editor, he was expected to make it all work. Clyde Wood and Colin Sheumack were “hard-heads” whose advice and support he greatly valued. He also received important advice and operating cash from Vincent Fairfax who brought Dame Elizabeth Murdoch on board. Within a decade, Church Scene was able to stand on its own feet. 

Gerald began to report on country synods around the nation, which he said: “surprised locals at first”. His goal was to discover what Anglican people thought important from Geraldton to Bendigo. As an example, he spent hours in a Whyalla pub at the suggestion of a local parson, to learn what was happening on the ground, including when the next strike was planned. While he had experience as a journalist, he had never managed a newspaper, so he had to learn those skills on the job.  

One of his biggest challenges was managing the staff of Church Scene, which at its peak employed 20 people. Former bishop of Tanzania Alf Stanway, who was the deputy chair of the parent company Church Press, was a brilliant administrator and an enormous asset to Church Scene. Gerald learned from both Alf Stanway and Rupert Murdoch how important it was to monitor costs on a daily basis. 

Finding and overseeing advertising was a huge challenge. It soon became apparent that circulation numbers weren’t going to attract the advertising needed to make the paper viable in the long term. At that point Gerald says Bishop Stanway encouraged him to think of more frequent local advertising. 

Alf Stanway found a woman with promotional skills who hit on the idea of promoting parish development – new church halls and buildings, tapping builders and suppliers for advertising. The goal was to give advertisers value for money and to set up specific circulation (free if necessary) in the parish or community for that edition. The outcome transformed the budget.  

The remarriage of divorcees was a major issue that Church Scene covered early on. Archbishop Keith Rayner was a careful bible exegete and put together a well thought through position on this issue from Matthew’s gospel. Another issue the paper covered was women’s ordination which was a focal point for a great deal of thought and debate in the 1980s. 

Church Scene never had a very wide readership, but the readership it had included most Anglican clergy households and enough others, some overseas, to maintain viability. Circulation varied between 3000-5000 copies.  

Although regularly reporting on the Anglican Church around Australia, the paper never sought and was never offered any institutional financial support, except for the initial diocesan grants.  

Gerald told me that while bishops seldom tried to interfere the relationship with the Anglican Church was often stormy. He tried hard to be non-partisan but got offside with the heavies in the Sydney diocese. Donald Robinson suggested seeking private peace talks with leaders of the Anglican Church League, which was vehemently opposed to women priests, but he received no response. 

Gerald felt a mistake he often made as a journalist was to allow himself to become too close to those about whom he was reporting.  

He told me:  

“There’s a rule in journalism that a journalist is like a zoo-keeper, who should never enter an animal enclosure unless carefully protected. There’s a difference between being sympathetic and empathetic. If you become empathetic you’ve crossed the line and I think I made that mistake too many times.” 

He told me that if he had his time over again, he’d be far more sensitive to power imbalances in the Church: 

“Unless one understands how the power imbalances impact you, you’re at their mercy. A number of clergy and bishops have a view of the episcopacy which sets them apart. At that time in the early seventies the Anglican Church was struggling to emerge from being the Church of England to becoming the Anglican Church of Australia. The difference between being authentically Anglican and authentically Australian was losing everybody, including me.” 

Gerald said that by 1992 he’d run out of steam. He knew that Church Scene needed to enter the online publishing world. “We’d already begun using desktop publishing, long before anyone else in the Australian religious press had moved away from typesetting,” he said. “We realised we needed to offer a paid online subscription. But that would threaten our paid mail subscription, which would have required a great deal more capital, and I just couldn’t see where that money was going to come from. In retrospect, I wish we’d been able to make that leap, but I was tired, unwell and had lost my vision for the paper and I just couldn’t see how to make it work. Unwisely, I’d failed to take LSL.” There were a number factors that resulted in Church Scene being wound up at the end of 1997. 

Gerald Davis was a gifted and principled journalist whom I admired greatly. He did his very best to be accurate and fair and he will be very much missed.

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