Thursday, December 04, 2008

from the Episcopal Cafe: "What does the NYT see that the rest of us don't?"

This, IMHO, is a must read (the NYTimes article, not so much)

~Rev. Peter M. Carey

From Jim Naughton and published at the Episcopal Cafe

Simon Sarmiento has an excellent set of links to the mainstream media's coverage of Anglican conservative's creation of a new ecclesiastical partnership yesterday in Wheaton, Illinois, as does Neva Rae Fox.

The most notable story is by Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times, and what is notable is not the story--which is well done--but the way it played in the paper. It appears on Page One, above the fold, in a place that indicates it is the SECOND MOST IMPORTANT THING THAT HAPPENED IN THE WORLD yesterday. Is this perhaps a bit of an overreaction?

At the moment, all this group has achieved is to take an unknown number of people who used to be Episcopalians [let's say 65,000 for the purposes of conversation augment them with perhaps another 15,000 who were either a) Canadians or b) never Episcopalians in the first place and declare themselves a new ecclesiastical body of some sort]. Does that justify this kind of coverage?

We asked the same question when the majority of the former members of the Diocese of San Joaquin voted to leave the Church. Did the decision of 15,000 people to leave one religious group and align with another deserve front page coverage?

What, exactly, does The New York Times think is happening here? At best this kind of treatment can be called "predictive." The Times may be certain it is covering the break-up of something big-- it can't seem to decide if it is the Episcopal Church or the Anglican Communion-- and doesn't want its readers to miss a moment. But what it this turns out to be the high tide of the breakaway movement? What if, when all is said and done, after they have spent millions of dollars and convulsed the Anglican Communion, all the conservatives have accomplished is the creation of a tiny church of some 80,000 people that is recognized by a dozen Anglican primates and is invisible in most of North America? Wouldn't the Times' coverage look a little rash in retrospect? Certainly, but by then, there will be no way of repairing the damage the paper had done to our Church, by falling in love with a narrative that never reached its expected conclusion.

The sense that the Times' editors have swallowed the conservatives argument in the purest possible form is augmented by three factors: a) the length of today's story: you don't give a reporter this kind of space unless you think something truly significant has happened; b) the decision to describe the departure of perhaps six or seven percent of the Episcopal Church's membership as a "split." If you split the bill, you generally split it in half. That is how the word is commonly understood. "Splinter" would have been a more accurate choice of words; and c) the photograph that accompanied the jump of the story on Page A-24 of today's paper. It is a posed studio-style shot of four bishops of the new ecclesial body beaming at the camera. It looks more like the work of a press agent than that of a photo journalist. When this sort of picture appears in daily newspapers, they generally appear with an upbeat profile of the subject in the Style or Living sections, not in the news hole, where the principle of journalistic objectivity typically extends to the camera's eye.

For the sake of comparison, take a look at the blog item that Manya Brachear of the Chicago Tribune wrote yesterday entitled Schism or Stunt? Here is a reporter willing to admit that the narrative line of this story is not nearly so well-established as the Times seems to believe, and that she and her colleagues may be being manipulated by the Anglican conservatives. It is unfortunate that the Tribune is not nearly as influential as the Times.

I spoke twice yesterday with reporters who seldom write about the ongoing saga of the Anglican Communion. I asked them both why they thought this story--which is of no obvious significance at this point--was worth covering. They both told me that personally they weren't sure what to make of recent developments, but that they couldn't ignore it because it was in The New York Times.


Mary said...

I disagree with this. I think that, regardless of the overall size of the split, what's happening in the Episcopal Church IS important, for the rest of the country as well as for those within the church. The issues that divide us are divisive to the country as a whole, and people who feel passionately about them--regardless of which side of the debate they're on--will naturally feel that they have some kind of stake in what the Church does, even if they're not Episcopalians.

I was talking with a friend today about issues of theological reform within the Catholic Church. She's planning to go into feminist theology, in part to try to fight for what she and I both see as important changes that need to be made within Catholicism (ahem, ordination of women...). In her opinion, large sections of the Catholic church are waiting to see what happens to us, in essence to see whether pushing for change is worth the price they might have to pay for it. (I would argue that a unity that comes from keeping quiet about what you disagree with is no unity at all, but that's another issue.) We as Episcopalians do not exist in a vacuum; what we do DOES affect the rest of the Christian community and anyone who thinks seriously about these matters. If you believe, as I do, that we are called in part to set an example of loving and peaceful Christian dialogue, that one of our special gifts as a church is the ability to embrace dissent within ourselves while still remaining one community--well, then, the fact that we as a whole are failing at this (regardless of whose fault it may be) is a tragedy not only for us, but for anyone who wants to believe that what unites Christians is stronger than what divides us.

Furthermore, I take pretty strong offense at the author's implication that the number of those leaving has anything to do with the importance of the loss. Wasn't there a parable somewhere about the shepherd who has 100 sheep and yet goes out looking for the single missing one? Split or splinter, we are losing our siblings. No matter how alienated from them we may feel, and even though we may believe that valuing all members of our community as equal prevents us from giving in to the prejudices of a few, we need to remember that those few belong to our community, too. And if they choose to remove themselves--well, I think that calls for mourning our loss, not dismissing it.

Peter Carey said...


You make some wonderful points - and I do mourn the loss of our brothers and sisters. Some of the folks who are leaving were good friends of mine in church, and at seminary as well.

I do think that the OVERALL story is an important one, I just would say that the particular event in Wheaton Illinois was not a particularly important event (except as a PR event), and I think the NYTimes bought the PR of those who were leaving.

The larger issues of the splitting away of a small group of people who once called themselves Episcopalians is important to reflect upon, and I really do mourn the loss of those who might call themselves 'conservatives' from our church. I think our church is weaker without them -- even if their numbers are quite small.

Thanks for your posting, it has given me some important things to think about!

I do pray for the church, all of the church.