Doing that Episcopal media thang

defaultI think Episcopalians get a lot of ink because: (a) there are a lot of Episcopalians in the newsrooms, (b) they tend to be urbanites and well-educated (c) the opposing camps are incredibly well-funded with huge PR machines, and (d) Americans tend to have Anglo-envy.

Posted by Michael at 11:08 am on June 13, 2006

With the annual mainline Summer of Sex rites upon us, I thought it might be fun if I dredged back into my past and shared a bit of an essay that I wrote in 1994 for the Rt. Rev. Doug LeBlanc during one of his earlier turns as an editor on the conservative side of the Anglican aisle.

I must confess that I was, at the time, an evangelical who was already struggling to stay, with his family, in the Episcopal Church while living in the mountains of East Tennessee. I was teaching at the college level and, since I was a columnist and no longer in a newsroom, I was free to write this rather snarky little essay. I apologize for the condition of this inside page of my homepage. I am a total loss when it comes to fixing technical glitches of this kind, which is why there are many changes to GetReligion that are a year or more overdue.

Anyway, I called the essay “Why Journalists Love the Episcopal Church: Sex, Politics, Vestments, Urban Addresses — We’ve Got It All!” I offer a link to it here since this precise topic always comes up when Episcopalians gather for their General Convention under the microscope of a rapt national press. So here is the start of the essay:

People phrase the question in many different ways.

Some do not mince words. “Why in the world,” they say, “does the Episcopal Church get so much media coverage?”

In major media, the nation’s 2 million or so Episcopalians often receive just as much, and sometimes much more, attention than the members of major denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church or the Assemblies of God.

I’ve heard a few leaders of other churches and religious groups ask variations on this question with a slightly anxious, or even jealous, sound in their voices. What they are really asking is this: Why doesn’t my church get as much press coverage as those Episcopalians?

With good reason, many Episcopalians are amused by this question. It is difficult to conceive of a reason why any sane religious leader would welcome the media attention that is given, year after year, to the Episcopal Church. Who would covet someone else’s root canal?

Thus, when many Episcopalians ask about the waves of coverage that the media give their church, the question that they are actually asking is: Why are the secular media always picking on us?

ENS Lambeth98 Bp women walk MedI suggest a number of reasons for this press attention, reasons that are very similar to those suggested by Michael in the opening comment. You can read all of that for yourself, if you wish.

I would add the fact that the urban nature of the Episcopal heritage and the facilities that result also make them convenient for the press and for photo ops. Yes, it is crucial that Episcopalians photograph well when it comes to religious seasons and public events. This is true, even if the number of people in many of the pews is in decline (brace yourself for a storm of comments debating the statistics [PDF] on this issue).

Episcopal clergy look like Roman Catholics, only without — in the blue zip codes that really matter — carrying with them many or even all of those messy ancient doctrines that bug many reporters so much.

This leads to the final statement of my thesis.

I believe the Episcopal Church draws more than its share of media attention because its leaders wear religious garb, work in conveniently located buildings, speak fluent politics and promote a mystical brand of moral liberalism. Episcopalians look like Roman Catholics and act like liberal politicians.

Clearly, this is a flock that will continue to merit the attention of America’s media elite. The Episcopal Church’s buildings will photograph well, even if the only people in them are behind the altars.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Michael

    The Episcopalians bring Michael and Terry together. :)

    I would add one additional point. Those raising concerns about the direction of the church in the U.S. also have great access to power, money, and influence. While the liberal bent of the press plays a role, I also think the powerful Conservatives involved in the dissenters also fuel the coverage.

    Here in Washington, those attending the dissenting churches in Virginia are a who’s who of Conservative Washington. They include members of every prominant think tank, conservative policy group, and conservative interest group in town. This kind of access to power and media and money has helped foster the coverage. The efforts to raise attention have gotten generous support from large Conservative funders and philanthropists.

    So while Episcopalians tease the imagination of liberals in the newsroom, they also tease the pocketbooks and media connections of Conservatives in general.

  • Will

    An instance notable for the LACK of media attention was a particularly lurid sex scandal a few years ago in the Diocese of Long Island. Mark Shea and I might be inclined to suspect that this is because there was no way to spin it with “celibacy did it!” and “refusal to ordain women did it!”… but of course, that would be PARANOID of me.
    The really amusing part was efforts by the editorial (epithet deleted) at EPISCOPAL LIFE to acknowledge that something was wrong without using the h-word, and finally deciding that the allegations were of “indiscriminate sex”.
    Er, what is “discriminate sex”? It is usually possible to tell whether or not one is comitting fornication (except, perhaps, for Bill Clinton). But how do I tell whether I am being “discriminate” enough for postmodern ethics?

  • Scott M.

    Historically speaking, perhaps a small contributing factor is the Episcopalians who have inhabited the White House. I recently picked up a copy of John McCollister’s book, “God and the Oval Office: The Religious Faith of Our 43 Presidents” (W Publishing Group, 2005); McCollister notes that, as far as church affiliation, Episcopalians take home the blue ribbon–8 of the 43 presidents (he counts George Washington as one of the eight though he acknowledges that Washington was a Deist [arguable]–he attended an Episcopal church…technically, because of this distinction, the group of 8 presidents that snake the blue ribbon away are in the “unaffiliated” category).

  • rightwingprof

    Yes, Episcopal priests look like Roman Catholic priests. But in 84, I attended a city-wide ecumenical prayer service. The Roman Catholic bishop, a very short man, looked like a bishop, in a miter. The Episcopal bishop, as tall as the RC bishop was short, didn’t look like any kind of clergyman, but an academic at a commencement.

  • dw

    Two things that haven’t been mentioned in these posts:
    1. PC(USA) switched to having biennial general assemblies starting with this one. Costs were a big issue. But the change means that now they’re cramming two years of debate into one conference, and the “gays in the church” group is jousting with the “Israel divestment” group for time. It’s going to be racuous.

    2. The SBC is meeting this week, too. They’re not mainline, but they are appearing to be stepping back from the last 10-15 years of marching away from congregationalism.

  • JJ

    The Episcopal Church gets inordinate publicity because it is the institutional church of our national elites, going back to George Washington. They have a “National Cathedral” in D.C. because they think they are the national religion; they get to do the presidential funerals as though it were the American equivalent of Westminster Abbey. They are the church of the miltary chaplaincies and of the elite prep schools and of Wall Street. (Ever hear of Trinity Church Wall Street? That parish’s endowment will fund all Episcopalian activity in the U.S. forever, whether there are any Episcopalians in the pews or not.) And they are the default church of people who need to prove that they are rich and white. Furthermore, media outlet owners enjoy reading about themselves and their hobbies. This is their hobby religion.