In praise of quirky news interviews

DontBelieve I have been feeling kind of guilty because GetReligion hasn’t even mentioned the bizarre semi-story of the week that has been so hot out there in the blogosphere, especially on conservative Catholic sites.

I am referring to that strange little interview that New York Times reporter Deborah Solomon did with Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. In case you missed the wave of cybercoverage of this story, including in our own comments pages, here are the remarks that have been getting so much attention:

How many members of the Episcopal Church are there in this country?

About 2.2 million. It used to be larger percentagewise, but Episcopalians tend to be better-educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations. Roman Catholics and Mormons both have theological reasons for producing lots of children.

Episcopalians aren’t interested in replenishing their ranks by having children?

No. It’s probably the opposite. We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.

As you can imagine, great fun was had in the usual places because of this statement. Anglican capitalists sprang into action, as did humorists. Lots of amused or angry people wrote letters to

This would explain why the Episcopal Church has, in a generation or so, lost a million members and many that remain are getting a bit long in the tooth. Losses have been especially sharp in the past two or three years, as discussed in this story in the liberal mainline Protestant journal The Christian Century.

Catholic writers, in particular, were rather miffed that the Episcopal leader created such a stark equation that said, in effect: Our numbers are declining because we are smarter and care more about the environment than all of those populist Catholics and Mormons (recall that Jefferts Schori was bishop of the tiny Diocese of Nevada before her election as archbishop).

88284924v6 240x240 BackBut I didn’t quite know what to say about this Times mini-interview because, for starters, I thought the questions were interesting and so were the answers. It is also true that when people get richer, more urban and very highly educated they tend to have fewer children. And the heart of the Episcopal Church’s leadership comes from areas that are rich, urban and highly, highly educated. At the same time, the Episcopal Church’s parishes that are experiencing rapid growth tend to be in the Sunbelt, in growing suburban areas and popular with young, growing families.

So it was a good interview, with a few interesting questions that produced interesting responses, much like that Here & Now public radio interview that produced the new presiding bishop’s revealing comments about people finding salvation through the culturally appropriate religion of their choice.

Quirky questions. Quirky answers. That’s good, right? Like that question about her husband and their long-distance marriage?

You were previously bishop of Nevada, but your new position requires you to live in New York City. Do you and your husband like it here?

He is actually in Nevada. He is a retired mathematician. He will be here in New York when it makes sense.

The question for me is whether Jefferts Schori will continue to be this candid in interviews with news organizations that she respects and to which she wants to talk in order to reach her liberal base. Is it possible that she felt too comfortable talking to the Times and to a public-radio show? That she felt a bit too secure?

I, for one, hope that her candor continues. I have always enjoyed covering religious leaders — on the left and the right — who have strong convictions and are not afraid to share them near microphones and pens.

Image credits: Revolution 21, Midwest Conservative Journal.

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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.

  • Maureen

    How is this statement creepy? Let bloggers count the ways.

    Here’s one I haven’t seen.

    Given that the lady’s parents were originally Catholic, and that she’s from a large family, this comment seems almost like a wish that she and her siblings were never born.

    Like I said, creepy.

  • Bro. James

    Perhaps the Bishop should research the fate of the Shakers a bit. Just a thought.

  • Stephen A.

    My first reaction: Bwwaaaaaaa hahahahahahaha! (and then milk spurts out of my nose.)

    My second reaction: It really is a great interview, since it brings out the oddity that is TEC these days, and the “spin” employed to explain away the millions who have fled it’s theological “distinctives” is simply precious.

    On the other hand, since mostly pro-abortion, Leftst, middle-aged Boomers are left in the church, her analysis may be partially correct. Who has time for birthing babies?

    For the record, I’d bet Mormons are expanding their flocks because of smart, vigorous evangelizing, as well as high birthrates and a positive, conservative message – just like conservative and Fundamentalist Christian denominations are. It’s only the mainline that’s failing, for “some reason.”

  • Lynn Svedin

    As a Mormon, a father of five sons and, alas, no daughters, and having gone to college for eight years, let me quickly with the comment of the author, “I, for one, hope that her candor continues.” She is only making the job or Mormon missionaries easier.

    All I have to say is “Keep on keeping on.”

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I hope Bishopess Shori keeps on openly blathering. Every time she opens her mouth to put down Christ,deride the Bible, promote immoral sexual practices, and insult other Christians for not being as self-absorbed, hedonistic, and anti-life as Episcopalians she creates a few more thousand Catholics, Evangelical Protestants, or Orthodox, all 3 Christian groupings who still revere the Bible and whose leaders still try to inspire their congregants to aspire to the highest levels of morality taught by the Christian Tradition. If there is a major award(given in honor of St. Paul) to a church for being championship ear-ticklers of the Modern World–it surely most go to the Episcopalians.

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  • Greg Popcak

    I wrote PB Schori. Her publicist replied that she was misquoted. You can read my exchange with Mr Goodfellow here if you like. All I can say is so much for candor.

  • C. Wingate

    One can actually find this stuff stated less, um, eccentrically on the PECUSA website, courtesy of Kirk Hadaway:

    Is the Episcopal Church Growing (or Declining)?

    One of the peculiarities of PECUSA polity is that the Presiding Bishop has a role that is particularly focused on spokesmanship. So far KJS is showing an unimpressive track record in this, as for instance at GC where her sermon on day and her address to the convention the next day created the unappealing image of Christ giving birth to Siamese twins. On the other hand, perhaps it is all an improvement over Griswold’s famously opaque missives.

  • Philocrites

    Since you (and many gleeful others) continue saying that Sunbelt and traditionalist Episcopal churches “tend” to be the growing ones, I’d love to have a citation that points to actual empirical data.

    I’m aware of the handful of large congregations that have gotten press for opposing Bishop Robinson’s election or for disaffiliating with the Episcopal Church — but I’m not aware of the data that shows that conservative churches are large and growing while liberal ones are small and declining. (I could point anecdotally to at least as many instances that go in the other direction.)

    Do you have data?

  • dpt

    “It is also true that when people get richer, more urban and very highly educated they tend to have fewer children. And the heart of the Episcopal Church’s leadership comes from areas that are rich, urban and highly, highly educated.”

    The challenge for the rich, being they Epsicopal, Catholic, Baptist,etc., is they duty they have towards the poor amongst them. Jesus was quite forthright in the responsibilities the rich have and the barriers they face if they want to enjoy in Eternal life.

  • Martha

    “So it was a good interview, with a few interesting questions that produced interesting responses”

    tmatt, I have to disagree with you on this. I thought it was pelting her with flowers – and why does every blinkin’ interview I see with her make such a big deal of her being a pilot? “Wow, you can fly a plane! Fancy that!”

    I’m one of the great unwashed mass of Romanists who was amused by her little swipe – as I said, I’d love to know what the Mormons did to tick her off – but the serious undercurrent is that the well-educated don’t ‘do’ theology. I’m interested to see what her new book coming out sometime early in 2007 (“A Wing and a Prayer”, and yes, the cover photo has a light aircraft in it!) will tell us about her religious beliefs. I know all about her political ones and how she thinks the Episcopal Church was put on earth to fulfill the Millenium Development Goals, but I’m fascinated to see what her pastoral style is like. Surely she must, as priest and bishop, have written something to instruct the laity on the faith they shared. I’d like to see some of that.

  • Nick Dupree

    Don’t forget us Jews. Hasidic communities, Kiriyas Joel for example, have an AVERAGE 12 kids per woman!

  • Terrence Berres

    As I read the reply to Greg Popcak, it doesn’t actually claim she was misquoted, as such. It instead sort of says if we could read the entire interview it would leave a different impression than what was published.

  • Deborah

    Philocrites — Here are some sources:

    Diocesan growth analysis:

    Map of diocesan growth analysis:

    Official statistics from TEC (much of this is raw data):

  • Greg Popcak


    Perhaps “misquoted” isn’t the best word, but when Goodfellow writes…

    “The reality is that media interviews do not always convey the whole nature of a conversation had between interviewee and interviewer. A few paragraphs of text cannot distill with complete accuracy a lengthy conversation.”

    To me, that reads as if he is saying, “in context, these comments made sense, but from a much longer interview, the reporter only chose to publish that which seemed most sensational.”

    In other words, its the reporter’s fault the bishop came off as she did. Perhaps that isn’t the same as claiming to be misquoted, but it is to say that the reporter edited quotes or quoted selectively in a manner that–intentionally or unintentionally–cast the bishop in an unfortunate light. That’s why I asked Goodfellow to provide the context that the reporter allegedly failed to accurately convey. Personally, I believe there is no “context”, and I believe Goodfellow knows it too, but if there is, the Bishop should provide it. Either that, or she should stand by her published comments to the effect that Catholics and Mormons are ignorant breeders.

    THAT would be candor, not this nonsense.

  • Sean Gallagher

    It is also true that when people get richer, more urban and very highly educated they tend to have fewer children.

    This may be generally true, but it is certainly not universally so. Indeed, I would tend to say that the sharp reaction to it in the various realms of the blogosphere cited here is evidence that there is a higher number of highly educed, if not necessarily urban or monetarily well off, people who view the conception and birth of children as more of a universal blessing than Bishop Jefferts Schori does.

    The question for me is whether Jefferts Schori will continue to be this candid in interviews with news organizations that she respects and to which she wants to talk in order to reach her liberal base.

    I don’t think that she necessarily needs to “reach her liberal base.” I suspect that they’re confident enough in her leadership that they don’t need to be reminded in an NYT or NPR interview of her views.

    If I were her communications director, though, I would have pulled out my hair after having read the interview. Yes, her base will wholeheartedly agree with her. But when you’re in a position of leadership like hers, being diplomatic (as opposed to speaking with candor?) is a definite virtue, especially when being interviewed by any member of the media.

  • Michael

    I read the Solomon interview every week in the NYT magazine and I always leave wanting to know what actually was said in the interview. She asks great questions and loves to provoke the people she inteviews, but I know as a journalist that people don’t talk in soundbites and that those answers likely lack important context. Schori strikes me as being a fairly abstract speaker and abstractions are hard to get down on paper. OTOH, she’s a big girl and she knew what she was getting herself into.

    Ultimately, there’s nothing Schori can say that isn’t going to be dissected by the religious and political conservative blogosphere who are looking to score points. The Episcopal Church is the current favorite whipping-boy of religious conservatives and the attached blogosphere and they view the ECUSA and Schori with a jaundiced eye and a boatload of agendas. It’s a no-win situation for Schori and the ECUSA.

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  • Philocrites

    Deborah, thanks for the links. I’d love some from less biased sources than Titus One Nine, but it’s a start.

  • jayman

    Have you actually gone to the titusonenine link and read it? You’ll see they are actually using data from ECUSA itself and from Louie Crewe’s website — the latter not exactly someone known for orthodox sympathies.

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