Presiding bishop wronged by shallow newspaper

obispaThanks to the energy of GetReligion reader Greg Popcak, we now know that the hierarchy of the Episcopal Church does not share my enthusiasm for the contents of that strange little New York Times Magazine mini-interview with Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.

According to a letter from Robert B. Goodfellow, the new presiding bishop’s media aide, the brilliant primate, scientist and airplane pilot was quoted out of context by reporter Deborah Solomon and, if the remarks were read in context, all of those Roman Catholic and Mormon breeders out there in the blogosphere would not be as upset as they are at the moment (click here for background and URLs).

Here is the key part of that letter:

I am writing to thank you very much for the candid expression of your concern regarding the Presiding Bishop’s recent interview published in this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.

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.

I can also assure you that the Presiding Bishop does not think other Christians uneducated, ignorant, illiterate, or somehow or otherwise not smart simply because they are not Episcopalian.

Note the presence of the words “simply because” in that latter statement. Classic!

Now, I have — back in the days before I was a columnist — been involved in a few of these exchanges with the media aides of brilliant, nuanced, complicated mainline Protestant intellectuals.

Note that Goodfellow does not claim Jefferts Schori was misquoted. The controversial quote stands. In other words, the new leader of the Episcopal Church did, while discussing membership losses in her church, truly say:

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. … We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.

Jefferts Schori’s office simply wants the world to know that she said many other things and that, as a reporter, Solomon did a poor job of selecting material from the longer interview when she was assembling this edgy little Q&A. I am told by people who spend more time than I do in The New York Times Magazine that this interview with the archbishop is a perfect example of Solomon’s style, which strives to humanize public figures by asking questions that are more personal and casual.

But here is my final observation. Many elite thinkers on the theological left have learned how to surround their beliefs in a kind of nuanced theological fog that serves as a protective barrier. Insiders know what the symbolic word clusters mean, but this strategy prevents many people in the pews — the kind of ordinary people who write checks — from understanding what is going on. There are exceptions, of course, such as the retired Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong of Newark, who never used a fly swatter when a baseball bat would do.

The problem for reporters is that when you select one crisp quote out of the fog this allows the offended intellectual to say, in effect, that the reporter simply wasn’t smart enough to understand the rich tapestry of the total interview and, thus, misquoted the speaker, even though the quote was accurate. It’s a sad thing, don’t you see, when leaders have to communicate high thoughts through such a low medium — like The New York Times.

Our sympathies go out to the poor reporter, who will surely learn from her error.

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see if Jefferts Schori continues — Spong style — to fire away as freely in interviews with news organizations that she trusts.

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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.

  • http://until.joe-perez.com/ joe perez

    tmatt: I think your observations on this affair in this post and the previous one on this topic are right on-the-spot. I for one appreciate Jefferts Schori’s candor and my only regret is that more commentators in the blogosphere haven’t focused on the factual basis for Schori’s attempts to explain the linkages differentials in birth rates to different values, socio-economic conditions, and so forth and have instead focused on her alleged motivations (“bigotry,” according to Greg Popcak, the reader you quote). The blogosphere is an excitable bunch, aren’t we?

  • Dennis Colby

    Having had a few run-ins with this sort of thing myself, what I zeroed in on right away was the fact that Schori’s spokesperson never said the word “inaccurate.” They didn’t even use the old standby, “out of context.” What the spokesperson did say was that the full conversation was much lengthier than what ended up in the magazine: I wonder what we’d find if the Times printed or posted the entire transcript. Would there be even more foot-in-mouth moments if the whole lengthy conversation were presented verbatim?

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    It seems to me that this gives us reason to wonder how much Solomon has left out of other interviews… or, to put it another way, what filters she habitually uses.

  • Lola LB

    Well, I guess were I an Episcopalian, I’d be very disturbed by what she had to say. Thankefully, I’m not. It simply confirms that I made the right choice as to my religious beliefs.

  • Jeff

    Actually, what I find amusing is that it doesn’t appear that Solomon challenged Katharine on her assertion that the low numbers of Episcopalians was strictly due to birthrates. Frankly, I think she was being handled quite gently, considering.

  • http://www.accidentalanglican.net Deborah

    What interests me here is the Presiding Bishop didn’t just answer the question as it was asked and wait to see if the reporter followed up – she felt compelled to elaborate. Is she now attempting preemptive rhetorical strikes against reporters for fear they’ll bring up the fact we’re hemorrhaging members? I detect a note of defensiveness in this interview that I haven’t seen before.

    Amusing coincidence: Today’s Word of the Day at Dictionary.com is equivocate.

  • MoJ

    You might want to investigate the facts about the Episcopal Church as presented FOUR YEARS AGO in the Faith Communities Today survey which you can access here: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/research_4562_ENG_HTM .

  • http://www.ksvaughan2.byregion.net Karen Vaughan

    You know, it is accurate that Episcopalians and people with higher socio-economic status have fewer children, all other things being equal.

    Except, when those of similar socio-economic status have theological reasons to reproduce. Orthodox Jews, Catholics and Mormons of similar-to-Episcopalian socio-economic status, for instance will tend to have more children. And that kind of nuance didn’t come through in the quotation.

  • Steve

    I am shocked that a newspaper magazine such as the NYT Mag would be negitive to one of their own. If the good “Bishop” was made to look back by being misquoted, then does that make the NYT Mag extremely liberal (hard to believe) or just anti-religious. Since I don’t consider the ECUSA to be part the Christian Chruch, I can’t say that that the NYT Mag is anti-Christian.

    Please note that there are many faithful Christians within the ECUSA but the leadership and doctrine is moving away from historic Christian doctinre.

  • Michael

    What interests me here is the Presiding Bishop didn’t just answer the question as it was asked and wait to see if the reporter followed up – she felt compelled to elaborate. Is she now attempting preemptive rhetorical strikes against reporters for fear they’ll bring up the fact we’re hemorrhaging members? I detect a note of defensiveness in this interview that I haven’t seen before.

    The conceit of these Q&A stories is that they aren’t verbatim transcripts, but edited to fit a column. Thus, both follow-up questions and contextual answers are edited out. It’s quite possible that Solomon did get Schori to elaborate, but didn’t think it was necessary to reflect that in the final story.

    Not that I want to interrupt a fun game of kicking around the ECUSA, especially when comparisons to the infamous Bp. Spong are tossed in for good measure.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    MICHAEL:

    My praise for Spong as a NEWS SOURCE was sincere. If you want to see bishops squirm, read them some of Spong’s primary criticism of Christianity and theism and then ask them to note specific issues where they disagree with him.

    Like on those tmatt trio questions.

    Ask Spong those three questions and you get direct answers, even answers that you can quote.

    I like candor. How about you?

  • http://www.accidentalanglican.net Deborah

    The response to Greg Popcak by the PB’s press rep sounded more like something from a politician (citing Schori’s “record”) than a pastor. But then, in the Episcopal Church, we’re often hard-pressed to tell the difference.

  • http://www.accidentalanglican.net Deborah

    The conceit of these Q&A stories is that they aren’t verbatim transcripts, but edited to fit a column.

    That makes it all the more interesting that the PB and her press rep chose not to supply the alleged context but to let the quote stand as printed.

  • Tim Townsend

    Tmatt, thanks for pointing out Goodfellow’s letter. Any of us who regularly cover religious leaders know this kind of push-and-pull over language is part of the game. I just had a fascinating conversation with Roman Catholic Bishop Edward K. Braxton of Belleville, Ill. at the U.S. bishops’ conference in Baltimore a couple weeks ago. (I’m the religion reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.) Braxton came to Belleville in a cloud of controversy and has since been very press shy. When I talked to him in Baltimore it was only the second time we’d spoken since he was appointed to Belleville in March, 2005. He told me his dislike for America’s sound-bite culture was the predominant reason he’d shunned the press since arriving in Illinois. Essentially, he doesn’t want to hand over control of his words to someone else. He doesn’t trust the process and therefore chooses not to play. The other Roman Catholic bishop in town, Archbishop Raymond Burke, has not spoken to me in more than 18 months, I would imagine for the same reasons. Neither has ever told me or my editors that they felt my coverage of them was inaccurate or unfair, or, in Burke’s case, that he’d ever been misquoted.

    “The media” – whatever that is – is something all public figures want to control. Religious leaders are not elected officials and they have the option of simply clamming up and using the denominational media (as Burke has done with the Catholic press) to get their messages to their flocks. I wonder what Jefferts Schori took away from this lesson. Will she be resigned to the fact that she can’t control the secular press, and engage us anyway, trusting that the good majority of us are professionals (as you pointed out, Tmatt, interesting questions and interesting – and apparently accurate – answers in Solomon’s interview with Jefferts Schori) who abide by the ethics of our craft? Or will she rely on the protective covering of the Episcopal News Service and Episcopal Life magazine (both of which do excellent work but are journalistically limited by the fact that they are connected to the church they cover) in order to better control her message? We shall see…

  • Michael

    I like candor. How about you?

    I love candor. I just don’t like piling-on and points-scoring.

  • Larry Rasczak

    “the Presiding Bishop does not think other Christians uneducated, ignorant, illiterate, or somehow or otherwise not smart simply because they are not Episcopalian”

    You know, there have got to be some good infalibility jokes in there somewhere. I just don’t have the time to find them right now.

  • Larry Rasczak

    Michael says “I love candor. I just don’t like piling-on and points-scoring.”

    But Michael, it’s FUN!

    Besides, how else are those of us with sub-Episcopalian intelects going to entertain ourselves? We can’t understand all those big words on PBS after all!

    You know I never have been officaially recieved into the Episcopal Church, I just started going with my wife. Now I can tell her that it’s because I’m afraid of the enterance exam! I can see it now.

    “We’re sorry Mr. Rasczak, but your scores simply aren’t high enough for you to become an Episcopalian. You did rather well on the golfing portion of the test, and your essay on the joys of intelectual snobbery was a true work of art; but the mathematics portion and the ancient and modern languages section pulled your overall score down into the Methodist range, and your lack of skepticisim regarding the scriptures is far below what we consider acceptable. I am SO sorry.

    However there are still many fine Churches out there. I’m sure you will find one that is right for you. Thank you very much for your interest in the ECUSA.”

  • http://www.captainsacrament.com/ Kyle Potter

    It’s unfortunate that the new PB didn’t phrase her comment in the way that Karen Vaughn did in the comments above.

    But I remember well one of the tracts popular in some Episcopalian parishes; it’s titled, “The Episcopal Church: A Faith for Thinking People.”

    I don’t think I need to comment further…

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  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Those of us who follow the religious demographics scene know that KJS was basically repeating– albeit poorly– what Kirk Hadaway wrote some years back. It’s not inaccurate; it’s just offensive to those who like to think that that sort of social status matters, and it’s obviously a public relations problem to have it said the way she said it.

    Dragging Spong into the picture is misleading because of a point which (at least in my experience) reporters never called him on: he used the dissonance between his office and his views to garner publicity. It was to his advantage to state his positions as outrageously as possible; it sold books. and reporters largerly gave him a pass on this because, well, controversy sells papers. It became a kind of journalistic condependence which made him “important” far beyond the degree to which his views were shared.

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  • Martha

    This does answer one of my questions; TEC does have a press officer to handle this stuff. I did wonder, considering some of the other things the Presiding Bishop has said which ruffled a few feathers (like being asked straight out about Jesus and humming and hawing in her reply).

    So it seems that what is being reported is what Bishop Schori is saying, and what she wants to say. If anyone can tell me how mentioning that Group X are better-educated does not mean that Group Y which you then speak about in the next sentence are less-educated or less intelligent, I’d love to know (being one of those less-smart Romans, y’know).

  • http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/blog Grant Gallicho

    But here is my final observation. Many elite thinkers on the theological left have learned how to surround their beliefs in a kind of nuanced theological fog that serves as a protective barrier. Insiders know what the symbolic word clusters mean, but this strategy prevents many people in the pews — the kind of ordinary people who write checks — from understanding what is going on.

    This begs elaboration. “Elite.” “Thinkers.” “Theological left.” Who are these people? Journalists? Bishops? Theologians? This graf reads like shorthand, Terry. It’s all a bit, well, foggy. Who and what are you talking about?

  • joe

    Good grief. Can’t anyone just say what they think without anyone taking offense, or do all thoughts have to be as dynamic as cream of wheat? Episcopalians due tend to be higher educated. And higer educated people do tend to have fewer kids. unless they happen to be religiously motivated like Catholics and Mormons. She said nothing that isn’t true and generally recognized. Of course, if people had not been trained to take offense at the blink of an eye by the media, what would make the news?

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  • http://jonswerens.blogspot.com Jon Swerens

    Joe,

    I don’t think it was merely the Madame Bishop’s comments about eddykashun and childbirth that caused the kerfuffle. It was her own follow-up that cemented the deal:

    We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.

    So those of us who have “more than their portion” of children are poor stewards. Whereas killing your church by lack of reproduction is good stewardship.

    And then I think: If the Episcopal Church really is so much older than the general population, how many of them are even still in childbearing age?

  • JB the (former) Kairos Guy

    Karen,

    It is certainly true that Episcopalians have lower birth rates than some other denominations. The same is also true of people with higher socio-economic status, as well as of people with more advanced education.

    However, as much as I have heard it stated that Episcopalians are richer and better educated, I have never heard any actual data to support that.

    But let’s stipulate that the data exists, and I have merely missed it. (Quite possible, but not something the interviewer should have allowed in any case.)

    First, we must object to a causal relationship that hasn’t been proven: Episcopalians have fewer children *because* they are better educated. Perhaps one cause of fewer children might be that prime child-rearing years are spent as unmarried individuals focused on education. By the time the bills for school are paid and permanent work is secured, people feel they have less energy to raise children. Perhaps the jobs obtained by people with higher degrees are so demanding that prospective parents feel child-rearing should be put off, until the child can receive proper attention. (And as all of us with kids know, that day never truly arrives.) Or, perhaps, people who get more education do so because they are, on average, fundamentally selfish, self-obsessed, narcissistic jerks. All of these seem equally as probable as implying that people who are smarter know better than to be breeders.

    Second, we must object to triumphal self-righteousness being emitted by a Christian Bishop: we don’t have so many kids because we are better educated and better stewards of the earth. It’s objectionable on the face to hear self-congratulation from someone claiming to be a bishop of Christ in an apostolic church. (It’s objectionable from anyone, really, but especially someone who is elevated that she may be made humble.)

    You phrased your point nicely, and politely, and without intentional rancor. And without a sense that “we’re better stewards.” But that’s not different nuance, that’s a difference of approach. She stated a direct, causal relationship, while you stopped far short of one.

    Peace,
    Brian

  • http://aconservativesiteforpeace.info The young fogey

    My entry about this.

    She has a history of saying things that literally are true – it seems that education and fecundity are inversely related statistically – but put so tactlessly as to provoke.

    That may have been her game here. Either that or she’s one of those people who’s a disaster when speaking without a script. That’s about the kindest spin I can put on all this.

    Speaking of spin, regarding that form letter from the Episcopal Church AFAIK the only RC representation was pro forma attendance by the ecumenical officer of the Archdiocese of Washington (who attends just about anything non-RC there) and a liberal auxiliary bishop from Milwaukee who went on his own. The Orthodox interestingly sent no-one – 50-60 years ago when relations between them and Anglicans were extremely friendly they all (even ROCOR) would have sent somebody officially; those bishops would have happily sat in choir with the other clergy.

    So much has been lost. :_(

  • http://www.accidentalanglican.net Deborah

    It is certainly true that Episcopalians have lower birth rates than some other denominations. … However, as much as I have heard it stated that Episcopalians are richer and better educated, I have never heard any actual data to support that.

    Here are some statistics FYI:

    Comparison of Episcopalian education and income level versus general mainline and conservative denominations (page 15)

    US Census report re: relationship between educational attainment/income and fertility rates (Figure 2) and another Census report re: same. There seems to be a more linear relationship between income and fertility than between female educational attainment and fertility.

  • http://until.joe-perez.com joe perez

    brian/jb:

    Second, we must object to triumphal self-righteousness being emitted by a Christian Bishop: we don’t have so many kids because we are better educated and better stewards of the earth. It’s objectionable on the face to hear self-congratulation from someone claiming to be a bishop of Christ in an apostolic church.

    Absolutely not! So in Brian’s world a Christian who might actually have a serious theological point of view (having fewer children has beneficial environmental consequences) should not express themselves because doing so is “self-righteous.” And this is supposed to be obvious “on the face.”

    If Brian’s true, 90% of all the comments posted by religionists on the Internet are “on the face” triumphalism. It’s far more likely that the bishop is expressing her opinion and its theological basis just like everyone else is doing. Funny how she seems to have rubbed so many thin-skinned commentariats the wrong way. To have gotten under their skin so, she must be onto something important.

  • Frank

    One of the problems with the interview is that it doesn’t tell readers up front that it’s an abridged version. There aren’t any ellipses, any disclaimers to let you know you’re only getting part of the response. An unsophisticated reader might assume they were getting Jefferts Schori’s complete answer instead of an edited response.

    (And it’s not surprising that the presiding bishop would complain that her full answer, in context, sounded a lot better. It very well may have.)

    At many American newspapers, a reporter couldn’t present this as an “interview” in this format — even if they disclosed that it was merely “highlights” from a Q&A.

  • Martha

    Joe, it’s the opposition between theology and education which is getting most people’s goat here (that, and the explicit contrasting of Episcopalians with Roman Catholics and Mormons).

    She could have answered the question more tactfully, certainly. “Why are Episcopalian numbers declining? Episcopalians tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations.” No need to name any names. Or she could have said “Episcopalians tend to have the average number of children” (no idea if that’s so or not, but it’d be an interesting statistic to uncover).

    Nothing in that ‘wow, Katie, you’re so amazing! A woman and a pilot and a bishop and a scientist!’ piece of fluff evoked a need for ‘we is smarter than the average bear, especially when the average bear is a Papist or Mormon’ retort.

    It’s especially invidious for the head of what aspires to be a national church to reject theology in that offhand fashion.

    Well-educated people are environmentally conscious and have fewer children.

    Those people over there have more children for theological reasons.

    Thus, well-educated people do not have ‘theological reasons’ and those people over there are not ‘well-educated’.

    Open mouth, insert foot.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Frank:

    Great point. I totally agree. Label that baby.

    I think the PB has every right to her beliefs.

    I think her critics have every right to criticize her.

    But what she said is not new. She is not alone in her beliefs or stance and, frankly, the math is on her side. Whether that is good news or bad news is another issue.

  • http://until.joe-perez.com joe perez

    martha:

    it’s the opposition between theology and education which is getting most people’s goat here

    then let it get your goat. There ARE correlations between education and beliefs on values, religions, and the like. Just because it might hurt an undereducated person’s feelings to hear the truth that don’t make it not so. If the bishop got her facts wrong, then she can be criticized. But her critics just want to silence her with shame for having spoken her true beliefs when they should be focused on the factual and theological basis of the issues she raises. I’m with tmatt on this one: let the bishop speak.

  • JB the (former) Kairos Guy

    Joe said:
    “If Brian’s true, 90% of all the comments posted by religionists on the Internet are “on the face” triumphalism.”

    That sounds about right, actually. It might even be a little low.

    But to come back to the point, What the PB said was: “[B]ut Episcopalians tend to be better-educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations…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.”

    Now, if you omit “tend to be better educated,” you get a theological argument that isn’t triumphalist: We “tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations. We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.”

    But the “We tend to be better-educated” is irrelevant. It is true that higher levels of education can correlate to lower reproduction, but as I said above, there is no proven causal relationship to those two facts. It’s a gratuitous, unnecessary swipe, essentially. And whether or not she intended it this way, it was perfectly foreseeable that it would be read as “We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion…because we’re oh so very much smarter than the people who base their reproductive decisions on mere theology.”

    Peace,
    Brian

  • http://thewaytheballbounces.blogspot.com Richard K. Ball

    You guys just don’t get it. As a liberal, the PB expects her words to be taken seriously, but not literally. Only a fundamentalist would do that. Just like we are to believe that the writers of the NT did not really mean what they said, we are not to believe that she meant what she said. We must differentiate between the PB of faith vs. the PB of history. You may think you think you understand what she said, but what you don’t realize is what you think she said is not what she meant she said.

  • http://jonswerens.blogspot.com Jon Swerens

    Joe Perez,

    I agree: Let Madame Bishop speak. But you said:

    But her critics just want to silence her with shame for having spoken her true beliefs when they should be focused on the factual and theological basis of the issues she raises.

    No, we don’t want to silence her. We want to ridicule her. Opposition does not equal censorship.

    But in the end, it doesn’t matter. Madame Bishop says the Episcopalians are not replenishing their ranks. An example is in my mom’s town, where the former Episcopal church has closed and is now a conservative Reformed Baptist church.

    So hooray for Madame Bishop being a good steward of the earth’s resources. But she’s only leaving it for her less-educated opponents. Yep, that’s smart.

  • http://jonswerens.blogspot.com Jon Swerens

    Tim Townsend,

    I have a theory:

    Behind every criticism of “sound-bite culture” is a person who is afraid to state clearly what he believes.

  • Martha

    Joe, I don’t mind the little swipe so much because I’m well accustomed by our history to hearing the English improving classes complaining about the superstitious backwards Irish Catholics breeding like rabbits for about, oh, two centuries or so.

    However, you cannot on the one hand be full of yourself for reaching out to the poor and marginalised (to the extent of incorporating drumming and smudging rituals in your ceremony to take possession of your archbishopric) and on the other hand be pluming yourself that you may be a minority but at least it’s a privileged minority; as the joke has it, the cream of society – rich and thick.

    And again I ask: how can a religious leader whose church maintains that it is an historic entity following a tradition dismiss theology? It would be as if in her research days, the scientist Katharine Jeffarts had said “Actually, guys, I’m not all that bothered about studying marine biology”.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Going back to something which has been left aside, the not-so-implicit assumption that failure to breed replacement is THE reason for falling membership. Perhaps she does not accept there are other reasons for “haemorraging members”. Or perhaps she thinks that trying to attract non-familiar converts is unethical or “triumphalist” or somethng. (“But that would be… PROSELEYTIZING!”) Either way, it calls for more questions. (NOT “begs the question!!!!”)

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  • http://aconservativesiteforpeace.info The young fogey

    An exercise: If I were in her shoes and were one of those talented people who can think on their feet I would have spun and pushed ‘quality not quantity’ in terms of welcome, fellowship and so on (think Diana Butler Bass) – ‘we don’t proselytise but our doors are open to all’ – and left pride in one’s education or unsavoury associations of hating an ‘other’ – those ‘breeding, ignorant Romans’ right out of 19th-century hate propaganda – completely out of it.