Who can argue with the gay bishop?

vgr circle 01One of the greatest challenges that journalists face, in my humble opinion, is knowing how to handle a strong, newsworthy statement of fact by a person of authority that simply cannot be verified as accurate.

Don’t you hate that?

It’s like in the movies when a person is forced to make a quick decision between right and wrong and then those two imaginary figures appear out of the air, with an angel on one shoulder pleading for the right choice and the little red-suited demon on the other shoulder saying, “Ah, come on, you know you want to …”

The journalist knows that, on the one hand, the newspaper is about to print a statement of fact/opinion that is clearly attributed to a source. The paper is not saying that what the source is saying is true, it is saying that the person says it is true. Then you print someone on the other side disagreeing and you’re done. That’s that.

On the other hand, there are questions that simply cannot be answered in terms of clear statements of fact. Perhaps they are beyond scientific research (“Creation is the result of a random process”) or they are attempts to turn highly private and complex realities into statistics (“Ten percent of the U.S. population is gay”).

Case in point: This Times of London story by veteran Godbeat reporter Ruth Gledhill, who opens with this crash-boom-bang opening:

The openly gay bishop whose ordination sparked the crisis in the Anglican Communion has claimed the Church of England would be close to shutting down if it was forced to manage without its gay clergy.

The Bishop of New Hampshire in the US, the Right Rev Gene Robinson, who is divorced and lives openly in partnership with a gay man, said he found it “mystifying” that the mother church of the Anglican Communion was unable to be honest about the number of gay clergy in its ranks.

He said many of the English church’s clergy lived openly in their rectories with gay partners, with the full knowledge of their bishops.

The problem, of course, is that there is no way to pin a number or a statistic on this.

How many gay priests must a Church of England bishop lose before he forced to shut down? But wait a minute. The claim is that the Church of England would “be close” to shutting down. And, come to think of it, that vague statement is linked to an undefined number of “gay clergy,” as opposed to “sexually active gay clergy.” That’s two very different groups of people, under church law.

There is more fog, of course.

(Robinson) said The Episcopal Church, under threat of sanctions from the Communion’s Primates if it does not row back on its liberal agenda at a meeting of its bishops in September, had been ordaining gay priests “for many, many years.”

He said: “Not every bishop will do that but many do. I will and have. Many make a requirement that the person be celibate, but many do not make such a requirement. It’s interesting that the wider Anglican Communion has either not known that or has not chosen to make an issue of it before now.”

Once again, these statements are almost certainly accurate, but how would one verify them? Later in the article, the gay clergy issue is broadened to include gay and lesbian church musicians and parish officers.

Please do not misunderstand. I am not saying that this story is not valid. I am also not saying that Gledhill should not have written it. I am simply noting that this is a classic case in which a reporter would have to work very hard to create any kind of skeleton of facts on which to hang all of these sweeping statements of opinion that are beyond verification. Where do you get “facts”? Private polls?

Sigh. What to do?

Meanwhile, let me note that — in addition to serving up this hot story — Gledhill has also offered readers a chance to read a transcript of the interview with Robinson. Here is one question and response that will certainly be discussed in many corners of the Anglican Communion, in which the bishop describes his conversion into the Episcopal Church:

Q. So it was Anglicanism’s spirit of broad enquiry that appealed?

Yes. I go off to college, which quite coincidentally happened to be owned by the southern dioceses of the Episcopal Church and met an assistant chaplain there. When I raised my questions again, instead of telling me that I shouldn’t be asking, instead he congratulated me on asking all the right questions and said he didn’t have all the answers, but I was welcome to come in and let’s look for those answers together. I remember being struck at how undefensive he was about his religion — that Anglicanism seemed to be big enough and broad enough to allow and even encourage those kinds of questions. It had its own answers, but it existed to help me come to my own answers. I remember thinking ‘gosh, that seems to me to be the way religion ought to be’. So I was very encouraged by that.

One day when I was ranting and raving about how much of the Nicene Creed I didn’t believe, he said ‘well, when you’re in church, just say the parts of the creed you do agree with. Be silent for the others. We’re not asking you do so something against your integrity’. And again I thought whew, that’s what one would hope for from a religion — honesty and integrity. And I guess that’s a theme that has carried throughout my life in Ministry — that God wants us to be honest and full of integrity.

Photo: The consecration of the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson.

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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.

  • Discernment

    Is that “The Times of London” or “The Times of London”? Given your audience, I understand the need to distinguish it from the New York Times, but I really don’t think that “of London” is part of the newspaper’s official name (whether short or long). I think similar things apply to The Sun vs The Baltimore Sun and so on.

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

    Here’s a run down of surveys of homosexual prevalence in the Roman Catholic Church (most of which seem to place the percentage at 15 to 50 percent). My own informal surveys of priests over the years — “hey, how many priests do you think are gay?” pegs the number at about 40 percent. Why should the Episcopal Church be much different? If Gene Robinson says that the Anglican Church would shut down, I don’t doubt him.

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

    Why should the Episcopal Church be much different?

    Um, because Episcopal priests can get married.

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  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    It used to be that a gay bishop was a happy bishop….

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I wonder about these surveys that pigeon-hole people as Gay or Heterosexual(#3 comment)–especially when you can get one survey that says 15% of a group are Gay and another says 50% of that same group are Gay.
    A lot of histories of generations past I have read indicate that when it came to sexual sins, most who engaged in immoral homosexual activity were also very willing to engage in immoral heterosexual sex. Basically they were simply amoral hedonists who were just in search of the next orgasm. People weren’t considered in –nor did they behave for the most part– as if they were in foreordained heterosexual or homosexual biological boxes.
    In fact, the surveys bouncing all over the lot as far as Gay percentages prove there is much more choice than biology that goes into what people think they are and presumably how they subsequently behave.

  • William F

    “A lot of histories of generations past I have read indicate that when it came to sexual sins, most who engaged in immoral homosexual activity were also very willing to engage in immoral heterosexual sex.”

    What histories are those? I haven’t read a lot on homosexual activity in history (alright, basically none) but, from people I know, I would say this is incorrect. I know heterosexual men who have a deep visceral disgust at the very thought of sex with other men and I have known homosexual men with this same deep visceral disgust but related to the thought of sex with women. Of course, there is the middle group (bisexuals) who might fit your stereotype better.

    So, conscious choice doesn’t seem to play much of role in the attractions.

  • Chip

    tmatt:

    Once again, these statements are almost certainly accurate

    Does accurate mean that Bishop Robinson made these statements in his interview or that they are accurate statements about the current CofE?

    According to the transcript of the interview posted on Ms Gledhill’s blog, Bishop Robinson said:

    If all the gay people stayed away from church on a given Sunday the Church of England would be close to shut down between its organists, its clergy, its wardens…..it just seems less than humble not to admit that.’

    Are those words accurately represented in the lede, which you quote, to Ms Gledhill’s story:

    The openly gay bishop whose ordination sparked the crisis in the Anglican Communion has claimed the Church of England would be close to shutting down if it was forced to manage without its gay clergy.

    Terry, isn’t the problem with this lede less “that there is no way to pin a number or a statistic on” it than that it is not an accurate characterization of what the interviewee said?

    The larger problem is that Ms Gledhill doesn’t get jounalism, at least as it is practiced by competent scribes on this side of the pond.

  • http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com Alice C. Linsley

    I wonder why it seems that there are more homosexuals in societies that are sexually permissive? The answer isn’t that these societies are more accepting.

  • http://blidiot.blogspot.com/ Raider51

    I’m ambivalent about the filioque clause… but then I never sought a career in the ministry.

  • Alexei

    I’m ambivalent about the filioque clause. . .

    Come to the dark side.

  • http://cyberbrethren.typepad.com/cyberbrethren/ Paul T. McCain

    My Conclusion:
    God wants us to be honest and full of integrity about not believing everything He has revealed in His Word or that the Church confesses in her Creeds and Confessions. I suppose that is a certain kind of “honesty” and “integrity” but not the kind of honesty or integrity that would characterize a faithful shepherd of Christ’s sheep.

  • Brian Walden

    One day when I was ranting and raving about how much of the Nicene Creed I didn’t believe, he said ‘well, when you’re in church, just say the parts of the creed you do agree with. Be silent for the others. We’re not asking you do so something against your integrity’. And again I thought whew, that’s what one would hope for from a religion — honesty and integrity. And I guess that’s a theme that has carried throughout my life in Ministry — that God wants us to be honest and full of integrity.

    My comment isn’t about the media’s coverage, but you left this juicy quote just hanging at the end. Where’s the honesty and integrity in not saying the phrases you don’t believe while publicly professing a creed of your church? That’s not honesty – it’s lying. Say the creed or don’t say it, but to act like you’re saying it while skipping over certain parts is no different than making the profession with your fingers crossed behind your back.

    Real honesty and integrity is for a person in that situation to openly admit that he doesn’t believe portions of the creed. When he does that, he can search for answers. Those answers may lead a him to a better understanding of the creed and resolve his reservations about it, or they may lead him to a different religious group with a different creed that he can profess without reservations. That’s honesty. Fooling those around you into thinking you believe something you don’t is just the opposite.

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  • Stephen A.

    I’ve been reading this and I’m amused, as always, by the Good Bishop’s ability to get into the news.

    I think the big news headline here isn’t what has been pointed out by others, but the fact that he has apparently ordained NUMEROUS closeted homosexual ministers in New Hampshire. Now THAT’S interesting.

    Oh, and he has just endorsed Barack Obama:
    http://blogs.unionleader.com/andrew-cline/?p=854


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