Stubborn facts on Episcopalians

Jon Meacham has occasionally cited John Adams as saying facts are stubborn things, but apparently some facts aren’t stubborn enough to be noticed by Newsweek under Meacham’s editing.

I truly wanted to like Lisa Miller’s latest Newsweek column. For starters, I agree with her: The Episcopal Church attracts far more news coverage than its membership numbers merit. I’ve devoted much of my journalism career to writing about the Episcopal Church, and I am part of the problem. I have no trouble admitting this or laughing about it.

Further, Miller steps up to one of tmatt’s favorite hobbies: Explaining why the Episcopal Church attracts so much coverage.

What ruins the piece for me is that Newsweek has not corrected errors first pointed out by fellow Godbeat scribe Frank Lockwood. It openly corrected one error: The claim that President Reagan ever identified himself as an Episcopalian. It quietly corrected two other problems: Referring to the church’s General Convention as an annual rather than a triennial meeting, and referring to President Ford as if he were still alive. (Under a sacramental reading of Hebrews 12:1, one could make the case for referring to President Ford’s faith in the present tense.)

But Newsweek has let stand some howlers involving membership statistics. As one of many journalists cursed with innumeracy, I sympathize with Miller on these mistakes. I once wildly overstated the membership of the Episcopal Diocese of Springfield, but as soon as I realized my error I alerted my editor to it, and he corrected it.

All this is to say it’s time for another episode of Proofreading With GetReligion.

The general convention General Convention of the Episcopal Church ended last month in Anaheim, Calif., with a whimper, despite these rather staggering announcements: it would, after years of internal battling, continue to elevate cite its freedom to elect more gay priests to bishops, and it would consider blessing bless same-sex unions in the states that allow gays and lesbians to marry.

General Convention is the proper name of a legislative body that meets every three years. I know this may be a question of Newsweek‘s house style, so it could be considered a gray area.

About elevate: Episcopalians elect, approve and then ordain/consecrate bishops. Episcopalians have been keen on this point for some time now.

On blessings for same-sex couples, see General Convention’s Resolution C056: “Resolved, That bishops, particularly those in dioceses within civil jurisdictions where same-gender marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships are legal, may provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this Church.” (The website of General Convention legislation is spotty; here is a report by Episcopal News Service.)

After years of dominance outsized cultural influence, Episcopalians have become a minority religion in America. There are just 2.4 2.1 million Episcopalians in the United States, down from 3.5 2.3 million in 2001 — a 31 percent falloff. (The Episcopal Church is the American branch of the Anglican Communion, a worldwide church that has 80 million members.) By comparison, there are 8 million nondenominational Christians (a low estimate), up from 2.5 million — an explosion of 220 percent over the same period.

Bookmark this address for trends of baptized members in the Episcopal Church. This PDF provides the latest numbers. For a number near 3.5 million, you’ll need to look 40 years back.

Thanks to the Great Awakenings and the waves of immigration over the past hundred years there are exponentially more Roman Catholics, Baptists, and Methodists in America than Episcopalians. There are also — surprisingly — more Mormons, more Pentecostals, and slightly more Jews.

This table [PDF] from the U.S. Census estimates the Jewish population of this nation at 6.4 million — more than triple the number of baptized Episcopalians.

This reversal of Episcopal fortune is due largely to well-known demographic shifts — the shrinking of the mainline Protestant denominations; the growth of evangelical and nondenominational churches, as well as in the number of people who declare themselves “unaffiliated.” But the Episcopal Church has had its own unique troubles above and beyond the encroachment of those other sects.

By what measure do these larger groups qualify as other sects?

After three centuries as the church of the WASP establishment in America, it started to make news in 2003 when it elevated to bishop of New Hampshire an openly gay priest named Gene Robinson.

Started to make news in 2003? Look up the names of the Rt. Revs. James Pike, Barbara Harris and John Shelby Spong.

A colleague who is Episcopalian describes the rift thus: “Here we have the faith of the Founding Fathers, the religion that is the purest representation of old-line American power and money, tearing itself apart before our very eyes over … homosexuality. How embarrassing! How publicly humiliating — this for a faith and culture that abhors nothing more than public humiliation.”

Three words: Shoe-leather journalism.

In one of the most byzantine organizational maneuvers ever wrought, the conservative opposition then regrouped under the leadership of a few conservative African bishops — still Anglican, still part of the global church, but no longer officially connected to the Americans.

It’s more than a few bishops, not limited to Africa and beginning long before 2003. Counting bishops who helped the Anglican Mission in the Americas and have since retired, they include Peter Akinola, Nigeria; Emmanuel Kolini, Rwanda; Frank Lyons, Bolivia; Benjamin Nzimbi, Kenya; Henry Orombi, Uganda; Moses Tay, Singapore; Gregory Venables, Argentina; and Ping Chung Yong, Malaysia.

Certainly, when the Episcopalians support — or seem to be supporting — gay marriage, it says something important about who we are as a nation and where we are going.

When clergy are free to bless same-sex couples in states where gay marriage is legal, call it what you like — but it’s clearly supporting gay marriage.

Watching the Episcopalians fight amongst themselves is like watching a boozy family brawl at a genteel country club. Onlookers continue to hope that someone — grandpa or junior — will finally say what he’s really thinking and make a headline.

Who are these unidentified onlookers? Any reporter who has covered General Convention can tell you this: The problem is not that grandpa or junior (or lots of people in between) is at a loss for words. If anything, my fellow Episcopalians compete regularly on who will have the fewest unspoken thoughts.

About the video: With this post, I confess my secret shame. Drag performance artist Chuck Knipp makes me laugh.

Print Friendly

  • Nicholas

    A colleague who is Episcopalian describes the rift thus: “Here we have the faith of the Founding Fathers, the religion that is the purest representation of old-line American power and money, tearing itself apart before our very eyes over … homosexuality. How embarrassing! How publicly humiliating — this for a faith and culture that abhors nothing more than public humiliation.”

    Right. Just like it tore itself apart over slavery, a “plain English” version of the Book of Common Prayer, and women’s ordination.

    It’s journalistically responsible to report on the nonsense between Episcopalians who want parity for gays and those who do not. It is totally irresponsible to do so while ignoring:

    1) The structure of the Episcopate and what the General Convention is actually for, and
    2) The historic context of how the Episcopal Church has dealt with issues that were considered equally divisive.
    3) The Doctrine of Reason, which many outsiders simply do not understand.

    As to the numbers game – it’s not relevant, really. Who cares how many Episcopalians can dance on the grave of injustice? The point is that they try to reconcile their faith in Christ with their responsibility to their fellow man, and aren’t hindered in their discussion by oppressive heirarchies and cast-in-stone rhetoric. The Great Commandment needs no middleman to be implemented.

    And that is the reason why they get so much press. They are one of the few faith traditions that can actually have a conversation on this issue, and others.

  • SteveP

    “If anything, my fellow Episcopalians compete regularly on who will have the fewest unspoken thoughts.”

    Guffaw! Now that is a fine turn-of-phrase and, in my opinion, completely encapsulates Episcopalianism. Thank you.

  • Bob Smietana

    Who needs facts when we’ve got truthiness?

  • Ken Briggs

    Why Episcopalians get so much coverage — my view.

    1. Royalty. The same reason Americans pay inordinate attention to British royalty. Anglicans were decidedly on the Loyalist side during the Revolution. It nearly wiped out the church. In that sense, they became the remnant of the empire and the last vestige of the Tory party in America. We’re sentimental about such things.

    2. Wealth. Aristocracy was always a hallmark of Episcopalians. We look up to aristocrats and pedigree and all that. It has been the parish choice of the monied class and the wannabees. H. Richard Niebuhr explained that long time ago. Media are fascinated with the ruling class.

    3. Place. Attention belonged to the northeastern seaboard and the blue-blood south (Virginia). That’s where the big media have been.

    4. Visuals. With their liturgical finery and ritual aesthetics, Episcopalians are picture perfect. So is the design of most parishes. They suggest, particularly to the affluent, that if you’re going to attach yourself to a church, this has the look and the tastefulness. Media love it.

    5. Counterintuitiveness. Though they look and sound like stand-pat upper crust, they do unexpected things like bold social action (’70s) and ordination of affirming gays, though the latter was in some sense a logical outcome of its history.

    So the package — royal lineage, striking presentation, money and unpredictability, and placement — creates an invitation that media can’t resist.

  • Jerry

    I am part of the problem.

    Admitting that one has a problem is the first step toward overcoming it.

  • H. E. Baber

    Maybe what journalists empathize with and find interesting is the sense of entitlement Episcopalians, left and right, exhibit–the assumption that it’s their church and should behave the way they want it to behave. We pay–we want the religious goods and services we’re paying for.

    It’s isn’t so hard to understand. The clientele is in the aggregate richer, more highly educated, more articulate, more privileged and more used to getting their way than the constituency of most other denominations. They’re used to getting their own way. Moreover, because Anglicanism is hierarchical, the structure, however you cut the cake, is authoritarian. A lethal, volatile mixture guaranteed to produce spectacular fireworks of interest to journalists.

  • Pingback: Sloppy reporting at Newsweek cites data that’s 40 years out of date « A Lambeth Pilgrim's Blog

  • Kendall Harmon

    The number of factual errors and interpretative mistakes was simply over the top for a publication like Newsweek. If there were a similar story on another “beat,” say Wall Street or Washington Politics, what would the response be?

    It would be outrage, and it would be understandable.

  • C. Wingate

    One has to think that the numbers came from somewhere; can anyone hazard a guess?

  • mojnun

    And did you catch the line in the original online version about “many of the nascent nation’s prominent Anglican PRIMATES” fleeing, &c.? It’s been corrected, but how delicious an image, on so many levels…

  • Darel

    The number of factual errors and interpretative mistakes was simply over the top for a publication like Newsweek.

    Rev. Harmon, I respect your work tremendously, but cannot understand this statement. What exactly is “a publication like Newsweek”? I take nonNewsweek to be an opinion journal of, by and for the bi-coastal American professional class, edgier than The Atlantic and classier than The Nation — neither of which suggests that something as quaint as professional standards has any relevance for the publication. The New York Times seems to care about the views of its critics — I cannot see that nonNewsweek has the same concerns.

  • Sarah

    RE: “Right. Just like it tore itself apart over slavery, a “plain English” version of the Book of Common Prayer, and women’s ordination.”

    Well — but that’s just it. The Episcopal Church’s percentage of the population *increased* all the way up to the 1950s, so it did not — manifestly — “tear itself apart” over slavery or a plain English version of the BCP [of course, the 1979 was not a "plain English" version and that was not even its point]. One can argue that it did begin the tearing over WO, since there began a sharp decline of the then AngloCatholics . . . but the trajectory and steepness of the massive decline can be seen from 2003 onward. So yes . . . we are tearing ourselves apart over “parity for gays” [sic].

    What the “Doctrine of Reason” has to do with any of that, one cannot imagine, since “reason” has nothing at all to do with blessing immoral and dysfunctional and unhealthy behavior with now well-demonstrated health consequences.

    Nor does it have anything to do with our not being “hindered” by “cast-in-stone rhetoric” — which I assume means Holy Scripture.

    As to The Great Commandment needing no middleman to be implemented — [and what a sweet slogan that one is -- do we take a class on learning such preening platitudes?] I assume Nicholas means *the second great commandment* since the first is to love God. But both are “like unto” one another, and of course, blessing behavior that is immoral and sinful and unhealthy is neither loving God nor loving one’s fellow man either.

    I’m afraid that Nicholas also flatters our church when he grandly states that the reason why we get so much press is that we can “actually have a conversation on this issue . . . ” as “the conversation” that is attracting so much attention is like watching the parents fight out in the front yard for all the neighborhood to see — one can hardly drag one’s eyes from it.

    But how like a liberal Episcopalian, to get the facts wrong, substitute one commandment for another, dis Scripture, admire himself as “reasonable,” pile up the slogans, and imagine a self-serving delusion rather than a realistic reason for why everybody’s watching us right now.

  • Richard Hooker

    What Sarah said.

  • Laura

    It amuses me that Jon Meacham, Newsweek’s editor, is an alum of The University of the South, Sewanee. You know, that Episcopal University in Tennessee?