Novelty is newsworthy

A few years ago, I attended a worship service at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. I went so that I could witness the congregation’s interfaith Eucharistic prayer. The sermon text was Mark 7 and the priest told us that it showed how Jesus was xenophobic, racist and sexist.

The next day I ran into another priest from the church at an interfaith event in a suburb. I told her I had been at the previous day’s service. “I’m so sorry,” she immediately said. “Why?” I asked, thinking she was going to apologize for the sermon. “Oh, our sound was all off and we had those problems with the lighting. Didn’t you notice?”

The well-known cathedral is in the news, as happens time to time. In this case the story runs in the The New York Times. But the article originally ran in The Bay Citizen. This week, Scott James, a journalist with The Bay Citizen, wrote a piece headlined “Making History, Twice, at Grace Cathedral.” In a bit of a difference from previous articles The Times has run by James, in this one they identify him as a columnist. That’s a helpful piece of information since his articles are heavy on analysis, even if they’re packed with news.

But a reader noted that this piece overplayed how much history was being made:

The installation of Jane Alison Shaw as the eighth dean of Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill on Nov. 6 is a milestone — she will be the first woman to lead the cathedral, which was founded during the Gold Rush in 1849.

Dr. Shaw will also be the cathedral’s first openly gay dean.

It’s true. Shaw will be the first openly lesbian dean of Grace Cathedral. However, openly gay and lesbian cathedral deans already have served in Chicago, Cleveland, Seattle and Des Moines, among other locations. Perhaps a better question would be why why it took San Francisco so long to join these other cities in having an openly homosexual dean. Tracey Lind, the first openly lesbian dean to serve an Episcopal cathedral, has been written about in the pages of The New York Times since 1997, at least.

I had written recently (in a post about one of those “Catholic” women priest stories that we love to loathe) that the media only care about the ordinations of transgendered individuals, gays, lesbians, dual-religionists, and females in non-Roman Catholic churches. I think there has to be a corollary about clergy installed into higher positions as well.

Two weeks ago, the new head of my Lutheran church body — the Rev. Matthew Harrison, pictured here — was installed. The heads of three dozen Lutheran church bodies in Africa, Asia, South America, and Europe with which we’re in communion came to St. Louis to witness the event. Bishop Walter Obare of Kenya preached the homily. Hundreds of pastors, deaconesses and other professional church workers took part in the processional. I had the pleasure of attending and I’m still on a high about the divine service, and hearing more than 1,000 strong Lutheran voices singing hymns of thanksgiving and praise. The nearly 3-hour service (communion alone probably took an hour) was a major event in my church body and it received literally no coverage in the mainstream media. None. And I guess that even when we install a new president, and even when that installation represents a dramatic shift in the direction of my church body, we’re not going to get media coverage. It sort of boggles the mind.

I’m not begrudging the inclusion of this story in The New York Times. I think it’s wonderful that the installation of a dean at Grace Cathedral makes such big news. I’m just pointing out how odd it is that my church body — larger than the Episcopal Church — doesn’t even get a mention for the installation of a new president, much less a kantor at a major church.

But back to the factual problems with this piece:

Supporting that cause may be a fairly common view here, but within the Anglican Church worldwide there has been a contentious debate about same-sex marriage and inclusion of gay men and lesbians in the faith. The 2003 election of Bishop Gene Robinson in New Hampshire, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, led to divisions within the church in the United States and the broader Anglican Communion. Several individual churches and two dioceses disassociated from the United States province over the issue.

Leaving aside the biased presentation of the underlying issue of adherence to Scripture, it wasn’t just two dioceses that left the Episcopal Church. It was four. I don’t know which two he was thinking of but the four are Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, Quincy (Ill.) and, in James’ own state, San Joaquin. And it was several dozen individual churches. (Not that these numbers fully take into account the decline in individual membership in the Episcopal Church since 2003.)

One final thought:

Jay Johnson of the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley called Grace Cathedral “an iconic institution” and said Dr. Shaw’s ascension as one of the first female deans might be more significant than her being openly lesbian.

“There are places in the communion where women still cannot be ordained,” Mr. Johnson said, including parts of the United States.

Well, are there? In what parts of the United States can an Episcopal woman not be ordained? Perhaps this is related to the previous error, but the last three dioceses to limit ordination to men were Fort Worth, Quincy, and San Joaquin. As previously noted, these three dioceses left the Episcopal Church. Perhaps Johnson is simply acknowledging the validity of these diocesan departures and counting them.

But other than these issues, this is a very nice and friendly piece on the new dean of Grace Cathedral. That means there’s nothing about Shaw’s theological or doctrinal approach. I mean, I’m curious if the homilies will be any different — but that type of information isn’t as interesting, I guess, as the history-making event of being at least 10 years behind Cleveland in having an openly lesbian cathedral dean.

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  • Jon in the Nati

    Mollie, any chance the text of that ‘sermon’? I’ve got some people I would like to discuss it with.

  • Mollie

    I looked for it online last night (not the text but the audio) but couldn’t figure out how to access the archives past 2008 or so . . . but it should be available somehow. I also might have more details in my notes — from years ago, though — although I should be revisiting them soon for another project I’m working on.

  • tioedong

    you need to link to the NYTimes dispute story…he had the tapes, protested, but I don’t remember if they did a correction.

  • Mollie


    I think your comment is for a different post?

  • Dave

    the history-making event of being at least 10 years behind Cleveland in having an openly lesbian cathedral dean.

    Thanks for the shout-out to Cleveland, Mollie!

  • Michael

    I’m not sure how to read your article. Are you in favor of ordination of women and if you are, are lesbians OK with you? Or is this article a back-handed slap? …

  • Mollie


    This web site is for analysis of MEDIA coverage of religious issues, not a discussion of religious issues.

    Please keep comments focused on journalism.

  • Jerry

    Mollie, the ‘dramatic shift’ comment you made and the link interested me, so I went to that page. But that page does not provide information about what constituted the dramatic shift only that there was one. After some searching, I found this news story. Is this story about the changes to which you referred? If so, then it seems like your lack of coverage comment needs to be slightly modified since the URL is a McClatchy-Tribune News Service piece.

  • Mollie

    No, that story isn’t what I was referring to. And a few media outlets noted when President Harrison was elected in July. But no one reported on this installation service two weeks ago. For more on the significance of that election in July, I wrote a brief dispatch here.

  • MattK

    I saw pictures of Pres. Harrison’s installation. Cool that he plays the banjo. If I had been covering the story I would have mentioned that instrumental fact in my dispatches.

  • Eric Shfaer

    Well, Mollie, if it makes you feel any better, we never got much news coverage of the installation of any Presiding Bishop for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, either. (I was ELCA communication director for PB installations in 1995 and 2001). When I challenged one local Chicago TV religion reporter (they still had one then) about this, she smiled and said she got her religion news by sitting outside the Chicago Roman Catholic Cardinal’s house and waiting for him to come out and make a comment!

  • Eric Shfaer

    Looks like I spelled my own name incorrectly – it is Eric Shafer.

  • Tim Townsend


    In my (and my paper’s) defense:

    Yes – we should have covered President Harrison’s installation. But, as you know, I’m the only person at the Post-Dispatch who covers religion. The installation took place while I was out of the country, and had been for a month. So, why wasn’t someone else assigned the story? Because editors didn’t know about it. I’ve asked around and the LCMS either didn’t find the right person (I left my editor’s name and number on both my outgoing voice-mail and out-of-the-office e-mail reply) or just failed to send out a release notifying us that the installation was happening. And when I got back to the newsroom that week, I didn’t have anything in either my e-mail in-box or voicemail alerting me to the installation. It’s likely – because I cover the LCMS – that had I been in town, I would have heard about it via other sources, but I wasn’t, and my colleagues didn’t hear about it from anyone inside LCMS HQ. Sometimes an event that seems like a huge deal from the inside can go unnoticed on the outside, even in a city as small as St. Louis. Did our readers lose out by not reading about Harrison’s installation? Yes. Without the correct ear to the ground inside the newsroom, and without a little help from the church itself in that ear’s absence, this one fell through the cracks.

  • Jon in the Nati

    One thing I just noticed; re: the quote that “there are some places in the communion” where women are not ordained.

    He does not specifically say that there are placed in the ECUSA where women are not ordained; I do not think such a place exists. However, there are certainly some provinces of the Anglican Communion (including much of Africa and Asia) where women are not ordained at all, and some provinces (Jerusalem, Southern Cone) where they are only eligible for the diaconate.

  • Mollie


    I’m so glad to hear from you. Your email message did not work while you were gone, apparently.

    I know this because I myself emailed you repeatedly and kept getting the following message:

    to mzhemingway
    date Thu, Sep 2, 2010 at 10:53 PM
    subject Delivery Status Notification (Failure)

    hide details Sep 2

    This is an automatically generated Delivery Status Notification.

    Delivery to the following recipients failed.


    Final-Recipient: rfc822;TTownsend@…
    Action: failed
    Status: 5.2.2
    X-Display-Name: Tim Townsend

  • Eric Shafer

    Can anyone tell me why my response (it was #11 in this comment series) from yesterday was removed? It certainly wasn’t controversial!

  • John Pack Lambert

    Mollies position on either women or homosexuals being ordained in the Episcopal Church is not relevant.
    The relevant issue is, why is there such focus on a Lesbian dean of a Cathedral and ignoring the head of a major Lutheran body.

    I still think part of it is that the Episcopal Church is still treated as the established Church by the media.

    On the other hand, the claim that parts of the communion still do not ordain women even in the United States is just false, at least according to the Episcopal understanding.

    I think at heart Mollie thinks religion reporting should not be reduced to the novel, the controversial and the bizarre.