For some reason or another, quite a few folks who read this here weblog want to know what I, and the other GetReligionistas, think of the decision by leaders of the Episcopal Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul — better known as Washington National Cathedral — to officially begin performing same-sex union rites.
Well, for starters, that’s a question about an event in the news, not a question about mainstream-media coverage of an event in the news. So that really isn’t a GetReligion question.
Personally, I’m an Eastern Orthodox Christian, so I don’t have a horse in that race. At this point, I think it’s safe to say that modern Protestant bodies who hold votes to decide major doctrines are free to do whatever they want to do. However, various camps within the 600,000 or so Episcopalians who continue to worship in their local parishes on a regular basis will, and should, care deeply about this development. Press coverage should make note of that.
However, does this liturgical decision really surprise anyone? The trends in the Episcopal Church establishment have been steady for a decade or two. Episcopal clergy here in DC Beltway-land have been performing forms of same-sex union rites for three decades.
One longtime GetReligion reader did raise another interesting question, one that could be a hook for valid journalistic coverage. She wrote:
A friend told me yesterday that it’s irritating to keep reading about the National Cathedral in the news — as if that Episcopalian church was really the official US cathedral. So I was checking it out and see that the Washington National Cathedral is the church’s official name and it claims “it is called to serve as the spiritual home for the nation.” …
In spite of the … provision that we have no established church, why does the press continue to treat the Episcopal Cathedral in DC as if it is the official US religious center for political events? … Why is this situation not seen as a church-state difficulty by the press?
It is certainly true that, in terms of history, Episcopalians have, well, outperformed their numbers when it comes to having an impact on national news and American history. At this point, I think few would challenge a statement that National Cathedral is America’s most important liberal Protestant sanctuary. But, in terms of numbers and demographics, does that make it the “spiritual home for the nation”?
That might be a hook for an interesting story, but it really isn’t the key issue in this story about same-sex marriage.
When I started reading the coverage, I wanted to know if the teams in our major newsrooms realized that this symbolic action was a typical Episcopal-Anglican story, one with implications at the local, national and global levels. I also wondered if journalists would consider the ecumenical impact of this decision, in terms of the cathedral’s relationships with larger bodies of American believers — such as Catholics, evangelicals, charismatics, etc. Who knows, there was even a chance that journalists might interview one or two important religious leaders who opposed this action.
Hey, it could happen.
But don’t hold your breath.
The story in the holy pages of The New York Times was short and to the point, but briefly mentions — alas, incorrectly claiming that the conflict started in New Hampshire in 2003 — the national and global angles of the Anglican wars over the redefinition of the Sacrament of Marriage:
The Washington National Cathedral, the nation’s traditional host of prayer services for presidents and memorial services for national tragedies, announced on Wednesday that it would now also hold weddings for same-sex couples.
The cathedral, a neo-Gothic landmark in northwest Washington, is the seat of the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church and the Washington Diocese. Episcopalians voted at their convention last summer to authorize an official liturgy for blessing same-sex unions, bringing the church in line with other liberal Christian and Jewish denominations that sanction gay marriage.
The cathedral’s decision is not surprising for a denomination that has paid a price for its stance. The Episcopal Church shed members and set off an uproar in the international Anglican Communion to which it belongs by consecrating its first openly gay bishop in 2003.
But the cathedral’s step carries weight because of its historic role as the nation’s unofficial capitol of worship, where Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan were eulogized, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his last Sunday sermon and where the nation mourned the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Later this month, the cathedral will host the second inaugural prayer service for President Obama.
In keeping with the evolving Times policy — think Bill Keller, again — of ignoring unsophisticated religious traditionalists, the story has no voices representing global Anglican dissent in favor of ancient doctrines. No surprise there, I guess.
I thought that the longer, but equally unbalanced, story in The Washington Post contained one or two chunks of information that added a bit of depth. For example:
In some ways, the announcement that is expected Wednesday morning is unsurprising for a denomination and a diocese that long ago took up the cause of marriage equality. But the cathedral’s stature and the image of same-sex couples exchanging vows in the soaring Gothic structure visited by a half-million tourists each year is symbolically powerful.
Even though it is known that the Episcopal Church, a small but prominent part of American Christianity, has been supportive of equality for gay men and lesbians, “it’s something for us to say we are going to do this in this very visible space where we pray for the president and where we bury leaders,” said the Rev. Gary Hall, who became dean of Washington National Cathedral in the fall. “This national spiritual space is now a place where [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] people can come and get married.”
The other crucial note that this story sounds is the fact that modern Episcopal leaders sincerely believe that the new unisex rite corrects centuries and centuries of theological, yes, doctrinal errors in traditional catholic and orthodox Christianity. Thus, the Post reported:
“Hall said he would have approved the marriages at the cathedral soon anyway but was encouraged by having the formal rite, which he said gives same-sex couples a theologically proper ceremony.
The “heterosexual marriage [ritual] still has some vestiges of patriarchy, with woman being property. There’s hope in same-sex marriage that it is a teachable moment for heterosexual couples. The new rite is grounded in baptism and radical equality of all people before God,” said Hall, who has been blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples for decades. “I’d like to use it for heterosexual weddings because I think it’s so much better than our marriage services.”
And what is the response from traditional Episcopalians and/or Anglicans at the local, national or global levels? How about inside this particular cathedral parish? And is there any reaction from the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.? In other words, this remains — in an Anglican context — a controversial story. Where are the voices on the other side of the debate?
Or is this another story that has moved past journalism?
EDITOR’S NOTE: Once again, let me stress that, before clicking “comment,” please remember that the goal is to discuss the journalism issues in these stories and others like them (links to better, more balanced, coverage would be appreciated). This is not the place to cheer or jeer the choice made by the cathedral’s leadership.