That “religion guy” — Richard Ostling, formerly of Time and AP — has a post up right now that will be of interest to anyone who has ever followed mainstream religion-news coverage in North America for, oh, more than a week. Here’s the link to the full post over at “Religion Q&A: The Ridgewood Religion Guy answers your questions.”
The question, from a reader named Mark, is pretty blunt and a bit snarky:
Why do so many journalists seem to think that the small (and dwindling) Episcopal Church is the most important of the “mainline” churches?
Well now, I have heard lots of theories on that one myself through the decades — including the viewpoint that the only place The Episcopal Church’s quiet “Decade of Evangelism” was a success, back in the 1990s, was in elite newsrooms. I think there is more to this phenomenon than that, and once wrote an essay on the topic myself. More on that in a moment.
The former leader of the Diocese of Colorado, the charismatic and Charismatic Bishop William C. Frey (a former media professional), kept hearing variations on the same question and he could never understand where it was coming from. Those who envied most of the coverage visited on the combatants in the Episcopal/Anglican wars were like “men who envied another man because of his frequent root canals.”
Nevertheless, Ostling offered his reader some solid insights. Here’s a sample:
Small? In the current “Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches” the Episcopal Church reports annual proceeds of $2 billion and an “inclusive” membership of 1,951,907, or #14 in size among U.S. religious bodies. Dwindling? For sure. It boasted 3,647,297 members in the peak year of 1966 (using a somewhat inflated headcount method). After decline, average Sunday attendance bottomed out in the 1990s through 2002 at around 850,000, but has fallen to 658,000 after the 2003 installation of its first partnered gay bishop, followed by schism and turmoil.
The headquarters research director asserted that through 2002 the Episcopal Church was the “healthiest” of the so-called mainline churches (defined as long-established, Protestant, predominantly white, ecumenical, and rather pluralistic in doctrine). All such groups have experienced ongoing net membership losses since the mid-1960s, including the American Baptist Churches, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Church of the Brethren, Presbyterian Church (USA), Reformed Church in America, United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, and lately the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Many think fuzziness or liberalism in belief explain this unprecedented mainline slide, considering that most biblically conservative groups continued to grow (though these may also face a troublesome future). But it’s more complicated. Mainline statistics are affected by lowering birth and marriage rates, increasing death rates and average ages, and losses of youngsters raised in these churches.
Important? In journalists’ defense, Mark has gotta admit the Episcopal Church makes news.
By all means, read it all. Ostling also thinks this ongoing news phenomenon may have something to do with (wait for it) the American fascination with the royal family.
By the way, the scribe also included this:
“Full disclosure: The Guy has often worshiped with appreciation at Episcopal congregations, most recently last summer. And some of his best friends are Episcopalians.”
I, too, spent a decade or so in the Anglican fold, while on my way to Eastern Orthodoxy. Here’s another key document from that time, written in 1993.
It was during that same decade that, after frequent talks with other reporters, I offered my own theories on the love affair between The Episcopal Church mainstream and the elite press. Here are a few bites of that essay (link to full text here):
I. The first reason is obvious, but is probably the least important. Many of the nation’s most active religion reporters either are or at one point have been Episcopalians. Walk into a meeting of the Religion Newswriters Association and say, “The Lord be with you,” and a large number of the reporters in the room will say, “And also with you.” …
II. Numerous studies have shown that people in the media elite are amazingly apathetic when it comes to religion news. … If at all possible, the media treat religion as a photo opportunity. And when it comes to taking pictures of religion, it helps if people wear religious clothing. … Episcopalians have been known to dress up. Episcopalians still look religious.
III. It also helps, when you are doing a quick, easy religion story, if the religious group in question is nearby. … Suffice it to say that America’s media life continues to be dominated by decisions made in institutions in New York City, Washington, D.C., and the major cities of the urban East Coast. Where is the symbolic heart of the Episcopal Church? If you find a major news headquarters, the odds are very good that you will find an Episcopal cathedral or an historic parish — a wonderful place for taking photos, by the way — just around the corner. …
IV. We all know what subject journalists think is most important: politics. … (It) is true that a surprisingly high number of the nation’s political leaders continue to worship, to one degree or another, in Episcopal pews. … Episcopalians tend to link church issues to issues of public policy. These religious debates are then staged using highly political language. Journalists like that. …
V. Finally, a number of researchers have shown that most editors, reporters and other leaders of our elite media are social and moral liberals. … When it comes to religion, the safest statement we can make about generic journalists is that they are apathetic or vaguely spiritual. But the evidence would also show that they support a liberal social and moral agenda.
Of course, the religious group that receives the most coverage in North America — for obvious reasons — is the Catholic Church. For starters, Catholics have a clearly defined hierarchy that lends itself easily to political analysis. Catholicism is a growing player in the power structures of the urban East and in the Latino West. But how does it’s male, usually pro-Vatican hierarchy fare with many in the press?
What does this have to do with the Episcopalians? In the end I offered this thesis statement:
I believe the Episcopal Church draws more than its share of media attention because its leaders wear religious garb, work in conveniently located buildings, speak fluent politics and promote a mystical brand of moral liberalism. Episcopalians look like Roman Catholics and act like liberal politicians.
Thus, for many, but not all elite reporters, The Episcopal Church is the perfect media hook.
PHOTO: The current leader of TEC, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, at work.