The Sun talks (just talk, no facts) about an Episcopal hero

I didn’t know much about the Rt. Rev. David Leighton — the 11th diocese of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland — before reading the recent Baltimore Sun news article about the funeral rites held in his honor.

In fact, while this may be hard to believe, I think it would be accurate to say that I knew less about this man after reading the Sun article than I knew before reading it. I certainly had more questions afterwards.

How is that possible? Well, the article contained very few facts of any kind, which means that it didn’t even achieve the proper mix of journalistic materials that would allow it to serve as a public-relations piece for the diocese and its causes. Instead, the article repeatedly allows people to make statements that describe the bishop — often words from the Right Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, the current bishop — while failing to provide any factual material to back those assertions.

But for me, the crucial fact was that Leighton served as bishop in this progressive city and urban region during the years between 1972 and 1985 — a period of time in which the national Episcopal Church was moving from quiet, cultured liberalism (at least up north) into the Woodstock-at-prayer cultural activism of the current era.

Where did Leighton fit into all of that? Let’s look at one or two questions that this article leaves hanging in the air.

Before the ceremony began, clergy from across Maryland flocked into the cathedral dressed in flowing white albs; among them were many women, including the Rev. Phebe C. McPherson. Leighton ordained her as the first female priest in Maryland in 1977 — a move described as his most controversial in office.

Through a biblical reading and Sutton’s sermon, the service reflected on Leighton’s role as the “good shepherd” of his community.

Sutton said that in Jesus’ lifetime shepherds were widely despised — he compared their status in society to that of “hustlers” on the streets of Park Heights. Sutton said Leighton embodied that tradition in his willingness to expand the embrace of the church and to confront those who criticized his opposition to the Vietnam War and his welcoming of women into the ministry.

“He knew that if he were to be the bishop of all the people, then he would have to make a special effort to become the shepherd of the least, the lost, the forgotten of his fold,” Sutton said. “In his ministry he would make no peace with oppression, and that sometimes cost him dearly in friends and in money, for himself and for the diocese.

“But he was the good shepherd. Like his Lord, Bishop Leighton was willing to lay down his life for the sheep.”

Now, this sounds like Leighton paid a price for his activism on behalf of liberal causes. Is this true?

If this was an article about a coach or someone working in higher education, the reporter might have provided some statistics that illustrated this point. What was his won-lost record? What happened to enrollments? Any crucial school closings?

For example, what happened to membership statistics during his decade-plus in the bishop’s chair? It sounds like some people and even parishes left, rather than tolerate what the bishop saw as his pro-tolerance policies. How did he, as bishop, relate to Maryland’s Anglo-Catholics who, as a matter of doctrine, opposed the ordination of women? Did he lose parishes over that stand?

This era was also a time of great suffering in the city of Baltimore. If the bishop was a strong, open progressive, did he open many urban parishes and ministries? Or did he choose to close them?

Readers are also told that Sutton credited Leighton with “paving the way for him to become first African-American to hold the office in Maryland.” That’s a strong claim: How did he do that?

The bottom line is that the Sun team has made a case that Leighton was a historic figure, serving in a pivotal era of time in his church and his city. Yet the story includes no facts that support its claims — especially when it comes to the passages about divisions and pain within the diocese. Good PR people include crucial facts. Right?

It seems that a reporter went to this event, heard the sermon and, with a dash of printed background material, wrote a story and that was that.

I’m saying that it appears that this bishop and his supporters (even his awful critics, come to think of it) deserved a little bit more than that. A few lines of factual material would have helped.

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.

  • Dingo Dongo

    An error:

    * “went to this even” should be “went to this event”

    • tmatt

      Glad to fix. Still on drugs after surgery.

      ;-)

  • Mephibosheth

    And your lede should say “11th bishop”. Feel better soon!


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