Spinning a news story is not as easy as it seems. Too light a touch and an author fails to convince his audience of the merits of his cause. Too much can spin the ball out of the author’s control — touching upon so many issues and arguments that readers may become enamored with the “wrong” issue.
Take Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Aesthetically a beautiful film (and evil too), it fails as propaganda for any but the true believer because of its heavy hand.
(As an aside: Riefenstahl created the cinema-graphic technique of the long entrance. Hitler’s entrance to the rally builds and builds, tension and anticipation mount. The shots follow him through the bowels of the stadium and culminate in his entrance to the stage. Should you take delight in upsetting your political friends, compare the shots Riefenstahl used in Triumph of the Will to the staging of recent Democrat and Republican conventions — Bill Clinton followed Riefenstahl’s playbook almost scene by scene inside the convention halls.)
The key to good advocacy journalism, as it is in all things, is moderation. The best propaganda is subtle propaganda. Too many claims, too much hyperbole and you cheapen your story.
A line in a piece published in the Daily Beast on gay clergy weddings for the Church of England illustrates the merits of moderation. Let me say at the outset that the story in the Daily Beast is an advocacy piece, published on an openly liberal website. As such, this is not normal GetReligion material. However, this is an opinion article cloaked in the mantle of a news story.
The tone, focus and editorial voice of the recent story “Meet the Gay Priest Getting Married” lauds the subject of the profile, a Church of England priest who has vowed to marry his gay partner despite being told such an act violated church rules.
But the plea for sympathy and support for the priest in his battle with a harsh and oppressive bureaucracy, was overshadowed by the article’s crucial claim that almost a third of the Church of England’s bishops are gay. The tabloids as well as the gay specialty press picked up this statement and the issue de jour became hypocrisy on high — not the little guy fighting the good fight.
The Daily Beast reported:
The Church of England, which broke from the Vatican in 1534 so that Henry VIII could take a second wife, has often been celebrated for its accepting and open attitude. In fact, Cain estimated that a third of the clergy in London are gay. A clergyman, who did not wish to be named, claimed that at least 13 of the church’s 42 bishops were also gay, although they have not publicly acknowledged it. “Gay people have very often a heightened sensitivity to things of beauty and spirituality,” Cain suggested. “There are an awful lot of gay people in the church.”
Before I start on the gay bishop claim, let me say a word or two about the canard that England got a new church because Henry wanted a new wife. It didn’t quite work that way. Also, the Church of England does not see itself as having been founded in the 16th century. It is the same church that existed in those isles from the time of St Augustine of Canterbury (circa 6th century). But like the Orthodox some 400 years earlier, during the time of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I the Church of England declined to accept the universal authority of the Bishop of Rome in England.
And, the indigenous reform movement within the Church of England predated Henry’s divorce and remarriage to Ann Boleyn. Henry’s anger at the pope’s refusal to grant him an annulment (a refusal made on political grounds not theological) was the wedge political issue the English reformers were able to use to break free from the theological dictates of Rome. The English reformers were willing to disagree amongst themselves and with Rome over the theology of Eucharistic presence but were prepared to go to the stake over the issues of justification by faith, the Bible in the vernacular, the uniqueness of the death of Jesus and for the right to disagree over second order issues — the principle of adiaphora.
Once again, the frisson this article created, however, has not been over same-sex marriage and the clergy or even Henry VIII, it is the claim that a third of the Church of England’s bishops are gay.
Granted this appeared in the Daily Beast and the standards of attribution expected of traditional journalism is not the same as found in a mainstream newspaper. The expectations one would have of rigorous professionalism are not pertinent. But should it have printed this claim without further substantiation or explanation? Does not placing the claim into the mouth of an anonymous priest add to the impression that this is gossip?
The claim that 13 bishops are gay is not new. Changing Attitude, a gay advocacy group within the Church of England, has raised this issue over the years. However the definition of bishop in Changing Attitude’s tale is more expansive — it includes assistant and suffragan bishops and is not limited to diocesan bishops. In 1995 a gay rights group, Outrage! outed 10 Church of England bishops whom it claimed were gay, and demonstrators disrupted the consecration service of one of the 10, the Bishop of Durham, after he refused to come out of the closet.
The tale told by the Daily Beast about the Rev. Andrew Cain’s confrontation with his bishop was painful, and came close to being wicked. Towards the top of the article we read:
The priest, who oversees two parishes in North-West London, disclosed to The Daily Beast that he had been hauled in front of his bishop last week. Cain said he was summoned to the home of The Rt Revd Peter Wheatley, Bishop of Edmonton, along with a church human resources officer, and reprimanded for his open defiance of the ecclesiastical guidelines.
“He was offended about the fact that I was being public in my opposition to the bishops, and I said, ‘Well, actually I think you are wrong and I’m sorry but this is conscientious dissent,’” Cain said. “I’ve known him for 15 years—it was an extraordinarily awkward and difficult thing.”
Cain said the bishop tried to convince him to abandon his wedding plans and ordered him to stop criticizing the church’s position.
On the surface, this is merely a dressing down of Cain by his bishop. However, Bishop Wheatley is said to be one of the closeted 13.
The line that this was “an extraordinarily awkward and difficult thing” plunges home the knife of hypocrisy.
Which begs the questions behind this story: What is a gay man? Where does virtue lie? Is it someone who experiences same-sex attractions? Is it someone who experiences these attractions and acts upon them, but understands his actions to be sinful? Is it someone who experiences same-sex attractions, acts upon them, and believes these actions to be moral?
When questions were raised about his sexuality Wheatley told The Times he is “a celibate Christian living by Christian teachings.” If he is celibate does that make him gay?
Where do these 13 bishops whom the Daily Beast claims are gay stand? Are they celibate? Have they acted upon their sexual desires but believe that these actions are sinful and have repented? Do they believe homosexual acts are not sinful and feel free to act upon them so long as they keep quiet about it and not publicly contradict church teaching?
Precision in language is essential in these discussions about sexuality and marriage. The Daily Beast is what it is — an opinion journal. But that does not excuse it from fidelity to fact.
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