Remember that soul-searching June 23, 2005, memo that New York Times editor Bill Keller wrote to his staff? This was the one called “Assuring Our Credibility” (PDF) that talked about the newspaper needing to do a better job of covering religion and being fair to people whose beliefs seem strange to people who work in the world’s most powerful newsroom.
I like that memo — a lot. I also think that Keller was rather brave to write it. Here is one of my favorite passages, talking about the work of a committee that is trying to help the newspaper work on its faults and build bridges to its critics. Keller writes:
We must … be more alert to nuances of language when writing about contentious issues. The committee picked a few examples — the way the word “moderate” conveys a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme, the misuse of “religious fundamentalists” to describe religious conservatives — but there are many pitfalls involved when we try to convey complex ideas as simply as possible, on deadline.
GetReligion readers already know how this blog feels about the abuse of the term “fundamentalist,” as defined in The Associated Press Stylebook. So let’s not linger there.
But what about that “moderate” problem? It does seem that, in many religious and cultural disputes, there are “conservatives,” “evangelicals” and “fundamentalists” who are forever wrestling with intelligent, sensible people called “moderates.” There are no “liberals” in sight.
Which brings us back to the Episcopal Diocese of California and its election this weekend in San Francisco of Mark H. Andrus, the bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Alabama, as the new leader of one of the most liberal regions in the U.S. Episcopal Church. There was a somewhat surprising result, which ABC News captured in a rather blunt headline atop a Reuters report: “Heterosexual elected Episcopal Bishop of Calif.”
At the New York Times, reporter Neela Banerjee continued to cover this story, noting that the diocese did elect a straight white male, but one who had bravely stood up for gay rights in the heart of the Bible Belt. So this landslide in Grace Cathedral (photo) was a cautious win for the Episcopal left. Here is a summary:
Bishop Andrus, 49, was not one of the gay candidates. … Nonetheless, in an acceptance statement via a phone call piped into Grace Cathedral, where the voting was taking place, Bishop Andrus said he would continue to support the full inclusion of gay men and lesbians in the church.
“We must all understand, and here I address the Diocese of California and those listening from elsewhere, that your vote today remains a vote for inclusion and communion — of gay and lesbian people in their full lives as single or partnered people, of women, of all ethnic minorities, and all people,” Bishop Andrus said, referring to continuing in the Anglican Communion, which has about 77 million members worldwide. “My commitment to Jesus Christ’s own mission of inclusion is resolute.”
So this election did nothing to bring peace in the global Anglican Communion, but it did not make matters immediately worse. You can find a similar template in the solid stories featured in the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post.
But before we go, let’s reflect on a passing remark near the end of that Banerjee report, which included fleeting references to other Episcopal elections taking place across America this weekend.
Take the race for a key mitre down in the Bible Belt, for example:
In the Diocese of Tennessee … voting for a new bishop ended in a stalemate on Saturday after more than 30 ballots. Lay delegates backed a conservative minister who they hoped would take the diocese out of the Episcopal Church, and clergy members backed a more moderate choice, said the Rev. William Sachs, director of research for the Episcopal Foundation, the church’s analysis arm.
There are several loaded wordings in that paragraph. It is possible that this “conservative” candidate believes that it’s more important in the long run to keep the Nashville diocese in the global Anglican Communion (majority conservative, on moral theology) than in the U.S. body currently called the Episcopal Church (majority liberal, on moral theology). However, one can be sure that the use of the “moderate” label here — outside of a direct quote — is loaded. The analysis is, after all, coming from the head of the analysis office for the New York City-based Episcopal hierarchy.
And that would certainly sound right to the New York Times. So here is the question for Keller the editor. Does the New York City Episcopal establishment get to determine who is in the “moderate” camp?
P.S. No sign, as of yet, of the Times publishing a correction on Banerjee’s earlier story, which reported that the Anglican Communion (77 million members) is the world’s second largest church, as opposed to the Eastern Orthodox Christian communion (250 million members).