Ann B. Davis: True heroine of alternative families?

My recent GetReligion piece on the life and ministry of actress Ann B. Davis, a friend from Denver days, rang up some pretty good social media numbers (thank you readers and Twitter fanatics). As a result, I heard from quite a few folks reacting to the mainstream media coverage of her death.

I think this is a commentary on her fame via The Brady Bunch. No doubt about that. However, I also think that — because of decades of activity in events nationwide linked to the Charismatic Renewal Movement (a very ecumenical and far-flung body of believers) — Ann B. had also actually met thousands of people face to face who in some truly personal way felt a human connection there.

I think it’s safe to lump these reader comments into two camps. Those dealing with print sources felt that these reports minimized the role that faith played in Davis’ life and didn’t seem to understand the fine details. But at least the faith was there. Meanwhile, the mainstream television reports were — people said over and over — all but completely faith free.

Then there was this strange piece in Time.

I mention it for a very simple reason: It is a perfect example of the kind of material that is being published today in publications that consumers think of as news products, yet most of their contents have little or nothing to do with news. Instead, they are works of basic commentary.

Thus, consider this piece with the headline epic double-decker headline:

Somehow Forming a Family: Why We Loved The Brady Bunch‘s Alice

Played by Ann B. Davis, who died over the weekend, Alice represented something that was becoming familiar in people’s complicated lives if not on TV: the non-parent parent.

While this is billed as an “appreciation” of Davis, the piece actually is not about Davis at all (the Time video is, in fact, a mini-profile). Instead, it is about a writer’s personal opinions about the importance of Davis and her “Alice” persona. Honestly, search the piece for actual information about the facts of her life. Here is a sample passage:

… (Alice) connected with a change that, in the early ’70s, was emerging in American families, in which figures other than two parents were central in kids’ lives.

Like a lot of childhood TV memories, The Brady Bunch is loved not so much for its artistry as for its emotional connections. The Brady family was big, it was blended, and it felt like there was room for everyone. Putting two families together on TV was unusual at the time, and it spoke to the number of kids who recognized divorce and remarriage from their own lives. Yes, Mike was a widower, and Carol’s status was never clarified — a compromise after Sherwood Schwartz wanted her to be a divorcée — but anyone watching knew what the show was really depicting. It turned something commonly depicted as tragedy into a triumph — a family coming together by choice.

And also, at the end:

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Memory eternal: The life and quiet ministry of ‘Ann B.’

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One of the complicated subjects that religion-beat professionals talk about behind the scenes, if they are themselves religious believers, is how to pick out a safe congregation to join in the city that they are covering. The goal is to find a good one, but not one that has a history of making news.

During my Rocky Mountain News days, for example, my family joined what I thought was a nice safe, rather low-key parish near downtown (at this stage in our pilgrimage we were evangelical Anglicans). Lo and behold, the priest promptly became active in ministry to urban teens and gang members. Go figure.

That parish also put me in the path of a major news complication. Before long, one of my closest friends in the parish was a young man who was a leader at the local St. Francis Center for the homeless. On top of that, he was the son of one of the state’s major newsmakers, the charismatic (in multiple senses of the word) Bishop William C. Frey, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado. I immediately told my editors and then met with the bishop to establish ground rules for contacts with his family which were acceptable to him, to me and to my editors. I will leave the details private, but it helped that the bishop was not the kind of man who ducked questions.

Why bring this up?

You see, over the years several branches of the Frey family tree lived in a rambling old home in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood at one time or another, along with a wide variety of other interesting families and individuals. If you went over to watch a Denver Broncos game with one of the Frey sons and his family, that meant the bishop was probably going to there too, most of the time.

Members of this household community — think small commune — shared most finances, cleaning duties, cooking, etc., etc. This kind of idealistic arrangement was actually not that unusual in the era in which charismatic renewal swept through many mainline Protestant bodies, and Catholicism as well. There were many wonderful households of this kind and a few with dark sides (See the amazing Julia Duin book — “Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community” — about one terrible fall in Houston).

One member of the Denver community kept her Emmy Awards in the household’s television room, where they served as bookends high up on some shelves. She wasn’t very good at cooking (tacos were her norm) and she admitted that she struggled a bit with childcare. Her name, of course, was Ann B. Davis and over the years she became a friend, too.

The woman millions thought of as “Alice” was far more than her character on The Brady Bunch, or her trailblazing “Schultzy” character on “The Bob Cummings Show.” She was the kind of person that, after the conversion experience that turned her life upside down, would spend her days hidden in the back of that homeless center quietly doing laundry or sorting through donated clothes. You should have heard her cackle when she finally managed to make stray socks match.

Now Ann B. is gone at age 88. Needless to say, I have found it interesting to read the short passages in the major media obituaries that have tried to deal with the Christian content in her life story.

I think the best overall piece I have seen, so far, was in The Los Angeles Times. For example, readers were first given this short bit of information:

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‘Openly’ debating a key news issue in 2014 Summer of Sex

Faithful readers of this blog may have noted that your GetReligionistas rarely mention the names of reporters in our posts when we are critiquing news reports, unless a particular issue turns into a pattern that must be discussed.

There is a simple reason for this names-free policy and we have stated it many times: We have all been there in the press doing this difficult work.

We know that, far too often, reporters are assigned impossible stories and then given too little time and too little space. We also know that many errors and biases are actually edited into stories or reflect what is happening at the level of editors, more than the reporters. So we strive — as much as possible — to criticize news organizations, rather than individuals.

Praise, however, is another matter. We often end up mentioning Godbeat veterans who consistently get the job done right.

So readers will know that, when we see the “Peter Smith” byline, we know we are going to get a story that includes lots of basic reporting and, whenever possible, the people on both sides of hot debates are going to get to speak for themselves (as opposed to lots of vague “some” references and second-hand commentary). This is the case, once again, in his Pittsburgh Post-Gazette news feature on a key element in the annual oldline Protestant Summer of Sex rites.

The goal here is a high-altitude overview of the doctrinal angles in same-sex marriage debates, with special attention given to events in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Methodist Church. Thus, the opening:

“Goin’ to the chapel and we’re gonna get married.”

Well, some chapels anyway.

With this week’s landmark federal court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania, some houses of worship, including those affiliated with more liberal Protestant and Jewish denominations, will be opening their doors to gay couples — and in fact have been doing so for years before they had benefit of a marriage license.

Many other religious groups — including Roman Catholics, Orthodox and conservative evangelical Protestants — are holding fast to traditional doctrine as a matter of course. And for still other religious groups, the ruling only further complicates their long-running debates over homosexuality.

The leader of the region’s United Methodists is immediately given a chance to explain why the judge’s ruling has, primarily, turned up the heat on debates for religious leaders, as opposed to settling the debate.

“The ruling may change the understanding of marriage in the commonwealth, but it doesn’t alter the stand of the United Methodist Church at all,” said Bishop Thomas Bickerton of the Western Pennsylvania Conference of that denomination. “What it really does is heighten the debate that already exists within the church.”

The denomination forbids involvement of its pastors and churches in blessing same-sex unions. Bishop Bickerton said Thursday he would be issuing a letter urging pastors to find ways within the bounds of church rules to minister to gay couples and members. “I really believe our pastors, all of them, want to be in ministry to the people they’re serving,” he said.

Cautious, but clear words there. And the state of the liberal Presbyterians and other members of the old Mainline Protestant world?

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On St. Ruth and the state of Fleet Street religion news

Sad news to report from the Press Gazette, the trade newspaper for British journalism. On May 16 it announced The Times was eliminating its religious affairs correspondent post, and Ruth Gledhill would be leaving the newspaper after 27 years of reporting on religion.

The Times decision to make redundant the religion spot means that there are will no longer be a reporter dedicated to covering religion on Fleet Street. The Press Gazette reported:

Fleet Street is to lose its last religious affairs correspondent next week when Ruth Gledhill leaves The Times. Gledhill has confirmed her position is being made redundant as she leaves the paper after 27 years.

The Daily Telegraph has a social and religious affairs editor, John Bingham, but Gledhill is believed to be the last full-time UK national newspaper reporter dedicated to covering religion. Meanwhile, Caroline Wyatt was appointed as the BBC News’s religious affairs correspondent after seven years working as a defence correspondent for the corporation last week. She replaces Robert Pigott, who is moving to become a BBC news correspondent.

Reporter Jonathan Petre of the Daily Mail and columnist Andrew Brown at the Guardian cover religion also for their newspapers, but Ruth’s was the last stand alone Religious Affairs Correspondent in the daily press.

I’m of two minds about this development. On one level this is a shame. Perhaps it is an opportunity.

I’ve known Ruth Gledhill for about 15 years. She has written diary pieces for the publication where I serve as senior correspondent, and I’ve worked on stories with her for The Times. I’ve been her house guest and am acquainted with her husband, the poet, playwright and musician Alan Franks, and am an admirer of her work. I am biased.

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It’s a mystery: Kicking a cardinal — Guardian-style

Who is the target in this story from The Guardian on the gay marriage vote in the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly? Better still, who should be the target? Why is the paper favored by the Nomenklatura in Britain hammering Cardinal Sean Brady?

The article from the newspaper’s Ireland correspondent reports the news that the Unionist parties (Protestants) in the Assembly will block a motion introduced by Sinn Féin to permit gay marriage. The Catholic hierarchy in Northern Ireland has also called for the bill to be blocked.

The Church of Ireland (the Anglicans) were on record as opposed to the change — however this last bit of news is not stated outright. We can infer the Anglicans were opposed by statements reported in the closing paragraphs. The article reports that Anglican gay activists were disappointed with their church’s stance.” (Here is their statement.)

If it is the Protestants, who as a group, are blocking gay marriage, why then is The Guardian beating up on the Catholic Church? Or are they beating up on one particular Catholic?

Here is the lede:

The Catholic church has backed unionist politicians’ moves to block marriage equality in Northern Ireland. A Sinn Féin motion to introduce legislation that would allow gay people to marry in the region is likely to be defeated at the Northern Ireland assembly. …

Both the Democratic Unionist party and the Ulster Unionist party are to introduce a so-called “petition of concern”, which would ensure there was no cross-community support in the chamber for the marriage equality bill. Under the rules of the Stormont assembly, legislation cannot pass if the representatives of one community refuse to support a new bill, thus ensuring that no one section of the divided populace can impose laws on the other.

It appears that The Guardian editors have placed a Catholic veneer over the Protestant political story of rejecting gay marriage.

Also note that The Guardian team uses the phrase “marriage equality,” telegraphing its support for the initiative. However it drops after the lede and switches to “gay marriage” for the rest of the story. A curious move. Did an editor allow the editorial voice in the lede and then adopted less political language in the body of the story?

Language aside, I wonder whether The Guardian has chosen wisely in deciding how to lay out the story. Kick the Catholics over their stance on gay marriage — and bring up the clergy abuse scandal, while giving Prots a pass. Not that I mind good press for Anglicans — heaven knows we seldom get it, or deserve it.

After the lede the story moves into an examination of the Catholic position with a lengthy quote.

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African simony assertions from Religion News Service

As a good Protestant (in an Anglican context, of course), I reject the doctrine of purgatory — that intermediate state after death where those destined for paradise “undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”

I am not as courageous, however, as the author of a recent piece in The Federalist. Denoucing the cult of saints as un-Scriptural and un-Christian on the day before Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII were celebrated as saints by the Vatican was a turn worthy of Ian Paisley in his prime. But I digress.

I am, nevertheless, tempted by the doctrine of purgatory for I have just spent 24 hours at the Atlanta airport — the intermediate state for all travelers destined for the paradise of Florida.

Sanity was preserved, however, through application to my writing coupled with meditations on the devotional book I had packed for the journey: P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave it to Psmith (1924). Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby joined the Earl of Emsworth, Psmith and the dastardly Rupert Baxter as companions on my journey.

The close of Leave it to Psmith — a summary of its plot can be found here, but plots matter little in a Wodehouse piece — finds Psmith unmasked as an impostor by the efficient Baxter. He is not the modern poet Ralston McTodd whom Lord Emsworth was sent to fetch from London. Yet Psmith can explain. When the peer mistook him for the poet at the Senior Conservative Club in London, Psmith decided to step into the breach and save him from the “inconvenience of having to return here without a McTodd of any description.”

His lordship digested this explanation in silence. Then he seized on a magnificent point. “Are you a member of the Senior Conservative Club?”

“Most certainly.”

“Why, then, dash it,” cried his lordship, paying to that august stronghold of respectability as striking a tribute as it had ever received, “if you’re a member of the Senior Conservative, you can’t be a criminal. Baxter’s an ass!”

“Exactly.”

We may laugh with Wodehouse and applaud his verbal dexterity — but we should not laugh at the logic of the Earl of Emsworth. Whether it is called class, tribe or our crowd, most reporters face the temptation to write for a particular audience with whom they have shared assumptions, experiences and prejudices.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Modern newspaper readers — and it is worse on the Internet — are unlikely to stay with a story after the first few sentences unless it strikes their fancy. (I expect I have lost a good chunk of those who have clicked through to this article already.) To keep the reader’s interest a good reporter needs to find a hook that keeps them coming for more.

The trick for a reporter is not to let the hook overcome the story. A recent story released by the Religion News Service makes this error — basing its reporting on assumptions rather than taking on the journalistic task of accurately reporting voices on both sides of a very hot topic.

The article entitled “Conservative Anglican leaders back Uganda anti-gay law” recounts a meeting last week in London of leaders of the conservative or traditional wing of the Anglican Communion. Eleven archbishops whose churches account for roughly two-thirds to three-quarters of the active members of the worldwide Anglican Communion released a statement at the close of their gathering.

The London-based Daily Mail interpreted the statement as a challenge to the Archbishop of Canterbury for the Church of England to clarify its stance on gay marriage. The lede of its article “Church of England split fear as African bishops speak out over clergy flouting a ban on same-sex weddings” stated:

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby was last night facing mounting pressure to crack down on clergy who marry their gay partners — as the threat of a split in the Anglican Church grew.

A powerful group of conservative African Archbishops said they were ‘deeply troubled’ by liberal Western attitudes towards homosexuality and that Church of England clerics were flouting a ban on same-sex weddings.

From the statement, which enumerated local concerns held by the various archbishops, the Daily Mail highlighted the closing two paragraphs, which focused on the traditionalists’ displeasure with Archbishop Welby for waffling on gay marriage.  The church press in England and the United States also read the statement in this way. (That is how these Anglican documents are written, by the way, their hook comes just before the close.)

This RNS piece took a radically different approach to the story. It said nothing about the threat to the primacy of the Archbishop of Canterbury, but opened as follows:

WASHINGTON (RNS) Leaders of the conservative wing of the worldwide Anglican Communion equate the experiences of Ugandans who support a new anti-gay law with those of victims of an earthquake or a terror attack.

The Global Anglican Future Conference — made up chiefly of Anglican archbishops in Africa, Asia and Latin America — concluded a two-day meeting in London on Saturday (April 26) with a statement that expressed concern for violence in South Sudan and Northern Nigeria. It then said:

“We are equally concerned for the affected communities in Chile from the recent earthquake, terrorist attacks in Kenya, and the backlash from the international community in Uganda from their new legislation.”

In an odd interpretation of the document, RNS then moved to the recent contretemps over Uganda’s anti-homosexuality laws, even bringing on board President Barack Obama’s views on that legislation. The RNS piece then took a giant editorial leap.

But despite the GAFCON statement’s equation with catastrophes, the archbishops’ response seems more concerned with finances than outright support for the Ugandan law. The “backlash” line could be a reference to the loss of $140 million in financial aid and project support from the World Bank, the U.S. and other countries. According to IRIN, which covers humanitarian issues, this included $6.4 million intended for the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda, which backed the legislation.

Yes, you read that right. The key word was “seems.”

This is a curious interpretation of the document at best. The phrase the “response seems more concerned with finances than outright support for the Uganda law” is speculation — period. The two may seem to be connected in the mind of RNS and if this was a news analysis piece or an opinion article there is nothing untoward about RNS proffering this argument. Yet this article is billed as a news story.

Let me digress (again). I have a degree of knowledge about the individuals and institutions under discussion after covering the overseas Anglican world since 1998. I have interviewed the last three archbishops of Uganda and discussed the issues facing the church in private chats as well as in formal interviews. In my opinion the opinion expressed by RNS about the connection is specious nonsense.

Not that there is anything wrong with that, as George and Jerry tell us. But to make their argument RNS should have done some reporting with real Ugandans.

Rather than ask the Church of Uganda, whose press office is quick to respond to queries from overseas reporters, RNS makes a further assumption that is not supported by facts linked to sources. The key statement — the “ ‘backlash’ line could be a reference to the loss of $140 million” — could easily have been checked. Or RNS could have read the myriad reports in the church press as well as in the Ugandan press about the anger felt by Ugandans over what they see as the racist and patronizing attitude of the West.

In other words, there are multiple points of view on these complex issues. Find them. Quote them.

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Easter season, check … Chip away at basic beliefs, check

You know all of those news articles you see published every year at Ramadan that ask if Muhammad really heard from the archangel Gabriel?

No? Well, how about all the stories each Divali that cast doubt on the goddess Lakshmi’s ability to bless her worshipers?

No? Then how about those articles for Eastertime questioning whether Jesus really did rise from the dead?

Ding Ding Ding Ding Ding!

Yep, those come out every year.

Case in point: a feature in the Washington Post on how divisive is this central tenet of the holiest day of Christianity.

The story, actually from the Religion News Service, sets up the resurrection almost as a straw man. First it briefly states the doctrine; then the next four paragraphs try to chip away at it.

It’s “the source of some of the deepest rifts in Christianity,” the story says — “and a stumbling block for some Christians, and more than a few skeptics.” Then it questions whether the doctrine is really that important:

Did Jesus literally come back from the dead in a bodily resurrection, as many traditionalist and conservative Christians believe? Or was his rising a symbolic one — a restoration of his spirit of love and compassion to the world, as members of some more liberal brands of Christianity hold?

As Easter approaches, many Christians struggle with how to understand the Resurrection. How literally must one take the Gospel story of Jesus’ triumph to be called a Christian? Can one understand the Resurrection as a metaphor — perhaps not even believe it happened at all — and still claim to be a follower of Christ?

When a story poses rhetorical questions favoring one side, you get a strong feeling that the tracks have already been laid for this train.

The article tries to argue that the doctrine of a physical resurrection keeps some people from celebrating Easter:

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Nice but, at times, confusing news on Virginia Anglican wars

Inspiring, uplifting stories have been hard to find in recent decades in the world of Episcopal vs. Anglican infighting, especially when it comes to in-the-trenches doctrinal warfare at the local and regional levels.

However, the religion-beat team at The New York Times thought it had one the other day. The headline: “Two Ministers Forge Friendship Across a Church Divide.”

This news feature worked, kind of, on the macro level. However, many of the micro details were out of focus and Anglican-fluent readers were left, methinks, wondering what was really going on.

This is the story of the unlikely friendship between the Rev. Tory Baucum, a doctrinal conservative, and the Rev. Shannon Johnston, a doctrinal progressive who, among other things, strongly supports same-sex marriage.

This is how the story identified each man — “the Rev.” The problem is that the liberal priest is, in fact, Bishop Shannon Johnston. Don’t get me wrong: Johnston is quickly identified as a bishop, but I still wondered who he was not granted that title when he was first mentioned. Strange. Another key point of confusion slips in print in this key fact paragraph:

Mr. Johnston is the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia — the most populous Episcopal diocese in the United States — and a supporter of same-sex marriage who has blessed same-sex couples. Mr. Baucum is the rector of an unusually vibrant parish, Truro Church in Fairfax, which left the Episcopal Church over the election of the gay bishop, Gene Robinson, the final straw in a long-running dispute over theological orthodoxy. By the time the two men arrived in Virginia, in 2007, their flocks were suing each other over who owned the Truro property, worshipers had been forced to choose sides, and sharp-fingered bloggers were trading medieval-sounding epithets like “heretic” and “schismatic.”

The story notes that this parish “left the Episcopal Church” but, for some strange reason, never calls this congregation by its new name — Truro Anglican Church.

This is picky stuff, but there are crucial facts related to that name that readers need to know to grasp some of the subject material covered in this story. Truro is now part of the conservative Anglican Church in North America and is located in the Diocese of the Mid-Atlantic.

To cut to the chase: Baucum serves under the authority of another bishop.

It’s nice to know that the priest gets together from time to time for a beer and fellowship with the liberal Episcopal bishop, but it’s especially important for readers to know that these two men are, literally, not in Communion with one another at the level of shared views of Sacraments, ordination vows and ministries. They cannot share the same altar and, I am sure, Baucum’s own bishop would have wished that these facts were clearly presented in the story.

So who is Baucum’s actual bishop? At the very end of the story, readers are finally told the following, concerning the atmosphere surrounding this right-left friendship:

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