Is Christopher Senyonjo a gay martyr or gay icon?

The Associated Press has a story out today on a former bishop of the Church of Uganda who has broken ranks over the issue of homosexuality. For those who follow Anglican affairs the story of Bishop Christopher Senyonjo (also spelled Ssenyonjo) will not be new. The bishop is a frequent visitor to the United States and has spoken many times in public forums about his views on homosexuality.

The AP story entitled “Despite new law, Ugandan cleric ministers to gays” breaks no new ground, but offers an updated profile of the bishop in light of the country’s new laws on homosexuality. Given the low state of knowledge about religion in Africa held by the general public and the controversy the Ugandan gay law has created I can understand the editorial thinking that went into commissioning and publishing this article.

“African church leaders are anti-gay. Several African countries, including Uganda, have adopted laws toughening sanctions against homosexual activities. Here is a bishop who is bucking the trend,” says editor A. “Go for it.”

The article does a nice job in quoting the bishop and gay activists in Uganda. It  fits into the wider Western media narrative about homosexuality also.

However, the article is not balanced in that it does not offer the voice or views of those who hold the contrary position. And it does not test the claims made by the bishop and his supporters.

Yes, the article cites a past statement on homosexuality by the head of the Anglican Church in Uganda, Archbishop Stanley Ntagali, but we hear nothing from the church about this issue or about Bishop Senyonjo.

Which is a shame really as a little digging would reveal that the narrative given about Bishop Senyonjo is a false one. The story states:

For ministering to homosexuals, Senyonjo has become estranged from Uganda’s Anglican church. He was barred from presiding over church events in 2006 when he wouldn’t stop urging his leaders to accept gays. The parish that he once led doesn’t even acknowledge his presence when he attends Sunday services there, underscoring how his career has suffered because of his tolerance for gays in a country where homosexuals —and those who accept them — face discrimination.

The bishop was not kicked out of the Anglican Church over his views on homosexuality. I concede that this is not the conventional wisdom. In December 2013 Religion News Service ran a piece about Senyonjo that stated:

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Burn baby burn!

Outrage is a tricky thing. The worldview a reporter brings to the coverage of a story, such as loathing or disgust, will color his account of the incident. For an American tabloid or British redtop we expect bias, sensationalism and outrage — faux or genuine.

But when should a reporter for a quality, mainstream newspaper seek out sources who can debate why an act is or is not evil?

A story dated March 24, 2014 in the Daily Telegraph entitled “Aborted babies incinerated to heat UK hospitals” prompts me to ask, “what’s all the fuss about?”

The lede states:

The bodies of thousands of aborted and miscarried babies were incinerated as clinical waste, with some even used to heat hospitals, an investigation has found. Ten NHS trusts have admitted burning foetal remains alongside other rubbish while two others used the bodies in ‘waste-to-energy’ plants which generate power for heat. Last night the Department of Health issued an instant ban on the practice which health minister Dr Dan Poulter branded ‘totally unacceptable.’

The article summarizes the findings of a Channel 4 documentary produced by Dispatches entitled Exposing Hospital Heartache set for broadcast on March 24, summarizing its findings, and offering commentary from government health ministers. In addition to the Health Minister’s comment that “this practice is totally unacceptable,” we learn the NHS medical director has written to all state hospitals ending the practice. The Chief Inspector of Hospitals is quoted as saying:

I am disappointed trusts may not be informing or consulting women and their families. This breaches our standard on respecting and involving people who use services and I’m keen for Dispatches to share their evidence with us.

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No Popery please, we’re British

From way down under, the North Island of New Zealand to be precise, comes a charming example of how to botch a story on the Anglican Communion.

Reporters please note … while they may dress alike and their liturgy may sound alike, and they even have similar job titles … the Anglican Communion is not an English speaking version of the Catholic Church.

Sure there are Anglicans who prattle on about being Catholic and take umbrage at the suggestion they are Protestants — the three branches theory is usually trotted out at this time (which in a nutshell means there are three historic churches Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox and the rest are sects of recent origin.) Nonsense on stilts in my opinion, but I don’t want to be too cranky this early in the week, so I will stick to journalism.

The Fairfax newspaper chain in New Zealand published a story about the visit of the Archbishop of York to New Plymouth. The lede ran:

The second most powerful ranked person in the Anglican Church is supporting the move to have female bishops consecrated in the Church of England. The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, spoke in New Plymouth of his long-term support for the law change yesterday.

It was time for the controversy to be over so the Church of England could concentrate on its most pressing issue, that of poverty, he said. “I’m hoping we can get [the legislation] through and then move on to what we have committed ourselves to be doing. That must be the area that we must concentrate on most, dealing with the poor.”

Well, at least the reporter had her Times of London style book out and had the man’s name right. In the church press the first mention of the archbishop’s name would be “the Most Rev. John Sentamu”. Subsequent mentions would be “Dr. Sentamu”. The “Dr.” appelation is standard practice save for when an Anglican bishop prefers to be called bishop or archbishop instead. The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, prefers “Bishop Jefferts Schori” over “Dr. Jefferts Schori.”

The Times and other British publications would use the “Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu” style. Note the “the” is not capitalized. That is reserved for “The Queen” and other top royals. The “American style books also differ from their English cousins in the non-capitalization of “archbishop”. The New York Times or the AP would have styled him “archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu.”

A recent style error that has crept into the press in recent years is the combination of academic and clerical titles. One sees this sort of things even in diocesan press statements; “Canon Dr.” or “Bishop Dr.”. Whether this is done through ignorance (my guess), vanity (common enough amongst clergy) or an attempt to follow the German styling (Herr Prof. Dr. Dr. Schmidt) is hard to tell.
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One thing wrong with that ‘give up one thing for Lent’ thing

I don’t know precisely when it happened, but somewhere during the past decade or two Lent became cool for all kinds of people, including Godbeat reporters.

Lent wasn’t just for Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox (whoever they were) anymore. Lent was for edgy free-church Protestants, bookish evangelicals and all of the mainline Protestants, not just the Episcopalians. You had church leaders handing out Lenten meditation booklets and holding Lenten retreats and maybe even adding a mid-week Lenten service for the truly die-hard worshippers.

Lent was both cool and innovative. In other words, all of this new create-your-own Lent stuff was news. And at the center of it all was one central theme: What are you going to give up for Lent?

This was the big question, of course, the question that linked the new Lent, supposedly, to the old Catholic Lent.

Let’s look at a typical mini-feature earlier this week built on this concept (there were many to choose from), care of The Cleveland Plain Dealer:

The 40-day period of Lent starts today with Ash Wednesday as many Christian denominations give up something to recognize the sacrifices of Jesus Christ.

An analysis of Twitter revealed the most-mentioned Lenten sacrifices this year. Chocolate was number one, followed by alcohol, Twitter, social networking and swearing. Other popular items like forgoing sweets, soda, coffee and fast food also made the top 20.

But not all the Lenten tweets were serious. A high number of people posted they were passing up on Lent or giving up “giving up things.” (Read the top 100 here)

In you’re having trouble thinking of something to give up for Lent, the website WhatToGiveUpForLent.com can help. They suggest not watching television, smoking, using credit cards, gossiping and lying for 40 days.

Of course, the story noted that people can add some kind of (spiritual) discipline during Lent. What about “exercising, volunteering, being on time and staying positive.” Apparently going to confession, traditional forms of fasting, increased prayers, almsgiving, Bible study, etc., etc., didn’t make the list.

The mini-feature ended with a reader participation note: “So do you participate in Lent? What are you giving up or adding?”

So what is missing from this picture?

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Sausage making and news reporting on Zanzibar

Otto von Bismark’s reputed maxim: “Laws are like sausages — it is best not to see them being made …” could be applied to the crafting of a news story.

Most readers do not concern themselves with how a story came to be and accept the finished product of a news story as “the story.” In the age of the internet and declining standards and budgets for the once great news outlets this is not always a wise move.

Now approaching everything one reads with absolute skepticism is a tedious business. There will always be cranks who see the hidden hands of Freemasons, international Jewry or the vast right wing conspiracy lurking behind the text. Readers must balance their skepticism against the trust they have in the publication or author.

If Walter Cronkite said it, it had to be true. If it appears in the National Enquirer it has to be false.

But as history has shown us, the icons of of good and bad journalism, like the sayings everyone knows to be true because we’ve heard them so often, are not always so. Walter Cronkite in his broadcast of Feb 27, 1968 was wrong about the Tet Offensive, the National Enquirer was right about John Edwards in 2007, and Otto von Bismark never said anything about laws and sausages.

These musings were prompted by a story in the Washington Post from the Religion News Service entitled “Bombs explode Zanzibar calm as religious tensions flare” where RNS bungles the lede.

In the classical Anglo-American style of reporting the lede sentence is where the voice of the author is heard. The lede lays down the tracks that sets the destination for the news train that follows. My instructors in the craft likened the process to organizing a goods train. While the lede gives the destination and names the passengers and freight, the paragraphs that follow are akin to freight cars — each with its own cargo.

Opinions are welcome, but they should be from identifiable third parties, as is analysis, but it should be identified as such. This differs from advocacy reporting where facts are interspersed with opinion throughout a story in order to convince the reader of the merits of the writer’s view.
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Miscues in news on gay blessings and marriage from London

The Valentine’s Day statement from the House of Bishops of the Church of England on gay marriage has fluttered the Anglican dovecots.

The story received A1 treatment from the British press and it spawned commentaries and opinion pieces in the major outlets. The second day stories reported some activists were “appalled” by the news whilst others were over the moon with delight — but being British their joy did not rise to continental expressions of euphoria.

The story continues to move through the media and on Sunday the BBC had one bishop tell the Sunday Programme that clergy who violated the Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage protocol might be brought up on charges — and could well be sacked.

So what did the bishops do? A scan of the first day stories reports that they either said “no to gay marriage but yes to gay civil unions” or “no to gay marriage and no to blessing gay unions.” The first day reports were evenly divided between the “no/yes” and “no/no” schools.

The Independent interpreted the document as no/yes.  The lede  in its story entitled “Gay marriage: Church of England to offer prayers after weddings but no same-sex marriage for vicar” stated:

Gay couples will be able to have special prayers following their weddings but members of the clergy are banned from entering same-sex marriages when these become legal next month.

The Church of England issued its new pastoral guidance following a meeting of the House of Bishops to discuss the issue on Friday. Despite condemning “irrational fear of homosexuals” and saying all were “loved by God”, the document sent a clear signal separating the Church’s concept of marriage and the new legal definition. …

Civil partnerships will still be performed and vicars have been warned that married couples must be welcomed to worship and not subject to “questioning” or discrimination. Same-sex couples may ask for special prayers after being married but it will not be a service of blessing.

The Telegraph also took the no/yes line. The lede to its story entitled “Church offers prayers after same-sex weddings — but bans gay priests from marrying” stated:

Gay couples who get married will be able to ask for special prayers in the Church of England after their wedding, the bishops have agreed. But priests who are themselves in same-sex relationships or even civil partnerships will be banned from getting married when it becomes legally possible next month.

Compare this to the dispatch from Reuters which took a no/no line. Its lede stated:

Church of England priests will not be allowed to bless gay and lesbian weddings, or marry someone of the same sex themselves, according to new guidelines issued by the church, which is struggling to heal divides over homosexuality.

Why the disparate interpretations? Was this a case of the Church of England speaking out of both sides of its mouth at the same time? Offering an ambiguous statement that allows individuals to read into it what they are predisposed to find?

Perhaps. One should never underestimate the skill of the Sir Humphrey Appleby’s at Church House in churning out drivel. But in this case I believe the reporters’ suppositions as to the meaning of phrases drove their interpretations. The problem was not imprecise language from the bishops but a lack of understanding of technical language from reporters.

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Jim Davis agrees to join GetReligion’s thriving Florida bureau

EDITOR’S NOTE: What can I say? When I lived in South Florida this guy was the local professional on the religion beat whose work landed in my front yard. Also, surely it means something that one of his email addresses is “religionwriter.” To cut to the chase, I’m happy to report that James Davis, one of the gentlemen of the profession in recent decades, is joining us here at GetReligion.

Stop and think about it. With Father George Conger already based in Central Florida, I think the odds are getting better that there may someday be a GetReligion cruise to the Caribbean.

*****

Thanks to tmatt for the invitation to write for GetReligion. I’ve long admired the blog and I’ve known tmatt as a colleague on the religion beat for (slurred number) years. I’m honored to breathe the rarefied atmosphere here.

For myself, I worked for four decades until November 2012 with the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, most of it as religion editor. Most of my work focused on religion at the local level, covering the unbelievably rich mix of religions that is South Florida.

Among the stories I produced were two in-depth articles on Holocaust Revisionism, which were cited in a book by the American Jewish Committee; religious groups’ roles in recovery efforts after hurricanes Andrew and Wilma; Luis Palau’s Beachfest, which drew 300,000 people over two days; three appearances of the Dalai Lama, his first-ever to South Florida; the founding of the Jewish Museum of Florida, and in-depth features on Hindus and Muslims in South Florida.

I’ve taken occasional dips in the national pool, though: covering conferences of United Methodists, rabbis, evangelicals, religious broadcasters and two U.S. tours of Pope John Paul II. I also covered the centennial meeting of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. And I wrote several stories on Heritage U.S.A., before and after the Rev. Jim Bakker was ousted.

I received a religion writing award in 2010 from the Florida Press Club. I was a finalist twice for Religion Writer of the Year with the Religion Newswriters Association and once for the Templeton Religion Reporter of the Year. And I’ve been given awards by Hadassah, the United Hindu Front and the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center.

Since leaving the Sun Sentinel, I’ve been working mostly with The Florida Catholic, in the Miami and Palm Beach diocesan editions, and occasionally for the statewide edition. I’ve contributed about 35 stories and a half-dozen photo galleries of art in churches. I’m also branching into copy editing. I’ve worked on two academic studies for the University of Florida and a study guide for a series of devotional films. And I was recently accepted as a copy editor for Zondervan.

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So what is happening with Anglican gay marriage?

Wire service reporting takes a special skill that not all writers posses. In less than 300 words, for most stories, a reporter must present the relevant facts and sufficient context to allow a reader to understand the story, while also be entertaining and interesting.

A problem arises when a wire service story substitutes analysis or opinion for news. While some stories are labeled news analysis or opinion — and as such it is proper to load a story with the author’s views of what should be rather than what is — when a news story substitutes opinion for journalism we have a problem.

An item from the Religion News Service that came across my desk yesterday illustrates this peril. In a story entitled “Church of England’s bishops defer gay marriage decision” that came in at a little under 300 words, RNS devotes only half of the story to reporting on what happened at the meeting of the Church of England’s House of Bishops and what they said and the balance to what RNS thinks we should think about the story.

And RNS neglects to mention the most news worthy portions of the report — that the bishops are hopelessly divided over the issue of homosexuality.

The lede is rather anodyne, but does mention one fact from the report:

CANTERBURY, England (RNS) With little more than two months to go before Britain’s first same-sex marriage, the College of Bishops issued a statement saying that “no change” to the Church of England’s teaching on marriage is proposed or envisioned.

Next comes a sentence providing the setting:

The statement came after an all-day meeting at Church House in central London Monday (Jan. 27) attended by 90 bishops and eight women participant observers.

And then a paragraph on the purpose:

The aim of the meeting was to discuss the recommendationsof the Pilling Report on human sexuality that was published in 2013. That report was the result of a recommendation made by church leaders at the end of the Lambeth Conference in 2008 that Anglicans should embark on a discussion process to help heal the rift on the subject of full rights for Christian homosexuals.

Followed by a quote from the report on what happens next:

“The House of Bishops will be meeting again next month to consider its approach when same sex marriage becomes lawful in England and Wales,” the statement reads.

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