A baptism event or a Christian rite of baptism?

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It’s a question built on the harsh realities of journalism in the Internet era, when newspapers are thin and reporters often do not have the room in their stories to include essential facts. The question: Is the official version of a story the one that ran in the analog, ink-on-paper edition or the version of the story that ran online?

I’m in New Orleans at the moment, at the National College Media Convention, and as I flew into town I read the USA Today story about the baptism rite for Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge. The problem — surprise, surprise — was that this rather long story was all about godparent politics, Crown Jewels, designer clothes, tea parties, replica gowns and celebrity photographers.

Alas, all of that content is valid in the royals-as-movie stars era. The problem was that the story, to be blunt, covered a baptismal event, not a baptismal rite. There was depth to this story, but only on certain issues:

Compared to most rooms in Buckingham Palace, the Chapel Royal, started by Henry VIII in 1540, is much more intimate, with purple velvet-cushioned bench seating for about 40 people, beautiful stained-glass windows and gilded ceilings.

Like so many royal buildings in the U.K, the chapel has a rich history. It is believed to be the burial place of the heart of Queen Mary I, the elder daughter of Henry VIII. It’s where her younger sister Queen Elizabeth I waited and prayed during the Spanish Armada crisis in 1588. It was where Charles I received last rites before his head was chopped off in Whitehall in 1649. And it was where Queen Victoria married her Prince Albert in 1840.

But its real historic significance to the royal couple is its poignant association with the princess who would never be queen: Diana, William’s late mother. After she was killed in a Paris car crash in 1997, her coffin lay before the chapel’s altar until her funeral in Westminster Abbey.

And so forth and so on. The USA Today team stressed that this event was important because it once again demonstrated the “young royals’ savvy approach to duty, history, modernity and informality, obvious since their engagement in 2010.” Really? An details in particular that spell that out?

What about the actual status of the faith in this important and symbolic family? After all, Prince Charles has been somewhat controversial on faith issues, saying that he will someday be the “defender of faith” or even “faiths,” rather than the traditional “defender of THE faith” — meaning Christianity as expressed in the Church of England.

To my surprise, the longer online edition of this story suggested that the reporter on the scene even asked a few questions about the religious content of the rite itself, which was held in private and led by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.

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Could Prince George’s baptism rekindle rite among British?

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It would be impossible to compare coverage among major news outlets, so plentiful have been the stories this week hailing His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge’s baptism into the Church of England.

The event, as with all activities attended by several senior members of the royal family, was well publicized in advance and blanketed with coverage. Bets were placed on the colors the ladies would wear, which family members would carry the infant in and out of the chapel and who would be selected as Godparents. The usual questions, I suppose, for most who only care to scratch the surface.

Significant stories, however, went beyond the royal family hype, the fashion and the newly added fourth generation to the line of succession to give us a glimpse at the bigger picture: Could the christening of a 3-month-old cause a surge in the number of baptisms, recommittals and overall interest in the Church of England?

The Spectator says it already has:

In 1950, nearly 70 per cent of the population was baptised into the (Church of England), with most of the remainder christened into other denominations; in 2010 it was fewer than 20 per cent, and falling. Perhaps Kate Middleton can do for baptism what she does for Reiss dresses – bring it back into fashion.

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, gave a splendid little pep talk on video about the event, saying that he hoped it would inspire others to get their babies christened; at the same time he warned against thinking that it was something just for ‘special people’ as opposed to everyone.

Not among our usual lineup of religion reads, granted, but the Spectator’s story was interesting enough that I wanted to put it out there for discussion.

Back to our usual circle of coverage, Godbeat pro Elizabeth Tenety of The Washington Post does an excellent job of leveling things a bit, contrasting Prince George’s baptism with that of any baby:

George’s baptism and future role in the church make him both a typical British boy, as well as a historic figure in the Church of England.

And Tenety provides a good primer for infant baptism, a partial list of the faith groups that subscribe to the practice and the subtle differences:

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The BBC and the perils of press releases

The BBC’s internet news division stumbled badly this week in its initial report on a major meeting of Anglican church leaders in Africa. The 20 October 2013 story entitled “Archbishop of Canterbury makes Kenya detour on way to Iceland” has already had one correction and substantial alteration but the underlying premise of the story remains flawed.

It demonstrates the perils of relying on a single source in reporting the news.

The opening paragraphs of the original version, reprinted by the London Evening Post, and the revised BBC version are identical. They begin:

The Archbishop of Canterbury has made a detour of more than 8,000 miles to visit Kenya – on his way to Iceland. Archbishop Justin Welby, who arrived on Saturday night, gave sermons at All Saints Cathedral on Sunday morning. He made the “last-minute” 24-hour trip to offer condolences after the Westgate centre attack, Lambeth Palace said.He is also meeting conservative Church leaders who are in Nairobi for this week’s conference of the traditionalist Anglican lobby group, Gafcon.

The story offers background on the trip to Iceland and the al-Shabaab terror attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi. And then more details about the trip are added:

Archbishop Welby delivered sermons at 09:30 and 11:00 before having lunch with the Archbishop of Kenya and five Kenyan bishops. GAFCON2013 – the second such conference – will starts today and runs till Saturday. The original conference – held in Jerusalem in June 2008 – was organised in response to the appointment of actively gay men and women as bishops, especially in the US.

The stories then diverge. The original version stated:

Through the GAFCON movement, conservative Anglican provinces – mostly in parts of Africa but some in South and North America, Asia and the Middle East- have begun to function independently of the official Anglican Communion.

The revised version states:

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Pod people: Are Christians crazy, or just stupid?

There is little new under the sun when it comes to anti-theistic arguments. Whether it be high minded philosophical critique or rabble rousing anti-clericalism, what was old is now new.

Richard Ostling observed in his Get Religion post “Is the ‘New Atheism’ any different from old atheism?” the content of the criticism remains the same, but the tone has changed. The new atheism has taken a:

[A] tactical lurch toward emotion-laden partisanship and take-no-prisoners rhetoric that might make a Fundamentalist blush.

In this week’s Crossroads, aGet Religion podcast, Issues, Etc., host Todd Wilken and I discussed two posts that touched on anti-theism — but approached the subject from different perspectives: French media disdain for religious believers and a “heretical” Episcopal bishop.

While there have been other non-theistic Episcopal bishops, Jack  Spong of Newark was the media  darling of the ’90s. A fixture on talk shows and op-ed pages in his day, Bishop Spong was the subject of a profile written by the Religion News Service that was released in advance of his next book.

Pressed by Todd whether my dislike of the story was motivated more by my theological disagreements with Bishop Spong than journalistic concerns, I responded that I had no quarrel with Bishop Spong being Bishop Spong. What stoked my ire was the the lack of balance, hard questions of context in the RNS piece. It was more of a People magazine puff piece than journalism.

The second half of the story was a review of my criticism of two different accounts of the trial of four French West Indian immigrants in Paris, accused with kidnapping and torturing a fellow immigrant. They have denied the charge, and in their defense have claimed they were exorcising demons from their victim. The journalistic issue I saw was the discrepancy between AFP’s English and French language stories — released at the same time. The English language version noted the defendants said they were motivated to act by the tenets of their Seventh-day Adventist beliefs. But it included the information the four had been expelled from the church some time ago — and that their actions were contrary to that church’s doctrine and discipline.

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Bravo, Boston Globe: An Episcopal anti-violence winner

I love a good story. Thanks to Lisa Wangsness, Godbeat writer for the Boston Globe, I got to read one.

Wangsness paints an artful image of 19-year-old Jorge Fuentes a year after he was struck and killed by a stray bullet while walking his dog. Fuentes was, as the vicar of his church put it, “the poster child” for the success of anti-violence program B-SAFE at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in the city’s South End.

It could have been stale, a follow-up to last year’s coverage by the Globe and several other outlets on the popular young adult. It might have gone the martyr direction, focusing on Fuentes’ transformation from troubled youth to standout worker. But with a nice blend of retrospective, detail and call to action, this feature stays true to its religious roots throughout while adding new insight to the as-yet-unsolved case.

The historical context of the program is highlighted through Fuentes’ childhood:

A largely white denomination once dubbed “the Republican Party at prayer,” and more recently best known for its internal battles over gay bishops, the Episcopal Church has quietly increased its commitment to combating urban violence in Boston and nearby cities, a commitment that shaped Fuentes’s life.

The church has focused on prevention, embracing a simple philosophy: Begin with children as young as 5, give them help with homework, playtime, field trips, and cultural activities. Invite them, as they become teenagers, to work on community service projects and help with younger people. Then, as they reach adulthood, offer them a job and a chance to lead. Put children at the center of a caring community, the thinking goes, and they will be OK.

And it’s defined further through the organic details of his tragic death:

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Memories of Jack Spong (as opposed to hagiography)

Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called “petites madeleines,” which look as though they had been molded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory — this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savors, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?

Remembrance of Things Past. Volume 1: Swann’s Way: Within a Budding Grove by Marcel Proust, translated by  C.K. Scott Moncrieff. p. 48.

Jack Spong is my petite madeleine.

The former Episcopal Bishop of Newark does for me what a cookie did for Marcel — open the door to bittersweet memories. The taste of the tea-soaked biscuit reminded Marcel of Charles Swann’s destruction that had been precipitated by his unfaithful wife Odette. An article in today’s Washington Post‘s On Faith section from the Religion News Service reminded me (as a priest in this church) of the destruction of the Episcopal Church precipitated by its unfaithful leaders over the past 40 years.

The article entitled “An aging maverick, Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong has no regrets” is part Edith Piaf — part Soviet Life hagiography. As I read through article I heard Jack Spong proclaim “Non, Rien de rien / Non, Je ne regrette rien” — while RNS went into full bore People magazine puff piece mode. All that was missing was the photo of the smiling peasants with their balalaikas extolling the virtues of the dear leader. One cannot blame Jack Spong for his part, but I do think RNS might be a little embarrassed.

The article opens on a friendly note:

MORRIS PLAINS, N.J. — At 82, retired and enjoying life, Bishop John Shelby Spong doesn’t have to be the liberal enfant terrible whose pronouncements for gay rights and against traditional dogmas once scandalized Christendom.

Indeed, many of the views that once turned the former Episcopal bishop of Newark into a lightning rod are now regarded as so matter-of-fact that they barely occasion much notice: ordaining gay clergy and blessing same-sex marriages, for example, or having a female presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman elected to lead a national church in the Anglican Communion.

And it gets better from here. The good bishop enumerates his triumphs with but slight modesty … but he discounts any direct responsibility.

Yet while he finds the victory deeply satisfying, he says he doesn’t take personal pride in this tectonic shift.“I was simply interpreting a rising consciousness,” he said. “Whether it was race or women or homosexual people, the issue was always the same: fighting against anything that dehumanizes a child of God on the basis of an external characteristic.”Now, he said, “I feel mellow,” his soft drawl burnishing the tone of reflection. “And I don’t think I’ve changed, particularly. I’m just not controversial in my church anymore.”

But RNS tells us:

[T]hose who love Spong — and the many who love to hate him — need not worry: He is hardly going gently into that good night. He seems as vital and youthful as ever, tall and lanky with a shock of reddish hair that still falls insistently across his forehead. He does four miles every morning on the treadmill, and he and his wife travel about 60 percent of the year, mainly at the invitation of audiences who want to hear more from Spong.And he has a new book out — his 24th. This latest one is a take on the Gospel of John called “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.” As the subtitle suggests, Spong reads the Gospel through a Jewish lens, as he has done in many of his works.

It continues in this vein of hero worship. Jack Spong is a mystic — but a rationalist one.

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Warming the chair? WSJ laments the loss of the pew

It’s five minutes past the hour, and you’re late for services. The cat insisted on one last pass around your leg, and you had to extricate the lint brush from the back of the junk drawer, and in the process you found that key to the shed you’d been looking for forever. But you couldn’t be sure it was the key until you tried it.

Anyway … you’re late. You park farther from the building than you’d like, hustle in, smile at the eyebrows-raised usher and slip surreptitiously into the back … chair? If you’re a Wall Street Journal reader, that’s where you sit. Not the pew, mind you, but the chair.

From the top:

WINDHAM, Maine — At first, it just didn’t sit well with Nancy Shane when her church decided to switch from pews to chairs.

“My generation grew up in pews,” the grandmother of three says. She worried the sanctuary of the Windham First Church of the Nazarene would resemble a movie theater.

Yet, when the pews were removed in September and replaced with burgundy-cushioned chairs, she says she decided God didn’t care whether she prayed from a pew, a chair or even the floor. “I walked in Wednesday night for a prayer meeting and the chairs were there, and they were beautiful,” she says. “I thought, ‘Nancy Shane, even at 68 years old, young woman, you can change.’ “

She isn’t the only churchgoer being asked to take a stand on new Sunday seating arrangements. Pews have been part of the Western world’s religious landscape for centuries, but now a growing number of churches in the U.S. and U.K. are opting for chairs, sometimes chairs equipped with kneelers.

The  Journal’s emphasis, in spite of its award-winning news coverage and compelling features, has always been and likely will always be economics and business. That’s its bread and butter, the Pulitzer-winning coverage it provides so well. The bottom line, to borrow a business phrase. So I’ll skip to the bottom line here and say this particular “worship wars” story seems stale and a bit forced.

Worshipers have been sitting in chairs instead of pews in some parts of the U.S. and the U.K. and around the globe for years. Decades even, in some regions. Evangelical church plants of the 1990s sprung up with chairs because leaders wanted to attract a younger demographic, and chairs shout change. Pews don’t shout much. They sort of whisper. The sound is a good one, granted, but it has to be listened for and appreciated.

Pews are traditional. They’re beautiful, and they tell stories of centuries of heritage, of intergenerational families all lined up in their polished best. Chairs are flexible. They can be reconfigured to give worship space a different feel or stacked aside if the area is needed for a different purpose. And these chairs tell the story of the last few years, young seekers and non-traditionalists melding with time-tested, gray-haired faith.

Therein lies the rub, the WSJ says:

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Unforced Anglican errors from The Telegraph

The Telegraph has waded into the waters of international Anglican affairs — and I’m afraid someone should toss a life line as it is about to go under. The article on the forthcoming meeting in Nairobi of Anglican leaders entitled “Challenge to Welby as traditionalist Anglicans stage ‘fragmentation’ summit” is not up to the newspaper’s usual standard. It has the story backwards.

As tmatt, the editor here at GetReligion, often reminds me, I sometimes wander off topic. In my misspent youth I served my time in the salt mines of Wall Street. My first job out of college was as a floor clerk at the Commodities Exchange for Drexel Burham Lambert. It was the 1980s, God was in his heaven, Ronald Reagan in the White House, greed was good and all was right with the world.

One of the memories I still have of those golden days was the Time cover theory of investing. In a nutshell, when Time magazine ran a cover story on the market or the economy, a smart investor would bet the other way. Paul Montgomery, an analyst with Legg Mason Wood Walker, had compared market returns to Time magazine covers going back to the early Twentieth century and found the trend profiled by Time would last on average for about a month, but a year after the cover story hit the streets the opposite conditions would prevail.

Montgomery’s theory held true (at least when I was playing the markets). Every time in the 1980′s Time featured Fed Chairman Paul Volcker on its cover, interest rates subsequently moved contrary to the sentiment of the story. On 4 July 1988 Time ran a story entitled “The Big Dry” that predicted higher bean prices as a result of a drought in the Midwest.  Bean prices had been rising sharply through May and June, but the rally died the week the magazine hit the newsstands. (The second story about the super future of Japan in that issue is just as off base.) But I digress.

These memories of a distant past led me to wonder if we are seeing the start of a trend in Anglican affairs. Bet against the predictions made by the daily newspapers and you are likely to come out the winner.

I should also add a disclaimer. I have written for the Telegraph as a freelancer, providing stories from overseas Anglican jamborees in years past. That having been said; the article is quite extraordinary. Below the headline and above the photo comes this statement:

The Archbishop of Canterbury is facing what could be the biggest challenge to his leadership so far as a more than 1,000 traditionalist clerics stage a summit expected to formalise the “fragmentation” of the of the worldwide Anglican church.

The story does not state its source for this claim. This may be due to this assertion not being true. The conference scheduled for 21-26 Oct 2013 at All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi is the second Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON). The claim that this will be Archbishop Welby’s “biggest challenge” and may “formalise the ‘fragmentation’” of the Anglican Communion is ludicrous.

Let me put it another way — it is simply untrue. The article admits as much when it goes on to say the Anglican Communion has been fragmented for over five years.

I have been reporting on the preparations for this conference for over a year and if what the Telegraph says is true then half a dozen archbishops have been lying to me, or they are being misled by their staffers.The article starts of in high snark mode.

More than 1,000 bishops, archbishops and senior clergy, claiming to represent around 40 million Anglicans, are due to gather in Kenya later this month to discuss what they see as a liberal drift within the Church of England and other western branches of the church.

“Claiming”? The clergy and lay leaders representing churches that comprise over two-thirds of Anglicans will be present at the meeting. How is that a claim? “What they see as a liberal drift”? Way to telegraph your sentiments. These hot headed Africans and their knuckle-dragging troglodyte American allies see reds under the bed. The next line offers more assertions.

It comes five years after more than 200 bishops boycotted the once-in-a-decade Lambeth Conference, openly defying the then Archbishop Dr Rowan Williams over what they saw as his liberal stance on homosexuality. They staged a rival gathering in Jerusalem – the so-called Global Anglican Future Conference (Gafcon) – forming what has been widely characterised as a “church within a church”.

Now, the group is staging a second gathering, this time in Nairobi, where leaders from Africa, the Americas, Asia and Australasia hope to establish new, more permanent organisational structures, rejecting the existing Anglican Communion arrangements as a “colonial” relic.

The event is timed to mark 10 years since the consecration of the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion, the Rt Rev Gene Robinson of New Hampshire in the US – the catalyst for the crisis which has divided the 77 million-strong Anglican Communion ever since.

Where to begin. Yes “more than 200 bishops” did not show up at Lambeth 2008. The exact number was 214 but there was no official statement from the Conference or the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office. How do we know this? I counted.

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