God, guns but not gays from The Independent

Hypocrisy pays. Reading about the foibles of the great and good, the rich and famous sells newspapers. When you have a story that combines religion and hypocrisy you can count on a nice bump in circulation.

Market forces determine newspaper content. It is difficult to sell church stories to an editor. A story on the dodgy theology of the head of the Episcopal Church may generate 125,000 views on a religion news website (earning it the church newspaper equivalent of double platinum status) but most secular papers will not touch it. However, if a church leader has been caught in a bad act (think sex or money) or if religious hypocrisy is involved, the newspaper that turned down a serious story will snap up the latest Jim and Tammy Faye escapade. Yes, I know I sound like a cynic, but I plead experience in my defense.

The Independent thought it had a winner last week with its story entitled “Church of England has up to £10m invested in arms firm”, as it combined the Church of England (always a soft target) with money and hypocrisy. But I am afraid the story will not pay. The Independent‘s hypocrisy charge does not jell because the complaint is weak and it does not distinguish between the different strands of Christian moral teaching on war and ethical investing.

The headline states the CoE has invested its money in an “arms firm”, and the accompanying photo shows a man inspecting a display of automatic weapons. Who is it? The lede does not tell us:

The Church of England has invested up to £10m in one of the world’s major arms firms, which supplies systems and technology for unmanned drones and jets to conflicts around the world. The discovery, on the eve of what is set to be the biggest day of protests against DSEi – the UK’s leading arms fair — in Docklands, London, tomorrow, has led worshippers to accuse church leaders of profiting from conflict.

Strong stuff. The Independent has made the “discovery” that the Church of England has enriched itself by financing the merchants of death. From the photo accompanying we might think it was Kalashnikov. Are they now in the drone business? Maybe — the Russian government last week sold a 50 per cent share of the rifle manufacturer to private investors. Could these investors be the C.o.E.? Are we seeing a modern twist on the church militant?

The identity of the modern day Krupp is given in the story’s second paragraph.

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Rise of the tiny church, with its no-cost clergyperson

In recent decades mainstream journalists have spilled oceans of ink — with good cause — on stories about the declining number of men entering the Catholic priesthood. Fewer and older men are trying to serve a flock that is rapidly changing in ethnic makeup, while membership totals have continued a slow rise (largely due to Latino numbers).

So what is the next subject linked to that story? The rising number of permanent, married Catholic deacons.

While all eyes have been on the Catholic front lines a major change has been unfolding in the world of mainline Protestantism, where membership numbers continue to decline while the donor base of active members is also rapidly aging. The bottom line: There is no easy, painless way to slice a shrinking pie.

This brings us to a very interesting story released recently by Religion News Service about a trend that, in many ways, is the liberal Protestant version of the rise of the married, permanent Catholic deacon. It’s an attempt to offer a positive reaction to a negative demographic (and some would argue doctrinal) wave.

So your denomination is rapidly aging, having a below-replacement number of babies, losing quite a few active members in an age of doctrinal conflict and facing the decline of some American regions that have previously been strongholds. What to do? This brings us to Mark Marmon, who will soon be ordained as a no-cost Episcopal priest for a small, and surprisingly typical, parish in Texas. Here’s some crucial summary material from this newsy piece:

A 57-year-old fly fishing guide, Marmon, whose wife is a lawyer, says he doesn’t want or need a church salary. He belongs to a growing breed of mainline Protestant clergy who serve congregations in exchange for little or no compensation.

“We’re the frontline,” Marmon said. “If it weren’t for us, these churches would just roll up and die.”

Though small evangelical congregations have long relied on unpaid pastors, mainline churches haven’t. They’ve generally paid full-time or nearly full-time salaries, said Scott Thumma, a Hartford Seminary sociologist of religion. That’s changing, however, as churches face declining numbers and look to new ministry models to make ends meet. Thumma sees more mainliners cutting back to halftime or one-quarter-time packages for clergy, who increasingly work second jobs.

For some reason, it seems that it is much easier to track this trend at the level of a humble local diocese — let’s say Wyoming, or even Texas — than it is at the lofty national level. Much of the story focuses on the work of the 9-year-old Iona School for Ministry in Houston, down in Bible Belt territory, a region in which some Episcopal dioceses are actually holding their own.

It’s clear that this is an important story, and the RNS piece is packed with provocative info. However, I think it has at least one significant hole.

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Terrorists shred faithful at generic Pakistani church

Yesterday was Kenya and, of course, the killing there isn’t over yet.

Today, there is another blast of a deadly form of Jihad — this time in Pakistan. Here is the top of an early, but quite complete, New York Times report:

PESHAWAR, Pakistan – A suicide attack on a historic Christian church in northwestern Pakistan killed at least 78 people on Sunday in one of the deadliest attacks on the Christian minority in Pakistan in years.

The attack occurred as worshipers left All Saints Church in the old quarter of the regional capital, Peshawar, after a service on Sunday morning. Up to 600 people had attended the service and were leaving to receive free food being distributed on the lawn outside when two explosions ripped through the crowd.

“As soon as the service finished and the food was being distributed, all of a sudden we heard one explosion, followed by another,” said Azim Ghori, a witness.

Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan, who arrived in Peshawar on Sunday evening, said that 78 people had been killed, including 34 women and 7 children. “Such an attack on women and children is against humanity,” Mr. Khan said.

I don’t know about you, but I immediately wanted to know more details about that “historic” church — especially it’s full name. Was this a Catholic church? The term “historic,” in the context of Pakistan and India, suggested that this might be a church founded long ago by Church of England missionaries.

Later in the story, there was this hint in that direction:

All Saints Church is one of the oldest in Peshawar and was built during the British colonial era. It is at Kohati Gate in the city’s old quarter, where numerous militant attacks have occurred in recent years, mostly targeting Muslims.

With a few clicks I was able to learn that this is, in fact, an historically Anglican parish that is now part of the ecumenical Church of Pakistan, which is similar to the Church of India. The key is that the worship and roots are Anglican.

So far, I don’t think anyone has that detail and many readers might assume that this is a Catholic parish. Of course, this hellish tragedy is is a major story no matter what name is on the church sign in front of this historic building — which includes architectural details similar to a mosque.

However, this is one of the first questions that will many readers will ask, wanting to know if these martyrs are part of their own communion.

An early Associated Press report has similar vague language:

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Intended consequences — The Times & Jewish Jerusalem

Choosing determines all human decisions. In making his choice man chooses not only between various material things and services. All human values are offered for option. All ends and all means, both material and ideal issues, the sublime and the base, the noble and the ignoble, are ranged in a single row and subjected to a decision which picks out one thing and sets aside another. Nothing that men aim at or want to avoid remains outside of this arrangement into a unique scale of gradation and preference.

– Ludwig von Mises, On Human Action. (San Francisco: Fox  Wilkes, 1996 4th rev. ed.).

Newspaper writing is about making choices. They range from choosing a topic and its parameters to the style of writing, the story’s length and the degree of context down to the language used. Choices are conscious and unconscious. While I should think about the framing of a story — being aware of the worldview I bring to an issue — before I write, I do not do it as often as I should.

But the preconceived notions and assumption I bring add value as I can place stories in their historical/political context. I am able to discern if issue X is important, urgent or tired. Spin from PR flacks seldom moves me. Yet I have never written a sports story and can draw upon no well of knowledge to make an informed choice.

The conscious and unconscious choice applies to language. When I write “marriage equality” rather than “gay marriage” I am making a political choice with my vocabulary that signals the editorial stance of the publication or my personal views. This was especially true when I wrote for the Jerusalem Post. Through my upbringing and culture I knew to write “Jerusalem” as it would not have occurred to me to write “Al Quds”. But I learned to say “Judea and Samaria” not the “Occupied Territories” and “separation barrier” not “the wall” in line with the newspaper’s editorial policies. The vocabulary I brought to a story, whether innate to my worldview or learned from my employers, framed the article.

Choice results in consequences, whether intended or not. Let me draw your attention to the work of The Times foreign correspondent Michael Binyon to illustrate this point.

Binyon has penned a superior piece on one of the major under reported stories from the Arab Spring — the plight of Arab Christians. Taking as its news peg a report on a conference of church leaders in Amman hosted by King Abdullah of Jordan The Times article entitled “Middle East Christians face a bleak future” takes an indirect, but highly effective route in telling its story. It is a master class lesson in the craft of newspaper writing.

Yet this story also rang alarm bells within the Jewish community in Britain. “Did conference speakers call for the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem?”, a prominent Jewish activist asked me after she read the article. “Had the Church of England gone over to the replacement theology camp?” This did not appear in a surface reading of the paper, but I immediately grasped her concern when I read the story again through her eyes.

The Times lede is beautifully written.

Their churches have been bombed, burnt and ransacked. Thousands flee their homes to seek safety in exile, as ­Islamist extremists incite mobs to ­attack the dwindling communities that remain. Christians in the Middle East are today facing the ­greatest dangers they have known for centuries.

Moving from a strong opening, the article succinctly gives the who, what, when and where — before moving into an extended treatment of the why. Again, this is nicely and professionally done — you see the hand of a professional at work here.

The article then passes to a serious of comments and observations from participants, that give substance to the theme articulated in the lede. And at the end we hear from Church of England (hurrah!).

The Anglicans were well represented. The Episcopal bishops of Egypt and Jerusalem were joined by the Rev. Toby Howarth from Lambeth Palace and former Bishop Michael Langrish of Exeter representing the Archbishop of Canterbury. Mr Howarth made the point that Western Christians too often had a skewed assumption that Christianity was an import to the Middle East rather than an export from it. And he underlined the importance of intra-Christian and intra-Muslim dialogue.

He was also one of the few speakers to note the importance of women in faith issues. Only two nuns joined the panel of 80 male clerics. One male speaker said that if faith issues were left to women half the problems would disappear immediately.

Aside from the male cleric’s patronizing comment about women — and what did he mean by saying that if half the people (men) left you would have half the problems you now have? — there seemed little objectionable in these comments, and nothing that would suggest an anti-Jewish attack from the Church of England.

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Baltimore Sun looks at art and religion, but not really

From the beginning of this weblog, your GetReligionistas have urged mainstream newsrooms to do a better job of covering liberal religious believers — as RELIGIOUS believers.

Far too often, believers in liberal institutions are covered as if there is nothing to their lives and beliefs but politics.

The same thing tends to happen to African-American churches, even if — doctrinally speaking — these churches are quite conservative. Far too often, it seems that journalists simply assume that these believers are basing their lives on political and cultural motivations, period.

Well, the newspaper that lands in my front yard just served up a story that I kept thinking was going to avoid this syndrome. Why? Because this story focused on a Baltimore project that focused on cooperation linked to religion and art, as opposed to being exclusively about religion and politics.

Trust me, I know that the high arts have become just as politicized in our culture as the popular arts. In fact, because of their connections to government funding and academia, the high arts are even more politicized.

However, this Baltimore Sun story still had the potential to ask some spiritual questions linked to progressive religious institutions and an arts institution, with the added benefit of the involvement of some more traditional African-American churches. Here is the overture:

The old arched red wooden door to the Seventh Metro Church is less that two blocks from the modern glass-and-steel panel that floats in front of the Maryland Institute College of Art’s newest exhibition space. They bring to mind two different eras and seem designed to be used by two dissimilar groups of people: spiky-haired artists and church ladies wearing fancy hats.

But when a white art student in her 20s met a middle-aged African-American pastor, they discovered that both doors opened into sacred spaces where people look for answers to the same big questions.

Caitlin Tucker and Ryan Preston Palmer became acquainted through an innovative program that brings together two of the seminal institutions that have helped transform the Station North neighborhood — the Maryland Institute College of Art and a group of local churches.

“This program has been a catalyst for bringing together the whole neighborhood,” Palmer says. He admits that until recently, he had never set foot in MICA, though he himself is an artist. For her part, neither Tucker nor Bashi Rose, an artist assigned to the Seventh Metro project, had previously crossed the church threshold.

First, let me make a picky comment about Associated Press style. Why does the Sun continue its strange practice, when dealing with the black church, of ignoring AP style for the titles of ministers? In this case, we are talking about “the Rev. Ryan Preston Palmer,” on first reference. Yes, the story calls him a pastor in the previous sentence — but that does not cancel out the guidelines of AP style. I do not think I have ever seen the Sun them ignore this rule with a white clergy person.

Moving on. It’s clear, from the list of participating churches, that this project combines the work of modern artists with the culture of liberal white churches and the style and folk art of more traditional black churches. Here’s the participants list, in urban Station North: Seventh Metro Church, St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, the New Second Missionary Baptist Church, St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church and the Spiritual Empowerment Center.

Tucker states the thesis of the story:

“There’s sometimes an assumption that there’s a divide between artists and communities of faith,” Tucker says. “Not a lot of members of our class identify as religious. The students at MICA who practice a faith have said in campus surveys that they feel discriminated against. But historically, there’s a strong connection between art and religion.”

Now, that is a promising statement, one that I truly hoped would be fleshed out in this story.

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Closer to God than all the diagrams in the world

An obituary of Father Robert F. Capon in the New York Times? Sounds great. It begins:

Robert F. Capon, an Episcopal priest, author, theologian and food writer best known for “The Supper of the Lamb,” a sui generis book about cooking and metaphysics that has remained in print almost continuously since it was first published in 1969, died on Sept. 5 in Greenport, N.Y. He was 87…

Mr. Capon, who lived for many years on nearby Shelter Island, wrote 27 books from 1965 to 2004, most of them works of theology or New Testament interpretation that gave voice to a passionate, entertaining and sometimes unorthodox view of Christian teachings.

In books like “The Third Peacock: The Goodness of God and the Badness of the World” (1971) and “Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law and the Outrage of Grace” (1996), Mr. Capon (pronounced KAY-pun) dismissed most forms of conspicuous religious piety, construed the Gospels as a radical manifesto for freedom, and for better or worse championed what he called “the astonishing oddness of the world.”

It’s a great beginning, but I fear that the obituary focused on the food writing at the expense of some of these deep theological concepts. In my mind the two were woven more closely together. Take this passage that the Times quoted:

The onion passage became a favorite of readers. Before explicating a lamb recipe, Mr. Capon instructs readers to set the lamb shank aside and first spend some time with an onion — an onion they will cut into pieces for sautéing. “You will note, to begin with, that the onion is a thing, a being, just as you are,” he writes. “Savor that for a moment.”

Noting that “an onion is not a sphere in repose” but “a linear thing, a bloom of vectors thrusting upward from base to tip,” he invites his readers to recognize their little onion “as the paradigm of life that it is — as one member of the vast living, gravity-defying troop that, across the face of the earth, moves light- and air-ward as long as the world lasts.”

But it leaves out the line “One real thing is closer to God than all the diagrams in the world.”

I think this passage Rod Dreher quoted at the time of Capon’s death is worth noting. It’s a benediction from the end of the Supper of the Lamb chapter about how to stage a dinner party:

I wish you well. May your table be graced with lovely women and good men. May you drink well enough to drown the envy of youth in the satisfactions of maturity. May your men wear their weight with pride, secure in the knowledge that they have at last become considerable. May they rejoice that they will never again be taken for callow, black-haired boys. And your women? Ah! Women are like cheese strudels. When first baked, they are crisp and fresh on the outside, but the filling is unsettled and indigestible; in age, the crust may not be so lovely, but the filling comes at last into its won. May you relish them indeed. May we all sit long enough for reserved to give way to ribaldry and for gallantry to grow upon us. May there be singing at our table before the night is done, and old, broad jokes to fling at the stars and tell them we are men.

We are great, my friend; we shall not be saved for trampling that greatness under foot. Ecce tu pulcher es, dilecte mi, et decorus. Lectulus noster floridus. Tigna domorum nostrarum cedrina, laquearia nostra cypressina. Ecce iste venit, saliens in montibus, transilens colles. [Behold, you are beautiful, my love, and fair. Our bed is blooming. The beams of our house are cedar, the ceiling is cypress. Behold, he is coming, leaping over the mountains, jumping across the hills. (From the Song of Solomon) -- RD]

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Dawkins talks 2.0, and Anglicans just can’t catch a break

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There he goes, there he goes again.

At the moment, the Rt. anti-Rev. Richard Dawkins is — logically enough — in full-tilt, set-on-stun PR mode for his new book, “An Appetite for Wonder: the Making of a Scientist.” The goal is to make headlines and move volumes and, as the old saying goes, a headline is a headline.

You may remember that big-headline story the other day, the one in which one of the world’s most famous atheist evangelists said he thought that recent scandals linked to the sexual abuse of children had been overblown and that he found it hard to condemn the “the mild pedophilia” — his term — that he experienced as a child while in school in England.

In my earlier post, I asked if this statement was automatically a “religion story” and, if so, why didn’t journalists ask other atheists what they thought of his stance on this issue.

That was then. Now Dawkins has spoken out again, this time on his views about the role of the Church of England in British culture and, strangely enough, in his own life as an atheist. The bottom line: With friends like Dawkins, the Anglican prelates really don’t need enemies.

Here’s the headline in The Telegraph, riffing on quotes drawn from The Spectator:

Richard Dawkins admits he is a ‘cultural Anglican.’

And a few of the key paragraphs, with the elements of British newspaper style left intact:

Prof Dawkins admitted he would consider going into a church, and would miss ‘aesthetic elements’ such as church bells if they were gone. And he said he was “grateful” to Anglicanism which he claims has a “benign tolerance” — enabling people to enjoy its traditions without necessarily believing in them.

He told the Spectator: “I sort of suspect that many who profess Anglicanism probably don’t believe any of it at all in any case but vaguely enjoy, as I do … I suppose I’m a cultural Anglican and I see evensong in a country church through much the same eyes as I see a village cricket match on the village green.

“I have a certain love for it.”

Now, this time around there is no question that we are dealing with a religion-beat story. Right?

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So this renegade Polish priest and an Episcopal bishop walk into a bar …

OK, not really. But you know how we’re always going on about stories that make people not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church seem like they are, in fact, affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church? Well, here’s a great example of a religion journalist doing it right. Here’s the very top of St. Louis Post-Dispatch religion reporter Tim Townsend explaining part of a complicated scenario:

It has stood up to three Catholic bishops. It has weathered a decade-long legal storm. It has embraced doctrine far afield from its Roman roots.

Now St. Stanislaus Kostka Church is on the verge of aligning with a different denomination entirely, joining forces with the Episcopal church.

Awesome, right? The piece is chock full of good information, including doctrinal issues and the technicalities of a possible change. We learn that the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri has announced the possibile union and what it would mean for the historically Polish church (they’d get to keep their own rites and identity or choose to use Episcopal liturgies).

We get the background on where things stand on the near-interminable legal battle between St. Stanislaus and the St. Louis Archdiocese. The latter had appealed a 2012 decision that granted St. Stanislaus control to its own lay board, but later dismissed the appeal. Here’s how the tricky issue of affiliation is handled:

As part of the agreement, St. Stanislaus agreed to abstain from representing itself as affiliated with the Roman Catholic church. In the eyes of the Vatican, the church lost that affiliation in 2005, as part of a battle with then-St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke.

The Rev. Marek Bozek, the former Roman Catholic priest who has led St. Stanislaus since parishioners hired him in 2005, in violation of Roman Catholic canon law, was unavailable for comment Tuesday.

But in a “September Reflection” letter posted on the parish’s website, he makes reference to the issue — posting a photo of Smith’s visit last month to the church to meet with parishioners.

Bozek said the church has lacked that kind of authority, and has been “struggling to survive without a bishop for over nine years.”

“One cannot be a Catholic without having a bishop,” he continued, citing a description of a bishop’s ministry in the “Book of Common Prayer.” “It is my hope that by the time this process is completed, we, St. Stanislaus Parish, will have a caring and wise bishop and that we will be a part of a diocese.”

I also like how we learn about St. Stanislaus’ need for a bishop, although it would be nice to know the particulars of why one is necessary. We then hear from parishioners about their mixed feelings about such a move (and that the Episcopal Church is just one of the contenders for affiliation).

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