More “moderate” than thou (Rumble III)

home leftcol imageRemember that soul-searching June 23, 2005, memo that New York Times editor Bill Keller wrote to his staff? This was the one called “Assuring Our Credibility” (PDF) that talked about the newspaper needing to do a better job of covering religion and being fair to people whose beliefs seem strange to people who work in the world’s most powerful newsroom.

I like that memo — a lot. I also think that Keller was rather brave to write it. Here is one of my favorite passages, talking about the work of a committee that is trying to help the newspaper work on its faults and build bridges to its critics. Keller writes:

We must … be more alert to nuances of language when writing about contentious issues. The committee picked a few examples — the way the word “moderate” conveys a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme, the misuse of “religious fundamentalists” to describe religious conservatives — but there are many pitfalls involved when we try to convey complex ideas as simply as possible, on deadline.

GetReligion readers already know how this blog feels about the abuse of the term “fundamentalist,” as defined in The Associated Press Stylebook. So let’s not linger there.

But what about that “moderate” problem? It does seem that, in many religious and cultural disputes, there are “conservatives,” “evangelicals” and “fundamentalists” who are forever wrestling with intelligent, sensible people called “moderates.” There are no “liberals” in sight.

Which brings us back to the Episcopal Diocese of California and its election this weekend in San Francisco of Mark H. Andrus, the bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Alabama, as the new leader of one of the most liberal regions in the U.S. Episcopal Church. There was a somewhat surprising result, which ABC News captured in a rather blunt headline atop a Reuters report: “Heterosexual elected Episcopal Bishop of Calif.”

At the New York Times, reporter Neela Banerjee continued to cover this story, noting that the diocese did elect a straight white male, but one who had bravely stood up for gay rights in the heart of the Bible Belt. So this landslide in Grace Cathedral (photo) was a cautious win for the Episcopal left. Here is a summary:

Bishop Andrus, 49, was not one of the gay candidates. … Nonetheless, in an acceptance statement via a phone call piped into Grace Cathedral, where the voting was taking place, Bishop Andrus said he would continue to support the full inclusion of gay men and lesbians in the church.

“We must all understand, and here I address the Diocese of California and those listening from elsewhere, that your vote today remains a vote for inclusion and communion — of gay and lesbian people in their full lives as single or partnered people, of women, of all ethnic minorities, and all people,” Bishop Andrus said, referring to continuing in the Anglican Communion, which has about 77 million members worldwide. “My commitment to Jesus Christ’s own mission of inclusion is resolute.”

So this election did nothing to bring peace in the global Anglican Communion, but it did not make matters immediately worse. You can find a similar template in the solid stories featured in the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post.

mitre2But before we go, let’s reflect on a passing remark near the end of that Banerjee report, which included fleeting references to other Episcopal elections taking place across America this weekend.

Take the race for a key mitre down in the Bible Belt, for example:

In the Diocese of Tennessee … voting for a new bishop ended in a stalemate on Saturday after more than 30 ballots. Lay delegates backed a conservative minister who they hoped would take the diocese out of the Episcopal Church, and clergy members backed a more moderate choice, said the Rev. William Sachs, director of research for the Episcopal Foundation, the church’s analysis arm.

There are several loaded wordings in that paragraph. It is possible that this “conservative” candidate believes that it’s more important in the long run to keep the Nashville diocese in the global Anglican Communion (majority conservative, on moral theology) than in the U.S. body currently called the Episcopal Church (majority liberal, on moral theology). However, one can be sure that the use of the “moderate” label here — outside of a direct quote — is loaded. The analysis is, after all, coming from the head of the analysis office for the New York City-based Episcopal hierarchy.

And that would certainly sound right to the New York Times. So here is the question for Keller the editor. Does the New York City Episcopal establishment get to determine who is in the “moderate” camp?

P.S. No sign, as of yet, of the Times publishing a correction on Banerjee’s earlier story, which reported that the Anglican Communion (77 million members) is the world’s second largest church, as opposed to the Eastern Orthodox Christian communion (250 million members).

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China-Vatican deal goes boom over bishops

CardinalZenOr does it?

Alessandra Rizzo of the Associated Press reported Friday that the Vatican excommunicated four bishops because two of them were ordained by the state-controlled church without consent from the Pope. The two bishops who ordained them were also excommunicated. Except they weren’t quite cut off from church fellowship.

Rizzo is a bit too far ahead of the story. Look at this Los Angeles Times story, which mentions the possibility of excommunication:

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican declared Thursday that two bishops ordained by China’s state-controlled church without papal consent were excommunicated, escalating tensions as the two sides explored preliminary moves toward improving ties.

The Vatican also excommunicated the two bishops who ordained them, citing church law. The Holy See then criticized China for allegedly forcing bishops and priests to participate in “illegitimate” ordinations that “go against their conscience.”

Pope Benedict XVI’s first major diplomatic clash since his election as pontiff a year ago shatters hopes for any reestablishment soon of official ties that ended after communists took control of China in 1949.

Now read this Catholic News Service article:

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The threat of excommunication hangs over two Chinese bishops ordained without papal approval, but only if they acted knowingly and freely, said a canon lawyer.

And even if they incurred excommunication automatically by acting of their own free will, the penalty is limited until Pope Benedict XVI publicly declares their excommunication to the bishops and their faithful, said Jesuit Father James Conn, a professor of canon law at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University.

Then there is this piece by Edward Cody, who is responsible for a lot of the “Pope goes to Romehype, in the Washington Post from Thursday:

BEIJING, May 3 — For the second time in four days, China’s government-sponsored Catholic church consecrated a new bishop without the pope’s approval Wednesday, casting a deeper chill on what had been promising efforts to end half a century of hostility between China and the Vatican.

The new bishop, Liu Xinhong, was installed as Anhui province’s top prelate in a morning ceremony at St. Joseph’s Church in Wuhu, in eastern China, according to a church official who declined to be identified. His ascension followed the consecration Sunday of Ma Yinglin as bishop of Kunming, in southwestern China’s Yunnan province, in spite of a request from the Vatican for more time to consider whether he could meet the pope’s approval.

Excommunication in the Catholic Church is not taken lightly and it is rare that the punishment is inflicted on bishops. If Pope Benedict XVI does indeed approve these excommunications, you can forget about any near-term reunification between the Chinese Communist government and the Vatican, despite the church’s willingness to give up ties with Taiwan.

Also from the Times piece is this interesting information that may shed some light on the diplomatic tit-for-tats:

Some analysts here suggested that China’s abrupt decision to name bishops in defiance of the Vatican came in response to Benedict’s elevation of Hong Kong Bishop Joseph Zen to cardinal this year.

Zen [pictured] has been an outspoken critic of the communist regime. He said his promotion could make him an important bridge between the Vatican and Beijing. But he has not hesitated to criticize Chinese abuses, including the jailing and persecution of priests and other Catholics.

Most recently, the Associated Press reported late Saturday that a bishop appointed by the Pope will be ordained Sunday, according to the AsiaNews agency out of Rome.

This story isn’t ending anytime soon, and reporters should avoid grand pronouncements about excommunications and potential Vatican trips to China until the facts have settled in place. Too much can shift as the many players work the situation, and the media, to their advantage.

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Let’s get ready to rumble!

episcopal gaysLast summer I attended a worship service at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. I went so that I could witness the congregation’s interfaith Eucharistic prayer. The sermon text was Mark 7 and the priest told us that it showed how Jesus was xenophobic, racist and sexist.

The next day I ran into another priest from the church. I told her I had been at the previous day’s service. “I’m so sorry,” she immediately replied. “Why?” I asked, thinking she was going to apologize for the sermon. “Oh, our sound was all off and we had those problems with the lighting. Didn’t you notice?” she said.

Oh how I wish I could go back to Grace Cathedral this weekend when it hosts a vote on who will be the new bishop of California:

The Episcopal Diocese of California’s nomination of three gay clergy among seven candidates for bishop is no surprise — priests in the diocese have been blessing same-sex unions for at least 27 years.

But the possible election of one of them Saturday threatens to split not only the 220-year-old Episcopal Church in the United States but also the centuries-old Anglican Communion, the group of churches around the world that share worship and prayer traditions rooted in the Church of England.

That lead came from the San Francisco Chronicle‘s religion writter, Matthai Chakko Kuruvila, who does an excellent job of highlighting the international importance of a local issue and the myriad interests concerned by the vote. Episcopalians in America are but a fraction of the world’s 77 million Anglicans, he writes, only one-ninth the size of the Nigerian church.

Four California churches now proclaim affiliation with the Anglican province in Uganda and are distancing themselves from the Episcopal Church in the United States and battling it in court for ownership of church properties. An Oceanside church says it is affiliated with the Diocese of Bolivia.

This rift has a racial and colonial subtext in which power dynamics have been reversed. The Anglican faith of white colonizers is now being dictated by the once-colonized.

africananglicanMany reporters highlighted the racial aspect of the schism, but I’m not sure about the colonization angle. Not just because both the colonizers and the colonized are, well, dead, but because it ignores the fact that this is not a colonial situation in which people are being forced to change their aboriginal traditions. The Africans aren’t forcing new traditions on anyone, they’re merely maintaining the church’s historic teachings. That the descendents of the colonizers have changed their minds doesn’t make this reverse colonization.

I also wanted to highlight this from the Los Angeles Times:

“To watch your church suddenly say, ‘Anything goes,’ is a horrifying thing,” [Cynthia Brust, a spokeswoman for the American Anglican Council, which has 300 affiliated churches in the U.S.] added.

The Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong, who was bishop of the Diocese of Newark in New Jersey before his retirement in 2000, said Brust misses the point.

“There’s not a scientist in the world today who supports the idea that homosexuals are mentally ill or morally depraved,” said Spong, a noted author and outspoken church leader on the subject. “So I’d rather see the church split. I have no desire to be a part of a homophobic church.”

Many reporters frame this issue as a division between conservative and liberal interpretations of Scripture. But as Spong so eloquently says, for some folks Scripture is not necessarily the arbiter of how the church should consider homosexuality.

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Why does Time see religion as irrelevant?

time 100 coverMany of you know World as a publication that strives to compete with other newsweeklies, but with an avowed evangelical Christian slant.

As a longtime reader of the publication, I appreciate it most for covering items that did not show up in The Washington Post and The New York Times the previous week, as both Time and Newsweek are known for doing so lamely.

So it’s not surprising that World founder Joel Belz over at the WorldViews blog pointed out that Time, in its list of “100 men and women” who are transforming the world through their “power, talent, or moral example,” sadly failed to include more than three people who could be considered religious figures.

While I cannot say here how disgusting I find the magazine’s hero-worshiping style and selection — Will Smith is on the list? Power? No. Talent? Definitely not. Moral example? Let’s hope not. — I do respect such efforts to catalogue the influential and powerful. It’s relatively interesting, good for conversations (and blog posts) and probably good for the magazine’s bottom line. But as Belz notes, the lack of religious leaders in the list is truly disturbing, especially since being a “moral example” is one of the qualifications:

Indeed, TIME lists 27 “artists and entertainers,” 16 “scientists and thinkers,” 22 “leaders and revolutionaries,” 21 “heroes and pioneers,” and 23 “builders and titans.” (The fact that this actually adds up to 109 people may be because TIME saw no mathematicians among the world’s most influential people). The three who might fall into the “religious” category are Muqtada al-Sadr of Iraq, Pope Benedict, and Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria. Is organized religion really that miniscule in its worldwide influence these days — or is that just the secularist perspective of the editors at TIME?

I would like to think that the lack of religious leaders on the list is not due to “the secularist perspective” of the editors. Smart secularists should be able to recognize the importance of religion in the world. The magazine clearly understood it in putting together its list of the 25 most influential evangelicals in February 2005. I would also, obviously, disagree with the position that organized religion is “miniscule in its worldwide influence,” but an argument could be made that it is difficult to nail down 15 to 20 truly significant international leaders.

Who then should be on the list? Based on the inclusion of Tyra Banks, Stephen Colbert and Steve Nash (who was owned by NBA MVP rival Kobe Bryant on Sunday), one would think just about anybody can get on that list. So why did the editors omit the Dalai Lama, Rick Warren, Osama bin Laden and Tom Cruise (in jest, for his Scientology crusade)? Who would you add to the list?

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“The service was religious in nature”

nyprayOK, I will ask. If the police are paying informers — one Osama Eldawoody, to be specific — to attend services at two New York mosques, why have the authorities focused on those two sites?

Are the police simply harassing the biggest sanctuaries in town? Have these mosques — the al-Noor mosque on Staten Island and the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge in Brooklyn — been visited by speakers who, in the past, have incited people to violence? Are the mosques linked to schools in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia with long track records of Wahhabi activism and education work, the kind that often plants the seeds of anger that can grow into al-Qaeda ties? Are the police just being mean?

For the life of me, I can’t find any clues in William K. Rashbaum’s New York Times piece that ran with the headline “Informer in Bomb Plot Trial Tells of His Visits to Mosques.”

Mr. Eldawoody had earlier testified that he had been told to keep “his eyes and ears open for any radical thing,” but many of the details that came out during questioning seemed mundane: How many people attended a service. How long it lasted. The name of the imam who spoke.

A frequent phrase in the reports he made to the police was, “the service was religious in nature.” What he reported sometimes seemed like small talk among worshipers.

Now, if you say that British police are interested in a young Arab male who is known to frequent the Brixton mosque in South London, you know that they are trying to find out if he has become connected with Islamists with ties in that community. The police know that there are moderate Muslims, mainstream Muslims and Muslims active in various forms of radical Islam. They know that some Muslims are wonderful citizens and that a few are Islamists who are dedicated to acts of terror against those they consider infidels, Jews and Crusaders — with the word “infidel” often attached to Muslims with differing views on crucial cultural and doctrinal issues.

So what was the informer supposed to be listening for? What are the doctrinal differences between these mosques? Did anyone ask?

The details in Rashbaum’s report are so strange and banal. Are we simply dealing with simple state harassment? I mean, consider this dialogue with a lawyer in the case, Martin Stolar:

At one point, he questioned the witness about a report that indicated that he had written down the license plate numbers of worshipers at a mosque.

“I was asked to do that,” Mr. Eldawoody replied.

“Who asked you?” Mr. Stolar said.

“The detective,” he said.

“He told you to go out and write down the license plates of people who attended services?” the lawyer asked.

“Yes,” Mr. Eldawoody replied.

Like I said: Why those mosques? Why chase these particular worshipers?

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Doing that Crunchy thing, with Style

9 9 04 Cherry Wood Roasted Free Range Chicken 3It’s time for another mini-round of Crunchy Cons mania, with Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher and his strange little book finally reaching gound zero in the journalistic world of snark. That would be the Style section at the Washington Post.

Reporter Hank Stuever actually went down and visited the infamous Dreher bungalow in urban Dallas, and there is evidence in his piece that he actually wrote some of his feature — half of it, even — after he met the family.

I was lucky enough to eat at the Dreher household — the very table shown in the Post piece — during the time between Stuever’s visitation and the publication of the piece. I must say that special kudos must go to the lady of the house, a journalist by training who is currently doing that homeschooling mother thing, for absolutely nailing what would show up as the lead direct quote in the feature. I mean, she called the soundbite word for word.

Two succulent, naturally raised chickens with good farm references are in the oven, snuggled up in a roasting pan like doomed lovers. Fat, perfect carrots are peeled, chopped, seasoned and ready to simmer.

“Notice that I am literally barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen,” observes Mrs. Crunchy Con, and perhaps, she quips, she should have done her hair for the occasion like Phyllis Schlafly’s. The li’l Crunchy Cons, boys ages 2 and 6, are out back in the warm Wednesday afternoon sun, making sculptures out of a bowl of ice cubes — something constructive and home-schoolish, something very We’re Not Watching TV.

You can read the story for yourself (by the way, the free-range photo with this piece is not from the Dreher household, but it could have been). I would be interested in knowing how GetReligion readers would rate the snark factor. Is it 50 percent snark and 50 percent nice or, my own rating, 25 percent snark and 75 percent nice or what. Offer us your ratings.

The piece is absolutely obsessed with the surface of things. Take the food, for example. Dreher’s ultimate point in talking about food is to talk about the sacramental nature — in an ancient, orthodox sense — of the key elements of life. I recently wrote a pre-Pascha column about an Eastern Orthodox priest who has created a cookbook that hones in on the same point, by which I mean the links between the family table and the holy table in the center of parish life.

This is the central thesis of Rod’s entire book. You can tell that Stuever heard this. It may be unfair to say that he did not grasp it. At the very least, he could not work it into the hip Style-page-flashing-back-to-the-New-Journalism worldview. So we get:

The Drehers are self-conscious and good-natured about living the “sacramental” life described in his book: Dreher writes in a breezy, slightly Southern style that is less dogmatic than a reader of political tracts might expect. He essentially lays out his family’s entire domestic process, from their practice of natural family planning over birth control (Julie’s expecting their third child in October), to what they eat, to Julie’s decision not to work, to how they home-school their boys with help from a parents cooperative.

Please note: Rod did not write a political tract. That is one reason why the political right does not know what to make of this book, which is about faith and culture over politics.

P.S. For those wanting to go whole naturally-fatted hog, there is a new Dreher interview up at Christianity Today. Here is how Capt. Crunchy answers the key question there:

What role does religious faith play in crunchy conservatism?

It’s absolutely at the center. If you’re going to stand against the materialism of the age, the only thing that gives you firm ground to stand on and the passion to fight it is faith in God. We live in a culture where the forces that try to separate families from their values and families from each other are so strong that only faith in God can give you that deeper vision you need to make the sacrifices necessary to live a countercultural life.

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Where’s the Presbyterian beef?

grill steakPeter Smith is the veteran religion reporter at the Louisville Courier-Journal. He gets to cover a bunch of interesting religions stories, including an ongoing battle over a Ten Commandments display in a Kentucky courthouse.

He also does a great job of finding the local perspective on national religious stories. That was a lot easier this week with the news that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was cutting 75 staff positions in the face of budget cuts. The headquarters for the church body are in Louisville.

Smith has written several stories about the cuts, but each one left me asking questions. See if you have the same reaction. Here’s Sunday’s story:

The 2.4 million-member denomination has been losing members for decades, but church officials say donations to congregations are actually at record levels. But church officials say churches are sending less money to the denomination for its mission programs and are spending more of it on their own ministries.

Here’s the Monday update:

In 2002 and 2003, the church cut 85 jobs through layoffs and attrition. Presbyterian officials say the denomination’s 2.5 million members are giving at record levels to their congregations. But those congregations are sending less money to headquarters to fund national programs, church officials say, and are instead spending more on their own ministries.

And here’s Tuesday’s story:

[General Assembly Council Executive Director John] Detterick said Presbyterians are actually donating more money to their churches than they were a decade ago, but congregations are sending less to headquarters and spending more on direct ministry.

“Presbyterians today do not want to write a check and send that money off for somebody else to make a decision on where it goes,” Detterick said. “More and more work is being done more directly by Presbyterians, and the need of the national (office) to do it is not as great.”

Hmm. I wonder why local Presbyterians aren’t giving money to headquarters. I wonder if there’s any more to this story? I can understand not digging deeper if it were just one story, but at some point you have to wonder whether to accept headquarters’ take on the problem. Also, Smith says the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) “has been losing members for decades.” That’s one way to put it. Hemorrhaging would be another:

Without a word of explanation, the number crunchers for the Presbyterian Church (USA) are projecting record-setting membership losses in 2005 and 2006.

The loss in 2005 was estimated at 65,000, followed by an 85,000 projected loss in 2006. The 2005 figures, which congregations are already reporting, tally membership as of Dec. 31, 2005.

If the Presbyterians are like other church bodies dealing with budget cuts, the reason for funds not reaching national headquarters could be deeper than both the HQ explanation and the dissatisfaction among laity. Yes, laypeople who are dissatisfied with church leaders and the direction of a church begin giving their funds directly to the causes they support. But regional church organizations are also developing expensive bureaucracies and choking off church funds that might go to national headquarters. Both stories are ripe for exploration.

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China-Vatican deal hiccups

chinese cathedralThere goes any prospect of a reunification between the Chinese Communist government and the Vatican. Or maybe things aren’t that ominous. Did you hear that the deal, so close to fruition, according to a front-page blast by The Washington Post, has come crashing to the ground due to the government’s insistence on appointing another bishop to its state-run church?

Whatever happened to the Chinese Communist leaders agreeing to retired bishops that were appointed by the government? That type of talk sounded too good to be true. Or maybe both stories were given too much hype?

It will ll be interesting to see if the Post‘s Edward Cody follows up on last week’s pronouncement that “China and the Roman Catholic Church have inched within reach of normal relations.” Here’s an Associated Press report:

HONG KONG — The Vatican should suspend talks with Beijing on restoring diplomatic ties because China’s official Roman Catholic church is ready to ordain another bishop not approved by the Holy See, Hong Kong’s cardinal said Tuesday.

On Sunday, China’s state-sanctioned church ordained Ma Yinglin as a bishop in the southwestern province of Yunnan. Cardinal Joseph Zen told The Associated Press the Vatican was still considering Ma’s qualifications and had asked for more time to approve it, but China refused.

Beijing was to appoint another new bishop, Liu Xinhong, in eastern Anhui province Wednesday, despite the fact the Vatican has deemed Liu not qualified for the post, Zen said.

We all knew that the major problem in restoring relations between the two sides was determining who has the authority to appoint bishops. Giving up that authority would be a massive step forward for the Chinese government. Perhaps at some point they will realize that attempting to control people’s religious affiliation is nearly impossible. But for now, with these developments, whatever deal that was in the works appears to be in the gutter.

From a journalistic perspective, covering negotiations that have gone from “ever so close to an agreement” to outright collapse is surprising, but overall it has a simple storyline.

My big question is who in the Communist government pushed for the appointment of Liu Xinhong. Clearly some Chinese leaders believed that appointing new bishops was a bad idea. But who were they and why couldn’t they stop this one?

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