Anglican thought for the day

oxford aerial photoPlease believe me when I say that I understand the frustration that many reporters experience while trying to cover the Anglican Communion wars. I also know that GetReligion is causing some frustration among some reporters with our insistence that reporters keep trying, trying, trying to find language that is accurate and (even harder) neutral at all levels of the conflict — local, regional, national and global.

For example, consider those parishes in Northern Virginia that have won a round or two in the courts in their battle with their diocese and, primarily, the national Episcopal Church. It would be accurate to call them “breakaway” parishes if the framing of the story is only national or regional. Yet they are not “breakaway” parishes on the doctrinal issues involved if the frame of reference is Anglican and global, as opposed to Episcopal and national.

These parishes are with the majority of Anglicans at the global level. They are clearly in a minority at the national level. That’s the complicated reality.

So what do you do? You describe what is happening in literal terms and try to avoid the labels.

The same thing goes for that word that the Anglican right loves to toss at the left and the left loves to toss at the right — “schism.” At the global level, the doctrinal innovations approved or condoned by the Episcopal Church are pushing the Communion closer and closer to schism. Yet, at the national level, it is the conservatives who are calling for innovations in order and discipline (such as bishops crossing diocesan and national borders) that are clearly raising the threat of schism here at home. So if reporters are going to use that terrible word, they have to be very clear how the word is being used — and why — at both levels.

It’s very hard to keep all of this straight. But it’s impossible to cover the story without an awareness of the basic facts, facts rooted in the interaction between these local, regional, national and international realities.

Consider, for a moment, the following passage from a Ruth Gledhill piece in the Times. The speaker is Canon Gregory Cameron, a senior adviser to the Archbishop of Canterbury and a leader at the headquarters of the worldwide Anglican Communion. He is a major player behind the scenes.

Follow this closely:

Urging understanding of the conservative evangelicalism which led to a rival Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans being set up in Jerusalem last week, Canon Cameron said: “The average Anglican is a black woman under the age of 30, who earns two dollars a day, has a family of at least three children, has lost two close relatives to AIDs, and who will walk four miles to Church for a three hour service on a Sunday.” …

Canon Cameron … said the ties of friendship in the Anglican Communion were still strong. But he added: “Alongside these ties of friendship — the so-called bonds of affection which have been described as holding the Anglican Communion together — there has lurked an unconscious sense of superiority and dependency: a sense that all the really educated theologians find their homes in Oxbridge, and that all the really big money comes from the United States.

“It has been said, with a certain sense of irony, that in the Anglican Communion, the Africans pray, the Americans pay, and the English write all the documents.”

Canon Cameron said: “The dark side to the life of the Anglican Communion is that too often the theological graduates of the seminaries of the NATO alliance do unconsciously adopt an air of educational superiority, while many American church leaders do not even seem to notice, even while they often unconsciously rely upon, the implicit obligations which they place on the recipients of their largesse.”

Chew on that as you read the documents coming out of the GAFCON meetings and the blitz of coverage that will lead up to the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury.

Follow the money? Cameron seems to be offering this advice: Follow the pride.

PHOTO: The skyline of Oxford.

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LensCrafters of family planning?

global brand strategy book cover 01Man, I missed Stephanie Simon. She’s the superhuman religion reporter who left the Los Angeles Times in April for the Wall Street Journal. These last few months of California-heavy coverage without her ace reporting have been difficult to endure. I missed her so much that I just randomly Googled her name . . . and found a fantastic story that ran last week in the Journal. I have no idea how I missed this huge Page One story with tons of graphics. (If that link does not work, try this reprint from the Denver Post.) It’s vintage Simon — she reports the heck out of her pieces, gives them a compelling angle, and writes beautifully.

Still based in God’s country (that would be my native Colorado), Simon looks at how Planned Parenthood is working to extend its brand by marketing to affluent women and building huge new centers in suburbia. What makes all this particularly interesting is that Planned Parenthood is a non-profit that is heavily subsidized by federal and state governments. Well, that and the notion that abortion and birth control services would be something that would be branded:

Flush with cash, Planned Parenthood affiliates nationwide are aggressively expanding their reach, seeking to woo more affluent patients with a network of suburban clinics and huge new health centers that project a decidedly upscale image. . . .

Two elegant new health centers have been built, and at least five more are on the way; the facility in Denver will be 52,000 square feet. They feature touches such as muted lighting, hardwood floors and airy waiting rooms in colors selected by marketing experts — as well as walls designed to withstand a car’s impact should an antiabortion protest turn violent.

Planned Parenthood has also opened more than two dozen quick-service “express centers,” many in suburban shopping malls.

Some sell jewelry, candles, books and T-shirts, along with contraception. . . .

While Planned Parenthood executives describe the tactics as a natural extension of their mission, the moves have opened the organization up to criticism from foes and friends alike.

Antiabortion groups point out that Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, reported a record $1 billion in annual revenue in its most recent financial report — about a third of that coming from federal and state grants to care for low-income women. The nonprofit ended the year with a surplus of $115 million, or about 11 percent of its revenue, and net assets of $952 million.

Simon speaks with both anti-abortion activists who argue that the government shouldn’t be giving so many funds to an organization in this financial situation. She also speaks with Planned Parenthood’s president who defends the revenue stream and management of funds.

What I also love about the story is that it doesn’t just pit pro-lifers against Planned Parenthood. She finds that competitors in the contraception and abortion business are none-too-pleased as well. After discussing Planned Parenthood’s mission statement changes, she speaks with a competitor:

“This is not the Planned Parenthood we all grew up with . . . they now have more of a business approach, much more aggressive,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, who runs abortion clinics in Texas and Maryland.

Ms. Hagstrom Miller competes with Planned Parenthood for abortion patients — and finds it deeply frustrating. She does not receive the government grants or tax-deductible donations that bolster Planned Parenthood, and says she can’t match the nonprofit’s budget for advertising or clinic upgrades. She has carved her own niche by touting her care as more holistic — and by charging $425 for a first-trimester surgery at her Austin clinic, compared with $475 at the local Planned Parenthood. (Both Ms. Hagstrom Miller and Planned Parenthood say they work out discounts and payment plans for the needy.) “They’re not unlike other big national chains,” Ms. Hagstrom Miller said. “They put local independent businesses in a tough situation.”

Other abortion providers also weigh in with criticism, saying that Planned Parenthood’s new outreach to the “young, hip and affluent” is leaving poor women behind. One aspect to the story is missing and it feels somewhat weird. Simon repeatedly mentions Margaret Sanger, who founded Planned Parenthood. She mentions Sanger’s activism in support of contraception. But for a story dealing with reaching out to poor vs. rich, Sanger’s views on eugenics really should be mentioned, shouldn’t they?
As one might expect in the Journal, the story really digs into the business decisions made at the national and local affiliate level.

“I like to think of it as the LensCrafters of family planning,” Steve Trombley, the top executive in Illinois, said as he toured an express center a few doors down from a hair salon and a Japanese restaurant in the well-to-do suburb of Schaumburg, Ill.

Simon explains that Planned Parenthood claims a loss of $1 on each packet of birth control pills given to poor women under the federal Title X program but makes a profit of $22 on each packet of pills sold to adults who pay full price. She explains how the excess funds are used and that Planned Parenthood is targeting the affluent in part to protect itself from any funding cutbacks. Here’s another fascinating tidbit:

Nationally, Planned Parenthood’s political-action arm plans to raise $10 million to influence the fall campaign. Under federal tax law, the health-care wing of Planned Parenthood cannot support political candidates but can mobilize voters and advocate on issues such as abortion rights and sex education in schools.

To encourage the new wave of patients to join the cause, an express center in Parker, Colo., sells political buttons next to the condoms and sets out invitations to activism by the magazine rack. A 52,000-square-foot center opening this summer in Denver uses about 20% of its space for health care; roughly 40% is for meetings, including political work.

Tons of other interesting information as well: specifics on how the new buildings are being built to provide a buffer between anti-abortion activists and patients, attempts to make clinics eco-friendly, and information on a marketing campaign billing a $2 condom as a “must-have fashion accessory.”

One thing that would have been nice to include would have been a discussion from people who don’t welcome Planned Parenthood’s arrival to the local mall. It’s terribly fascinating that Planned Parenthood considers itself a lifestyle brand. Other people find it a brand of death. A discussion of that conflict would definitely have been interesting.

Just another great story from Simon. Her command of the faith and values beat at the Los Angeles Times was exemplary and I look forward to her next Page One story at the Journal. Incidentally, that long Page One feature that runs in every day’s paper is the most coveted real estate in the newspaper. Every singly reporter at the paper is expected to aim for that space so it’s very difficult to get a story in there and it’s impressive that Simon turned that around so quickly.

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Statistically transmitted diseases

STDs 01Remember that CDC statistic alleging that one in four teenage girls has a sexually transmitted disease? Before we even knew that the statistic was completely unreliable (its relative standard error was greater than 30 percent), we criticized the media coverage for uncritically parroting the Planned Parenthood talking points about what the study meant.

But let’s assume that the statistic — which is frequently repeated as the Gospel Truth — is true. Let’s say that 25 percent of all teenage girls have an STD. Now let’s look at this story from

A Pennsylvania school district has such a high number of students with sexually transmitted diseases that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stepped in to track down students at risk for HIV.

It’s estimated that 10 percent of the 3,000 middle and high school students in the Delaware Valley School District in Milford, P.A., are infected with an STD — including one confirmed case of HIV, Times Herald Record reported Friday.

So the CDC claims that 25 percent of all girls have an STD. But they step into a school district when a fraction of that number is determined to be so afflicted? That makes no sense. And rather than media actually being skeptical of the one in four figure, they just seem to report whatever press release comes its way.

The story goes on to explain that parents were notified of the high rates of STD, pregnancy and single case of HIV in a letter sent home. Most of the cases were the human papillomavirus (HPV):

HPV infections are very common, according to the Mayo Clinic. It’s estimated that close to 25 million people in the U.S. have HPV infections, which can cause genital warts and related lesions. Some strains of HPV are linked to cervical cancer.

Bruce told the paper she wasn’t surprised by the numbers, citing a recent CDC study that found at least one in four teenage girls nationwide, between the ages of 14 and 19, has a sexually transmitted disease.

Didn’t it occur to the reporter to ask why the CDC considers this school district to be such a problem if its rates are so much better than the national average? I know math is hard and all, but this seems so obvious.

There’s also this line:

The Board of Education is currently revising the health curriculum, which places heavy emphasis on abstinence.

I’ll let Brian LeStourgeon, on whose blog I found this story and its analysis, explain one of the problems with this line:

I am both amused and bothered when I catch “news” stories that make a causal connection between rising childhood/teen sexual conduct and “abstinence” education. There are no reliable studies that demonstrate that abstinence education is any less effective than other sex-ed options.

It also matters how you define “abstinence education.” Some programs are abstinence-only, others emphasize a preference for abstinence, others include honest discussions of abstinence with other sex-ed information. Often, reporters unquestioningly include anti-abstinence quotes with no context or definition.

The story ends by quoting Dr. Joseph Rahimian an infectious disease specialist at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York:

“Regardless if you think your child is sexually active, getting the HPV vaccine is in the best long-term interest of these young girls,” Rahimian said. “I think HPV was always a problem and it is often underestimated. There’s no study that abstinence is a highly effective form of prevention for any of these infections.”

Um, logically speaking, that last line makes no sense. In fact, abstinence would be the most highly effective form of prevention for all of these infections. This is just weak reporting on display. The original story, while still problematic in parts, is much better.

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Abortion and the modern “Arabs”

MuslimUSA 01Most conversations about globalization focus on economic issues and, clearly, that engine of modernization turns many other cultural wheels. But anyone who has studied mass media knows that images from other cultures — especially advertisements and entertainment images — have a profound impact on their own. A professor of mine once said that that two main messages carried by most ads are (1) you do not own this and (2) you do not look like this.

I thought of that while reading a sobering Los Angeles Times piece by Borzou Daragahi, which ran under one of those giant headlines that tells you most of what you need to know: “Number of abortions rising in Middle East, experts say — Changing social values and economic realities, along with demographic shifts, are among the reasons, observers in the Arab world say.”

However, there is a problem right there in the headline, with the use of the term “Arab world.”

The piece seems to use two words interchangeably — “Arab” and “Muslim.” However, there are Arabs who are not Muslims and, now that you mention it, the story also blurs the lines between terms such as “Arab” and “Lebanese.” Meanwhile, there are a wide array of forces that are changing life in the Middle East and the wide variety of people, religious and secular, who live there.

Here is the crucial chunk of the LA Times story offering the typical blitz of statistics linked to modernization and globalization:

Despite legal and religious restrictions against abortion in much of the Arab world, changing social values and economic realities as well as demographic shifts have contributed to an apparent increase in the number of the procedures in the Middle East. …

In most Middle East countries, the 15-to-24-year-old age group has grown to make up about a third of the population, but the percentage of early marriages is dropping. In Egypt, only 10% of 15-to-19-year-old females were married in 2003, down from 22% in 1976.

As young people wait longer to marry, they’re increasingly engaging in premarital sex.

“I think abortions are going up for just for one reason: Sex is becoming more permissive,” said Wissam Ghandour, a Lebanese obstetrician and scholar. “I assure you that the majority of girls getting married now are non-virgins and sexually active.”

And right here, at this crucial point in the story, comes a key confusion in terms of culture and religion.

… Arab youths receive little in the way of birth control or sex education, say family planning experts in the Middle East, many of whom work discreetly to provide reproductive health services in conservative Muslim societies that hold women’s maternal roles as sacrosanct.

“If access to contraceptives was widely and freely available, abortion wouldn’t be necessary,” said an official at a Western family planning organization in Yemen. She spoke on condition of anonymity for fear her organization would be targeted. Abortion, she said, is “a last resort.”

Ignore, for a moment, the assumption that access to contraceptives automatically drives down abortion statistics, an assumption that would light up our comments pages for a month if we allowed it to be argued. So don’t even go there. Please.

No, what interests me the most is that this section of the story again equates “Arab” and “Muslim.” There are Christian Arabs left in this part of the world and they drift away from their traditions and teachings just as easily or, sadly, perhaps more easily than do the Muslims in these cultures.

The story gives us a short summary of the Muslim teachings on the issue of abortion — or the views of the Muslims interviewed by the reporter, which is not quite the same thing — but does not say a word about the views and beliefs of Christians in the Middle East.

This is especially interesting since the Christian Arabs have often served as a bridge — for better or for worst — to Europe and the values of the West. It’s a crucial question: Who is performing these abortions and how do these individuals fit into the religious puzzle that is this region? What are the forces, in terms of culture, business and media, that are spreading this new permissiveness?

Islam is important, of course. Thus, we read:

According to most interpretations, Islam strictly forbids abortion after the fetus has reached 4 months, and allows it before then only in cases of violent rape or when birth poses an extreme threat to the physical or psychological health of the mother. Otherwise, abortion is tantamount to killing a living soul, a major sin in Islam, said Abdel Moati Bayoumi, a professor of the fundamentals of Islam at Cairo’s Al Azhar University, the world’s premier Muslim school of higher education.

“The rise of abortion and its acceptability in the Arab world reflects the decadence of societies in the region and how much people are drifting away from the teachings of Islam,” he said in a telephone interview. “Abortion should not be taken lightly, because it involves killing a creature that belongs only to God.”

Abortion is, of course, forbidden under the traditional forms of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and most other traditional forms of the great world religions. This story is only about Islam and the Arabs. However, if failed to even cover all of the Arabs and the forces that are shaping their lives today. Thus, there is a hole in the reporting.

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What about the Presbyterians?

PC USA Logo2The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has 2.3 million members. By way of comparison, the Episcopal Church has 2.15 million members. I’ve remarked before at how odd it is that the Episcopal Church gets so much more coverage than the other American church bodies with more members. It’s not completely surprising, perhaps, that they get more coverage, given the large Anglican communion, the pomp and circumstance of liturgical worship and the dramatic way in which the church is imploding. But still, it seems out of balance.

Back in early May I marveled at the general lack of coverage of the United Methodist Church convention in Ft. Worth. When the Southern Baptists met in Indianapolis in early June, there was a fair amount of coverage. But the Presbyterians’ General Assembly, the big biennial meeting of the denomination’s highest governing body, was held in San Jose and the coverage was again paltry. What’s odd about that is that the assembly had plenty of reporter-friendly drama. One reader mentioned a few of the highlights:

The GA voted on a number of controversial statements about Israel and the Palestinians; approved a $2 million war chest to sue congregations seeking to leave; approved a change to one of the PCUSA’s confessions that would remove mention of homosexuality from the church’s confessional documents; voted to rescind thirty years’ worth of church policy on the incompatibility of homosexual behavior and Christian life; and voted to remove language from the church’s constitution requiring ordained ministers, elders and deacons to live in faithfulness in marriage or chastity in singleness.

And yet all that was produced in the mainstream media was a single AP story — which incidentally was really pretty well done – a decent LA Times story and an abysmal report from UPI. And in my neck of the woods (Pittsburgh), an area with one of the biggest concentrations of Presbyterians in the country, the major daily has ignored the story completely. Where’s Ann Rodgers on this? Oh, yes — she’s covering the buildup to Lambeth.

It is somewhat odd that Rodgers hasn’t weighed in on the news coming out of San Jose. She does a great job of covering denominational politics in general and PC(USA) drama in particular. She’s done more to explain the property battles embroiling Presbyterians than anyone else.

Far and away the best reporting on the assembly came from Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal. The PC(USA) is headquartered there. For the paper, he wrote a couple of stories about the PC(USA) membership losses, the denomination’s backtracking on acknowledging that anti-Jewish rhetoric had gotten into discussions over Israel and Palestine, debating the ordination of gays and lesbians, a vote to repeal the church’s constitutional ban on ordaining non-celibate gays and lesbians and removing the explicit condemnation of homosexuality from the church’s constitution.

For the blog, he looked at the membership losses, the church’s new moderator, a vote to alter a reference to homosexuality in the Heidelberg Catechism, a vote to delete a constitutional ban on ordaining non-celibate gays and lesbians, modification of an interfaith statement, approval of executives and stated clerk, including the Belhar Confession into the church’s Book of Confessions, the approval of a $2 million fund for legal battles with departing congregations, and debate over Mideast issues, among others.

Compared to Smith’s coverage, other media outlets dropped the ball. Kim Lawton had a good, but brief, piece for PBS’ Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.

The major story coming out of the convention seems to be the vote on ordination standards. The vote to drop the ban on homosexual clergy requires presbytery approval, something reporters seemed to obscure somewhat. Eric Gorski with the Associated Press handled it quite well:

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), bitterly divided over sexuality and the Bible, set up another confrontation Friday over its ban on ordaining non-celibate gays and lesbians.

The denomination’s General Assembly, meeting in San Jose, Calif., voted 54 percent to 46 percent Friday to drop the requirement that would-be ministers, deacons and elders live in “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between and a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.”

The proposed change to the church constitution requires approval from a majority the nation’s 173 presbyteries, or regional church bodies — a yearlong process that has proven to be a barrier to similar efforts in the past.

Compare that to UPI:

Some U.S. Presbyterian Church members say a move to allow the ordination of openly gay and lesbian clergy will trigger a backlash by denomination members.

The Presbyterian Church (USA), the biggest group under the U.S. Presbyterian umbrella with 2.3 million members, voted Friday to amend its constitution to allow the ordination of gay clergy, just as the church’s national governing body was deciding in San Jose, Calif., to not tamper with its own definition of marriage as being a “covenant between a woman and a man,” The Los Angeles Times reported Saturday.

The reporter failed to mention that the vote must be approved by presbyteries or any other context. To that end, the Los angeles Times piece was markedly better. And it’s by Duke Helfand, so that’s good:

Leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA) overturned a long-standing ban on the ordination of gays and lesbians Friday, providing yet the latest example of a religious denomination struggling with how, and whether, to incorporate homosexuality into church life.

At the same time, the church’s national governing body, meeting in San Jose, refused to alter its definition of marriage, calling it a “covenant between a woman and a man.” The actions by the General Assembly came the week after same-sex marriage became legal in California. They also follow the decision of a gathering of Methodists from Southern California and Hawaii, who went against their national church by voting to support same-sex couples who marry and the pastors who welcome them.

Helfand’s piece actually went into some good detail on various votes and what they mean. It does mention later on in the piece about the requirement that presbyteries approve the vote. Helfand also gave some history on the battle as well.

It’s not that I think that conventions and assemblies are the be all and end all of religion reporting, but they seem like a bare minimum requirement. It’s like writing about politics without mentioning the electoral season — it just doesn’t make sense.

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Reproduce and multiply

nochildrenOne of the most important decisions made in a newsroom is story selection. The editors of the New York Times Sunday Magazine made a very interesting decision in choosing to run a lengthy story about the demographic collapse of Europe. Reporter Russell Shorto, whose work we’ve looked at before, examines various explanations for the low birth rates in Europe in his piece titled “No Babies?”

His main theory seems to be that when the traditional family met modernity, cultures that adapted fared better. Better is a relative term, however. His example of success is Northern Europe, where the birth rates still aren’t near replacement level.

The average number of births per women to maintain a country’s population level is 2.1. A 2002 report showed that birthrates in southern and Eastern Europe had dropped below 1.3. That means that — all else equal — the country’s population will be halved in 45 years and will never be able to recover. Such a rate is called “lowest-low fertility,” and it’s worrying various public policy analysts, according to the story. In the 1960s, Europe represented 12.5 percent of the world’s population. Today it is 7.2 percent, and if current trends continue, by 2050 only 5 percent of the world will be European. And it’s not just Europe. Where only a few decades ago my elementary school teachers were proclaiming the looming disaster of overpopulation, birthrates have plummeted from 6.0 globally in 1972 to 2.9 today.

The story only aims to explore a few theories for why birthrates vary in Europe, but I do wish Shorto had explored why people think it’s problematic. The article mentions many people who think the birthrates are dangerously low:

To many, “lowest low” is hard evidence of imminent disaster of unprecedented proportions. “The ability to plan the decision to have a child is of course a big success for society, and for women in particular,” Letizia Mencarini, a professor of demography at the University of Turin, told me. “But if you would read the documents of demographers 20 years ago, you would see that nobody foresaw that the fertility rate would go so low. In the 1960s, the overall fertility rate in Italy was around two children per couple. Now it is about 1.3, and for some towns in Italy it is less than 1. This is considered pathological.”

It may seem obvious why this is a problem but later in the story, Shorto speaks with people who think declining birthrates in Europe are fantastic. So why the two sides differ is needed. Why is it bad if a society dies out? Why is this pathological?

Readers of Shorto will not be surprised that he does not shy away from religious discussion. As is reinforced daily, religious views will have a tremendous effect on how they order their sex lives:

There is no shortage of popular explanations to account for the drop in fertility. In Athens, it’s common to blame the city’s infamous air pollution; several years ago a radio commercial promoted air-conditioners as a way to bring back Greek lust and Greek babies. More broadly and significant, social conservatives tie the low birthrate to secularism. After arguing for decades that the West had divorced itself from God and church and embraced a self-interested and ultimately self-destructive lifestyle, abetted above all by modern birth control, they feel statistically vindicated. “Europe is infected by a strange lack of desire for the future,” Pope Benedict proclaimed in 2006. “Children, our future, are perceived as a threat to the present.” In Germany, where the births-to-deaths ratio now results in an annual population loss of roughly 100,000, Ursula von der Leyen, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s family minister (and a mother of seven), declared two years ago that if her country didn’t reverse its plummeting birthrate, “We will have to turn out the light.”

But Shorto brushes aside spiritual concerns to focus on economic ones. A great deal of time is spent looking at how labor force participation among women correlates to fertility rates. And the European data are quite interesting. Apparently one way to increase fertility rates is to have a, well, nanny state. But the United States has a fertility rate of 2.1 — far higher than Europe — and much less socialism. Which brings us back to a religious mention:

Some commentators explain its healthy birthrate in terms of the relatively conservative and religiously oriented nature of American society, which both encourages larger families. It’s also true that mores have evolved in the U.S. to the point where not only is it socially acceptable for fathers to be active participants in raising children, but it’s also often socially unacceptable for them to do otherwise.

Another factor in our high birth rate seems to be the flexibility of our labor force. While many European countries give mothers approximately eleventy gazillion taxpayer-funded weeks off when they have their maternity leave, labor force flexibility helps here. Women are more content to take time off to have children because they sense they can make up the difference after their kids head off to school.
The most fascinating part of the article, however, deals with Germany. Some urban planners are welcoming their cities’ demises. Dessau, where the architect Walter Gropius planted the Bauhaus school of design, is surrounded by forest with no historic town center (80 percent of the city was destroyed in World War II). City planners are demolishing underused sections of the city with every decrease of the population. Twenty-five-hundred flats have been destroyed with 8,000 on the chopping block. One gets the feeling that Shorto finds the whole thing a bit creepy:

Eisleben, another of the cities in the consortium, has a picture-perfect 16th-century downtown but is losing people fast, and many of its historic buildings have been long unused and uninhabitable. Eisleben’s shrinkage strategy centers on history: it happens to be the birthplace of Martin Luther. The city is laying out a tourist route — from the house in which Luther was born to his first church to the church in which he gave the last sermon before he died — that shows off its old center and turns its many derelict buildings and empty lots into art installations related to the father of Protestantism. The idea is to attract more tourists and money and build up the locals’ pride in their history. There is a certain paradox here: thanks to its Communist heritage, this part of Germany has the distinction of being one of the least religious places on earth. Eisleben gets 100,000 religious pilgrims a year, but only 14 percent of its population are churchgoers, and hardly anybody expects a turnaround.

But while few locals themselves may feel religiously inclined, the thinking is that if religious pilgrimage is the best card in your hand, you play it. This notion — embrace shrinkage in order to revitalize your economy, rather than trying to coax women to have more babies — is, according to more than a few observers of the European scene, the right tack. Or better said, it is one part of the best overall strategy — one that embraces population decline. For there are those who argue that low birthrate in itself is not a problem at all. Paul Ehrlich, the Stanford scientist who warned us about the “population bomb” in the 1960s, is more certain than ever that the human race is catastrophically straining the planet. “It’s insane to consider low birthrate as a crisis,” he told me. “Basically every person I know in my section of the National Academy of Sciences thinks it’s wonderful that rich countries are starting to shrink their populations to sustainable levels. We have to do that because we’re wrecking our life-support systems.”

Religious ghosts haunt stories that deals with life and death issues such as these. So it’s wonderful that Shorto didn’t just acknowledge the role religion plays but included religious voices and concerns in the story. And, again, kudos to the editors for selecting this story. Much more could and should be written about this topic so hopefully other media outlets will follow suit. People who are interested in this topic would also do well to watch this 2007 documentary which covers much of the same ground.

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Failing the objective

AnglicanBomb1Both The Washington Post and The Washington Times covered a Virginia state court ruling Friday regarding the constitutionality of a longstanding state law that could allow the 11 congregations who have left the Episcopal Church over the last couple of years to keep their multi-million dollar properties. The tone and perspective of the two stories are rather stark. Just look look at the headlines.

Here is the Post‘s:

Episcopal Church Loses In Court

And now the headline in the Times:

Virginia judge affirms parish property rights

I guess the upholding of one group’s “property rights” is another group’s lost legal battle.

The Times article, written by friend-of-the-blog Julia Duin, focuses heavily on the legal consequences of the judge’s ruling, inter-mixing the history of the conflict, while the Post article primarily focuses on the background of the rather complicated story.

A reader noted to us that the Post‘s reporting unprofessionally uses the word “spat” to describe the conflict and repeatedly refers to the 11 churches as “the breakaway congregations.” Duin on the other hand, refers to the group of 11 churches as “11 former Episcopal churches that left the Diocese of Virginia 18 months ago over issues of theology and the 2003 consecration of the denomination’s first openly gay bishop” and subsequently as simply “the churches.” I know the story is complicated but why can’t neutral terms be used to describe the two groups?

The Post goes an extra step further in quoting a seemingly objective “expert” who actually turns out to be taking sides in this legal battle:

It was not immediately clear what happens next in the complex, two-track legal dispute. The conservatives brought the issue into court first, filing a petition activating the Virginia law, called 57-9. The diocese then filed a separate request for summary judgment, asking Bellows to demand that the conservatives leave the property. A trial is slated for the fall to determine who gets the property, and Bellows yesterday asked each side to file a brief in the next few weeks laying out how his ruling affects that proceeding.

Robert Tuttle, an expert on church-state law, said the “only way” for the Episcopal Church to win now is for 57-9 to be overturned by a higher court. Tuttle also serves as legal counsel for the regional branch of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which filed a brief in the case supporting the Diocese of Virginia.

Oh, snap! Not such an objective expert after all.

In addition, The Post does not seem to have the contact information of anyone associated with those “breakaway,” “conservative,” churches, while Duin quoted sources on both sides of the battle.

I don’t envy the reporters covering this highly charged, significant, convoluted religious and legal battle. Efforts at objectivity may seem futile, but thoughtful, consistent choice of language and terms is a good place to start. The Post seems to have particular difficulty in talking to representatives of both sides and avoiding pejorative shorthand terms.

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A new “church within a church”

Canterburyleft 01Major, major news coming out of the Jerusalem meeting of Anglican primates. The Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) has produced a statement with major implications for the Anglican Communion. Before looking at any coverage, you should read the clear and concise statement here. In a section analyzing the current state of affairs in Anglicanism, the GAFCON document says that the church is in crisis over “three undeniable facts”:

The first fact is the acceptance and promotion within the provinces of the Anglican Communion of a different ‘gospel’ (cf. Galatians 1:6-8) which is contrary to the apostolic gospel. This false gospel undermines the authority of God’s Word written and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the author of salvation from sin, death and judgement. Many of its proponents claim that all religions offer equal access to God and that Jesus is only a way, not the way, the truth and the life. It promotes a variety of sexual preferences and immoral behaviour as a universal human right. It claims God’s blessing for same-sex unions over against the biblical teaching on holy matrimony. In 2003 this false gospel led to the consecration of a bishop living in a homosexual relationship.

While sexual morality is clearly a major issue at play here, reporters should read what precedes discussions of sexuality when characterizing the nature of the division in the Anglican Communion. The second issue is the realignment of parishes and dioceses in Canada and the United States, joining with provincial bodies in the Global South. The third issues is the “manifest failure of the Communion Instruments to exercise discipline in the face of overt heterodoxy.”

The rest of the document offers a confessional statement of doctrine, and the announcement of a new primatial council for development and discipline. This council will set up an Anglican province in North America for confessing Anglicans who live here.

The GAFCON participants have not split from the Anglican Communion, despite what some reporters are alleging. However, they are formally announcing their intention to set up a “church within a church” to deal with the problems being wrought by the division in the communion. So reporters who were claiming that GAFCON was a gaffe-prone failure to accomplish anything might have to backtrack a bit.

While the Anglican blogosphere did a great job of covering the event, Ruth Gledhill of The Times was, I believe, the first reporter out of the gate with the big news:

The Anglican Communion will be split tomorrow when conservatives representing more than half its total membership will announce the formation of a new orthodox body to be a stronghold against liberal views. It will be schism in all but name.

The new global Anglican fellowship will act within the legal boundaries of provinces such the Church of England that make up the existing Communion but, in North America, it will declare its independence from the ultra-liberal Episcopal Church and from the Anglican church in Canada.

A later piece said the GAFCON move is “in effect a schism.” But one of the sentences from the GAFCON document specifically said, “Our fellowship is not breaking away from the Anglican Communion.” So what is happening, exactly? Gledhill’s blog has some analysis and asks:

When is a schism not a schism? When it is done by Anglicans.

George Conger for the Washington Times put it well, I thought:

Conservative Anglicans will declare a split from the U.S. Episcopal Church on Sunday, but will stop short of schism with the archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Associated Press religion reporter Rachel Zoll had a rather straightforward story mostly comprised of background on the division in the Anglican Communion, but it’s a good thing to read if you need that information.

Gledhill already had some analysis on what this all means, which is helpful for such a massive story as this:

The trigger for the new movement was the 2003 consecration of an openly gay bishop, the Right Rev Gene Robinson, in New Hampshire and the authorisation of same-sex blessings in the New Westminster diocese in Canada.

But to the conservatives, these events were merely the logical conclusion to years of movement away from the Christianity of the Early Church Fathers – the writers and teachers in the first five centuries of Christianity – the Anglicanism of the Reformation and the enthusiasm of the 19th century revivals of Anglo-Catholicism and evangelicalism. . . .

[The Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Peter] Jensen said:”American revisionists committed an extraordinary strategic blunder in 2003. They did not think that there would be any consequences.

“Now if they did not believe that there would be consequences, that is an arrogant thing, I have to say. But I don’t know them, so I really cannot say. The consequences have been unfolding over the last five years. Now their church is divided; it looks as though there will be permanent division, one way or the other.

“All around the world the sleeping giant that is evangelical Anglicanism and orthodox Anglicanism has been aroused by what happened in Canada and the United States of America. It was an act of folly.”

Is that an angle that reporters should be pursuing? Did the Episcopal Church made a strategic blunder? Was the strategic blunder the failure of the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to effectively deal with the North American church? I honestly have no idea, but we do need reporters to dig into what all this means. As Terry would say, that goes for the local, regional, national and global implications of this story.

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