It is my strong belief that one of the hardest jobs in all of journalism is writing an obituary that — in order to cover the basic facts in a person’s life — has to deal with some controversial issues.
Thus, consider this a salute to Washington Post staff writer Matt Schudel for managing to work a lot of news content into his obit for the quiet, but very controversial, Bishop Ronald H. Haines, a former bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C.
This starts right in the lede:
Ronald H. Haines, 73, who was bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington throughout the 1990s and ignited a stormy dispute when he ordained a lesbian priest, died March 21 of cancer at his home in Lancaster, Pa.
Bishop Haines was named acting bishop of the Washington diocese in September 1989 upon the death of John T. Walker, the diocese’s first African American bishop. Formally elected bishop on June 30, 1990, Bishop Haines became in effect the second most powerful figure in the Episcopal Church, after the presiding bishop of the full denomination.
Less than a year later, Bishop Haines ordained the Rev. Elizabeth L. Carl, an open lesbian who was pastor at Church of the Epiphany in Washington. The move sparked a period of protests and internal examination, and the matter still has not been fully resolved within the church.
During the ordination ceremony June 5, 1991, Bishop Haines asked whether there was any “impediment or crime” to prevent Carl from becoming a priest. Two people, including a priest of 50 years’ standing, came forward to declare that homosexuality was inappropriate in a church leader.
Bishop Haines turned to the congregation and asked, “Is it your will that Elizabeth be ordained a priest?”
Responding in unison, the congregation said, “It is.”
“The ordination of one whose life style involves sexual relations outside of marriage troubles me greatly,” Bishop Haines said in a statement at the time. But he determined that Carl’s character and priestly commitment, as well as the support of her congregation, outweighed the voices of opposition.
While I am sure that conservative critics might — repeat “might” — want to see a harder edge in this obit, all of the basic facts are there. And there are all kinds of landmines here linked to the warfare that has torn Anglicanism in recent decades. The key is that hard issues are not avoided.
It is true that the views of Haines’ many conservative critics are not featured in the story, but this is not unusual in an obituary.
However, it is understandable that the voice of the bishop’s most important critic is missing — but that is not all that surprising, in light of the circumstances. Thus, Schudel headed into the archives to document one of the awkward realities that shaped the later years of this bishop’s career:
According to a 1992 article in The Washington Post, one of the bishop’s most vocal critics was his wife, Mary, an antiabortion activist who was vice president of the National Organization of Episcopalians for Life. She even favored her husband’s censure, which he narrowly avoided, at a national gathering of bishops.
“All our family opposed the ordination, except maybe one,” Bishop Haines’s son Joshua said in 1992.
Bishop Haines told The Post that his mind had been opened by the diverse backgrounds of church members in the 42,000-strong Washington diocese and by his experience in raising a gay son. “I saw the pain and the anguish that comes with secret-keeping,” he said.
And near the end, there is one more painful issue to mention:
In 1994, his son Jeffrey sued an Episcopal priest and other church leaders in North Carolina, saying he had been sexually molested for 12 years. The case was settled out of court.
Once you have read the whole piece, click here and compare this very basic — but fair — story with the official obituary from the national Episcopal Church. Quite a contrast. I think they call that public relations.