Take this bread

waferI receive Communion at my church at least once a week and yet I have never contemplated where my congregation gets our bread and wine. So I was fascinated by a light feature in the Boston Globe about a local company that makes Communion wafers.

The Cavanagh Company has an 80 percent market share in the United States, supplying most of the wafers for Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran congregations. A box of 1,000 standard wafers sells retail at $12 or more, about twice the wholesale price:

In its 62d year of operation, the Cavanagh family business is the nation’s leading supplier of Communion wafers. Their commercial bakery in this northern Rhode Island town runs 24 hours a day to make about 25 million wafers a week, primarily for Catholics, but for other denominations as well.

The company’s manufacturing floor is a humming assembly line of weird, Willie Wonka-like machines. Contraptions custom-built by the Cavanaghs will thud, click sharply, and whoosh at odd intervals, like the percussion section of a highly experimental jazz band.

The article describes the generations of Cavanaghs who have worked at the company:

The company was founded in the 1940s by John F. Cavanagh, an inventor who registered more than 100 patents, and his sons John Jr. and Paul, a pair of liturgical artists who donated their work to churches and religious organizations.

The company employs 36 full-time people making altar bread. The family is Roman Catholic, “but you certainly don’t have to be Catholic to work here,” said Brian [Cavanagh, CEO]. “It’s a manufacturing company. There’s no fake reverence for the product.” Until the wafers are used by a priest in the celebration of the Eucharist, “it’s just bread,” he said.

We learn about what’s in the wafers and the manufacturing process is described in great and colorful detail — even what happens to the chaff left over when the wafers are cut. It’s just a great local story about one aspect of religious life we don’t hear about too often.

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Synchronicity, tragedy and Mumbai

alpha theta syncIt is one of the cardinal rules of journalism: All news is local.

Thus, newspapers and television station here in America are now moving into a new stage of coverage of the horrors in Mumbia. It is time to find the local angles, the local hooks — “sidebars” in journalism lingo — that bring this global story home to readers.

India, of course, is a culture soaked in religion. It should not be surprising that this massacre is soaked in religious content and imagery, even though the mainstream press has been slow — as young master Daniel noted — to highlight or define this part of the story. No one is asking for speculation. The goal is to report who has claimed responsibility and to report who authorities in India are investigating.

Anyway, India is a culture soaked in all kinds of religion and spirituality, although Hinduism is the majority faith. If the terrorists were looking for Americans, Westerners and Jews, they were also sure to find Americans who were in India because of their interest in Eastern religions. The Washington Post offered one sidebar on such a case, producing a story that stressed the human detail but offered few facts about the spiritual journey involved. Here’s the top of the story by Kendra Nichols and Emily Wax:

Twelve years ago, Alan Scherr committed his life to meditation and spirituality, moving his family to the Synchronicity spiritual community in Faber, Va., about 30 miles southwest of Charlottesville in the Blue Ridge mountains.

It was that spiritual journey that led the former art professor at the University of Maryland to be in Mumbai Wednesday evening, eating a late dinner with his 13-year-old daughter at the Oberoi Hotel, when armed gunmen attacked. Both Alan and Naomi Scherr were killed. …

The Scherrs were among 25 participants from the Synchronicity community who had traveled to a program in Mumbai. Four other members of the group were injured in the shooting, the Associated Press reported.

Clearly, the key to understanding this story is this: What is the Synchronicity community? What was “the program” that drew these believers to Mumbai? (Click here for the community’s tributes to their lost loved ones.)

The story offers straight, unfiltered language from Synchronicity. The question is whether this language has any meaning to the average newspaper reader:

“Alan committed most of his adult life to meditation, spirituality and conscious living,” the statement from Synchronicity said. “He was a passionate Vedic astrologer and meditation teacher who inspired many people to begin a journey of self-awareness and meditation. He was committed to making a positive difference in the world and devoted himself to the community he lived in.” …

In an essay in the Web magazine Realization in 2000, Alan Scherr described his journey from college professor and follower of Eastern meditation to a member and full-time staff member of the Synchronicity community, led by Master Charles, described as a contemporary mystic and master of meditation.After listening to Master Charles speak in 1994, Scherr wrote, he and his wife decided to join the community, which promotes high-tech meditation and a holistic lifestyle. They moved to Faber in 1996.

“For me, real freedom means living life in each moment, as it unfolds, without concepts or conditions.” Scherr wrote. “It is a life very few choose because it requires an orientation and re-prioritization of life that is, in many ways, antithetical to our modern Western culture. And yet, it is always available whenever one is truly focused upon self-mastery. The miracle of this life continues to unfold for me on daily basis.”

audiencecount emsenseFascinating. But what does this mean?

Uh, “High-tech meditation“? According to the group’s website, this means:

Synchronicity Contemporary High-Tech Meditation, created by Master Charles Cannon, is the foundation of the Synchronicity Paradigm Lifestyle Model, which is designed to be practiced on a daily basis. This contemporary form of meditation utilizes Synchronicity’s proprietary Holodynamic Vibrational Entrainment Technology (HVET), to bring precision to the meditative experience. It is available in the form of Alpha, Theta, and Delta CD’s that “meditate you” by balancing the brainwaves and delivering a precision meditation experience — one that is accurate and consistent. Such precision meditation delivers greater balance and wholeness.

Now, I have no response to that. I say that not to mock this group or its beliefs and, please understand, I do not suggest that it was the duty of the Post to dig into the beliefs of this community in a way that in any way undercuts this current tragedy.

What I am saying is the newspaper printed a story that I — maybe it’s just me — cannot understand. There is little or no way to understand what the words mean, in the context offered to the reader. Is that good? For journalists, the bottom line question is this: Does the story do what it must do, as a local sidebar about these people who tragically lost their lives, in part because of who they were and where they were? What did they believe? Why were they there?

I want to be able to understand something about what happened. How about you?

IMAGE: The art of brain waves. Brain waves and modern media.

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Lite in the darkness

652px Kerstkrans

In a recent USA TODAY story, Cathy Lynn Grossman tracks an interesting trend: the flourishing of Advent prayers and celebrations among non-liturgical Christians.

But nowhere in the article does Grossman detail how the faithful have been observing the four weeks before Christmas for centuries: as a time of penitence, fasting, and preparation, not only for the Feast of the Incarnation, but for the Second Advent of Christ.

The lede is going to make some High Church types scratch their heads in bewilderment.

Evangelical Christians are adopting — and adapting– the rituals of Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas that are traditionally celebrated by Catholics, Lutherans, Eastern Orthodox and other liturgical churches.

They’re giving a new, personalized spin to the prayers, candles and calendars to track the building excitement, and set a spiritual tone day by day. This year Advent begins on Sunday.

Popular evangelical authors are offering readings and composing prayers for the Advent season. And Family Christian Stores, the nation’s largest Christian retailer with 301 stores nationwide, has seen sales of Advent-related items climb 35% in the past year.

What does giving Advent a “new, personalized spin” mean? The writer seems to be suggesting that evangelicals are privatizing the sacred season. In fact, writers in the “High Church” traditions (and in other Christian traditions) have long produced Advent resources for individuals as well as for families.

Described as a “Bible teacher and writer,” Nancy Guthrie has published a collection of Advent readings that include writers as diverse as St. Augustine and Presbyterian Church of America minister Tim Keller.

“Since I’m not bound by the traditional Advent, I could choose writers for this collection who break out of the familiar talk of Christmas to the shocking wonder of it, that God revealed himself to the humblest among us,” she says.

And here’s a sunny quote from writer Stormie Omartian.

Popular devotional writer Stormie Omartian says praying at Advent is another way all Christians can develop their prayer voice.

Her book, the Power of Christmas Prayer, to be reissued in 2009, includes prayers for issues, struggles and unfulfilled dreams that can weigh on us as the year draws to an end. “Advent is such a happy, wonderful time, full of joy. So it’s a friendly pathway to prayer,” says Omartian, who worships at a non-denominational church in Franklin, Tenn.

Family Christian Stores are also promoting Advent practices, adds Grossman. According to Craig Klamer, senior vice-president of marketing for the stores, this year the countdown-to-Christmas theme includes characters from the popular VeggieTales franchise.

With no quotes from clergy or scholars to ground us in the history of the season, and to either offer a contrast or a foundation, we are left adrift in what feels like a sticky, Splenda-id sea of generic pre-Christmas joy.

The lack of a liturgical voices makes the evangelicals represented here sound like superficial caricatures of “happy-clappy” Christians.

I don’t know if this is what the writer intended — somehow I doubt it.

But because we are not introduced to the richness of the Advent story, we are left wondering: whose Advent is it, anyway?

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Coming to a pub near you?

511px William Hogarth   Beer Street 01

I don’t know about you, but out here in the Philadelphia exurbs we are in the grip of the kind of crisis that brings the area to its knees– about four more inches of snow than apparently anyone expected.

Surely that means it’s time for another “church that meets in a pub” story courtesy of correspondent Katie Liesener of the Boston Globe.

This frothy brew also raises some of the same questions as did Tmatt’s “open communion” post of a few weeks ago.

Prepare to have your mind boggled — particularly if it’s a few years since you sat in a classroom.

A group of Boston University theology students were gathered at the Crossroads Irish Pub for their usual fish and chips last year when, caught up in theological discussion, someone suddenly asked: Why can’t church be more like this?

It was one of those wild propositions typically forgotten by morning. Except they followed through, designing a new kind of church to capture the authenticity they had felt. They welcome all to their services, but with a friendly word of advice: “Feel free to bring your own shot glass for communion.”

They’re not kidding.

This is the Pub Church: a weekly service held in a pub. Since April, the group has met every Saturday at 5 p.m. to celebrate the divine in a dive, welcoming Christians and non-Christians alike in a setting where notions of God flow as freely as the beer.

What does Leisener mean by “new kind of church”? Or, put another way, in what ways does the “Pub Church” resemble in any significant way a traditional church?

Liesener attempts to answer these questions later in the article, when she quotes Mark DeVine from Samford University.

It’s here that the story goes off the rails.

But whether Boston’s Pub Church can help spark a newly liberated era, like the American Revolution that simmered in the city’s taverns so long ago, is another question. Mark DeVine, an associate professor of divinity at Samford University in Alabama, identifies two strains of emerging churches, or congregations departing from institutional religion. One is evangelical, attracting outsiders to a particular faith; the other exists contentedly without dogma. He believes the latter, which includes the Pub Church, may fall victim to its own openness.

“To the extent that they refuse to define themselves, they may fade away,” DeVine said. “People don’t invest their time, treasure and talents in something that has no goal, no mission, that’s reducible to just a safe place to talk. It’s a wonderful idea, but not the basis for a church.”

Can we count the assumptions here?

Liesener doesn’t quote any students who want to start a revolution beyond one which occurs in a good conversation.

What is “institutional religion?” It’s one of those blanket, lowest-common-denominator terms that means nothing.

Since Liesener doesn’t quote any emergent leaders, let me suggest that many would assert that they aren’t departing from “institutional religion” but moving to renew it.

It isn’t until near the article’s end that readers find out that the congregation that apparently uses Sam Adams and cheese pizza (no olives?) as sacraments is applying for membership in a Christian denomination.

Still, the Pub Church mirrors some aspects of traditional worship. It is applying for membership with the Disciples of Christ and adopt recognizable Christian rituals, such as communion. Also, though they hoped to rotate pubs every week, they have found themselves as cozy at the Dugout as an evangelical in a favorite pew.

We could probably spend a lot of time on the word “recognizable” — but let’s not.

That being said, the whole issue of what constitutes “communion” is a serious, and to my mind, undercovered issue in the religious media. I’ve been in nondenominational, conservative churches where congregants were invited to walk up to a side table and have a sip of grape juice and a bite of white bread at the end of the service.

There’s the Anglican diocese of Sydney, where the idea of “lay presidency” has long been debated — and then, of course, there are the many variations on the theme of open communion in Protestant denominations.

Does calling a meal communion make it a sacrament? Imagine the scholars who would like to address that question in a story like this one.

OK. It’s unreasonable to expect one article to sum topics theologians have been debating for millenia. But the “meet cute” factor in this story obscures the substantial issues that simmer underneath, and deserve a lot more attention.

Picture: “Beer Street” by Wiliam Hogarth from Wikimedia

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May her memory be eternal

Angels in a cubeThe theological term is “theodicy,” and, as I have said before, this concept is woven into many religion-news stories for at least two good reasons.

The basic question is this: Where was God? The most common variation is: Why did God allow this to happen? Or, for those who know their publishing history: Why do bad things happen to good people?

This ancient theological puzzle constantly affects news because (1) disaster and tragedy are part of this sinful, fallen world and (2) the word “why” remains part of the whole “who, what, when, where, why and how” equation at the heart of hard-news reporting.

Of course, it is also possible to wrestle with these big eternal questions in first-person, confessional journalism. Click here to see one A1 example from the Los Angeles Times not that long ago and then here to see some of the reaction to it.

I thought of this while reading the latest “Stairway to Heaven” column by Julia Duin at the Washington Times. It takes quite a bit to make me tear up on my commuter train, but “Requiem for Susan” did just that. This is wrenching, highly personal journalism, but it is journalism.

You need to read the whole thing, but know that it focuses on the shocking death of one of Duin’s friends — Susan Shaughnessy, executive assistant to the provost for the John Paul II Institute at Catholic University. What took the life of this young woman?

She’d gone to a doctor, complaining of the flu and headaches, and was sent home to rest. After she went to bed the evening of Oct. 25, she never woke up. Her frantic housemates rushed her to the hospital, where doctors discovered Susan’s autoimmune response to a freak virus had wiped clean her brain. The technical name is acute disseminated encephalomyelitis. A neurologist from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., told the family her case was the worst he had seen. None of the doctors held out any hope.

When word went out last Saturday that the family was disconnecting her respirator, I rushed to Fairfax Hospital’s neurological intensive care unit. She lay, silent, one hand clasped about a rosary. Her hands were warm as I held them. Her parents, brother and Eduardo sat there, numb.

“God had a reason for this,” a friend told me later over the phone.

“No, He didn’t,” I responded. “This was the devil.”

Who was responsible for the fact that Susan, who wore a long, sweepy red dress as maid of honor at a friend’s recent nuptials, will never attend her own wedding? Was it her doctor, who could have noticed something was gravely wrong? Was it God or Satan who structured — or interfered with — Susan’s body so it would attack itself thus?

Read to the last line. Please.

I hope the Times finds a way to get this piece noticed out front on the website, with its spinning cube that displays the top four stories of the day. This is not conventional journalism, but it raises issues that will hit readers right where they live and die.

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Stealing from God’s house

jesus thieves crossEarlier this month in the midst of election craziness, The Detroit News took what could have been a simple crime story about a rash of church robberies and interlaced the article with theological themes, historical trends and even sociological explanations.

The theme about forgiveness is a bit presumptive, but it nevertheless provides the story with a voice that emphasizes the fact that robbing churches impacts a community a bit differently than your average heist:

Many of the devout in Metro Detroit know the Bible says Jesus Christ both condemned and forgave thieves. But some of those who attend churches targeted by burglars recently say they are busier with the condemnation part.

And before they move on fully to the forgiving, they are organizing community watches near their churches, asking for the police to become more involved, dipping even more deeply in their pockets and offering their expertise to help secure their houses of worship.

“A lot of people felt they were violated, and I heard a lot of them say that they just could not believe that someone would stoop so low to steal from a church,” said the Rev. George Williams, of St. John Neumann, a Catholic parish in Canton Township. “I mean, all we do is help people.”

Generalities such as “many,” “some,” “they” are nice ways to build a theme, but there is no way to know if that claim is precisely true since it makes no specific claims. Also the analogy regarding Jesus Christ and thieves is not supported by any references. The Gospels say that Jesus spoke of thieves in the pejorative sense from time to time, and he also forgave the thief that was next to him. But where (and maybe I am missing something) did Jesus ever specifically condemn thieves?

But back to what I generally liked about the article. Instead of simply reporting on the incidents, the reporter makes an effort to explain what is going on in the community. From personal experience, my home church has experienced a rash of expensive burglaries, and I am well aware that theft from a church hits a little bit closer to home than mall shoplifting:

The irony of burglaries in churches has been long noted, and social scientists say it is unclear whether there has actually been an increase in the activity.

“I think these incidents are simply a reflection of the condition of the surrounding areas,” said Irshad Altheimer, a professor of criminal justice at Wayne State University. “If the rest of the community is failing, in some way, the problem is going to spill over to an institution like a school — in the case of school violence — or a church.”

Knowing that this trend is present in downtown Indianapolis, I would be curious to see whether other communities are experiencing similar trends. Unfortunately, I don’t have a local newspaper article yet, but I’m hoping that something will show up soon explaining this sad trend.

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When in doubt, quote the believers

AnglicanBomb1 01 01 7 01For those of you who are looking for prime examples of the “big ideas” that motivate us at this here weblog, here’s one.

We believe that journalists should strive to avoid hard-to-define, shallow labels to describe complex religious believers and, whenever possible, describe those believers in terms of what they do and do not believe. What the heck, sometimes you can even quote them as they describe what they believe and, yes, how those beliefs shape their actions.

To see this in action, click here and head over to the Dallas Morning News report on the latest Episcopal diocese to leap out of the smaller pond of the Episcopal Church mainstream in order to — they would say — stay in larger mainstream of the worldwide Anglican Communion. In the News, that sounds something like this:

Fort Worth Bishop Jack Iker championed the move, arguing that the national church has strayed from orthodox Christian faith in various ways, including ordaining female priests, allowing the blessing of same-sex unions and having an openly gay bishop.

“The Episcopal Church we once knew no longer exists. It’s been hijacked,” Bishop Iker said.

Later, the newspaper offers this summary of the historical background:

The Fort Worth Diocese has long been in tension with the Episcopal Church. Though the Episcopal Church officially permitted female priests in 1976, the Fort Worth Diocese has still not had one. Bishop Iker and his predecessors hold that the Bible restricts the priesthood to men.

Conflict heightened in 2003 when top church leaders approved the election of the Rev. Gene Robinson, who is openly gay, as bishop of New Hampshire. Bishop Iker has repeatedly argued that the Episcopal Church, at the national level, abandoned orthodox Christianity and “biblical authority” for a liberal social agenda, including acceptance of homosexuality.

To be honest with you, that isn’t bad. However, it really isn’t fair to say that “Iker and his predecessors” believe in a male priesthood, when the support for that doctrine is rather larger, when seen in the context of, well, the Roman Catholic Church, all of the churches of the Orthodox East and scores of Protestant bodies, including most of the Anglican Communion (if you are counting national churches and bodies in pews).

Then, in the next paragraph, you have the scare quotes around “biblical authority.” You could simple say that the left and the right disagree on whether scores of ancient doctrines — rooted in clashing methods of biblical interpretation — need to be modernized or redefined. Both sides believe that their concept of biblical authority is the correct one. So there.

Meanwhile, check out this contrasting passage in the New York Times report on the same event. Yes, I am complimenting the Times. It happens.

Again, the question is this: How does Iker justify his big leap?

Bishop Jack L. Iker laid blame for the split on what he described as “a church that is increasingly unfaithful and disobedient to the word of God, a church that has caused division and dissension both at home and abroad, a church that has torn the fabric of the communion at its deepest level, a church that acts more and more like a rebellious protestant sect and less and less like an integral part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church. It is time to say enough is enough.”

The problem, of course, is how to balance that quote with a similar, blunt, concise quote from the other side. This is a case when the Times does not have that strong voice from the left. Perhaps there was no one willing to speak on the doctrinal level? We do not know.

One more thing: The News report includes links to several resources offering more info about this event, including URLs for the national and local headquarters. However, it does not include what I think would have been the most useful link of all — this one. It takes you directly to the text of Iker’s speech at the convention. When in doubt, we can use the resources of the WWW to let people speak for themselves.

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Explaining excommunication

ExcomBook.jpgA few days ago we looked at some decent media coverage of a Roman Catholic Womenpriests story. A few more stories worth looking at have been filed or discovered.

The Associated Press ran a particularly bad story about the Roman Catholic priest who faces excommunication for participating in a Roman Catholic Womenpriests ceremony. Here’s how it begins:

A Roman Catholic priest faces excommunication for attending a ceremony to ordain a woman in the United States, a Vatican official said Friday.

It wasn’t attendance at the ceremony that got the Rev. Roy Bourgeois in trouble. He officiated at the ceremony in some capacity, delivering the homily and laying hands on Janice Sevre-Duszynska at the service at a Kentucky Unitarian Universalist church. The homily, incidentally, denounced Roman Catholic teaching on the male-only priesthood. This isn’t news. It was reported by the Boston Globe‘s religion reporter in August.

Here’s the AP report explaining the penalty:

Recent popes have said the Roman Catholic Church cannot ordain women because Christ chose only males as apostles. Excommunication is the most severe penalty under church law, cutting off a Catholic from receiving or administering sacraments.

The ordained woman, Sevre-Duszynska, also faces excommunication.

A reporter who had done his research might note that women who go through such an ordination ceremony are automatically excommunicated by the church. They don’t face excommunication — they are already excommunicated. Other than these mistakes, the article also fails to explain anything about Sevre-Duszynska or Bourgeois’ history of activism or anything about the Maryknoll order. The “recent popes” line is also somewhat silly — as if only recent popes have supported a male-only priesthood.

One of my favorite pieces about the excommunication was on Slate and written for its “Explainer” column. The question answered this past week was “Can the Catholic Church enforce excommunication?” It explains that excommunicated priests may no longer perform clerical duties or receive communion, although they may still attend Mass. But do they have any way of enforcing this punishment?:

Yes. Those who refuse to comply with their sentence can be “dismissed from the clerical state,” also known as being “defrocked.” As a result, they lose their benefits provided by the church, which usually include housing, health insurance, and a small salary. (Canon law states that “provision must always be made so that [a priest] does not lack those things necessary for his decent support.” If you’re excommunicated, you can still get these perks, but not if you’re defrocked.) If the priest still refuses to leave, the church can summon the police and have him thrown out for trespassing on private property.

Usually, defrocking isn’t necessary. The purpose of excommunication is not to drive priests away but to make them repent. Once they do, they are usually welcomed back into “full communion.” (The civil law equivalent of excommunication would be “contempt of court”: A judge can throw you in jail for refusing to testify, but the moment you agree to cooperate, you’re free.)

Isn’t that helpful? Also, it makes me wonder why so many of the stories about Bourgeois played up his fragile financial situation if he only faces that in case of defrocking

For instance, the New York Times story that broke the news of the looming excommunication did a great job of getting many of the facts straight. But note this paragraph:

On a practical level, Father Bourgeois also faces the loss of his benefits and the $1,000 he receives monthly for living expenses. But, he said, “if I am without health care, I will be joining millions of people in the U.S. who don’t have health care.”

If Bourgeois only faces the loss of his benefits if he defies his excommunication, that’s different than losing his benefits because of his excommunication. This is an important distinction that wasn’t made in many of the stories about Bourgeois.

Anyway, the Slate piece also explains the difference between automatic and imposed excommunication in nice detail. It also explains the difference between disciplines imposed by the Vatican and a local bishop. Finally, the story explains that there are other punishments less severe than excommunication. For a brief article, it was terribly informative. I also appreciate that the reporter solicited help from professors at Georgetown and Sacred Heart Major Seminary.

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