African simony assertions from Religion News Service

As a good Protestant (in an Anglican context, of course), I reject the doctrine of purgatory — that intermediate state after death where those destined for paradise “undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”

I am not as courageous, however, as the author of a recent piece in The Federalist. Denoucing the cult of saints as un-Scriptural and un-Christian on the day before Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII were celebrated as saints by the Vatican was a turn worthy of Ian Paisley in his prime. But I digress.

I am, nevertheless, tempted by the doctrine of purgatory for I have just spent 24 hours at the Atlanta airport — the intermediate state for all travelers destined for the paradise of Florida.

Sanity was preserved, however, through application to my writing coupled with meditations on the devotional book I had packed for the journey: P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave it to Psmith (1924). Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby joined the Earl of Emsworth, Psmith and the dastardly Rupert Baxter as companions on my journey.

The close of Leave it to Psmith — a summary of its plot can be found here, but plots matter little in a Wodehouse piece — finds Psmith unmasked as an impostor by the efficient Baxter. He is not the modern poet Ralston McTodd whom Lord Emsworth was sent to fetch from London. Yet Psmith can explain. When the peer mistook him for the poet at the Senior Conservative Club in London, Psmith decided to step into the breach and save him from the “inconvenience of having to return here without a McTodd of any description.”

His lordship digested this explanation in silence. Then he seized on a magnificent point. “Are you a member of the Senior Conservative Club?”

“Most certainly.”

“Why, then, dash it,” cried his lordship, paying to that august stronghold of respectability as striking a tribute as it had ever received, “if you’re a member of the Senior Conservative, you can’t be a criminal. Baxter’s an ass!”

“Exactly.”

We may laugh with Wodehouse and applaud his verbal dexterity — but we should not laugh at the logic of the Earl of Emsworth. Whether it is called class, tribe or our crowd, most reporters face the temptation to write for a particular audience with whom they have shared assumptions, experiences and prejudices.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Modern newspaper readers — and it is worse on the Internet — are unlikely to stay with a story after the first few sentences unless it strikes their fancy. (I expect I have lost a good chunk of those who have clicked through to this article already.) To keep the reader’s interest a good reporter needs to find a hook that keeps them coming for more.

The trick for a reporter is not to let the hook overcome the story. A recent story released by the Religion News Service makes this error — basing its reporting on assumptions rather than taking on the journalistic task of accurately reporting voices on both sides of a very hot topic.

The article entitled “Conservative Anglican leaders back Uganda anti-gay law” recounts a meeting last week in London of leaders of the conservative or traditional wing of the Anglican Communion. Eleven archbishops whose churches account for roughly two-thirds to three-quarters of the active members of the worldwide Anglican Communion released a statement at the close of their gathering.

The London-based Daily Mail interpreted the statement as a challenge to the Archbishop of Canterbury for the Church of England to clarify its stance on gay marriage. The lede of its article “Church of England split fear as African bishops speak out over clergy flouting a ban on same-sex weddings” stated:

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby was last night facing mounting pressure to crack down on clergy who marry their gay partners — as the threat of a split in the Anglican Church grew.

A powerful group of conservative African Archbishops said they were ‘deeply troubled’ by liberal Western attitudes towards homosexuality and that Church of England clerics were flouting a ban on same-sex weddings.

From the statement, which enumerated local concerns held by the various archbishops, the Daily Mail highlighted the closing two paragraphs, which focused on the traditionalists’ displeasure with Archbishop Welby for waffling on gay marriage.  The church press in England and the United States also read the statement in this way. (That is how these Anglican documents are written, by the way, their hook comes just before the close.)

This RNS piece took a radically different approach to the story. It said nothing about the threat to the primacy of the Archbishop of Canterbury, but opened as follows:

WASHINGTON (RNS) Leaders of the conservative wing of the worldwide Anglican Communion equate the experiences of Ugandans who support a new anti-gay law with those of victims of an earthquake or a terror attack.

The Global Anglican Future Conference — made up chiefly of Anglican archbishops in Africa, Asia and Latin America — concluded a two-day meeting in London on Saturday (April 26) with a statement that expressed concern for violence in South Sudan and Northern Nigeria. It then said:

“We are equally concerned for the affected communities in Chile from the recent earthquake, terrorist attacks in Kenya, and the backlash from the international community in Uganda from their new legislation.”

In an odd interpretation of the document, RNS then moved to the recent contretemps over Uganda’s anti-homosexuality laws, even bringing on board President Barack Obama’s views on that legislation. The RNS piece then took a giant editorial leap.

But despite the GAFCON statement’s equation with catastrophes, the archbishops’ response seems more concerned with finances than outright support for the Ugandan law. The “backlash” line could be a reference to the loss of $140 million in financial aid and project support from the World Bank, the U.S. and other countries. According to IRIN, which covers humanitarian issues, this included $6.4 million intended for the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda, which backed the legislation.

Yes, you read that right. The key word was “seems.”

This is a curious interpretation of the document at best. The phrase the “response seems more concerned with finances than outright support for the Uganda law” is speculation — period. The two may seem to be connected in the mind of RNS and if this was a news analysis piece or an opinion article there is nothing untoward about RNS proffering this argument. Yet this article is billed as a news story.

Let me digress (again). I have a degree of knowledge about the individuals and institutions under discussion after covering the overseas Anglican world since 1998. I have interviewed the last three archbishops of Uganda and discussed the issues facing the church in private chats as well as in formal interviews. In my opinion the opinion expressed by RNS about the connection is specious nonsense.

Not that there is anything wrong with that, as George and Jerry tell us. But to make their argument RNS should have done some reporting with real Ugandans.

Rather than ask the Church of Uganda, whose press office is quick to respond to queries from overseas reporters, RNS makes a further assumption that is not supported by facts linked to sources. The key statement — the “ ‘backlash’ line could be a reference to the loss of $140 million” — could easily have been checked. Or RNS could have read the myriad reports in the church press as well as in the Ugandan press about the anger felt by Ugandans over what they see as the racist and patronizing attitude of the West.

In other words, there are multiple points of view on these complex issues. Find them. Quote them.

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The BBC and the perils of press releases

The BBC’s internet news division stumbled badly this week in its initial report on a major meeting of Anglican church leaders in Africa. The 20 October 2013 story entitled “Archbishop of Canterbury makes Kenya detour on way to Iceland” has already had one correction and substantial alteration but the underlying premise of the story remains flawed.

It demonstrates the perils of relying on a single source in reporting the news.

The opening paragraphs of the original version, reprinted by the London Evening Post, and the revised BBC version are identical. They begin:

The Archbishop of Canterbury has made a detour of more than 8,000 miles to visit Kenya – on his way to Iceland. Archbishop Justin Welby, who arrived on Saturday night, gave sermons at All Saints Cathedral on Sunday morning. He made the “last-minute” 24-hour trip to offer condolences after the Westgate centre attack, Lambeth Palace said.He is also meeting conservative Church leaders who are in Nairobi for this week’s conference of the traditionalist Anglican lobby group, Gafcon.

The story offers background on the trip to Iceland and the al-Shabaab terror attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi. And then more details about the trip are added:

Archbishop Welby delivered sermons at 09:30 and 11:00 before having lunch with the Archbishop of Kenya and five Kenyan bishops. GAFCON2013 – the second such conference – will starts today and runs till Saturday. The original conference – held in Jerusalem in June 2008 – was organised in response to the appointment of actively gay men and women as bishops, especially in the US.

The stories then diverge. The original version stated:

Through the GAFCON movement, conservative Anglican provinces – mostly in parts of Africa but some in South and North America, Asia and the Middle East- have begun to function independently of the official Anglican Communion.

The revised version states:

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Unforced Anglican errors from The Telegraph

The Telegraph has waded into the waters of international Anglican affairs — and I’m afraid someone should toss a life line as it is about to go under. The article on the forthcoming meeting in Nairobi of Anglican leaders entitled “Challenge to Welby as traditionalist Anglicans stage ‘fragmentation’ summit” is not up to the newspaper’s usual standard. It has the story backwards.

As tmatt, the editor here at GetReligion, often reminds me, I sometimes wander off topic. In my misspent youth I served my time in the salt mines of Wall Street. My first job out of college was as a floor clerk at the Commodities Exchange for Drexel Burham Lambert. It was the 1980s, God was in his heaven, Ronald Reagan in the White House, greed was good and all was right with the world.

One of the memories I still have of those golden days was the Time cover theory of investing. In a nutshell, when Time magazine ran a cover story on the market or the economy, a smart investor would bet the other way. Paul Montgomery, an analyst with Legg Mason Wood Walker, had compared market returns to Time magazine covers going back to the early Twentieth century and found the trend profiled by Time would last on average for about a month, but a year after the cover story hit the streets the opposite conditions would prevail.

Montgomery’s theory held true (at least when I was playing the markets). Every time in the 1980′s Time featured Fed Chairman Paul Volcker on its cover, interest rates subsequently moved contrary to the sentiment of the story. On 4 July 1988 Time ran a story entitled “The Big Dry” that predicted higher bean prices as a result of a drought in the Midwest.  Bean prices had been rising sharply through May and June, but the rally died the week the magazine hit the newsstands. (The second story about the super future of Japan in that issue is just as off base.) But I digress.

These memories of a distant past led me to wonder if we are seeing the start of a trend in Anglican affairs. Bet against the predictions made by the daily newspapers and you are likely to come out the winner.

I should also add a disclaimer. I have written for the Telegraph as a freelancer, providing stories from overseas Anglican jamborees in years past. That having been said; the article is quite extraordinary. Below the headline and above the photo comes this statement:

The Archbishop of Canterbury is facing what could be the biggest challenge to his leadership so far as a more than 1,000 traditionalist clerics stage a summit expected to formalise the “fragmentation” of the of the worldwide Anglican church.

The story does not state its source for this claim. This may be due to this assertion not being true. The conference scheduled for 21-26 Oct 2013 at All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi is the second Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON). The claim that this will be Archbishop Welby’s “biggest challenge” and may “formalise the ‘fragmentation’” of the Anglican Communion is ludicrous.

Let me put it another way — it is simply untrue. The article admits as much when it goes on to say the Anglican Communion has been fragmented for over five years.

I have been reporting on the preparations for this conference for over a year and if what the Telegraph says is true then half a dozen archbishops have been lying to me, or they are being misled by their staffers.The article starts of in high snark mode.

More than 1,000 bishops, archbishops and senior clergy, claiming to represent around 40 million Anglicans, are due to gather in Kenya later this month to discuss what they see as a liberal drift within the Church of England and other western branches of the church.

“Claiming”? The clergy and lay leaders representing churches that comprise over two-thirds of Anglicans will be present at the meeting. How is that a claim? “What they see as a liberal drift”? Way to telegraph your sentiments. These hot headed Africans and their knuckle-dragging troglodyte American allies see reds under the bed. The next line offers more assertions.

It comes five years after more than 200 bishops boycotted the once-in-a-decade Lambeth Conference, openly defying the then Archbishop Dr Rowan Williams over what they saw as his liberal stance on homosexuality. They staged a rival gathering in Jerusalem – the so-called Global Anglican Future Conference (Gafcon) – forming what has been widely characterised as a “church within a church”.

Now, the group is staging a second gathering, this time in Nairobi, where leaders from Africa, the Americas, Asia and Australasia hope to establish new, more permanent organisational structures, rejecting the existing Anglican Communion arrangements as a “colonial” relic.

The event is timed to mark 10 years since the consecration of the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion, the Rt Rev Gene Robinson of New Hampshire in the US – the catalyst for the crisis which has divided the 77 million-strong Anglican Communion ever since.

Where to begin. Yes “more than 200 bishops” did not show up at Lambeth 2008. The exact number was 214 but there was no official statement from the Conference or the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office. How do we know this? I counted.

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