Media’s curiously wrong-headed posession obsession

Last week I made fun of that Associated Press story that claimed Pope Francis was “obsessed” with Satan. In the comment to that piece, reader Martha Keefe remarked:

Mollie, perhaps the newspapers share the same view of alleged demonic or diabolic activity as evinced in this sermon by the Presiding Bishop of The Anglican Church, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, whereby when in Acts 16, St. Paul cast out a demon from the possessed slave girl, it was because “But Paul is annoyed, perhaps for being put in his place, and he responds by depriving her of her gift of spiritual awareness. Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it. …This time Paul acts with compassion rather than annoyance, and as a result the company of Jesus’ friends expands to include a whole new household. It makes me wonder what would have happened to that slave girl if Paul had seen the spirit of God in her.”

Naturally, if demonic possession is a beautiful, holy gift of awareness, it’s very bad manners at the least to exorcise the demon.

What in the world is she talking about? Well, Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church gave a sermon in Venezuela recently that you can read in its entirety here. It’s actually fascinating that it resulted in no mainstream media coverage during the same week that every media outlet in the world found it dramatically newsworthy that a head of a Christian church body actually talks like Jesus when it comes to Satan. I still don’t quite get how that’s news, but that Jefferts Schori’s sermon wasn’t news is particularly captivating.

It did get tons of media attention outside the mainstream press. You might recognize the byline on this piece from Anglican Ink that begins:

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church has denounced the Apostle Paul as mean-spirited and bigoted for having released a slave girl from demonic bondage as reported in Acts 16:16-34 .

In her sermon delivered at All Saints Church in Curaçao in the diocese of Venezuela, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori condemned those who did not share her views as enemies of the Holy Spirit.

You could read about it in Catholic outlets as well. And here, here and here. Or this, from a bishop in her church:

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WWROD: Why do Episcopalians get so much ink?

That “religion guy” — Richard Ostling, formerly of Time and AP — has a post up right now that will be of interest to anyone who has ever followed mainstream religion-news coverage in North America for, oh, more than a week. Here’s the link to the full post over at “Religion Q&A: The Ridgewood Religion Guy answers your questions.”

The question, from a reader named Mark, is pretty blunt and a bit snarky:

Why do so many journalists seem to think that the small (and dwindling) Episcopal Church is the most important of the “mainline” churches?

Well now, I have heard lots of theories on that one myself through the decades — including the viewpoint that the only place The Episcopal Church’s quiet “Decade of Evangelism” was a success, back in the 1990s, was in elite newsrooms. I think there is more to this phenomenon than that, and once wrote an essay on the topic myself. More on that in a moment.

The former leader of the Diocese of Colorado, the charismatic and Charismatic Bishop William C. Frey (a former media professional), kept hearing variations on the same question and he could never understand where it was coming from. Those who envied most of the coverage visited on the combatants in the Episcopal/Anglican wars were like “men who envied another man because of his frequent root canals.”

Nevertheless, Ostling offered his reader some solid insights. Here’s a sample:

Small? In the current “Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches” the Episcopal Church reports annual proceeds of $2 billion and an “inclusive” membership of 1,951,907, or #14 in size among U.S. religious bodies. Dwindling? For sure. It boasted 3,647,297 members in the peak year of 1966 (using a somewhat inflated headcount method). After decline, average Sunday attendance bottomed out in the 1990s through 2002 at around 850,000, but has fallen to 658,000 after the 2003 installation of its first partnered gay bishop, followed by schism and turmoil.

The headquarters research director asserted that through 2002 the Episcopal Church was the “healthiest” of the so-called mainline churches (defined as long-established, Protestant, predominantly white, ecumenical, and rather pluralistic in doctrine). All such groups have experienced ongoing net membership losses since the mid-1960s, including the American Baptist Churches, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Church of the Brethren, Presbyterian Church (USA), Reformed Church in America, United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, and lately the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Many think fuzziness or liberalism in belief explain this unprecedented mainline slide, considering that most biblically conservative groups continued to grow (though these may also face a troublesome future). But it’s more complicated. Mainline statistics are affected by lowering birth and marriage rates, increasing death rates and average ages, and losses of youngsters raised in these churches.

Important? In journalists’ defense, Mark has gotta admit the Episcopal Church makes news.

By all means, read it all. Ostling also thinks this ongoing news phenomenon may have something to do with (wait for it) the American fascination with the royal family.

By the way, the scribe also included this:

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Shocker! Liberal clergy back gay rites! (updated)

What we have here is a totally predictable story, to an almost stunning degree. It’s almost a non-story, from the get go.

What has me confused, however, is whether or not The New York Times crew realizes that it is publishing a totally predictable story, a story in which there is not a single new or unpredictable element.

You see, there are quite a few signs in the story that the Times folks know that there is little or nothing new in this piece. Then, at other times, the world’s openly liberal newspaper of record — especially on religious and moral issues, saith former editor Bill Keller — seems to think that this story is important.

The key is the story’s Something Really Big Has Happened Lede, which only sounds big because the newspaper’s editors chose to omit a crucial fact.

More than 250 religious leaders in Illinois have signed an open letter in support of same-sex marriage, which the legislature is likely to take up in January.

“We dedicate our lives to fostering faith and compassion, and we work daily to promote justice and fairness for all,” the leaders wrote in the letter, which was released Sunday. “Standing on these beliefs, we think that it is morally just to grant equal opportunities and responsibilities to loving, committed same-sex couples.

“There can be no justification,” they continued, “for the law treating people differently on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.”

This is not the first time members of the clergy have endorsed same-sex marriage, but the public nature of the letter and the number of signatures made it an especially strong statement.

Now let me be clear: This is a story. Years ago, it would have been an important one.

What I am arguing is that at this point it is a totally predictable story, for reasons that — to their credit — the Times persons make little effort to hide. The story notes, for example that “many” of the Christian and Jewish leaders who signed this liberal statement noted that “they had long supported same-sex marriage.”

So what does the lede fail to mention? This story does not cite a single clergyperson who, by signing this statement, was changing her or his position on this issue. In fact, the story does not list a single clergyperson whose stance represents a violation of her or his denomination’s stance on the moral status of sex outside of marriage.

In other words: Where is the news?

By the way, I would feel precisely the same about a Times story reporting that a large flock of Catholic, Orthodox, Orthodox Jewish, Muslim, Mormon and evangelical Protestant clergy had produced a statement documenting their opposition to same-sex marriage. The difference, of course, is that the Times would not print that story and certainly would not open that alleged news report with a Something Really Big Has Happened Lede.

Note the denominations that are backing this liberal proclamation:

“It’s not a religious right — it’s a civil right,” said the Rev. Kevin E. Tindell, a United Church of Christ minister at New Dimensions Chicago. “It’s a matter of justice, and so as a Christian, as a citizen, I feel that it’s my duty.” Mr. Tindell, who is gay, is raising three children with his partner of 17 years.

The Rev. Kim L. Beckmann of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, who lives in the Chicago area, said she was drawn into the movement “as my gay and lesbian parishioners were welcomed into our congregation.”

“I have participated in blessings of these unions for longer than we’ve even been talking about marriage,” she said. “I’m thrilled to take this step.” …

The Rev. Kara Wagner Sherer of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Chicago said it was a way for religious leaders to say, “I’m a faithful Christian or a Jew or Muslim, and I think that marriage equality is important.”

“It doesn’t have to be a faith issue,” she said. “We understand our Scripture in a different way.”

Now, that quote from the female Episcopal priest raises an interesting question: Did any mainstream Muslim leaders actually sign this letter? Did any Muslims sign the letter, period?

The logical thing to do is to look online and fine the list. However, at the moment, all I can find is news reports about the letter, many of which — unlike the Times story — note another predictable element of this development, which is that most of the women and men who signed this statement are from the Chicago area.

I am several pages into a logical online search and I can’t find the actual list. Surely it is online? Or, perhaps, was the story in the Times meant to serve as the official announcement?

Help me find the list, please. Once we have found it, we can search the list for (a) Muslims, (b) Catholics who are not liberal nuns, (c) Orthodox Jews, (d) evangelical Protestants who are employed by major evangelical denominations, (e) Mormons linked to major Mormon organizations, (f) Anglicans who are not part of The Episcopal Church, etc., etc. In other words, let’s search the list for surprising names, the kinds of signatures that would represent a truly newsworthy development.

Again let me stress: We are talking about a journalism issue here, exactly the same journalism issue that would be raised, let’s say, by a Fox News report trumpeting an anti-gay-marriage statement released by a long list of religious leaders who are part of religious groups that support their various traditions’ ancient doctrines on sex and marriage. That statement wouldn’t be big news either.

UPDATE: Thank you to reader Joyce Garcia. Here’s the link to a .pdf of the list. The list is pretty much what I expected, including its reference to an “Orthodox” parish — a St. Thomas Mission that is actually part of a liberal splinter group. Check the list. Check it twice.


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