On a typical Sunday, 4,281 Episcopalians attend services in the world-famous Diocese of New Hampshire, according to official church reports.
This isn’t a large number of worshippers in the pews of 47 parishes — roughly the same number that would attend weekend Masses in two or three healthy Catholic parishes in a typical American city.
Episcopal attendance in New Hampshire fell sharply between 2003 and 2007, which is the most recent statistical year available (pdf). Meanwhile, this diocese had 15,621 members in 2003 and 14,160 in 2007 — a loss of 9.4 percent. The entire Diocese of New Hampshire is about the same size as many individual Protestant megachurches.
However, the influential bishop of this little diocese recently told the New York Times that things have been fine since 2003, when he was consecrated in a rite that rocked the global Anglican Communion.
“There are 15,000 people in the diocese of New Hampshire,” claimed the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, in what he stressed was an exclusive interview during the national General Convention. This convention made more headlines by approving the selection of gays and lesbians for “any ordained ministry,” which means Robinson may soon lose his status as the Episcopal Church’s only openly gay, non-celibate bishop.
“We have received so many Roman Catholics and young families,” he said, “particularly families who are saying, ‘We don’t want to raise our daughters in a church that doesn’t value young people.’ ” In fact, the bishop insisted that his diocese “grew by 3 percent last year.”
If this early 2008 report is true, then Robinson and his diocese will be in the news again — offering proof that a liberalized Christianity can lead to growth, rather than decline. If that happens, many reporters will receive a smattering of calls and emails from amazed readers asking: “Why do the Episcopalians get so much news coverage?”
That’s a good question, since the Episcopal Church — with a mere 2 million members — often draws more attention than the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God and several other major denominations combined.
What’s going on? After 30 years on the religion beat, I have decided that several factors are at work.
* Many of the Episcopal Church’s most vocal leaders — such as Robinson — work in the Northeast near elite media institutions. The church’s national offices are in New York City. Meanwhile, Episcopal cathedrals elsewhere are usually in urban centers that dominate regional media. For journalists, the Episcopalians are nearby.
* Conservatives have, for decades, been on the outside looking in when the Episcopal establishment made crucial decisions, in part because many conservative dioceses are in the Sunbelt far from the action. But in the Internet age, even conservatives are seeking, and getting, more media attention.
* Colorful photographs and video clips are crucial and it’s hard to offer compelling coverage of convention centers and churches full of clergy in dull business suits. Episcopalians, however, know how to dress up. In fact, their bishops even look like the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church — the biggest religion-news game in town.
* The true religion of journalism is politics and Episcopalians love to talk politics — from global warming to feminism, from multiculturalism to military spending, from national health care to gay rights. And in recent decades the denomination’s stands on controversial social issues have meshed nicely with the editorial stands taken by America’s most powerful media corporations.
The bottom line: Episcopalians wear religious garb, work in convenient urban sanctuaries and speak the lingo of progressive politics. Their leaders look like Catholics and think like journalists.
It also helps to remember that the Episcopal Church’s roots connect to Church of England, which gives it a unique role in American history, noted Bishop William Frey of the Diocese of the Rio Grande, who was a media professional before seeking ordination. This small, well-established denomination has helped shape the lives of 11 presidents, 35 U.S. Supreme Court justices and legions of journalists.
Like it our not, the Episcopal Church occupies its own corner in the public square — which leads to news coverage.
Is that a good thing? Sometimes Frey isn’t sure.
“I can’t understand why some people want the kind of media attention that we get year after year,” he said, during one media storm in the 1980s. “I mean, that’s like coveting another man’s root canal.”