Missing voices in coverage of the National Cathedral rites

Missing voices in coverage of the National Cathedral rites January 10, 2013

For some reason or another, quite a few folks who read this here weblog want to know what I, and the other GetReligionistas, think of the decision by leaders of the Episcopal Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul — better known as Washington National Cathedral — to officially begin performing same-sex union rites.

Well, for starters, that’s a question about an event in the news, not a question about mainstream-media coverage of an event in the news. So that really isn’t a GetReligion question.

Personally, I’m an Eastern Orthodox Christian, so I don’t have a horse in that race. At this point, I think it’s safe to say that modern Protestant bodies who hold votes to decide major doctrines are free to do whatever they want to do. However, various camps within the 600,000 or so Episcopalians who continue to worship in their local parishes on a regular basis will, and should, care deeply about this development. Press coverage should make note of that.

However, does this liturgical decision really surprise anyone? The trends in the Episcopal Church establishment have been steady for a decade or two. Episcopal clergy here in DC Beltway-land have been performing forms of same-sex union rites for three decades.

Now, a national rite has been approved and the contents are there for all to see. It would be a much bigger story if this symbolic cathedral declined to use these rites.

One longtime GetReligion reader did raise another interesting question, one that could be a hook for valid journalistic coverage. She wrote:

A friend told me yesterday that it’s irritating to keep reading about the National Cathedral in the news — as if that Episcopalian church was really the official US cathedral. So I was checking it out and see that the Washington National Cathedral is the church’s official name and it claims “it is called to serve as the spiritual home for the nation.” …

In spite of the … provision that we have no established church, why does the press continue to treat the Episcopal Cathedral in DC as if it is the official US religious center for political events? … Why is this situation not seen as a church-state difficulty by the press?

It is certainly true that, in terms of history, Episcopalians have, well, outperformed their numbers when it comes to having an impact on national news and American history. At this point, I think few would challenge a statement that National Cathedral is America’s most important liberal Protestant sanctuary. But, in terms of numbers and demographics, does that make it the “spiritual home for the nation”?

That might be a hook for an interesting story, but it really isn’t the key issue in this story about same-sex marriage.

When I started reading the coverage, I wanted to know if the teams in our major newsrooms realized that this symbolic action was a typical Episcopal-Anglican story, one with implications at the local, national and global levels. I also wondered if journalists would consider the ecumenical impact of this decision, in terms of the cathedral’s relationships with larger bodies of American believers — such as Catholics, evangelicals, charismatics, etc. Who knows, there was even a chance that journalists might interview one or two important religious leaders who opposed this action.

Hey, it could happen.

But don’t hold your breath.

The story in the holy pages of The New York Times was short and to the point, but briefly mentions — alas, incorrectly claiming that the conflict started in New Hampshire in 2003 — the national and global angles of the Anglican wars over the redefinition of the Sacrament of Marriage:

The Washington National Cathedral, the nation’s traditional host of prayer services for presidents and memorial services for national tragedies, announced on Wednesday that it would now also hold weddings for same-sex couples.

The cathedral, a neo-Gothic landmark in northwest Washington, is the seat of the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church and the Washington Diocese. Episcopalians voted at their convention last summer to authorize an official liturgy for blessing same-sex unions, bringing the church in line with other liberal Christian and Jewish denominations that sanction gay marriage.

The cathedral’s decision is not surprising for a denomination that has paid a price for its stance. The Episcopal Church shed members and set off an uproar in the international Anglican Communion to which it belongs by consecrating its first openly gay bishop in 2003.

But the cathedral’s step carries weight because of its historic role as the nation’s unofficial capitol of worship, where Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan were eulogized, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his last Sunday sermon and where the nation mourned the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Later this month, the cathedral will host the second inaugural prayer service for President Obama.

In keeping with the evolving Times policy — think Bill Keller, again — of ignoring unsophisticated religious traditionalists, the story has no voices representing global Anglican dissent in favor of ancient doctrines. No surprise there, I guess.

I thought that the longer, but equally unbalanced, story in The Washington Post contained one or two chunks of information that added a bit of depth. For example:

In some ways, the announcement that is expected Wednesday morning is unsurprising for a denomination and a diocese that long ago took up the cause of marriage equality. But the cathedral’s stature and the image of same-sex couples exchanging vows in the soaring Gothic structure visited by a half-million tourists each year is symbolically powerful.

Even though it is known that the Episcopal Church, a small but prominent part of American Christianity, has been supportive of equality for gay men and lesbians, “it’s something for us to say we are going to do this in this very visible space where we pray for the president and where we bury leaders,” said the Rev. Gary Hall, who became dean of Washington National Cathedral in the fall. “This national spiritual space is now a place where [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] people can come and get married.”

The other crucial note that this story sounds is the fact that modern Episcopal leaders sincerely believe that the new unisex rite corrects centuries and centuries of theological, yes, doctrinal errors in traditional catholic and orthodox Christianity. Thus, the Post reported:

“Hall said he would have approved the marriages at the cathedral soon anyway but was encouraged by having the formal rite, which he said gives same-sex couples a theologically proper ceremony.

The “heterosexual marriage [ritual] still has some vestiges of patriarchy, with woman being property. There’s hope in same-sex marriage that it is a teachable moment for heterosexual couples. The new rite is grounded in baptism and radical equality of all people before God,” said Hall, who has been blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples for decades. “I’d like to use it for heterosexual weddings because I think it’s so much better than our marriage services.”

And what is the response from traditional Episcopalians and/or Anglicans at the local, national or global levels? How about inside this particular cathedral parish? And is there any reaction from the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.? In other words, this remains — in an Anglican context — a controversial story. Where are the voices on the other side of the debate?

Or is this another story that has moved past journalism?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Once again, let me stress that, before clicking “comment,” please remember that the goal is to discuss the journalism issues in these stories and others like them (links to better, more balanced, coverage would be appreciated). This is not the place to cheer or jeer the choice made by the cathedral’s leadership.

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15 responses to “Missing voices in coverage of the National Cathedral rites”

  1. There’s an interesting interview with Reverend Hall on NPR’s “All Things Considered”:

    The money quote from Hall: “I think for us to take this stand really says something about where not only [the] Episcopal Church is, but where […] the culture is going.”

    So the culture leads and the Episcopal church follows. The reporter didn’t pounce on this tasty theological morsel, but I suppose that would be too much to hope from an interview that was full of softball questions and barely concealed applause. During the interview I found myself distracted by thoughts of critical questions the NPR reporter would have likely asked of a pastor who was refusing to perform same sex marriages.

    Also, I’ve noticed that in many (most?) news reports of this type the term “marriage equality” is now being used without quotes. Do journalists realize (or care) that this phrase comes right out of the playbook of gay marriage advocates?

  2. New York Times: “But the cathedral’s step carries weight because of its historic role as the nation’s unofficial capitol of worship”

    I just checked at Wikipedia and found the following, which indicates it’s a lot more than unofficial:

    “In 1792, Pierre L’Enfant’s “Plan of the Federal City” set aside land for a “great church for national purposes.” The National Portrait Gallery now occupies that site. In 1891, a meeting was held to renew plans for a national cathedral. In 1893, the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation of the District of Columbia was granted a charter from Congress to establish the cathedral.
    “The Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation, under the first seven Bishops of Washington, erected the cathedral under a charter passed by the United States Congress on January 6, 1893. Construction began on September 29, 1907, when the foundation stone was laid in the presence of President Theodore Roosevelt and a crowd of more than 20,000, and ended 83 years later when the last finial was placed in the presence of President George H. W. Bush in 1990.
    “Congress has designated the Washington National Cathedral as the “National House of Prayer”. During World War II, monthly services were held there “on behalf of a united people in a time of emergency”.”

    WOW I had no idea. Is Wikipedia wrong about this? If not, why would the New York Times not know about the government ‘s official involvement by way of Congress chartering the construction, Presidents’ pariticpation in the laying of the foundation stone and last touches, and Congress designating the National Cathedral as the “National House of Prayer”? In 2013, is this not a separation of church and state issue ?

  3. The Times piece was far from perfect but it was quite better than I was expecting from that outlet. And much much better than the Post.

    The Times piece was just descriptive of an event then quotes fro a main player, Rev Hall. There were a few framing small comments but I have seen worse from them. If they had reworded the “bringing the church in line” part to be more neutral, perhaps “split from x, y, and z, but inline with a, b, c” or similar, it would have gone a ways to fixing even this.

    The post piece is pure journalistic fail. The phrase “took up the cause of marriage equality” is pure advocacy as per Kodos above. One could make a very persuasive case that there is not a single Christian denomination that does not already espouse (sorry) marriage equality, in that one’s sexual attraction is not an impediment (at least absolutely) to getting married. So the paper is taking the ho hum phrase “equality” and giving it the advocate’s redefinition to mean “redefinition.” Now Rev Hall’s quote in the Times did express this position, albeit in a softer way, but at least it was attributed to the main voice and not just assumed as background.

  4. Small errors can be irritating and illuminating. The Wiki article noted that the Cathedral is the seat of both the presiding bishop and the Episcopal bishop of Washington. That both are women might have added an interesting side note, but if the point of advocacy is “marriage equality”, then don’t distract from that. Right?

    The point of misstating that the loss of members proceeds from Bp. Robinson’s elevation seems to also serve a point, that those leaving are homophobic bigots.

    In fact, the decline began at about 5% per annum in the middle to late 70s. It has steadily risen, to about 1% in the 80s to1.5% in the 90% to about 2% in the last decade. In other words, the general decline looks like attrition rather than rebellion. The Post article quotes a researcher who notes that this sort of religion does not draw new people in. I think they got that one right. But you can still serve the advocacy function by noting what did change with Bp. Robinson: dioceses began to leave. This is a major change to Anglican ecclesiology, which, after all, was formed when the Church in England became a national church, the Church of England.

  5. The AP story had some tidbits that were not followed up in a journalistic fashion.

    1. “Some congregations have left the Episcopal Church over its inclusion of gays and lesbians over the years.”
    That’s all the story said about that. No figure of how many congregations, much less any indication that four dioceses have left the church. What kind of journalism refers to “some” anything in a story without giving numbers or percentages?

    2. “I read the Bible as seriously as fundamentalists do,” Hall told the AP. “And my reading of the Bible leads me to want to do this because I think it’s being faithful to the kind of community that Jesus would have us be.”
    And that’s all the story said about that. No indication of what Bible passages Hall may be referring to, much less any discussion of other possible interpretations of what the Bible says about the subject.

  6. The interesting, but unaddressed, question is are these same-sex blessings marriages or blessings of covenants? You don’t even have to ask opponents of the rites, there is a divergence of opinion (at least it seems so to me) between supporters of them. Bishop Vono of the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande, who has given permission for such blessings in his diocese, is quoted as saying ““It’s not a marriage in any way,” Vono said in an interview Sunday. “It’s not a legal marriage. It’s not a marriage in the church. This is a recognition of a commitment, which is a covenant, of two people who vow to live their lives in a monogamous relationship.”

    Yet according to Dean Hall of the National Cathedral “Consistent with the canons of the Episcopal Church, the Cathedral will begin celebrating same-sex marriage ceremonies using a rite adapted from an existing blessing ceremony approved in August 2012 by the Church at its General Convention.”

    So are these ceremonies full-blown weddings or simply commitment blessings? The nearest thing to an answer I’ve gotten, when I’ve asked, is that in Washington same-sex marriage is civilly legal, whereas it is not in Rio Grande, thus they’re weddings in Washington and not in the Rio Grande.

    But I’m not asking about the civil status of the relationship, I want to know the religious – according to The Episcopal Church – status. Given that these rites in both churches are based on the same liturgy approved by the 2012 General Convention, how can they be so vastly different (an equal Christian marriage just like those of heterosexual couples, conducted under the same conditions as to who may be married in the Cathedral, according to the Dean, and nothing remotely like a marriage, simply a recognition and blessing of a covenant relationship, according to the Bishop)?

    That’s the question I’d love to see thrashed out. Being of a cynical turn of mind, I’m betting on Rio Grande (either under this bishop or his successor) caving in on the whole ‘it’s a marriage, not just a blessing’ thing, but in the meantime – is this, or is this not, a violation of the canons on the part of the dean – or is it just more Anglican/Episcopalian nuance?

  7. “The new rite is grounded in baptism and radical equality of all people before God”

    I heard this statement in the NPR interview, as well. I think a good general-interest kind of thing for any reporter who understood the implications of Christian belief to do at this point is to inquire as to whether Episcopalians are going to conduct marriages only between Christians now. It makes little sense for a non-Christian to participate in a rite that is “grounded in Baptism”.

    • A church wedding involves the implication that there is a commitment to the Church, but the priest or bishop has latitude in deciding who can be married in the church. I don’t think it is unusual for participants or family to want a church wedding even though there is no commitment to the Church.

      I think the reference to baptism relates to The Baptismal Covenant in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The witnesses to the baptism respond, “I will with God’s help.” in response to the questions, Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” and “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” Since 2003 this baptismal covenant has been cited in justifying changes in the Episcopal Church.

  8. I found Julia’s info fascinating. But that was then and this is now. Why should the media continue today to call this church edifice THE National Cathedral? Maybe we should have a vote on which church edifice deserves the title. How about the impressive Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (Though , I believe ,it is not a cathedral.) Or how about St. Matthew’s Cathedral from which President Kennedy was buried.

  9. Deacon: The Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is neither a parish church nor a cathedral.
    It’s run in conjunction with the Catholic University next door and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

  10. I find it interesting to read the blatant disobedience of Dean Hall when he says he has been doing these blessing, contrary to the canons of the Church, for decades…but that sums up the protestantism of ECUSA.