Episcopalians

Massive New York Times story on Trinity Church raises good questions, but contains a big ghost

Massive New York Times story on Trinity Church raises good questions, but contains a big ghost

Every working day when I am teaching in New York, I walk past the historic Trinity Episcopal Church. I don’t go in that direction on Sundays, because I head over to Brooklyn for a rather different, clearly Orthodox liturgical experience.

But back to the dramatic sanctuary at Broadway and Wall Street. We are talking about some prime real estate. And if you are interested in the dollars and cents of all that, then The New York Times recently ran a long, long story that you will need to read.

Actually, this sprawling epic is three or four stories in one. You can kind of see that in the massive second line of this double-decker headline. So sit down and dig in.

The Church With the $6 Billion Portfolio

While many houses of worship are warding off developers as they struggle to hold on to their buildings, Trinity Church has become a big-time developer itself.

Frankly, I think this story should have been a series of some kind — to allow several of the valid religion-news angles to receive the news hole that they deserve. In a way, saying that is a compliment. Maybe.

For starters, you have that whole “$6 Billion Portfolio” thing, which deserves (and gets) a rather business-page approach. Then you have a perfectly valid church-state story about the tax questions circling around that vast bundle of secular and sacred real estate and development. Then you have a separate, but related, issue — New York City’s many other historic churches in which people are, often literally, struggling to keep a roof over their heads.

Oh, and Trinity Wall Street is still an actual congregation that is linked to a historic, but now rapidly declining, old-line denomination.

Want to guess which of these stories received the least among of ink in this epic? #DUH

If you guessed the “church” story, you guessed right. Yes, there is an important religion “ghost” in this big religion story.

Let’s start with the overture, then I will note one or two passages that point to what could have been. To no one’s surprise, a certain Broadway musical made it into the lede:

Since the blockbuster musical “Hamilton,” tourists have been swarming Trinity Church, part of an Episcopal parish in Lower Manhattan that dates to the 17th century. Alexander Hamilton and his wife, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, are buried in the cemetery there.

Recent years have been good to the church and the rest of its campus.

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Got news? It is significant that an Anglican bishop's same-sex wedding was not big news?

Got news? It is significant that an Anglican bishop's same-sex wedding was not big news?

I’m sorry, but it’s time to share the “lighthouse parable,” once again.

Why? We are dealing with another very interesting news story that, well, didn’t seem to attract any attention from the mainstream press in North America. The fact that this news story was not considered a news story — except in niche publications on the left and right — is another commentary on religion-news reporting in this digital day and age.

Once again, silence is important. So, once upon a time there was a man who worked in a lighthouse on the foggy Atlantic Ocean.

As the story goes, this lighthouse had a gun that sounded a warning every hour. The keeper tended the beacon and kept enough shells in the gun so it could keep firing. After decades, he could sleep right through the now-routine blasts. Then the inevitable happened. He forgot to load extra shells and, in the dead of night, the gun did not fire.

This rare silence awoke the keeper, who leapt from bed shouting, "What was that sound?"

So what was the Anglican news a few weeks ago in Canada that drew mainstream silence? Here is the double-decker headline at GayStarNews.com:

Canadian gay bishop marries in Toronto cathedral

Marriage of bishop attended by Anglican Archbishop of Toronto

This event was not private, in any way, shape or form. As this story noted, the Diocese of Toronto posted a press notice online.

Clearly, this was a business-as-usual event for Canadian Anglicans, even though — in terms of liturgy and church law — official same-sex marriage rites remain very, very new. Hold that thought.

The bottom line: Many Anglicans around the world — left and right — would consider the same-sex marriage of a bishop, a rite held in a cathedral just after Christmas, to be a newsworthy event.

Was this news? Apparently not. This is interesting, a decade or so after the years in which every move by the openly gay Episcopal Bishop Vicky Gene Robinson drew intense coverage, if not cheers, from mainstream journalists.

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Surprise! It's time for another one-sided look at the birth of a new church -- the Women Priests

Surprise! It's time for another one-sided look at the birth of a new church -- the Women Priests

It’s time for another GetReligion post about mainstream press coverage of the Women Priests (or “WomenPriests”) movement. So, all together now, let’s click off the key points that must be made.

(1) As Mollie “GetReligionista emerita” Hemingway used to say, just because someone says that he or she plays shortstop for the New York Yankees does not mean that this person plays shortstop for the world’s most famous baseball team. Only the leaders of the Yankees get to make that call.

(2) The doctrine of “apostolic succession” involves more than one bishop laying hands on someone. Ordination in ancient Christian churches requires “right doctrine” as well as “right orders.” Also, it helps to know the name of the bishop or bishops performing the alleged ordination. Be on the alert for “Old Catholic” bishops, some of whom were ordained via mail order.

(3) Consecrating a Catholic bishop requires the participation of three Catholic bishops, and the “right orders” and “right doctrine” question is relevant, once again. A pastor ordained by an alleged bishop is an alleged priest.

(4) It may be accurate to compare the apostolic succession claims of Anglicans and Lutherans to those made by Women Priest leaders (although the historic Anglican and Lutheran claims are stronger). This is evidence of a larger truth — that the Women Priests movement is a new form of liberal Protestantism.

(5) It is not enough for journalists to offer an obligatory “Catholic press officials declined to comment” paragraph on this issue. Legions of scholars, lay activists and articulate priests are available to be interviewed.

(6) Sacramental Catholic rites — valid ones, at least — are rarely held in Unitarian Universalist sanctuaries.

Once again, let me make a key point: Would your GetReligionistas praise a mainstream news story on this movement that offered a fair-minded, accurate, 50-50 debate between articulate, informed voices on both sides? You bet. Once again: If readers find a story of this kind, please send us the URL.

That brings us to yet another PR report on the Women Priests, this time care of The Louisville Courier-Journal and the Gannett wire service. The headline: “Condemned by the Vatican, women priests demand place at Catholic altar.”

Kudos for the “Condemned by the Vatican” angle in the headline, which — sort of — addresses the New York Yankees shortstop issue. Another careful wording shows up in this summary passage at the top of the long, long, very long story, which opens with — you guessed it — a rite in a Unitarian church office:

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An Episcopal priest bolts for the Catholic Church, but will news story answer the obvious questions?

An Episcopal priest bolts for the Catholic Church, but will news story answer the obvious questions?

I really should get my click count off to a healthy start in 2019 and write something controversial. At the very least, I should criticize somebody.

Instead, I’m going to do a positive post about an interesting story by one of my favorite journalists on the Godbeat.

Happy new year, Holly Meyer!

Meyer is, as regular GetReligion readers know, the hard-working, prodigious religion writer for The Tennessean, Nashville’s daily newspaper.

The story I want to highlight on this New Year’s Day is an an example of a solid, well-done piece of reporting on the beat. It’s the kind of crucial local journalism that Meyer and Godbeat specialists like her produce day after day.

At a paper without a religion writer (and sadly, there are too many such papers), there’s a 99 percent chance this story would be missed or ignored. Fortunately, The Tennessean has Meyer to recognize the newsworthiness in a prominent local Episcopal priest leaving to become a Roman Catholic.

The lede offers the basic facts:

A conservative Episcopal priest, who is a top administrator in the Tennessee diocese, is leaving the church to become a Roman Catholic. 

Andrew Petiprin recently announced his plans to change his religious tradition and resign his post as the Episcopal diocese's canon to the ordinary. He wraps up his job on New Year's Eve, and Petiprin and his family will start 2019 in the Catholic Church. 

"I’m not really running away from the Episcopal Church, but running toward the Catholic Church," Petiprin said in an interview.  

OK, but what does it mean that Petiprin is a “conservative” Episcopal priest?

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Why is a church shrinking or closing? Reporters: Brace for complex and heated debates

Why is a church shrinking or closing? Reporters: Brace for complex and heated debates

If you are into taking notes, then here is a challenge for folks listening to this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in, or head over to iTunes and subscribe).

The topic, this time, is why so many churches are shrinking and dying these days — in urban areas, as well as small towns and other at-risk locations (think the Rust Belt in general). The hook for this podcast was my recent post about a Religion News Service feature that ran with this headline: “As one historically black Episcopal church closes, others face strong headwinds.”

As host Todd Wilken and I discuss this subject, try to keep track of the number of factors that can affect whether congregations, and in the not-so-distant future entire denominations, shrink and even die.

Is evangelism a priority for this flock?

What about location, location, location — in terms of population growth.

How about the state of the economy in that zip code?

There are demographic issues linked to birth rate and family size.

Is this congregation part of a denomination that is in statistical free fall (is the brand wounded)?

Has the national church taken controversial stands that have caused schisms or departures?

Are the seminaries for this denomination producing pastors that people will trust and follow? Does this particular church body have enough pastors or priests?

Is the church too liberal, or too conservative, for its community?

Does the church have more retirees than young families?

I think there are several others that I’m leaving out, at the moment.

The RNS story focuses on historically black Episcopal parishes closing in North Carolina. That is certainly a poignant topic. My post noted:

These stories are valid, of course. The question is whether reporters will keep asking questions about the trends behind all the “For Sale” signs.

Obviously, this is a complex story that involves urban demographics, real estate, birth rates, worship trends, rising statistics about the “religiously unaffiliated (nones)” and other realities. However, ever since a National Council of Churches executive named Dean M. Kelley wrote That Book (“Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion”) in 1972, journalists and church-growth activists have been arguing about the role of theology in this drama.

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Episcopalians closing more African-American churches: Other big trends in this story?

Episcopalians closing more African-American churches: Other big trends in this story?

No doubt about it, get ready to see more and more stories about church closings.

You know a topic is big news when Pope Francis starts talking about it.

These stories are valid, of course. The question is whether reporters will keep asking questions about the trends behind all the “For Sale” signs.

Obviously, this is a complex story that involves urban demographics, real estate, birth rates, worship trends, rising statistics about the “religiously unaffiliated (nones)” and other realities. However, ever since a National Council of Churches executive named Dean M. Kelley wrote That Book (“Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion”) in 1972, journalists and church-growth activists have been arguing about the role of theology in this drama. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

First, here is the context for this discussion — a Religion News Service feature that ran with this headline: “As one historically black Episcopal church closes, others face strong headwinds.” Here’s the poignant overture:

WARRENTON, N.C. (RNS) — On a chilly December morning, 100 years and one week after its sanctuary opened, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, an African-American congregation with a proud history, was formally closed.

Bishop Samuel Rodman presided over the Eucharistic service in an elementary school a block away from the church, where weekly services ended more than three years ago. Several longtime members returned to read Scriptures and sing hymns. Afterward, the group of 100, including history buffs and well-wishers from North Carolina and Virginia, shared a meal of fried chicken and baked beans.

All Saints is hardly alone among mainline Protestant and Catholic congregations. Faced with dwindling members, crumbling infrastructure and costly maintenance, some 6,000 to 10,000 churches shutter each year, according to one estimate. More closures may be in the offing as surveys point to a decline in church attendance across the country.

But All Saints is an example of an even sharper decline. Historically African-American churches across the South are fast disappearing.

What do the numbers look like? The story notes that the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina “once boasted 60 such churches. Today, a mere dozen are left and, of those, only three have full-time clergy.” This long, deep, story has few, if any, signs of hope for the future.

Note that this feature is focusing on trends in “mainline Protestant and Catholic” churches.

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One more time: It's hard to leave faith out of news about an active churchman's funeral

One more time: It's hard to leave faith out of news about an active churchman's funeral

Try to imagine covering a worship service, in a cathedral, using modernized Anglican rites and a river of glorious sacred music and managing to produce news features that focus on (fill in the blank) instead of (fill in the blank).

After this week, you can probably guess what this post is about.

Yes, it’s another post about the mainstream news coverage of the state funeral — and too a lesser extent, the oh-so-Texas funeral in Houston — of former President George H.W. Bush. I’ve writing about that subject a lot this week (click here for a Bobby Ross, Jr., post with lots of links) and now you can listen to a “Crossroads” podcast on that subject, as well. Click here to tune that in.

Frankly, there is still a lot to talk about, especially if you think that that these various rites were about Bush 41, rather than Donald Trump. However, I’d like to signal that this post will end with some good news, a story about the state funeral that actually mixed lots of religion into a report on this topic. Hold that thought.

I’m at home in East Tennessee, these days, not in New York City. Thus, the newspaper in my driveway is the Knoxville News Sentinel, which is owned by the Gannett chain. Thus, I watched the whole funeral and then, the following day, read the following USA Today report in that local paper: “George H.W. Bush state funeral: 'America's last great soldier-statesman'.”

I was, frankly, stunned that this long story was, basically, free of faith-based content. Did the USA Today watch the same rite I did? Here is a long, and very typical, passage:

Ever the diplomat, the elder Bush managed in death to bring together the nation's four living ex-presidents, as well as President Donald Trump, the Republican he and his son George W. Bush refused to support two years ago. The gathering was at times awkward as Trump and his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, ignored each other.

The most touching moment came when the younger Bush, delivering the last of four eulogies, choked up recalling "a great and noble man, and the best father a son or daughter could have." As the late president's three other sons and daughter looked on tearfully, the audience burst into applause for the only time during the ceremony.

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Friday Five: Godbeat news, Bush 41 funeral, pope on gay priests, megachurch biz, pastor hero

Friday Five: Godbeat news, Bush 41 funeral, pope on gay priests, megachurch biz, pastor hero

Enjoy the “Walking in Memphis” video.

Speaking of Memphis, there’s good news on the Godbeat in Tennessee’s second-largest city: Katherine Burgess reports on Twitter that religion will now be a part of her coverage responsibilities at the Commercial Appeal.

“Please send religion stories my way,” requests Burgess, who previously did a nice job reporting on religion for Kansas’ Wichita Eagle.

In other Godbeat developments, I learned just recently that religion writer Manya Brachear Pashman has left the Chicago Tribune. Here’s an update from her:

I officially left the Tribune at the end of October to follow my husband's career to New Jersey. I am in the process of figuring out the next chapter, while taking some time to tend to family and staying involved with RNA and RNF. I am optimistic that someone will replace me at the Tribune. But it might take a while, since they're going through a round of buyouts at the moment. But it's hard to imagine the Tribune without someone devoted to covering religion. In Chicago, that's the equivalent of leaving the city hall beat vacant.

Meanwhile, let’s dive into the Friday Five.

1. Religion story of the week: Wednesday’s Washington National Cathedral funeral for former President George H.W. Bush was full of faith, as GetReligion Editor Terry Mattingly highlighted in his roundup of news coverage at The New York Times and the wall-to-wall (and almost totally faith-free) spread at The Washington Post. And yes, Bush was an Episcopalian — that’s a noun — as tmatt noted in a separate post full of Episcopal jokes.

Finally, be sure to check out tmatt’s obits commentary on “The mainstream faith of Bush 41: At what point did 'personal' become 'political'?” And there’s a podcast coming this weekend.

Here’s a key passage from the funeral coverage material, offering a way for readers to study a news report and decide whether the editors thought the state funeral was a political event, only.

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Yes, state funerals are political, but Bush 41's funeral was also full of faith. The coverage?

Yes, state funerals are political, but Bush 41's funeral was also full of faith. The coverage?

State funerals are what they are — the high-church rites of civil religion.

Obviously, they are political events that may include elements of partisan drama. Obviously, they are civic events featuring warm, mostly secular, salutes to national leaders. At the same time, they are funerals in which families confront the death of a loved one, a process that is often complex and emotional.

But may I add one more statement to this list of facts? The vast majority of state funerals are also worship services and this is especially true when dealing with political leaders who were faithful members of a parish and their lives were framed in a specific religious tradition.

With all of these realities in mind, let me suggest a quick, digital test that readers can use when evaluating the mainstream press coverage of the long, beautiful Washington Cathedral rites for former President George H.W. Bush.

First, search the story for this name — “Russell Levenson.”

Then search the story for this name — “Donald Trump.” After all, everything in Beltway land, these days, is ultimately about the Tweeter In Chief.

Now, compare and contrast what you find.

Who is Levenson? He is the rector of the large Houston parish attended by George and Barbara Bush and, thus, their pastor for more than a decade. Since this funeral was a rite of Christian worship, Levenson delivered the sermon at the end. Yes, this was the rare event where a priest spoke AFTER an address by the president, in this case a former president.

The way I see it, it’s hard to cover a worship service while ignoring the sermon and, come to think of it, the actual contents of the funeral rite itself.

So let’s look at some of the content in two crucial news sources in elite American media — The New York Times and, naturally, The Washington Post.

The main story at Times included material addressing secular and religious content in this particular state funeral. Sure, I would have liked a stronger emphasis on the faith content, but I know I am not part of this newspaper’s target audience, it’s choir. I thought this was a rather restrained, solid story.

Yes, there was a reference to Levenson’s sermon — at the very end.

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