Worship

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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Ignore vision of the Virgin Mary? Mabel Grammer's Catholicism muted in New York Times obit

Ignore vision of the Virgin Mary? Mabel Grammer's Catholicism muted in New York Times obit

I had no idea there was a woman who took it upon herself to find homes for the many “brown babies” conceived in post World War II Germany between black American occupying soldiers and German women.

But when the New York Times recently ran the obituary of Mabel Grammer, a black journalist (which was unusual in itself in the ‘40s for a female of any color to be a reporter), I learned a lot about this brave woman.

What I didn’t learn is how her Catholic faith informed what she did, including a near-death vision of the Virgin Mary. This is, after all, not a newspaper that often sees a connection — in terms of facts worth reporting — between a person’s faith and what they do with that faith. Instead, we hear about what tmatt likes to call “vague courageous faith syndrome.”

I had to go to Catholic sources to find out the basic facts about what inspired Grammer to do what she did — working to create ways to help between 5,000 and 7,000 of these children.

But first, the obituary, which is a bit late in that Grammer died in 2002. However, there is a good reason for that. The Times has recently been doing obituaries of noted black Americans who died without a write-up.

They were called “brown babies,” or “mischlingskinder,” a derogatory German term for mixed-race children. And sometimes they were just referred to as mutts.

They were born during the occupation years in Germany after World War II, the offspring of German women and African-American soldiers. Their fathers were usually transferred elsewhere and their mothers risked social repercussions by keeping them, so the babies were placed in orphanages.

But when Mabel Grammer, an African-American journalist, became aware of the orphaned children, she stepped in. She and her husband, an army chief warrant officer stationed in Mannheim, and later Karlsruhe, adopted 12 of them, and Grammer found homes for 500 others. …

Though many German mothers wanted desperately to keep their children, they saw what the other mothers faced: They were ostracized, denied jobs, housing and ration cards, and were unable to feed their babies or themselves.

We find out that she approached orphanages and the nuns who ran them to see if they’d release these babies to black families in America and Germany.

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I know, I know, it was Twitter: Was New York Times pro right that Jews don't believe in heaven?

I know, I know, it was Twitter: Was New York Times pro right that Jews don't believe in heaven?

I did not watch the State of the Union show last night, in keeping with my long-standing policy that I strive to prevent the face of Donald Trump from appearing on my television screen. I took the same approach to Hillary Clinton throughout the 2016 race.

In other words, I wait for the transcript of the speech and I read the key parts. This approach is much easier on my aging stomach lining. In other words, I’m interested in what was said — not the Trump dramatics and the talking-heads circus that followed.

This time around, I was interested in what Trump had to say about the current firestorms in Virginia and New York about what U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse has called “fourth-trimester abortion.”

You’ll be shocked, shocked, to learn that fact-checkers at The New York Times were not impressed with Trump’s comments in this area. Click here to see that, and then click here for a conservative academic’s skeptical fact-check of the Times fact-check.

I also checked Twitter a bit, during the speech, and then read all the way through my feed this morning looking for signs of post-SOTU intelligent life.

Thus, I ran into the amazing tweet by New York Times White House correspondent Annie Karmi stating:

Trump Just Ad-Libbed "They Came Down From Heaven" When Quoting A Holocaust Survivor Watching American Soldiers Liberate Dachau. Jews Don't Believe In Heaven.

Wow. I had no idea that there was a Jewish catechism that definitively stated loud dogma on issues of this kind.

I was under the impression — based on graduate school readings on trends in post-Holocaust Jewish life and culture — that trying to say that “Jews believe” this, that or the other is rather difficult. In this case, are we talking about Orthodox Jews, modern Orthodox Jews, Reform Jews, Buddhist Jews, “cultural” Jews, Jewish agnostics, secular Jews or what?

Saying “Jews don’t believe in heaven” is sort of like saying “Democrats don’t believe in God.” I mean, there are Democrats who believe in God, and there’s evidence of that, and there’s some evidence that lots of Democrats don’t believe in God. How would anyone try to make a definitive statement about something like that?

Ditto for Jews and “heaven.”

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Want to get beyond culture war stories? Try digging into religion's aspirational building blocks

Want to get beyond culture war stories? Try digging into religion's aspirational building blocks

Religion News Service recently ran the sort of news feature cum-opinion-column that I find a welcome intellectual and emotional respite from the culture wars cum-all-religion-is-political hit pieces that currently crowd my ever-more exasperating news feeds.

The piece ran under the intriguing headline, “Secular saints, folk saints and plain old celebrities.”

If you don’t at least skim the piece chances are it will be difficult to follow my thinking here.

The piece was contributed by novelist, unconventional — by my reckoning — theologian (though she writes that she regularly attends a “traditional” Episcopal church), and new RNS columnist Tara Isabella Burton. Seems to me she has just the right combination of imagination and thick skin to delve into the origins of religious thought in its broadest, and perhaps unconventional, sense.

The thick skin is a requisite because of the inevitable harrumphs I’m sure she endures from some religion traditionalists prone to dismiss her as a frivolous thinker.

That, plus the equally dismissive slights that anti-religion cynics I’m equally sure aim her way for daring to consider in a spiritual light the myriad aspirations that, often unconsciously, underpin so much of human motivation and thought.

However, given the enormous changes currently afoot in Western religious circles — the rise of the so-called “religiously unaffiliated” or “nones,” for example — I think voices such as Burton’s are increasingly important to the Western discourse on the place of religion in public life.

In short, there’s far more to popular and even quirky religious expression than is often immediately evident.

In this particular piece, Burton addresses aspirational thinking and the huge role it can play in shaping personal faith.

Question: Are you familiar with the term “cargo cult”? Yes, no? Either way I’ll return to this extreme example of aspirational faith below. But first, here’s the top of Burton’s piece.

On a recent Sunday in church, the officiating priest invited us (as he does every Sunday) to pray. We prayed for those you might call the “usual suspects”: for the bishop, for those in positions of political authority, for the recently departed.

But among those we also prayed for was “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – and for all the other saints … ”

Technically speaking, King is not a saint in any mainstream established Christian tradition.

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What do we know? Drum chants 3.0 at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (updated)

What do we know? Drum chants 3.0 at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (updated)

So what else happened after the 2019 March for Life?

At this point, do new developments matter? What are the odds of journalists managing to cover them in a calm, professional manner?

However, I think it’s crucial to keep paying attention and asking practical journalism questions.

So with that in mind, let’s turn to the Catholic News Agency — yes, a conservative Catholic news outlet — report about a tense confrontation at the faith’s most symbolic site in Washington, D.C. Here’s the overture:

While chanting and playing ceremonial drums, a group of Native American rights activists reportedly led by Nathan Phillips attempted Jan. 19 to enter Washington, D.C.’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception during a Saturday evening Mass.

The group of 20 demonstrators was stopped by shrine security as it tried to enter the church during its 5:15 pm Vigil Mass, according to a shrine security guard on duty during the Mass.

“It was really upsetting,” the guard told CNA.

“There were about twenty people trying to get in, we had to lock the doors and everything.”

The key phrase, of course, is this one — “reportedly led by Nathan Phillips.”

In light of the ongoing journalism train wreck surrounding the confrontation between Phillips and students from Covington (Ken.) Catholic High School, it’s totally valid to ask questions about sourcing on volatile information such as this.

What’s going on? If you read carefully, it appears that the “reportedly” reference is to draw a distinction between information that is clearly shown on videotape and information drawn from eyewitnesses.

Normally, journalists place a high degree of trust in eyewitness accounts — especially the testimony of participants in an event. However, these are not normal times.

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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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Think it through: Did you hear that there are more Wiccan folks in America than Presbyterians?

Think it through: Did you hear that there are more Wiccan folks in America than Presbyterians?

So, did you hear that there are now more Wiccan believers in America than there are Presbyterians?

If you’ve been on social media lately, there is a good chance that you have heard this spin on some Wicca numbers from — Who else? — the Pew Research Center.

If you are looking for a blunt, crystalized statement of an alleged story in American culture, it never hurts to turn to The New York Post. Here is the top of a recent story that ran with this trendy headline: “Witch population doubles as millennials cast off Christianity.”

If you were interested in witchcraft in 1692, you probably would have been jailed or burned at the stake. If you’re interested in witchcraft in 2018, you are probably an Instagram influencer.

From crystal subscription boxes to astrologist-created lip balm, the metaphysical has gone mainstream. Millennials today know more about chakras than your kooky New Age aunt. That’s why it’s no surprise that the generation that is blamed for killing everything is actually bringing popularity to centuries-old practices.

According to the Pew Research Center (click here for .pdf), about 1.5 million Americans identify as Wiccan or pagan. A decade ago, that number was closer to 700,000. Presbyterians, by comparison, have about 1.4 million votaries.

It would be interesting to know how this story hatched at this time, seeing as how the Pew numbers — which are certainly interesting — are from 2014.

No doubt about it, this is a story. However, this specific twist on the numbers depends on definitions of two crucial terms — “Wiccans” and “Presbyterians.” It’s an interesting comment on the age in which we live that the first term is probably easier to define than the second.

So let’s think about that for a second, with the help of a GetReligion-esque piece by Mark Tooley, over at the Juicy Ecumenism blog. Yes, that site is operated by the conservative Institute on Religion & Democracy. However, I think this discussion — centering on the challenge of defining denominational terms — will be of interest to all journalists who are about accurate, when using statistics and basic religious terms. Here is a crucial statement early on:

… Faddish stories can sometimes be ginned up based on old numbers.

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America magazine flashback: Yes, 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' is really, really strange

America magazine flashback: Yes, 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' is really, really strange

One of the ways that I celebrate the arrival of the real 12 days of Christmas — trigger alert: which start on Dec. 25th — is by calling up the absolutely fabulous Vince Guaraldi soundtrack to “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

As I type these words we are in the middle of the acoustic bass solo on “Christmastime Is Here,” the instrumental take on that wonderful melody.

I wish I could write a column every year or so about that 1965 Peanuts special. There are so many angles and subplots in the twisted story of how this now legendary show was a long shot to reach America’s TV screens — especially with Linus reciting the Nativity story from the Gospel of Luke. Oh, and the principalities and powers also thought the jazz soundtrack would flop with Middle America.

Anyway, the editors at America magazine have re-upped an amazing 2016 essay by Jim McDermott that I somehow missed the first time around. The headline: “How ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ continues to defy common sense.”

Let’s consider this a think piece for today, even though this isn’t a weekend.

It’s Christmas. Sue me. So here is the overture:

When “A Charlie Brown Christmas” debuted on Dec. 9, 1965, CBS executives were so sure it would fail they informed its executive producer, Lee Mendelson, they were showing it only because they had already announced it in TV Guide. “Maybe it’s better suited to the comic page,” they told him after an advance showing.

Despite six months working on the show, the animation director, Bill Melendez, felt much the same. “By golly, we’ve killed it,” he recalls telling Mendelson after a screening.

The American public disagreed. In fact, 45 percent of Americans with a television set watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” that night, making it the second highest rated show of the week (behind “Bonanza”). The program would go on to win an Emmy and a Peabody, and it has been broadcast every Christmas season since.

Now, here is the special part. I think that this next passage is absolutely magical in summing up just how STRANGE the Peanuts special was when it came out and, of course, it’s just as strange today. That’s the point.

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