One of the central truths of religion-beat life is very hard to explain to editors, who primarily award news-value points based on whether a story is linked to partisan politics (these days, that means Donald Trump) and/or sexuality.
However, people who sweat the details at pew level know that, if you want to cause mass confusion (no pun intended), then what you need to do is change the hymnals and liturgical rites used by the faithful.
While this reality affects several flocks, Episcopal Church battles over The Book of Common Prayer have drawn the most ink in the past. The relatively modest coverage of recent debates among Episcopalians over same-sex marriage rites and the gender of God was probably a sign of how much the liberal Protestant brand has faded, in terms of providing sure-fire news hooks. Many journalists may be waiting for the upcoming United Methodist showdown.
However, the Washington Post, to its credit, did offer modest coverage of recent Episcopal Church efforts to further modernize the denomination's worship. As is usually the case, the Episcopalians managed to move forward -- in terms of progress for the doctrinal left -- while being careful at the same time, so as not to frighten elderly donors.
If you were a secular editor who didn't know the players and the rules of the Episcopal game, what would you make of this story's overture?
After more than a week of debate among church leaders about whether God should be referred to by male pronouns -- and about the numerous other issues that come up when writing a prayer book -- the Episcopal Church has decided to revise the 1979 Book of Common Prayer that Episcopalian worshipers hold dear.
The question now is when it will happen.
At the denomination’s triennial conference ... leaders considered a plan that would have led to a new prayer book in 2030. They voted it down.
“There’s no timeline for it,” said the Very Rev. Samuel Candler, chair of the committee on prayer book revision. “There’s no A-B-C-D plan. ..."
So, did the convention vote to create a new prayerbook, complete with gender-neutral language for God and official same-sex marriage rites, or not? If you've covered this game in the past, you know that the ecclesiastical goal is to be able to tell activists on one side, "You won!", while telling folks on the other side, "We're still studying this, so the final decisions have not been made. Don't freak out."
But this is where the Post story has a major hole.
If the conference "voted down" plans for a new BCP by 2030, then that implies that there were Episcopalians who voted for that motion and then there were those who voted against it.
So where, in this story, are the voices and the concerns of the people who voted against this A-B-C-D plan to produce a replacement for the 1979 BCP?
For example, the story identifies Candler this way:
An advocate of introducing a new book, Candler was pleased with the outcome, he said. But he acknowledged that people on the opposite side were pleased, too: “Others would say we saved the 1979 prayer book. That’s still our prayer book. They can claim victory, if you will.”
So, why not interview some of the real, live people who opposed a fast-track plan? Why quote someone on the doctrinal left as a source for feelings and opinions on the other side?
Next up, the Post offers a source on the gender-language issue:
“We really hold fast to the prayer book as a core text -- as a marker of our identity,” said the Rev. Ruth Meyers, a leading theologian on Episcopal liturgy. She shares the view of many in the church: that God does not have a gender, male or female, and the prayer book should be revised accordingly.
“It’s an impediment to the mission and evangelism,” she said. “We miss this opportunity to proclaim the gospel, and a gospel of equal love and compassion for all. . . . When we use solely masculine imagery for God, we make it difficult for women to really, truly understand themselves as created in the image and likeness of God, which is what the Bible says in Genesis.”
OK, that's a crucial point of view. However, was anyone available -- perhaps someone from the denomination's evangelical remnant -- to argue the other side of that debate about 2,000 years of Christian theology?
Does this hole matter? Try to imagine a story about these hot-button issues in which the Post team only quoted conservative Episcopalians, even when it came time to describe the reactions of believers on the left.
As one Anglican reader noted, via email:
The two quoted sources, Meyers and Candler, were both proponents of a comprehensive BCP revision, and the resolution they supported was effectively replaced by a substitute introduced by Bishop Andy Doyle of Texas. That resolution, A068, did authorize additional liturgical resources, but did not authorize BCP revision at this time.
This is an important distinction to note, and solely interviewing those whose proposal was rejected doesn't capture the perspective of those who argued successfully against it.
So, what is the journalism argument in favor of avoiding direct quotations from the critics of prayerbook revision? Were these Episcopalians unwilling to talk to the Post?
Main image: From the "Now The End Begins" website.