Episcopal News Service

Friday Five: Aretha's funeral, Trump's evangelicals, Catholic sex abuse, what to call Mormons and more

Friday Five: Aretha's funeral, Trump's evangelicals, Catholic sex abuse, what to call Mormons and more

As we've noted, religion is a vital part of the life story of Aretha Franklin.

Today, prayers and stars filled a Detroit church at the Queen of Soul's funeral, reports The Associated Press.

In advance of the memorial service, the Detroit Free Press published a piece pointing out that Franklin's "spiritual grounding in the black church" would be on display at the funeral. It's a good story but in places paints with broad strokes on "Baptist theology" when it seems to mean black-church theology. Baptists (like a lot of denominations) are all over the place when it comes to worship traditions.

Anyway, R-E-S-P-E-C-T for Franklin is just one of the stories making religion news this week.

For more, let's dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Nearly two years after Donald Trump's election as president, hardly a day passes when a news story or column doesn't ask, "Why do evangelical Christians support Trump?"

Some of the pieces are much better than others.

One published in recent days — by longtime Birmingham News religion writer Greg Garrison — is particularly well done and full of insight (including biblical insight) from supporters and opponents of Trump.

Check it out.

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Gender-neutral God story: Have we hit the point where wins on Episcopal left are not news?

Gender-neutral God story: Have we hit the point where wins on Episcopal left are not news?

Old people on the religion beat (my hand is raised) will remember the 1980s, back when the mainline Protestant doctrinal wars over sexuality started breaking into elite headlines -- big time.

Year after year, some kind of mainline fight over gender and sexuality would score high in the annual Religion Newswriters Association poll to determine the Top 10 stories. More often than not, the Episcopal Church led the way in the fight for feminism and eventually gay rights.

These national headlines would, of course, inspire news coverage at the regional and local levels. Some Episcopal shepherds went along and some didn't. All of that produced lots of news copy, no matter what Episcopalians ended up doing.

At one point, while at the Rocky Mountain News, I told Colorado's Episcopal leader -- the always quotable former radio pro Bishop William C. Frey -- that a few local religious leaders were asking me why the Episcopal Church kept getting so much media attention.

Frey laughed, with a grimace, and said that was a strange thought, something like "envying another man's root canal."

Eventually, however, the progressive wins in Episcopal sanctuaries stopped being news, at least in mainstream news outlets.

Take, for example, that recent leap into gender-neutral theology in the District of Columbia, an interesting story that drew little or no attention in the mainstream press. Thus, here is the top of the main story from the Episcopal News Service:

The Diocese of Washington is calling on the Episcopal Church’s General Convention to consider expanding the use of gender-neutral language for God in the Book of Common Prayer, if and when the prayer book is slated for a revision.
He? She?

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Glitter and ashes, bikinis and other adventures in news about 'American Lent'

Glitter and ashes, bikinis and other adventures in news about 'American Lent'

So let's say that you are a religion-beat reporter and your editor assigns you to do a news feature about Lent, beginning with the Ash Wednesday rites found in Western Christian traditions.

What are the questions that you need to ask at that point?

That's where this week's "Crossroads" podcast starts, spinning out of my recent post with this headline: "Live coverage of Ash Wednesday stories? Be on alert for ironic theological twists out there." Click here to tune that in.

A savvy religion-beat reporter would -- first thing -- try to find out what the editor means when she or he says the word "Lent."

Are we talking about Roman Catholic Lent? Pre- or post-Vatican II? Fasting or no fasting?

Are we talking about Anglican Lent? Lutheran Lent? Yes, there is such a thing in some congregations, on the doctrinal left and right. How about Eastern Orthodox Lent, in which many believers -- on the fasting side of things -- basically go vegan for the whole season? (By the way, who can name the rite that opens Lent among the Orthodox?)

Here is the key: Is the editor talking about what I call "American Lent," which basically allows a person to create their own version of the season. That's the whole "give up one thing for Lent" thing. The problem is that the ancient rites and traditions of Lent are not -- to say the least -- an exercise in American individualism. Just the opposite.

You see, there is a good chance that the editor may actually want a story that is FUNNY, not solemn. The editor may want "10 hip things for Millennials to give up for Lent in 2017" (I suggest kale or skinny jeans). Somehow, Lent has turned into a novelty story. Here's the tone at The New York Daily News:

If you notice people walking around with smudges on their forehead today, don't be alarmed: It's Ash Wednesday. (It's definitely not schmutz, so please don't try to rub it off of anyone.)

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Gorsuch and the big scare-quote religion stuff? So far, little light shed on Supreme Court pick

Gorsuch and the big scare-quote religion stuff? So far, little light shed on Supreme Court pick

What reporters have missed about Judge Neil Gorsuch, the President’s nominee for the Supreme Court, is that the Episcopal parish he attends in downtown Boulder is headed by a female priest.

Think about that for a moment. If this man is the frightening conservative that some on the Left are already alleging him to be, there’s no way he’d be Episcopalian, much less at a woman-priested church. It will be interesting to see if the Episcopal hierarchy issues any kind of formal reaction to this nomination. Watch this space: The Episcopal News Service.

The Episcopal Church, for anyone who’s not been following religion trends in recent decades, has been careening to the theological and cultural left for years and its membership statistics show it. Thousands have left TEC and joined alternative Anglican churches.

Not so this judge. A church in bluest of blue Boulder is not going to be a conservative hideout and this article notes that Gorsuch’s parish is pretty liberal. The place is St. John's, Boulder and for you trivia experts out there, it's the same church that JonBenét Ramsey's family attended. A Google search shows there’s an Anglican church in Boulder that the Gorsuch family could be attending if they so desired.

So, the fact that the judge and his family has remained at St. John’s says something.

So far, the mainstream press has missed all that and concentrated on his court rulings on hot-button topics, the kinds of subjects often framed in scare quotes. For example, while his precise views on abortion remain a mystery, he has written extensively on euthanasia -- producing a book on the topic ("The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia").

What the New York Times ran with is typical:

While he has not written extensively on several issues of importance to many conservatives, including gun control and gay rights, Judge Gorsuch has taken strong stands in favor of religious freedom, earning him admiration from the right.

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On the journalistic usefulness of independent partisans in religion news

On the journalistic usefulness of independent partisans in religion news

Godbeat 101: Reporters who cover the sprawling Southern Baptist Convention are well advised to monitor both the official Baptist Press and Baptist News Global, operated by folks who disagree with the SBC’s staunchly conservative administration. Likewise with the Presbyterian Church (USA); reporters should check out the headquarters Presbyterian News Service but also fare from the conservative www.layman.org.

The usefulness of such independent partisans is also evident with the Episcopal Church’s ongoing struggles. For example, the official Episcopal News Service has been slow to post an article about the 2014 local reports (.pdf found here) compiled in the annual “Table of Statistics." Has anything been published? Keep checking here.

Compare this reluctance with Baptist Press’s prompt recent report on unhappy annual statistics.

Reporters who carefully follow independent sources already knew about the Episcopal numbers because they’re reported -- indeed, trumpeted -- by juicyecumenism.com from the conservative Institute on Religion & Democracy, which keeps a close skeptical eye on the “mainline” Protestant denominations. I.R.D.’s  polemical headline: “Episcopalians Continue Bleeding Members, Attendance at Alarming Rate.” 

The nub: Episcopal attrition continues.  Compared with the prior year, membership dropped 2.7 percent, to 1,817,004. The decline in average Sunday worship attendance was worse, by 3.7 percent to 600,411. The South Carolina diocese’s walkout is a good chunk of this. Other numbers were also down. Consider that as recently as 2002 average attendance was 846,640 and membership was 2,320,221. Not to mention the 3,285,826 members back in 1970; in the years since, the U.S. population has more than doubled.  

Most “mainline” groups have likewise suffered steady losses since the 1960s but, writer Jeffrey Walton notes, the Episcopal slide mostly leveled off during the 1990s.

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