Episcopalians

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.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Yes, President George H.W. Bush was an Episcopalian (and that is still a noun)

Yes, President George H.W. Bush was an Episcopalian (and that is still a noun)

Back when I was breaking into journalism, soon after the cooling of the earth’s crust, I quickly learned that religion-beat specialists know lots of inside jokes.

Take this classic one, from the “light bulb” genre: How many Episcopalians does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: One. Along with 10 others to start a newsletter about the utter irreplaceability of the original, historic bulb.

Yes, that’s a really old joke. Today, “newsletter” would be “Facebook page,” or something like that.

In this GetReligion post, the key thing is to note, in this joke, that “Episcopalian” is a noun.

Want to see the adjective form?

While working at the old Charlotte News (RIP), I got some nasty telephone calls after writing a column with this lede: “When covering an Episcopal convention, never stay in the hotel room next to the ice machine.”

As the late Associated Press religion reporter George Cornell — an Episcopalian’s Episcopalian, if there ever was one — once offered, in my presence, a quip that went something like this: You can tell that a journalist is a religion-beat reporter when they know that “Episcopalian” is a noun and “Episcopal” is an adjective.

I bring this up because lots of journalists — few of them religion-beat specialists — will be covering the funeral rites for President George H.W. Bush. Since he was a faithful Episcopalian, of a rather traditional bent, all of these rites will occur in Episcopal settings, with Episcopal clergy involved.

It’s safe to say that mistakes will be made. Consider, for example, the following passage in a lovely Houston Chronicle sidebar about the current emotions in the parish that Barbara and George Bush attended in Houston. The headline: “At Bush’s church, a moment of pause for ‘a remarkable life’.” The story opens with images from the 8 a.m. Mass at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, a service that tends to attract an older, quieter crowd:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Surprise: Washington Post covers only one side of Episcopal Church prayerbook debate

Surprise: Washington Post covers only one side of Episcopal Church prayerbook debate

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?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Behold, a Barbara Bush mystery: Family matriarch waited 'til age 90 to be confirmed as Episcopalian?

Behold, a Barbara Bush mystery: Family matriarch waited 'til age 90 to be confirmed as Episcopalian?

If you watch the whole Barbara Bush funeral, you really get a sense of her personality and how she fit into Houston as a community, but especially life at St. Martin's Episcopal Church (the largest Episcopal congregation in North America).

The service (click here) was loaded with interesting choices, in terms of the readings and hymns -- all negotiated in fine detail, months before her death by the clergy and the extremely literate Barbara Bush.

There's a lot of humor in the service, since we are talking about the life of one of the wittiest figures to grace the American political stage in the 20th Century. There are quite a few tears, too, since she led a large family and clearly had a big impact on all of them.

However, let me note that the service also contained one big surprise and/or mystery and, sure enough, it concerned Barbara Bush's faith. I am sure that religion-beat reporters -- had any been given this choice assignment -- would have caught it.

So what was it? In my GetReligion post following the Bush matriarch's death, I noted that George H.W. Bush and his wife were dyed-in-the-wool, old-school Episcopalians and that this fact helped shape their lives, culture and style. You can see this right at the top of the fine New York Times story about the funeral:

HOUSTON -- At the Episcopal church that has been her spiritual home for more than 50 years, the former first lady Barbara Pierce Bush was celebrated at her funeral as one of the most beloved political matriarchs in American history.

Mrs. Bush, the wife of the 41st president and the mother of the 43rd, died on Tuesday in the bedroom of her home in Houston. She was 92, and took her last breaths holding the hand of her husband of 73 years, former President George Bush.

Note especially the reference to St. Martin's being her "spiritual home for more than 50 years." With that in mind, note this material drawn from the eulogies by son Jeb Bush and the church's rector, the Rev. Russell J. Levenson Jr. This passage was way down in the USA Today report:

When [Jeb Bush] asked his mom recently how she felt about the idea of dying, he said, she didn't miss a beat. "She said, 'Jeb, I believe in Jesus and he is my savior. I don’t want to leave your dad, but I know I will be in a beautiful place.’”

Rev. Russell Levenson Jr., the Bush's pastor for the last 13 years, revealed that Bush came to him in 2015 -- at the age of 90 -- and asked to be confirmed in the church.

Wait a minute!

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Sally Quinn and her ghosts: A memoir about magic, sex, spirituality and the religion beat

Sally Quinn and her ghosts: A memoir about magic, sex, spirituality and the religion beat

Now this is what the DC chattering classes desperately needed right now -- something to talk about other than President Donald Trump and his wife's controversial choices in footwear.

If you have followed post-1960s life in Washington, D.C., you will not be surprised that the person in the center of this hurricane of whispers is none other than journalist and social maven Sally Quinn. Yes, we're talking about the much-talked-about lover and much-younger wife of the great Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.

Once the most feared "New Journalism" scribe covering DC social life, Quinn later used her personal charisma and clout to create the "On Faith" blog at the Post -- opening a window into the religious beliefs of her corner of the DC establishment. Hint: Mysterious progressive faith is good, traditional forms of religion are bad, bad, bad. Meanwhile, the former atheist became -- in her public persona -- a rather visible Episcopalian.

Now she is tweaking that image with a spiritual memoir entitled "Finding Magic" in which, in the words of a must-read Washingtonian profile, the "gatekeeper of Washington society turned religion columnist and about-to-turn evangelist for mysticism, magic, and the divine."

Journalists reading this profile will marvel at the personal details. However, it's also important to keep remembering that Quinn -- during some crucial years -- served as a major influence on religion-beat debates. My take on her approach: Why focus on hard news when everyone knows that religion is really about emotions, feelings and personal experiences?

OK, back to the Washingtonian article itself, which details the degree to which Quinn has decided to let her "spiritual freak flag fly." The summary statement is:

It’s a spiritual memoir, called Finding Magic, that charts her path from “angry atheist” to -- well, Quinn’s spiritual classification is a bit hard to define, even for her. A sort of Eat Pray Love for the This Town set, the memoir offers an intimate, at times painful look inside her exceedingly public life. There’s less glamour and cutthroat ambition, more vulnerability and personal anguish. She outs herself as a believer in the occult and as an erstwhile practitioner of voodoo, and she packs the book with moments that have made anxious friends wonder: Are you sure you want to share that?

Really? #Really.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Robert Mueller and James Comey: Straight-arrow national prophets for our time?

Robert Mueller and James Comey: Straight-arrow national prophets for our time?

I’ve been fascinated by media portrayals of James Comey and Robert Mueller, America’s newest heroes or, in the case of Comey, a hero-martyr. To the uninitiated, Comey was director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation until President Donald Trump fired him on May 9, right when the former was launching an investigation into the Trump team’s Russian connections. 

Mueller is the 72-year-old former FBI head brought in as special counsel a week later to investigate the Trump-Russia connection. Ever since then, the two men have been linked as moral standard bearers in a very partisan town. Mueller’s appointment is one of the few things on which Democrats and many mainstream Republicans agree.

Media folks have been following Mueller around, even covering his graduation address to a small Massachusetts boarding school to see if they can glean any hints of how the investigation may go. CNN talked about how Mueller spotlighted “honesty, integrity” in his speech.

Question: Are there are any religion themes in all of this virtue talk?

The New York Post cut to the chase by endowing Mueller with supernatural powers.

Holy congressional probe!
Former FBI chief Robert Mueller is the hero America needs to investigate Russia’s meddling into the 2016 presidential election, his former second-in-charge said Sunday.
 “A line in New York would be Batman’s back to save Gotham, but I think in this case, Batman is back to save America,” Timothy Murphy told John Catsimatidis during an interview on “The Cats Roundtable.”

Other coverage has done everything from link Comey to the Old Testament prophet Amos to portraying the Trump Administration as something akin to King Richard III

Let's ask where these men are getting their high principles from. I scoured Google and learned that Mueller and his wife, Ann were married in an Episcopal church outside of Pittsburgh; that he was raised Presbyterian but now attends Episcopal churches and that sometime back, he was a regular at St. John’s Episcopal in Lafayette Square. That’s across the street from the White House.

Let’s hope some reporter can figure out which church he’s now attending. Ditto from Comey, who’s a United Methodist

Why do I ask?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Crossroads podcast: A Muslim at an Episcopal altar? Face it, that's a complicated story

Crossroads podcast: A Muslim at an Episcopal altar? Face it, that's a complicated story

Sometimes the issue flares up in a major religious denomination. Take, for example, the 2007 case of an Episcopal priest who declared, "I am both Muslim and Christian." She was eventually defrocked. Coverage of that story led to some interesting discussions here at GetReligion.

Quite some time ago, there was the case of a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor who was disciplined for taking part in a post-Sept. 11 service that involved praying with Oprah Winfrey, as well as leaders from a wide spectrum of religious traditions, including Islam and Hinduism. 

Or maybe we're talking about a professor at a major evangelical Protestant school -- like Wheaton College -- who not only wore a hijab in support of oppressed Muslims, but took to social media to declare that she believes that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. She quoted the pope, when making that point.

These kinds of news reports loomed in the background during this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), which focused on a recent Holy Week Mass in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, during which the clergy renewed their ordination vows.

The bottom line: Stories about interfaith work and worship almost always raise complicated theological issues and, nine times out of 10, there are more than two camps of believers involved in the debates. Hold that thought.

Key details about the new Holy Week story: A Muslim interfaith leader preached during the rite, in the normal point in the liturgy dedicated to the sermon. A passage from the Quran was read, before the Gospel. The preacher stood with the bishop and others at the altar during the consecration prayers and she received the consecrated bread during Holy Communion.

All of this was discussed in my Universal syndicate "On Religion" column this week. Here is a sample of that column, which included material from contacts with Bishop Robert C. Wright, as well as the preacher, Soumaya Khalifah.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Live coverage of Ash Wednesday stories? Be on alert for ironic theological twists out there

Live coverage of Ash Wednesday stories? Be on alert for ironic theological twists out there

Ah, yes. Another year, another trip around the liturgical calendar. That means another request from an editor for an Ash Wednesday feature or two.

Based on my own experiences in newsrooms, I have always wondered if the tradition of news organizations doing Ash Wednesday stories has something to do with the high number of ex-Catholics or cultural Catholics (as well as Episcopalians) in newsrooms. Who will show up for work in the afternoon with ashes on her or his forehead? What will people say (in a post-Ted Turner world)?

Then again, maybe Ash Wednesday is a story year after year because it's an assignment that comes with easy, automatic art. 

Finally, there is the fact that Ash Wednesday and Lent are highly serious religious traditions (think meditations on death and repentance) for the people that take faith seriously. However, for some reason, it also seems easy for people to tweak and/or laugh at these traditions. What editor doesn't want to smile in an ironic sort of way at an "ashes to go" lede? And there is an endless possibility of trendy (and stupid) variations on the "What are you going to give up for Lent" non-traditional tradition. 

Then again, it is possible (#Gasp) to do stories on the actual meaning of Lent and it's relevance to issues in our day and age.

Yes, ponder the spiritual implications of Ash Wednesday selfies. This very interesting advance story -- "#Ashtags: When posting Ash Wednesday photos, use your head" -- comes from Catholic News Service, via an online boost from Religion News Service. Here is the overture:

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Ash Wednesday seems to offer contradictory messages. The Gospel reading for the day is about not doing public acts of piety but the very act of getting ashes -- and walking around with them -- is pretty public.
This becomes even less of a private moment when people post pictures of themselves online with their ashes following the #ashtag trend of recent years.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Sticking to his guns: Episcopal priest denounces weapons, with Los Angeles Times' help

Sticking to his guns: Episcopal priest denounces weapons, with Los Angeles Times' help

An Episcopal priest in Oregon inserted himself into a gun controversy -- actually, created one -- and then he acted shocked, shocked at the public blowback.

So did the Los Angeles Times, in an article that could have been written by public-relations professionals working for anti-gun advocates.

Rather than lengthen this intro, let's just load up and chamber the first excerpt:

The Rev. Jeremy Lucas brought an olive branch to a gun fight recently, hoping for a mellow outcome. It began when he won a semi-automatic rifle in a local raffle, then revealed his plan to destroy it and was mostly congratulated for his stand.
But the 44-year-old Episcopal priest’s token attempt to take another gun off the streets did little to keep the peace. In response to his gesture, Lucas got threats and demands for his arrest.
"I’ve come to learn a lot about the nature of social media," Lucas said last week of some of the comments about his one-man, one-gun protest. "The rabid gun activists come out swinging, trying to close down any meaningful conversation and attempting to intimidate people into silence."

But the article has large silences of its own, including many primary sources and a religious "ghost."

Please respect our Commenting Policy