Presiding bishop wronged by shallow newspaper

obispaThanks to the energy of GetReligion reader Greg Popcak, we now know that the hierarchy of the Episcopal Church does not share my enthusiasm for the contents of that strange little New York Times Magazine mini-interview with Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. According to a letter from Robert B. Goodfellow, the new presiding bishop's media aide, the brilliant primate, scientist and airplane pilot was quoted out of context by reporter Deborah Solomon and, if the remarks were read in context, all of those Roman Catholic and Mormon breeders out there in the blogosphere would not be as upset as they are at the moment (click here for background and URLs).

Here is the key part of that letter:

I am writing to thank you very much for the candid expression of your concern regarding the Presiding Bishop's recent interview published in this past Sunday's New York Times Magazine.

The reality is that media interviews do not always convey the whole nature of a conversation had between interviewee and interviewer. A few paragraphs of text cannot distill with complete accuracy a lengthy conversation.

I can also assure you that the Presiding Bishop does not think other Christians uneducated, ignorant, illiterate, or somehow or otherwise not smart simply because they are not Episcopalian.

Note the presence of the words "simply because" in that latter statement. Classic!

Now, I have -- back in the days before I was a columnist -- been involved in a few of these exchanges with the media aides of brilliant, nuanced, complicated mainline Protestant intellectuals.

Note that Goodfellow does not claim Jefferts Schori was misquoted. The controversial quote stands. In other words, the new leader of the Episcopal Church did, while discussing membership losses in her church, truly say:

Episcopalians tend to be better-educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations. Roman Catholics and Mormons both have theological reasons for producing lots of children. ... We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.

Jefferts Schori's office simply wants the world to know that she said many other things and that, as a reporter, Solomon did a poor job of selecting material from the longer interview when she was assembling this edgy little Q&A. I am told by people who spend more time than I do in The New York Times Magazine that this interview with the archbishop is a perfect example of Solomon's style, which strives to humanize public figures by asking questions that are more personal and casual.

But here is my final observation. Many elite thinkers on the theological left have learned how to surround their beliefs in a kind of nuanced theological fog that serves as a protective barrier. Insiders know what the symbolic word clusters mean, but this strategy prevents many people in the pews -- the kind of ordinary people who write checks -- from understanding what is going on. There are exceptions, of course, such as the retired Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong of Newark, who never used a fly swatter when a baseball bat would do.

The problem for reporters is that when you select one crisp quote out of the fog this allows the offended intellectual to say, in effect, that the reporter simply wasn't smart enough to understand the rich tapestry of the total interview and, thus, misquoted the speaker, even though the quote was accurate. It's a sad thing, don't you see, when leaders have to communicate high thoughts through such a low medium -- like The New York Times.

Our sympathies go out to the poor reporter, who will surely learn from her error.

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see if Jefferts Schori continues -- Spong style -- to fire away as freely in interviews with news organizations that she trusts.

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