New York Times gets ready to rumble!

acns3945grouplow resLet me jump in here with a quick follow-up on the Divine Ms. M's post on those fightin' Episcopalians. After all, an authoritative source of doctrine almost on the level of the Book of Common Prayer has now offered its take on the upcoming election out in the Episcopal Diocese of California (the election site is here), a race that includes three candidates who are openly gay. I am referring, of course, to the New York Times.

First things first, which is that I think the editors need to run a correction, because the piece by reporter Neela Banerjee states that:

The Episcopal Church is a small but rich and powerful member of the Anglican Communion, which has 77 million members, the second-largest church body in the world, and is presided over by the archbishop of Canterbury.

Bishop [V. Gene] Robinson's consecration drew a virulent response from primates of fast-growing Anglican provinces in the developing world, where homosexuality is taboo. Many in Africa, Asia and Latin America have curtailed their interaction with the American church. A few traditionalist congregations in this country have placed themselves under the oversight of foreign bishops.

I would argue that this section of the report contains a sin of omission and a sin of comission. The newpaper should correct the latter.

It is true that there are about 77 million Anglicans in the world (although the figure 70 million is often used, as well), part of the large communion that retains loose ties to the Church of England. The strictness of those ties is part of the global current argument over the moral status of sexual unions outside the sacrament of marriage. The Archbishop of Canterbury is a symbolic leader with little real clout, so the term "presides over" is stretching things a bit. He is the first among equals, among the Anglican primates (seen in the photo by Anglican Communion News Service).

Meanwhile, there are about 1 billion Roman Catholics. The pope is not the first among equals. The pope is, well, the pope.

And No. 2? The Times copy desk should note that there are 250 million Eastern Orthodox Christians worldwide and we (yes, I am Eastern Orthodox) are led, in a symbolic, first-among-equals manner, by the Ecumenical Patriarch, who is based in the ancient city that once was called Constantinople. I believe that 250 million is quite a bit larger than 77 million.

And the sin of omission is this. Banerjee is right that the Episcopal Church here in the United States is small and rich and that the Third World Anglicans are large and growing. But in this case it really helps to add one or two more sentences and some math, especially if one is going to use dynamite words such as "schism" in the story.

The Canterbury Cathedral PrThe current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, used to lead the Church of Wales -- with 45,000 members. There are about 2 million Episcopalians in the United States. However, there are 40 to 50 million Anglicans in Africa, with 15 million or so in Nigeria, alone.

Take that into account when reading the New York Times report, which ends with some crisp, stunning quotes from clergy representing the liberal Episcopal establishment here in North America. For example, in California:

"I think we're tired of the hype that is being generated by a vocal minority in the church," said the Rev. Katherine M. Lehman of St. Bede's Episcopal Church in Menlo Park. She added, "If we are called to elect a qualified nominee who happens to be gay, we will do that based on our discernment of the process and the Holy Spirit."

Note the word "minority." It is true that, in the context of North America, the liberal stance may represent the "majority." But in the global Anglican context it is clearly a small minority.

It would help -- just in terms of simple facts -- if readers knew that.

Here is another excellent, but loaded, quotation:

"My No. 1 directive as a bishop is the unity of church, because schism is a greater sin than heresy," said Bishop Kirk S. Smith of the diocese of Arizona, who backs full inclusion of gays in the church.

Many people would want to debate the statement that "schism is a greater sin than heresy." However, the question is this: What part of the Anglican Communion is taking actions that might cause a global schism? Is this a story about a national schism in a small national church, or a global schism in a giant global Communion? I think it is crucial for reporters to strive to use language that lets readers know this story is about both of those realities.

P.S. Click here for an interesting report in the Church of England Newspaper that suggests, in many ways, that the Episcopal Church is even smaller than it appears to be on paper (a statement that could be made about many flocks). Here's the lead:

American Episcopalians have the lowest rate of worship attendance of any Christian denomination, a Gallup poll reports. Episcopalians come third from last on the table of weekly attendance with less than one in three attending services, beating only Jews and those who have no religion.

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