Tomorrow is a giant news day in the Anglican wars, which is a global story that also has an American angle, a New York City angle, a Virginia angle and a Washington suburbs angle. That's some story.
I am referring, of course, to the fact that a circle of conservative, and in some cases historic, Anglican parishes have been voting all week on motions to withdraw from the Diocese of Virginia and, thus, the Episcopal Church, which is currently the Canterbury-recognized branch of Anglicanism here in the United States of America.
It is a giant, complex story and a very hard one for reporters to cover. There are all kinds of people -- left, right and center -- who would prefer that the entire drama play out behind closed doors.
But that isn't going to happen. Too much is at stake. However, the odds are good that there will be a media circus tomorrow as the decisions are expected to be announced. As I noted in a previous post, the most powerful of these parishes -- Truro Episcopal Church and the Falls Church -- have tried to control the media madness by setting some strict coverage guidelines.
It seemed to me that one of the main consequences of the media-riot memo was going to be keeping veteran reporters and columnists -- the people who know the most about the issues at stake -- from being able to cover the story, even if all they wanted to do was sit silently in pews and listen to what is said and, later, talk to people who were willing to talk with them. This drew a strong comment from one of these reporters, Julia Duin of The Washington Times:
Terry is absolutely right. The memo was aimed towards religion writers who folks could recognize at the door. Yours truly did make an appearance in disguise at, well, you guess the church. She did not want some bouncer to walk up to her during a service and ask her if she was "researching" or "worshipping." One reporter (Mike McManus) who did not get the above memo and did attend the service at TFC was told to desist by one of the clergy present when he began interviewing two women. And they were willing to talk with him.
... God only knows what this coming Sunday is going to be like.
... So, TFC and Truro readers: Have patience. What you are doing is historic; it's the largest chunk of churches leaving in the country -- out of the largest diocese -- so do be charitable towards those of us who are doing our best to accurately write the first draft of history about these events.
Posted by Julia Duin at 2:36 pm on December 13, 2006
People are tense for a number of reasons. Millions of dollars are at stake and, if you take issues of Communion seriously, central issues of doctrine and sacraments are a stake.
In the end, it comes down to one legal question: Who controls the keys to these churches?
And even if the liberal Episcopal establishment wins, who will worship at the altars inside these powerful churches after the faithful (and their resources, spiritual and material) have been locked out? Will the national church simply sell these buildings rather than let conservative Anglicans -- Americans whose faith mirrors that of the majority of Anglicans worldwide -- worship in them? And what happens to the people who leave? Do they form competing conservative groups? Can they maintain order and unity as a minority in a liberal land, with long-range ties to bishops in other parts of the world? Do they slide into congregationalism?
There are lots of questions and the media have to cover the debates.
Which brings us back to the media-control memo.
One of the most important elements of journalism is the ability to hear words, record them and then quote them accurately. This requires access, or reporters are driven into second-hand reporting.
I think the sermons delivered in these churches tomorrow are important. I believe that the prayers said and the scriptures read are important. They have content relevant to this global story.
How do reporters hear, record and report these words if they are not allowed polite access? I would, by the way, feel exactly the same way if we were talking about a liberal Episcopal parish in traditionalist Fort Worth that was discussing fleeing that diocese in order to align with the establishment left in New York City.
How to you "get" the religion in these stories if you are prevented from reporting the religious content of these public services? Talking to people in the parking lot will not get you this theological content, other than second-hand reports. This story is too important for that.
So, no riots. No cameras, if that is what the churches want. No rude reporters disturbing the worshippers. No badgering the faithful who do not want to talk.
But if reporters -- including the ones who know the story the best -- want to sit in silence and listen, I say let them listen. Then they can leave the sanctuaries and talk to people who agree to talk with them, outside if that is what people prefer. In the parking lot, even, if that is what the church leaders want. But the reporters have to be there. They have work to do.