NYTs lands a big story (maybe)

Robinson, Bishop V EugeneAny longtime reader of GetReligion knows that the gang here likes Q&A interviews, especially when they allow newsmakers to dig deeper into complex topics and tell their own stories in their own words. I think this journalistic tool is especially valuable on the religion beat -- which is so rich in history, symbolism and doctrine. At the same time, as we saw the other day with that interview with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, this format can produce awkward moments. What happens when the newsmaker says something that is a real eyebrow raiser? Is the journalist obligated to recognize this and probe deeper, which might anger the person being interviewed?

What should a journalist do with a newsmaker makes a strong fact claim that just doesn't sound right? Should the journalist (a) jump back and ask for some kind of source for the fact? Or should the reporter (b) research the answer later and actually publish a correction, offering links to evidence that may or may not undercut the viewpoint of the newsmaker?

Take, for example, the New York Times interview that veteran Godbeat reporter Laurie Goodstein's just conducted with the openly gay bishop whose 2003 consecration -- in the dominant mass-media timeline -- is turning the global Anglican Communion upside down.

New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson is a busy man at the moment, since he is the living symbol of the Episcopal Church establishment's sweeping victories this week on the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians and the green light for more official work on gender-neutral marriage liturgies. The bishop obviously chose his venue carefully, speaking to the journalistic bible of a church rooted in the elite structures of the Northeast's urban corridor.

Q: Thank you for making the time. You must have a lot of interview requests.

A: Yes, and I'm not doing any interviews, except this one. A lot of requests came in after the bishops' first vote on Monday (to allow for the consecration of more gay bishops). Of course, the possibility of there being another gay bishop in the House is something I've longed for for a long time. But I didn't feel like talking. I felt very sober. I know that what we've done here will be very difficult for a lot of people in that room, and in the Communion.

There is much here for Episcopalians and Anglicans to read and to mull over, as the events roll forward.

However, it was an answer near the end that caught my eye and raised some questions.

Q: What has been the fallout of all of this on your own diocese, in New Hampshire? Have you lost many church members?

A: Except for one parish in Rochester early on, no. That left about 15 people in that congregation, they met for about a year, and then asked me to close them down because there weren't enough people to sustain a continued parish. That's all. That's it. There's no one, no priests or parishes associated with the breakaway groups. Our diocese grew by 3 percent last year. ...

Q: Who are you pulling in?

A: We have received so many Roman Catholics and young families, particularly families who are saying, "We don't want to raise our daughters in a church that doesn't value young people in our church."

While I am sure that Robinson's take on the Catholic Church will cause a few ripples, I don't expect much fallout -- largely because ecumenical dialogues between the Episcopal Church and most U.S. Catholic leaders were already so tense.

No, what caught my interest was his statement that membership in the New Hampshire diocese has been growing, during this national and global firestorm. Now, he says that his flock grew 3 percent "last year." I would assume that this is the church year 2007-2008.

Anyway, a sudden burst of growth would be highly unusual in the context of a liberal mainline church. The bishop could also be making an indirect reference to attendance, rather than membership.

Still, I urge readers to click here and check out the official statistics (it's a .pdf document) over at EpiscopalChurch.org -- which show that membership numbers in the New Hampshire diocese declined 18.1 percent between 1997 and 2007. And recently? They fell 9.4 percent between 2003 and 2007. In the most recent year on the chart -- 2006-2007 -- the diocese lost 1.3 percent of its active, baptized members. The bishop told the Times that his diocese currently has 15,000 members, while the chart shows 14,160 for 2006-2007.

It's true that church statistics are often produced with smoke and mirrors -- but with the numbers higher than they should be. Robinson's flock may have taken a leap forward on the charts in 2007-2008. But that would be a very unusual and very, very newsworthy change in the recent fortunes of that diocese (and strange for an Episcopal diocese in the Northeast, as well).

In other words, this Q&A in the Times contains a big news story -- one that would shock many Anglicans around the world. If it's true.

As I said earlier, I do not know if major newspapers are supposed to verify the accuracy of the information that they publish -- with clear attribution -- in these kinds of verbatim interviews. However, at the very least, this shocker deserved a follow-up question.

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