Stubborn facts on Episcopalians

Jon Meacham has occasionally cited John Adams as saying facts are stubborn things, but apparently some facts aren't stubborn enough to be noticed by Newsweek under Meacham's editing.

I truly wanted to like Lisa Miller's latest Newsweek column. For starters, I agree with her: The Episcopal Church attracts far more news coverage than its membership numbers merit. I've devoted much of my journalism career to writing about the Episcopal Church, and I am part of the problem. I have no trouble admitting this or laughing about it.

Further, Miller steps up to one of tmatt's favorite hobbies: Explaining why the Episcopal Church attracts so much coverage.

What ruins the piece for me is that Newsweek has not corrected errors first pointed out by fellow Godbeat scribe Frank Lockwood. It openly corrected one error: The claim that President Reagan ever identified himself as an Episcopalian. It quietly corrected two other problems: Referring to the church's General Convention as an annual rather than a triennial meeting, and referring to President Ford as if he were still alive. (Under a sacramental reading of Hebrews 12:1, one could make the case for referring to President Ford's faith in the present tense.)

But Newsweek has let stand some howlers involving membership statistics. As one of many journalists cursed with innumeracy, I sympathize with Miller on these mistakes. I once wildly overstated the membership of the Episcopal Diocese of Springfield, but as soon as I realized my error I alerted my editor to it, and he corrected it.

All this is to say it's time for another episode of Proofreading With GetReligion.

The general convention General Convention of the Episcopal Church ended last month in Anaheim, Calif., with a whimper, despite these rather staggering announcements: it would, after years of internal battling, continue to elevate cite its freedom to elect more gay priests to bishops, and it would consider blessing bless same-sex unions in the states that allow gays and lesbians to marry.

General Convention is the proper name of a legislative body that meets every three years. I know this may be a question of Newsweek's house style, so it could be considered a gray area.

About elevate: Episcopalians elect, approve and then ordain/consecrate bishops. Episcopalians have been keen on this point for some time now.

On blessings for same-sex couples, see General Convention's Resolution C056: "Resolved, That bishops, particularly those in dioceses within civil jurisdictions where same-gender marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships are legal, may provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this Church." (The website of General Convention legislation is spotty; here is a report by Episcopal News Service.)

After years of dominance outsized cultural influence, Episcopalians have become a minority religion in America. There are just 2.4 2.1 million Episcopalians in the United States, down from 3.5 2.3 million in 2001 -- a 31 percent falloff. (The Episcopal Church is the American branch of the Anglican Communion, a worldwide church that has 80 million members.) By comparison, there are 8 million nondenominational Christians (a low estimate), up from 2.5 million -- an explosion of 220 percent over the same period.

Bookmark this address for trends of baptized members in the Episcopal Church. This PDF provides the latest numbers. For a number near 3.5 million, you'll need to look 40 years back.

Thanks to the Great Awakenings and the waves of immigration over the past hundred years there are exponentially more Roman Catholics, Baptists, and Methodists in America than Episcopalians. There are also -- surprisingly -- more Mormons, more Pentecostals, and slightly more Jews.

This table [PDF] from the U.S. Census estimates the Jewish population of this nation at 6.4 million -- more than triple the number of baptized Episcopalians.

This reversal of Episcopal fortune is due largely to well-known demographic shifts -- the shrinking of the mainline Protestant denominations; the growth of evangelical and nondenominational churches, as well as in the number of people who declare themselves "unaffiliated." But the Episcopal Church has had its own unique troubles above and beyond the encroachment of those other sects.

By what measure do these larger groups qualify as other sects?

After three centuries as the church of the WASP establishment in America, it started to make news in 2003 when it elevated to bishop of New Hampshire an openly gay priest named Gene Robinson.

Started to make news in 2003? Look up the names of the Rt. Revs. James Pike, Barbara Harris and John Shelby Spong.

A colleague who is Episcopalian describes the rift thus: "Here we have the faith of the Founding Fathers, the religion that is the purest representation of old-line American power and money, tearing itself apart before our very eyes over … homosexuality. How embarrassing! How publicly humiliating -- this for a faith and culture that abhors nothing more than public humiliation."

Three words: Shoe-leather journalism.

In one of the most byzantine organizational maneuvers ever wrought, the conservative opposition then regrouped under the leadership of a few conservative African bishops -- still Anglican, still part of the global church, but no longer officially connected to the Americans.

It's more than a few bishops, not limited to Africa and beginning long before 2003. Counting bishops who helped the Anglican Mission in the Americas and have since retired, they include Peter Akinola, Nigeria; Emmanuel Kolini, Rwanda; Frank Lyons, Bolivia; Benjamin Nzimbi, Kenya; Henry Orombi, Uganda; Moses Tay, Singapore; Gregory Venables, Argentina; and Ping Chung Yong, Malaysia.

Certainly, when the Episcopalians support -- or seem to be supporting -- gay marriage, it says something important about who we are as a nation and where we are going.

When clergy are free to bless same-sex couples in states where gay marriage is legal, call it what you like -- but it's clearly supporting gay marriage.

Watching the Episcopalians fight amongst themselves is like watching a boozy family brawl at a genteel country club. Onlookers continue to hope that someone -- grandpa or junior -- will finally say what he's really thinking and make a headline.

Who are these unidentified onlookers? Any reporter who has covered General Convention can tell you this: The problem is not that grandpa or junior (or lots of people in between) is at a loss for words. If anything, my fellow Episcopalians compete regularly on who will have the fewest unspoken thoughts.

About the video: With this post, I confess my secret shame. Drag performance artist Chuck Knipp makes me laugh.

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