We are going to play a little numbers game for a minute, so please hang in there with me. The following is totally fiction, so please do not get hung up on the details. Let's say that a big, important, powerful body in Southern Baptist life -- the Baptist General Convention of Texas, for example -- did something really controversial that makes global headlines. Just thinking out loud, let's pretend that the BGCT is run by right wingers (this is going to take lots of imagination) and that they pass a resolution calling for the impeachment of President Barack Obama.
Then the BGCT plans a big event in a media-friendly arena in, oh, Plano that seats about 30,000 people. By coincidence, or not, they schedule their event on the same day as the opening of a weekend of Tea Party events drawing in thousands of anti-Obama activists. Nevertheless, after doing their advance homework, Baptist leaders realize they cannot fill the giant hall -- so they prepare to set it up for a crowd of 12,000, while opening the doors to all comers. Then the big event arrives and about, oh, 5,000 people show up.
My question: Would the press covering the event do the math and ask even the most basic of questions about the health and happiness of people -- on both sides of the issue -- in the larger body of the BGCT?
I know, I know. This is a very, very strained analogy. The key is the journalistic equation: Powerful group plus controversial issue plus big event plus big hall plus low attendance numbers, even in a downsized hall. Would this equation, under normal circumstances, yield the asking of basic journalistic questions?
That's what I was thinking while reading the close-to-celebratory Los Angeles Timee story on the consecration rites for the two female bishops in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, including the Rev. Mary Douglas Glasspool, the bitterly divided Anglican Communion's first openly lesbian bishop who is living with a same-sex partner. The report opens like this:
There was a moment on Saturday when even the usually unflappable J. Jon Bruno, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, held his breath.
It was the point when the 3,000 people at the Long Beach Arena were asked if anyone had any objections to the ordination of the region's first two female bishops, one of whom is the first lesbian bishop ordained by the Episcopal Church.
"I don't think there's anybody in this place who was more nervous than I was," Bruno said a short time later in his sermon. But the moment passed in silence, and the two women -- Diane Jardine Bruce and Mary Douglas Glasspool -- were ordained to applause and cheers. Bruno said the church was "fuller and richer and more vital" as a result.
The story includes more than few details from the service, from the cheers of the assembled to the shouts of the few protesters who made it inside the large hall. Here is a sample of the color that was included:
Saturday's four-hour-plus service combined the pomp of the Episcopal Church's long tradition with a multicultural flair reflecting its modern California flock. There was hip-hop dancing, a mariachi band, Japanese taiko drumming and African vocals. It included a nearly hour-long procession led by a robed figure, known as a thurifer, swinging a ceremonial incense holder. Banners reminiscent of medieval England ringed the arena, each representing a church within the diocese.
That is basically it, as far as this report is concerned. It's a pretty modest story for an historic event with local, regional, national and global implications. Then again, the rite received more attention in the British press than in the prestige venues of the American media (by all means click here), which could reflect the fact that the actions of the liberal Episcopal establishment are no longer very surprising.
Still, let's discuss that math question. While 3,000 people is a nice crowd, it is interesting to note that the diocese made the following announcement on its homepage.
All are invited; no tickets are needed for admission. ...
Location: Long Beach Arena -- located in the Long Beach Convention Center Complex, 300 Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, California (90802). Seating capacity for the liturgy will be at least 6,700.
It would be pretty standard procedure for reporters to ask questions when a event in a giant, powerful city -- an event with global implications -- draws 3,000 when the room was set up for 6,700, inside an arena that holds 13,500 (a statistic that is easy to find). Let's assume that the crowd estimate is accurate, by the way.
Here is another logical question. Did the diocese intentionally choose this venue in order to achieve some synchronicity with the start of a major Gay Pride Festival in the same complex and in the surrounding Long Beach area? Did this affect attendance in a good way or did it keep some church members, especially those who might not be enthusiastic about the gay-pride festival, from making the trip?
I can make a case for either of those interpretations. The key, however, is that -- for good or ill -- the question is relevant, if the crowd is less than half the size that the diocese had planned.
What does the smaller crowd mean? There is no one set answer to that question, either. Journalists would want to ask that question to people on both sides of this event that was a cause of celebration for many, but grief for others.
Journalists are trained to ask these kinds of obvious questions, right?
Speaking of obvious questions: A day or so after writing my earlier post (about the Baltimore Sun's puffy piece on Glasspool), one key detail in the story started nagging me like a low-grade toothache. Here's the reference:
"The Diocese of Los Angeles is tremendously exciting to me," said Glasspool, who spoke of the "very creative ways in which the church there does its mission and ministry," and the fact that on any given Sunday across the diocese, the liturgy is being celebrated in some 40 languages.
Now, it would appear that Glasspool is the source of that amazing "40 languages" number. I started listing some obvious languages to be included in the mix, while also remembering that we are talking about trying to populate services -- I assume using translations of texts from The Book of Common Prayer -- for Episcopalians in one set region. I had trouble getting above a dozen languages. I mean, you could have services in Russian, Turkish, Greek, German or French, but who would be served by these rites?
Note, for example, that the homepage of the absolutely gigantic Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles lists Masses in 30 or so languages, and that includes "African-American focus" and "Native American focus" rites.
The Episcopalians need 40?
It appears not. The diocesan homepage (hat tip to Doug LeBlanc) includes the following:
Weekly worship opportunities in the diocese are offered in Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean, Tagalog and Vietnamese.
There is also a brief reference to activities for Native American women and young people, but this passage does not include information on rites in another language or languages.
So, does the Sun need to run a correction? Or does the new bishop need to issue a clarification?
Let's face it, 40 is a really high number. Did that strike anyone at the Sun as strange?
Photo: St. John's Episcopal Cathedral in Los Angeles, care of Wikipedia Commons. No, I don't know how many people the cathedral seats.