Jeopardy does religion: Name a small, but historically prominent Protestant denomination in American life

The accident in which a car driven by Episcopal Bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook of the Diocese of Maryland hit and fatally injured a cyclist has continued to receive coverage in the back pages of some major newspapers. As I mentioned the other day, much of the discussion has focused on her previous DUI arrest. The big question now: Was she using a smartphone at the time of the accident, perhaps one owned by the diocese?

Meanwhile, the following passage in a Washington Post follow-up story raised eyebrows among religion-beat professionals for reasons that transcended the facts surrounding Cook's election, the importance of the fatal (some insist hit-and-run) accident and the ongoing investigative work being done by police:

Several people who were part of the bigger convention that voted for Cook this spring said they were not told about the arrest.
Cook was initially charged with driving under the influence, reckless driving and possession of marijuana, among other charges, but received “probation before judgment” and completed her probation.
The diocese’s statement Tuesday said Cook disclosed the 2010 case to those considering electing her a bishop in the Episcopal Church, a small but historically prominent American Protestant denomination.

Say what? Have we really reached the point where journalists need to offer readers explanatory material about the existence of the Episcopal Church?

That's the question that was raised by Godbeat veteran Cathy Lynn Grossman in a post at her Faith & Reason weblog. Let it be noted that my headline is a reference to the clever headline on her piece.

Grossman noted, as many have in the past, that the Episcopal Church has long received far more news-media attention than was warranted by its size. Still, has this branch of the troubled global Anglican Communion -- the church of so many elite American power brokers -- really declined in size and influence to the point that this kind of explanatory reference is needed? Grossman added:

Has this church has gone from influential to afterthought? ... Yes and no.
It was always a small church but at least people knew it was an American Protestant denomination without being told. And they knew many of the Founding Fathers and 11 U.S. presidents prayed in Episcopal pews.
Now, when even the U.S. Supreme Court has no Protestant justices, that’s no longer common knowledge. Hence, the Post’s rare-bird-sighting treatment complete with taxonomy.

This raises several interesting points of discussion for journalists.

* First, if journalists are going to add this kind of quick, explanatory material about the identity of the Episcopal Church, do they also need to add a sentence or two of factual material about the events that have accompanied this decline? What about the debates about what has caused this demographic implosion?

* Second, it is crucial to note that the statistical decline of the Episcopal Church is part of what your GetReligionistas have always argued is one of the most important religion-news stories of the past half century or so of American life: The changing size and shape of the progressive, oldline Protestant churches. You could argue that the much-covered rise of the religious right would never have taken place if America's historic religious middle had not evolved into the new religious left.

*Third, if Episcopalians "enjoy" high levels of press coverage, is this good or bad for the life of the church itself? A quarter of a century ago, one Episcopal bishop told me that he never could understand why other church leaders seemed to envy the amount of ink his church's many disputes received in the mainstream press. That was, he quipped, kind of like "being jealous because of another man's frequent root canals."

Amen? Or not? Did the Post reference strike you as strange?

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