Talk about candor. From the get-go, the recent Washington Post story about the selection of a new dean at Washington National Cathedral is very upfront about the fact that this highly visible Episcopal Church landmark faces a crisis of dollars and demographics. And then there was that earthquake thing, literally.
Consider the headline, for example: "Needing to raise ten of millions, Washington National Cathedral picks a fundraiser for its new dean."
Now, I realize that college and university presidents are frequently hailed as great fundraisers. However, I don't know of many pastors, preachers or priests who have welcomed that label. In this case the Rev. Randy Hollerith -- for some reason the Post editors drop "the Rev." or even "Father" on the first reference -- makes it clear that this isn't his label of choice, either.
There is also the question of whether he plans, as was the norm with the Hollywood-shaped previous dean, Gary Hall (once again, now clerical title on first reference), to use hot-button cultural and theological issues to push the cathedral into the headlines.
Hollerith says he won’t enter the position with plans to focus on specific social justice issues, a contrast to Hall, who was on the national news within a few months after coming in August 2012 by announcing that he’d open the cathedral to same-sex weddings.
“I’m not an issue-driven person. I’m a gospel-driven person,” he said. “Of course, the gospel at times is prophetic and has things to say to the world. But I don’t approach things from the point of view of hot-button issues, so to speak.”
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t share with Hall and other recent deans a focus on one topic in particular: race. The Episcopal Church -- a small Protestant denomination that until recent decades represented the faith of the American elite -- has become less diverse racially in the past few decades, Hall said, and in 2016 must change that. The dwindling diversity in the pews has occurred even as the denomination has become increasingly liberal in its attitude, theology and partnerships, Hall said.
Before we get to that interesting reference to the status of the Episcopal Church, let me note another interesting Associated Press Style issue, one that resembles the recent trend toward references of "god" rather than "God."
During my decades on the religion beat, it was my understanding that "Gospel" was upper case when referring to the first four books of the New Testament, but that the term was lower-case when used in a less literal manner -- such as "gospel music" or "Unlike his opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders is not known for embracing the gospel of Wall Street."
Then there are references such as this: "The Rev. Billy Graham said he was called to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ when he was in college."
So is the new cathedral dean saying that he is a "gospel-driven person," as in music or a style of presentation, or is he saying that he is a "Gospel-driven person," as in the biblical content at the core of the Christian faith?
I would imagine it is the second of those options. Just saying.
This brings us to the financial challenges that Hollerith faces at the cathedral, which is still recovering from the cracks caused by an earthquake five years ago. GetReligion has, of course, looked at journalism issues linked to this crisis in the past.
It is certainly accurate to note that the Episcopal Church has become a "small Protestant denomination." However, I am not sure that -- even in its current weakened condition -- the Episcopalians have lost their status as the "faith of the American elite." That would be an interesting claim to try to document in, let's say, the culture of the DC Beltway. Isn't Barack Obama functionally an Episcopalian? Are liberal Catholics the new norm?
Also, I thought it was fascinating that the Post stated that the Episcopal Church has actually become less racially diverse in recent decades, a period of time in which it has trumpeted a Gospel of diversity, tolerance and inclusion. What was the source of this Hollerith insight? Numbers from TEC itself? Has there been a theological element to this decline?
That brings me to another reference, early in the Post story, to this issue of demographics and finances:
Hollerith isn’t as widely known and describes himself as not driven by issues; he was picked out of a field of 32 candidates in good part because of his experience as a strategic fundraiser and manager. That’s considered essential at a time when the cathedral needs to raise tens of millions of dollars to get on stable financial footing because of a damaging earthquake and a culture that is largely deserting its commitment to religious institutions.
Now that final reference (once again, unattributed) to the omnipresent Pew Forum surveys on religion and American life is certainly justified. Lots of churches have lost members in recent years, while others have grown. Take the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, which is down to 15 million or so members from a high of 16.3 million in 2003. At the same time, the SBC has seen solid growth among its African-American and ethnic congregations.
So membership trends are complex. Everyone knows that.
But, in this case, isn't it also relevant to note a major, glaring membership trend among Episcopalians? The unattributed reference to a decline in ethnic parishes was important, but how about the overarching fact that membership in the Episcopal Church has declined from about 3.6 million in the 1960s to about 1.8 million today. Does this specific fact add to the challenge faced by the new cathedral dean?