US Catholics sort of hug ELCA: Why do liberal, oldline flocks always seem to make news?

If you walked the religion-news beat in the 1980s, and especially if you covered mainline Protestants and the Episcopal Church, then you probably knew Bishop William C. Frey.

At that time, he was the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado and he eventually (a) was the symbolic evangelical/charismatic candidate to become U.S. presiding bishop, then (b) he became president and dean of the evangelical Anglican School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pa. He now lives in retirement near San Antonio, Texas, and -- it helps that he speaks fluent Spanish -- remains active in ministry in that region.

Among reporters (of all theological stripes), Frey was known as one of the most candid and, with his previous work in mainstream radio, sound-bite articulate figures on the national scene. His wit was legendary.

So what does this have to do with this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to listen) about that ecumenical document signed by U.S. Catholic leaders and the liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America? We are talking about the one that led to statements (see previous post here) that there were "are no longer church-dividing issues" between them.

Host Todd Wilken and I were curious as to why this document received so little attention in the mainstream press, since -- in the past -- this was precisely the kind of progressive, ecumenical event that drew banner headlines and then appeared in lists of the Top 10 religion-news stories of the year. Thus, we talked about why the oldline Protestant churches have always received so much attention and why, all of a sudden, that coverage may have faded.

This brings me to a classic Frey soundbite. Working on a column for the late, great Rocky Mountain News, I told the bishop about statements from several other local religious leaders who wanted to know why Colorado Episcopalians were always in the news. Some of them expressed what sounded like envy -- which made Frey laugh out loud.

"Oh my," he said, "that's like coveting someone else's root canal!"

In other words, it may not be a good thing if mainstream reporters and editors think your church deserves lots of coverage. Think about it.

A few years later, I wrote an essay for an alternative Episcopal publication (then edited by GetReligion co-founder Doug LeBlanc) that ran with this headline: "Why journalists love the Episcopal Church." It remains, I think, relevant to the current discussion -- even though I wrote it 22 years ago. It ended with this summary statement of my thesis:

I believe the Episcopal Church draws more than its share of media attention because its leaders wear religious garb, work in conveniently located buildings, speak fluent politics and promote a mystical brand of moral liberalism. Episcopalians look like Roman Catholics and act like liberal politicians.
Clearly, this is a flock that will continue to merit the attention of America's media elite. The Episcopal Church's buildings will photograph well, even if the only people in them are behind the altars.

Wait, wait, you say, why does it matter that they "wear religious garb"? Note that this point would also figure into discussions of ELCA leaders in the news.

Thus, I wrote:

If at all possible, the media treat religion as a photo opportunity. And when it comes to taking pictures of religion, it helps if people wear religious clothing.
Have you ever tried to take colorful, highly symbolic, news photographs at the Southern Baptist Convention, or even at gatherings of a wool-blend body such as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)? It doesn't work. Everyone is wearing suits and ties or some other form of street clothing. How many news photos have you seen of meetings of liberal Jewish rabbis, in comparison with gatherings of Orthodox rabbis?
Episcopalians have been known to dress up. Episcopalians still look religious.

To be blunt, the leaders in some, but not all, oldline churches look sort of like Roman Catholics when you put them on camera. Yet the words coming out of their mouths sound more like the editorial-page scribes at The New York Times. That's the news ticket!

So why didn't this story about the ELCA sort of dancing with U.S. Catholic ecumenical leaders make more news?

To tell you the truth, I don't know. I was surprised. But I do have some theories and they're in the podcast. So there.

Enjoy the podcast.

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