Long, long, ago -- back in the 1980s -- an evangelical Presbyterian pastor in the Denver area asked me an interesting question. It went something like this: If the old mainline Protestant churches are shrinking and losing power, why do they keep getting so much news coverage in the mainstream press?
I think he was talking about the Episcopal Church, but the conversation ended up being about all of the famed "Seven Sisters" of the oldline Protestant world. And who are the "Seven Sisters"? Historians and sociologists have grouped these flocks under that label -- the United Methodist Church; Evangelical Lutheran Church of America; Episcopal Church; United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church (USA); American Baptist Church; and the Disciples of Christ.
There are lots of reasons that these churches receive so much attention in the news, starting with the fact that for decades their leaders have spent large amounts of time debating issues that journalists think are important, such as sex, war, economic justice, race, gender and the environment. While doing so, they have consistently steered to the cultural, political and doctrinal left. For journalists, that's the very definition of news.
In my experience, most -- not all -- of the religious believers found in American newsrooms are liberal Protestants or progressive Catholics. Long ago, I put it this way:
Walk into a meeting of the Religion Newswriters Association and say, "The Lord be with you,'' and a large number of the reporters in the room will say, "And also with you.'' A few will say, "And with thy spirit.''
The "Seven Sisters" still make news, but their impact seems to be fading. If you want to see an example of this, consider the short, short, short recent Religion News Service piece with this headline: "US Lutherans approve document recognizing agreement with Catholic Church."
Then there is this rather earth-shaking lede:
(RNS) Nearly 500 years after Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Castle Church door, the largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S. has approved a declaration recognizing “there are no longer church-dividing issues” on many points with the Roman Catholic Church.
Well now, that sounds like big news -- even with that crucial word "many" in the phrase stating that these Lutheran negotiators found agreement on "many points" of theology with U.S. representatives of Rome.
Still, does it seem strange that this declaration was covered in a low-key RNS piece? And if you look around online, this was just about the only mainstream coverage of this story. As a Catholic journalist, and longtime GetReligion reader, put it in a private email:
Got News? Honestly -- I first saw this as a brief in Catholic Culture and I seriously started looking for an "April Fool's!" tag somewhere or that it was from The Onion or The Eye of the Tiber.
With such a major piece of news, the RNS piece is almost a footnote. ... What about everyone else? Why isn't this being emblazoned with three-inch stacked headlines? Why isn't it running in the cable news networks? Not even Catholic News Agency or Service or The Register or Reporter or OSV, at least that I've seen. What's going on?
It really is strange, even if this agreement represented a press-release update from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which represents the Lutheran left on matters doctrinal, and the ecumenical offices of American Catholic academia. Oh, and what do more doctrinally conservative Lutherans have to say? Never mind.
Obviously, the big questions is this: What does it mean to say that there are "no longer church-dividing issues" between the ELCA and Rome? Does this mean that your local ELCA pastor can preach at a Catholic parish or serve Holy Communion? After all, as the RNS story noted:
Last November, Pope Francis sparked controversy when he seemed to suggest a Lutheran could receive Communion in the Catholic Church, saying “life is greater than explanations and interpretations.” The pontiff is scheduled to visit Sweden on Oct. 31 to preside at a joint service with Lutherans.
Well now, there is yet another crucial question.
The pope is going to "preside" -- an important theological term -- at "a joint service" with Lutherans. What kind of service might that be? If it is a Mass, then we are talking A1 banner headlines in The New York Times and the global top story on BBC. But if it is a service of morning or evening prayer, then this is nothing truly historic.
Another key point: What precisely did this document say about these two ecclesiastical bodies and mutual recognition of the validity of their clergy? In other words, is a Lutheran pastor truly a priest, in the eyes of Rome? This issue is directly linked to any discussions of the validity of Sacraments and, ultimately, to the very meaning of the word "church."
No, there are other issues. Read this part of the RNS piece carefully:
ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton called the declaration “historic” in a statement released by the denomination following the ... (Aug. 10) vote.
“Though we have not yet arrived, we have claimed that we are, in fact, on the way to unity. … This ‘Declaration on the Way’ helps us to realize more fully our unity in Christ with our Catholic partners, but it also serves to embolden our commitment to unity with all Christians,” Eaton said.
The declaration comes as the Lutheran and Catholic churches prepare to kick off a year of celebrations to mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
Yes, the statement was made by a female bishop. What, precisely, is Rome's view of her ordination and ministry? How about the status of the pastors that she ordains?
Readers will not find the answers to questions such as this in the RNS piece. However, it's hard to blame the reporter for two important reasons.
First of all, the piece is only 410 words long. I would doubt that the length was set by the scribe challenged with summing up this declaration in a news-consumer friendly news piece.
Second, as is often the case, this document contains few if any clear, punchy, quotable statements (at least not that I spotted in a quick read of the sections on the points of agreement and remaining points of disagreement). It is full of academic fog. Look at the document itself (.pdf here) or this short executive statement posted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
No wonder the RNS story says this:
[The document] also lists remaining differences between the two churches and next steps on addressing them.
And that's that.
In a way, what this document says is this: The ecumenical officers of these two churches plan to continue meeting, talking and socializing. Reporters are invited to read the highly academic and optimistically framed results that will be released after each and every meeting. World without end. Amen.
Was this statement major news or not? How will it affect life in local churches and parishes?