Yes, President George H.W. Bush was an Episcopalian (and that is still a noun)

Back when I was breaking into journalism, soon after the cooling of the earth’s crust, I quickly learned that religion-beat specialists know lots of inside jokes.

Take this classic one, from the “light bulb” genre: How many Episcopalians does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: One. Along with 10 others to start a newsletter about the utter irreplaceability of the original, historic bulb.

Yes, that’s a really old joke. Today, “newsletter” would be “Facebook page,” or something like that.

In this GetReligion post, the key thing is to note, in this joke, that “Episcopalian” is a noun.

Want to see the adjective form?

While working at the old Charlotte News (RIP), I got some nasty telephone calls after writing a column with this lede: “When covering an Episcopal convention, never stay in the hotel room next to the ice machine.”

As the late Associated Press religion reporter George Cornell — an Episcopalian’s Episcopalian, if there ever was one — once offered, in my presence, a quip that went something like this: You can tell that a journalist is a religion-beat reporter when they know that “Episcopalian” is a noun and “Episcopal” is an adjective.

I bring this up because lots of journalists — few of them religion-beat specialists — will be covering the funeral rites for President George H.W. Bush. Since he was a faithful Episcopalian, of a rather traditional bent, all of these rites will occur in Episcopal settings, with Episcopal clergy involved.

It’s safe to say that mistakes will be made. Consider, for example, the following passage in a lovely Houston Chronicle sidebar about the current emotions in the parish that Barbara and George Bush attended in Houston. The headline: “At Bush’s church, a moment of pause for ‘a remarkable life’.” The story opens with images from the 8 a.m. Mass at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, a service that tends to attract an older, quieter crowd:

“I’m going to pause before I begin,” Rev. Dr. Russell J. Levenson, Jr., said at the top of the hour. “Some folks would think — knowing who we are, and where we are — this Sunday, on the death of our 41st president, there would be some attention for him in our worship. But those of us who know and love the Bush family also know and love that it is not something he would want us to so. He would want us to worship on the Sunday that is given to the first Sunday of Advent.”

With that, Levenson led his congregation through a moment of silence, for “a remarkable life.”

The congregation knows as well as the country and the world, that when Bush died on Friday, at the age of 94, he left a legacy of public service that spanned more than a half-century. That will, of course, all be noted when St. Martin’s Episcopal Church hosts the late president’s funeral on Thursday.

But the members at St. Martin’s, which has grown to be the largest Episcopalian church in the nation during the decades in which Bush and his late wife Barbara, who died this April, have faithfully attended, know even more than that. And while Bush’s name was never mentioned in the sermon or prayers that followed, it was there between the lines, for many.

Yes, that should be the “largest Episcopal church in the nation.” We need an adjective there.

This is picky stuff. However, as I like to tell my students, there is more to journalism than accuracy, but there is never less.

The bible of American newsrooms, the Associated Press Stylebook, offers the following guidance:

Episcopal, Episcopalian

Episcopal is the adjective form; use Episcopalian only as a noun referring to a member of the Episcopal Church: She is an Episcopalian. But: She is an Episcopal priest.

Journalists have, as I stressed above, been making this simple grammatical mistake for a long, long time. (My colleague Julia Duin noted this same error in a post a few hours ago.)

This is the kind of error that makes church leaders wince when they see it, like the errors reporters make when they confuse “evangelical” and “evangelist.” It’s not all that hard to learn how to use these common terms.

Yet we see the same mistake year after year, decade after decade. Thus, this “Episcopalian” thing has turned into an inside joke.

By the way, want to know more about Episcopal humor? Check out this short bit from Garrison Keillor. And here is a site (one of many) offering some classic Episcopal jokes.

This offering, in the Episcopalians at the gates of hell and/or heaven collection, is a cleaner variation on one of my favorites:

A woman dies and goes to heaven, and St. Peter takes her on a tour. They pass a pit where people were gnashing their teeth and wailing, and the woman asks, “Who’s down there?”

St. Peter says, “Oh, those are the Catholics who ate meat on Fridays.”

They walk a little farther and there’s another pit with more groaning and wailing, and she says, “Okay, who’s down there?”

St. Peter answers, “Those are the Baptists who went to dances.”

A little farther along, there’s another pit filled with people gnashing their teeth and crying and ripping their garments. The woman asks, “And those people?”

St. Peter replies, “Those are the Episcopalians who ate their salads with their fish forks.”

Be careful out there.

FIRST IMAGE: St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston.

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