Old people on the religion beat (my hand is raised) will remember the 1980s, back when the mainline Protestant doctrinal wars over sexuality started breaking into elite headlines -- big time.
Year after year, some kind of mainline fight over gender and sexuality would score high in the annual Religion Newswriters Association poll to determine the Top 10 stories. More often than not, the Episcopal Church led the way in the fight for feminism and eventually gay rights.
These national headlines would, of course, inspire news coverage at the regional and local levels. Some Episcopal shepherds went along and some didn't. All of that produced lots of news copy, no matter what Episcopalians ended up doing.
At one point, while at the Rocky Mountain News, I told Colorado's Episcopal leader -- the always quotable former radio pro Bishop William C. Frey -- that a few local religious leaders were asking me why the Episcopal Church kept getting so much media attention.
Frey laughed, with a grimace, and said that was a strange thought, something like "envying another man's root canal."
Eventually, however, the progressive wins in Episcopal sanctuaries stopped being news, at least in mainstream news outlets.
Take, for example, that recent leap into gender-neutral theology in the District of Columbia, an interesting story that drew little or no attention in the mainstream press. Thus, here is the top of the main story from the Episcopal News Service:
The Diocese of Washington is calling on the Episcopal Church’s General Convention to consider expanding the use of gender-neutral language for God in the Book of Common Prayer, if and when the prayer book is slated for a revision.
He? She? Those pronouns aren’t preferred, the diocese says in a resolution it passed Jan. 27 at its convention, held at Washington National Cathedral in the nation’s capital city. Instead, the resolution recommends using “expansive language for God from the rich sources of feminine, masculine, and non-binary imagery for God found in Scripture and tradition.”
Now, here is the interesting part of this non-story. From the Episcopal point of view, it was still a story that there were people -- on the cultural and theological right -- who considered this action to modernize (click here for .pdf of the resolution) a topic worthy of news coverage:
The diocese’s convention passed two other resolutions, voicing support for immigrants and the transgender community. But it was the call for more inclusive language in the prayer book that drew national attention, especially from conservative-leaning critics.
“What I see is a church that embraces literally any fashionable left-wing cause,” Tucker Carlson, host of “Tucker Carlson Tonight” on Fox News, said in a segment Feb. 5 in which he interviewed the Rev. Alex Dyer, one of the resolution’s sponsors.
The Daily Caller, a news website founded by Carlson, reported on the resolution last week, as did Breitbart and The Blaze. Some of the reaction has been “vitriolic,” Washington Bishop Mariann Budde told Episcopal News Service in describing three negative emails she has received. All three emails were written in a similar tone, she said, describing her diocese alternately as aligned with Satan and at war with God.
As in the past, the key question was whether this action will mean that some traditional forms of liturgical language vanishes -- as opposed to the old language being blended into gender-neutral references to God. In particular, how does one reference the Holy Trinity, without turning God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit into mere functions (Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier) as opposed to Persons?
Now, the question seems to be whether mainstream coverage of progressive victories helps or hurts liberal church leaders. At this point, in other words, there is no need to celebrate except in official publications that target Episcopalians who are part of the church's new mainstream.
I keep hearing from readers (and more than one religion-beat professional) who have stated the question this way: Why didn't the Washington Post -- which has a large, super-qualified religion-desk team -- cover this story? Wasn't this important local, if not national, news?
I would assume that the answer is this: Is it still news when Episcopalians approve actions of this kind? We are no longer living in the 1980s or '90s.
However, there was this passage in the ENS report, indicating that -- on some issues -- the church's leaders would prefer not having debates, in public, about these kinds of hot-button topics. Does this imply that some resistance remains in some pews and pulpits? That would be news.
Thus, on the resolution “on inclusion of transgendered people”:
... Budde said the diocese wanted to stand with congregations that have been at the forefront of welcoming transgender people and fighting violence and hatred against them.
The resolution regarding gendered language for God was approved by a hand vote, with a solid majority in favor, though it was not unanimous, Budde said.
“There was very little debate in the convention itself, and I don’t think it’s because they didn’t want to have the conversation,” she said. If Episcopalians didn’t feel comfortable debating the question on the convention floor, she would welcome such conversations in other settings.
Some of conservative media coverage, as you would imagine, was rather harsh -- as niche-media coverage tends to be. Take, for example, the satire offered at The Babylon Bee:
37 Episcopalians Remaining On Planet Vote To Stop Using Male Pronouns For God
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The last surviving members of the Episcopalian religion voted last week to stop using male pronouns for God, sources at a meeting of the Diocese of Washington, D.C. confirmed.
The 37 remaining Episcopalians on Planet Earth conducted the vote in an effort to make the last three or four Episcopal churches in the country be more inclusive, in the rare case anyone actually showed up to any of their services.
You get the picture.
So, who would prefer to have the option of reading balanced, accurate coverage of these stories in mainstream publications, as opposed to readers having to depend on coverage in advocacy media on the left and the right? Who else thinks that, at this moment in time, non-political news and trends on the religious left still deserve mainstream coverage?