Mainline

How do today's woes on the mainstream religion beat compare with 1983 and 1994?

How do today's woes on the mainstream religion beat compare with 1983 and 1994?

Religion writers are buzzing about Prof. Charles Camosy’s Sept. 6 commentary on religion’s sagging cultural and journalistic status.

Decades ago, GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly, who analyzed Camosy in this post surveyed this same terrain in a classic 1983 article for Quill magazine, drawn from his research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. This is a journalism issue with legs.

There’s a little-known third such article, not available online. While cleaning out basement files, The Religion Guy unearthed a 1994 piece in the unfortunately short-lived Forbes Media Critic titled “Separation of Church & Press?” Writer Stephen Bates, then a senior fellow at the Annenberg Washington Program in Communications Policy Studies, now teaches media studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Both of these older articles were pretty glum.

Religion coverage suffers today as part a print industry on life support, in large part because of a digital advertising crisis. Radio and TV coverage of religion, then and now, is thin to non-existent and the Internet is a zoo of reporting, opinion and advocacy — often at the same time.

Those earlier times could fairly be looked back upon as the golden age of religion reporting. (Side comment: What a pleasure to read quotes in both articles from The Guy’s talented competitors and pals in that era.

Former Newsweek senior editor Edward Diamond (by then teaching journalism at New York University) told Bates that back in the 1960s the newsmagazine’s honchos had considered dropping the religion section entirely. If true, they were open to journalistic malparactice. In those years, competitors at Time, The New Yorker, the wires and newspapers were chock full of coverage from Catholicism’s Second Vatican Council and its tumultuous aftermath.

By the 1980s, Mattingly hoped for possible change in religion coverage’s “low-priority” status as journalism’s “best-kept secret.”

You want news? Let’s look back at that era.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

From Azusa Street to Memphis: Sometimes reporters have to tell old stories to new readers

From Azusa Street to Memphis: Sometimes reporters have to tell old stories to new readers

I do not go out of my way, as a rule, to praise the religion-beat work of one of my former students in the old Washington Journalism Center (which has now evolved into the New York City Journalism semester at The King’s College).

But it’s time to break that rule.

I say that because of a feature story by Katherine Burgess — a name to watch on the religion beat — that ran at The Memphis Commercial Appeal. The headline: “Bishop Mason built COGIC out of revival, the faith of former slaves.

In roughly 40 years of religion-beat work, I know of no organization that is harder to cover than the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). As a result, this massive Pentecostal flock receives way less coverage than it deserves. I don’t think the denomination’s leaders are hostile to the press (although I have encountered one or two who were), but they certainly do not seek out the attention.

How many news-consumers in West Tennessee, white and black, know the history of this important institution or even know that it is based in their region? Thus, Burgess needed to start at the beginning, with the story of one man:

He preached in living rooms, in the woods and in a cotton gin.

When he returned from the Azusa Street Revival speaking in unknown tongues, Bishop Charles Harrison Mason was followed by just 10 churches out of more than 100 in the split over the theological disagreement.

Today, the denomination founded by Mason, the son of former slaves, is the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States, with more than 6.5 million members.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Hurrah for blue pews! New York Times embraces small, doctrine-optional Manhattan flock

Hurrah for blue pews! New York Times embraces small, doctrine-optional Manhattan flock

Reporters who are truly interested in the future of the American faith-scene need to know this number — 100. Or maybe it’s 85 or 90. I’ve heard others say the crucial number is 115 in expensive zip codes.

But the late Lyle Schaller, a legendary church-management guru in oldline Protestant circles, once told me that it took about 100 actively contributors to fund the salary-and-benefits package for a credentialed minister in a mainline church. When Schaller said “mainline,” he was talking about the “Seven Sisters.” In descending order by size, that’s the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

In other words, if a church had more than 100 active members (or households) it could provide for its minister and then do other things — like keep the building from falling down. With fewer than 100 members, a church would be constantly struggling with basic expenses, trying to keep the doors open.

So that’s the statistic that looms over that glowing New York Times feature about a lively Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that represents the future of the religious left. The dramatic main headline states: “The Church Where Believing in God Isn’t Strictly Necessary.”

Yes, I hear what many readers are thinking. This is a church that even the New York Times can love. And how many people are in these pews? Readers will have to read way down into the story to find that information. Meanwhile, the summary lede contains a few details:

Observant Presbyterians are always part of gatherings at Rutgers Presbyterian Church. But much of the time, so are Roman Catholics and Jews, as well as a smattering of people who consider themselves vaguely spiritual. Valerie Oltarsh-McCarthy, who sat among the congregation listening to a Sunday sermon on the perils of genetically modified vegetables, is, in fact, an atheist.

You have to love that detail about the “perils of genetically modified vegetables.” However, the thesis statement comes a few paragraphs later, as the editorial angels sing a song of hope for a future free of nasty stuff like ancient doctrines:

Typically, the connective tissue of any congregation is an embrace of a shared faith.

Yet Rutgers, a relatively small church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has rejected that. Sharing a belief in God — any God at all — isn’t necessary.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

What is 'fundamentalism'? Hint: Grab a copy of the Associated Press Stylebook

What is 'fundamentalism'? Hint: Grab a copy of the Associated Press Stylebook

THE QUESTION: 

What is (and is not) “fundamentalism”?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

One of The Guy’s weekly memos for getreligion.org recently proposed that “fundamentalism” has become such an abused and misunderstood label that maybe we media folk should drop it altogether.

The Guy was provoked to go public with this heretical idea when The New York Times Book Review  assessed a memoir of life among Jehovah’s Witnesses. The reviewer, who teaches at Harvard Divinity School, said repeatedly that Witnesses are “fundamentalists.”

Ouch (see below).  If the Ivy League elite and the nation’s most influential newspaper are confused, it’s time to consider scrapping such a meaningless word.

Not so long ago, most people understood that a fundamentalist is by definition a Protestant, usually in the U.S., and a strongly tradition-minded one with a distinct flavor and fervor. Some quick history.

The term originated with “The Fundamentals,” a series of 12 booklets with 90 essays by varied thinkers from English-speaking countries that were distributed beginning in 1910. Along with standard Christian tenets, the writers defended and the authority and historical truth of the Bible over against liberal theories coming mainly from Germany.

That founding effort drew support from “mainline” Protestants, “evangelicals” and proto-“fundamentalists.” Brothers Milton and Lyman Stewart, the Union Oil millionaires who funded the project, were lay Presbyterians. The authors were reputable scholars ranging from Anglican bishops to “mainline” seminary professors to Bible college presidents. The tricky issue of the creation accounts in the Book of Genesis was not assigned to an extreme literal interpreter but respected Scottish theologian James Orr.

The budding movement was further defined by insistence on the “five points of fundamentalism,” namely the Bible’s “inerrancy” (history without error) as originally written, the truth of biblical miracles,  the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, his bodily resurrection from the dead, and “vicarious” atonement through his death on the cross to save sinners.

Notably, these points were defined by predecessors of today’s rather liberal Presbyterian Church (USA). After a dispute over clergy ordinations in New York City, the General Assembly of 1910 required affirmation of the five points by clergy candidates, and reaffirmed that policy in 1916 and 1923.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Ready or not: Proposals for big United Methodist Church breakup are due by September 18

Ready or not: Proposals for big United Methodist Church breakup are due by September 18

United Methodist Church strategists have been sweating out how to maneuver since last February’s special General Conference voted by 53 percent to reinforce traditional doctrines that bar same-sex weddings and actively gay clergy. Ongoing resistance to that from liberal bishops, agency officials, educators, pastors and congregations appears to make it inevitable that the existing disagreement will be formalized in a big breakup.

But what, when and how?

Religion writers will want to focus on proposed legislation on this for next year’s General Conference (May 5–15 in Minneapolis), due to be filed by a September 18 deadline. Three notable drafts, which may be polished further before submission, are thus far in the mix:

On July 8, Bishops David Bard of Lansing, Michigan, and Scott Jones of Houston, Texas, offered “A New Form of Unity.”

On August 8, a dozen key figures representing traditionalist, liberal and “centrist” views joined to issue the “Indianapolis Plan.”

On August 19, the less detailed “UMCNext Proposal” was issued by an alliance of UMC caucuses that want a change to full LGBTQ inclusion.

All three schemes envision the simplest possible path to schism without the hassle of rewriting the UMC constitution, and fairly soon, though timelines vary. You’ll want to compare the final texts with help from UMC analysts, but looks to The Religion Guy like the outlines of a deal are already emerging. However, endless details remain to be thrashed out. Methodists would need to carve up a global church of 12.6 million members and 44,000 congregations, with annual donations of $6.3 billion, plus massive assets.

Some envision a three-way split if necessary, but the UMC essentially faces a two-way divide, with LGBTQ policy the precipitating issue that reflects generally differing attitudes toward the Bible and historic theology.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

More news about old churches being sold and flipped: Does it matter why this is happening?

More news about old churches being sold and flipped: Does it matter why this is happening?

Trigger alert: News readers are going to be seeing more and more stories about churches closing down and going up for sale.

There’s a good reason for this: Lots of churches, in lots of zip codes (but some zip codes more than others) are closing and being put up for sale. This is an obvious local story hook and often comes with colorful art, as these sanctuaries are turned into pubs, condos, art galleries, mansions, etc., etc.

However, these local stories also have valid national angles, because some flocks (think Seven Sisters of oldline Protestantism) are closing more churches than others. Also (think Catholic parishes in New York City), some of these churches are sitting on ultra-prime real estate in older downtown neighborhoods.

So here is my question: Is the fate of the church bodies that formerly occupied these holy spaces an essential element in all of these stories? In the old journalism formula “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why” and “how,” does the “WHY” element remain important?

It would appear not, based on many of the stories that I am seeing.

Consider this new NPR report that does with a very broad headline: “Houses Of Worship Find New Life After Congregations Downsize.” See the implied question there? Why are so many congregations downsizing or even closing?

So what facts made it into the story? Here is the overture:

When Lisa and Dan Macheca bought a century-old Methodist church in St. Louis back in 2004, they didn't think much about the cost of heating the place.

Then the first heating bill arrived: $5,000 for a single month.

"I felt like crying," Lisa Macheca said. "Like, 'Oh my gosh, what have I gotten myself into?' "

Over the course of a decade, the Machecas, who both have hospitality backgrounds, renovated the 115-year-old church into a bed and breakfast. Repurposing these buildings — known as adaptive reuse — is becoming increasingly common as the religious preferences of Americans shift.

So what is going on here?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

There will always be an England? BBC helter-skelter cathedral report misses a crucial fact

There will always be an England? BBC helter-skelter cathedral report misses a crucial fact

Let me state the obvious. This is one of those stories that people would worry about if it ran at a satire-news website like The Onion or, especially, The Babylon Bee.

It would fit either place since it combines British humor, pop culture and a 12th century cathedral.

But, no, this report is from the venerable BBC. And what a wild story it is, combining outlandish visuals with a solid hard-news angle that is perfect for religion-beat coverage. The only problem is that BBC totally omitted the serious-news content in this strange story. The headline states, “Norwich Cathedral: Bishop delivers sermon from helter-skelter.”

Helter skelter? No, we’re not talking about The Beatles song and there’s no link here, obviously, to the Manson Family. No, this is a story about a painfully hip bishop (#IMHO) and an oldline Protestant institution that is really, really anxious to pull a few people through its doors. Here is (hang on tight) the overture:

God would be "revelling" in the joy a "glorious" helter-skelter has brought to Norwich Cathedral, its bishop has told his congregation from its slide.

The fairground ride had been in the nave of the cathedral for 11 days. It was intended to give people a different view of the building, although some accused the cathedral of "making a mistake".

The Bishop of Lynn, the Rt Revd Jonathan Meyrick, delivered his sermon from halfway up the ride.

"God is a tourist attraction," he told his congregation during the cathedral's final service with the helter-skelter as a backdrop. "God wants to be attractive to us. ... for us to enjoy ourselves, each other and the world around us and this glorious helter-skelter is about just that."

The bishop had climbed to the top of the helter-skelter before edging halfway down the slide, where he stopped to deliver his sermon. He then received a loud cheer as he whooshed to the bottom.

On one level, this strategy worked, since cathedral officials noted that about 20,000 people paid a visit between August 7-18 and about 10,000 newcomers chose to slide down the helter-skelter.

The online version of this news story also did include a tiny note, and a quick hyperlink, to a traditional Anglican response to this rather unique approach to evangelism.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Buttigieg and faith: WPost edges closer to covering pew gaps inside today's Democratic Party

Buttigieg and faith: WPost edges closer to covering pew gaps inside today's Democratic Party

A decade or more ago — I forget which White House race — the pollster and scholar John C. Green of the University of Akron made a witty comment about American politics and the role that faith often plays at ground level on election day.

This election, he told me (and I paraphrase), was going to be another one of those cases in which the presidency would be decided by Catholic voters in Ohio. But Green didn’t just point at generic Catholic voters. He said that the crucial factor would be whether “Catholics who go to Mass every Sunday” showed up at the polls in greater numbers than “Catholics who go to Mass once a month.”

In other words, he was saying that there is no one Catholic vote (click here for GetReligion posts on this topic) involved in the so-called “pew gap.” Catholics who go to Mass every week (or even daily) have different beliefs than those who show up every now and then.

So when a presidential candidate hires a “faith outreach director,” it’s crucial to ask (a) which group of believers the candidate hopes to rally, (b) how many of them are out there and (c) are we talking about people whose faith pushes them into action?

You can see these factors — often hidden between the lines — in a recent Washington Post story that ran with this headline: “Pete Buttigieg hires the first faith outreach director of the 2020 campaign.” There are one or two places in this piece where the Post team comes really, really close to examining the crucial faith-based cracks inside today’s Democratic Party.

The key: Is Buttigieg trying to rally religious liberals (and secularists) who already on his side or is he, like Barack Obama, attempting to reach out to centrists and liberal evangelicals? So far, the other key player in this pre-primary faith contest is Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who urgently needs support from voters in the African-American church.

So Buttigieg has hired the Rev. Shawna Foster as his faith-outreach director. What does this tell us about the Democratic Party at this stage of the contest?

Foster … has a broad imperative to talk to all religious groups. She said she thinks mainline Protestants (those who are not evangelical and tend to be more liberal, both religiously and politically) have been overlooked by political campaigns and are probably sympathetic to the religious views of Buttigieg, an Episcopalian.

Please respect our Commenting Policy