Headlines you could write every day

Archbishop fears Church schism in gay row

So says the headline in the Telegraph today. The story upon which this headline rests is a solid one, containing some interesting, if unsurprising quotes from the Most. Rev. Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury (formal diction for the formal mood I am in this morning.) But it isn’t the story that interests me, so much as the journalistic conventions that, through no one’s fault, seem to work against the non-Anglican public getting a clear understanding of what is happening within the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.

The headline of the Telegraph story, of necessity, suggests that something new has happened; that the Archbishop’s fear of a schism is either new or that it has intensified. Neither of these things is true. Yet the headline doesn’t really misrepresent the story. And it certainly attracts more readers than would a headline that reads: Archbishop repeats fears of schism in documentary.

A reader who isn’t following every twist and turn in our saga gets the impression that somehow the situation has gotten worse. But this isn’t the case.

We’ve got a more damaging version of this phenomena going on in the U. S. It’s a basic journalistic convention to explain in any ongoing story why the development being written about on that particular day is worth reading. In the Anglican saga, this has given rise to what I refer to as the “gap widening” paragraph. Since at least 2003, very capable reporters have been filing stories saying that the gap between liberals and conservatives in the Episcopal Church is “widening.” Sometimes this graph is accurate, but sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes the gap is widening; sometimes the reporter has just become aware of how wide the gap has always been; and sometimes the reporter just need some shorthand to justify the coverage of what might be a marginal development.

When I was a journalist, I wrote these sorts of paragraphs many times myself, so I am not just confessing someone else’e sins. In any ongong story, journalists tend to settle on a master narrative and gague the significance of incremental developments in the context of that narrative.

The problem with gap widening graph is that, repeated on a regular basis, it exaggerates and possibly intensifies the phenomenon it seeks to describe. There are some 7,200 Episcopal parishes in this country. If we lost one average sized parish per day for the next two years, we’d lose a little over 10 percent of our membership. Obviously that wouldn’t be good. But now imagine that a “gap widening” paragraph appears in the newspaper every time one of those parishes departs. After two years, what would be greater– our losses, or the public’s perception of our losses?

Unless our Church is adroit in managing a expeditious settlement with those who wish to leave we will continue to be a victim of journalistic convention. And, to change the subject, until we are willing to make an asset of the fact that we are paying a price for following the Gospel as we understand it, we will continue to pay that price, without reaping any of the potential benefits.

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