Live: the cage match that wasn’t

By Jim Naughton

The most delicious thing has just happened. The Episcopal Church held a second reception in a campus building for African bishops interested in exploring companion relationships. So far, so ordinary. But somehow, word of this gathering reached the media centre last night in the following form:

The Episcopal Church and an unspecified number of African bishops were to meet on the lawn in front of the media centre tomorrow at 3 p. m. to have it out. The Africans have demanded that the meeting be held in public, so its outcome would be plain for all to see. A cage match!

As it happened, I ran into an Episcopal Church official as I was leaving last night, and was disabused of this misinformation. The reception had originally been planned for the lawn in front of the media centre, but the venue had been changed. I passed this information on to whoever would listen this morning, but I failed to persuade people.

The rumor mutated. As three o’clock grew nigh, I heard a) that the cage match was on and that Gene Robinson would be present; b) that the Episcopalians had chickened out, but the Africans would turn up to express their displeasure with Western churches to the media. I knew that it was false, but the conservative activists spreading the rumors have a good track record when it comes to staging media events, so I went downstairs to find out what was afoot.

The conservative press had already assembled at the edge of the lawn. Then the Episcopal Church’s media group showed up fully aware that there was not going to be a confrontation, but wondering what the conservatives had up their sleeves. Two knots of people, some with cameras, stood at a respectful distance from one another. Passersby stopped to find out what was going on. The knots grew. Soon more than 15 people were waiting for no one knew quite what.

By 3:15, with not a bishop in sight, the absurdity of the situation began to dawn on people, and the crowd began to thin. I decided to look for American bishops leaving the reception across campus to see how it had gone. I had nice chats with Bishops Eugene Sutton of Maryland and Stephen Lane of Maine. I was interviewing Bishop Henry Parsley of Alabama about the proposed Anglican Covenant (more about that in a later report) when reporters began passing by us in twos and threes. The crowd from the lawn near the media centre was reassembling in front of the building where the reception had been held. And it was growing.

Bishop Parsley had to leave for Bible study, so I decided to follow the crowd. Several reporters told me that the rumor remained the same, although the time and place of the cage match had been changed. So there we stood. And stood. Until it became obvious that the bishops trickling out of the building hadn’t so much as sparred with one another, and had nothing more provocative to say than that companion dioceses programs seemed quite a good idea.

Still we stood there. The crowd eventually began to thin, but organizations like the BBC, which had several reporters on the grounds, kept one person in place just to be on the safe side. Eventually people began to suspect that whomever was promoting a showdown—and it sure as heck wasn’t the Episcopal Church—had either failed to deliver, or simply gotten their information wrong.

A reporter’s phone rang. The match was on at the original site. A small dubious crowd turned on its heel and headed back to the media centre. Another phone rang: the original call was a false alarm.

Neva Rae Fox, who has been handling media relations for the Episcopal Church, asked reporters why they hadn’t asked her about the rumors they had heard. “Most of you have me on speed dial,” she said.

I suspect the reason these rumors persisted is that the media has a high regard for the ability to conservative provocateurs to stage effective media events. (And it is well-earned.) It took more than an hour for this rumor to die. What troubles me is that had such an event taken place, it would, no doubt, have been interpreted as symbolic of tensions boiling beneath the surface of the conference, when, in fact we have no real idea whether tension are rife or rare. You’ve heard of gesture politics; this is gesture journalism–the coverage of stage-managed events as indicative of a reality with which they might be entirely incongruous.

At any rate, it was quite a kick to chase phantoms for much of the afternoon, and I will be interested in the varying self-exculpatory versions of this story that will no doubt be told. We got played and allowed ourselves to be played because we couldn’t risk not being there when the confrontation that everyone keeps expecting (some might say pining for) finally occurred.

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