Reporting on sermons: NYTimes and the Presiding Bishop

by Dan Schultz

We’ve heard a lot about controversial sermons in recent years: there was the whole Jeremiah Wright thing (and to a lesser extent the Michael Pfleger thing). That same election cycle John McCain had trouble with John Hagee, and then in 2011 Rick Perry ran into a spot of bother with Robert Jeffress. This year Luis Leon gave Obama a bit of a headache on Easter Sunday, and though Sr. Laurie Brink technically delivered addresses, not sermons, to a convention of nuns, it was enough to create some mishegas at the Vatican’s doctrinal offices.

The latest, via the New York Times’ Mark Oppenheimer, is that Katherine Jefferts Schori misinterpreted the book of Acts in a sermon preached to an Episcopal congregation in Curaçao, and this has traditionalists hopping mad, and how.

Now, full disclosure: Oppenheimer and I have some history, which you’re welcome to google if you want. That being said, I’ll only knock him for picking up uncritically the perspective of knee-jerk opponents of the Episcopal church. Like Jim Naughton said on Twitter the other day, the Presiding Bishop could say “Pass the ketchup,” and some of these people would respond with lengthy diatribes on the centrality of tomato imagery in the writings of Gnostic heretics. There’s actually nothing wrong with noticing a minor controversy like this and using it to reflect on the struggles of a denomination: everybody knows TEC has and will have its share of struggles over the coming years. But journalists need to be careful in analyzing church fights. It’s rarely black and white, and sometimes, as in this case, the same people complaining are actively trying to submarine the church. You might want to take what they have to say with a grain of salt.

That’s a relatively minor concern, however. What seems more worrisome is the continued pattern of journalists and political activists taking sermons out of context to drive some kind of narrative, whether political or about divisions in the church. Bishop Jefferts Schori almost certainly did get Paul’s intentions wrong in her sermon, but that’s not the point. Sermons are primarily for the people who hear them, meaning the people of God who have gathered to hear the word of God in the context of a particular community gathered at a particular place and a particular time. They are very seldom meant for a wider audience than their immediate setting, and they are—or should never—be for the purpose of scoring political points.

Religious leaders can and should be held accountable for the words they preach. But before reporters go ripping passages out of sermons to slap down in a news report, they need to ask themselves some hard questions:

do I fully understand the context in which this sermon was given?

Do I understand how it might serve the needs of the community to which it was delivered, and how those needs might be different from those of the wider society?

Do I understand the damage that reporting on this sermon might to do to the religious community?

Does reporting on it contribute to the manipulation of religious discourse for partisan ends?

Is reporting on worth the risk of cheapening the words that some people literally hold sacred?

If journalists are going to respect religious faith, as they’re always being encouraged to do, they will take those questions seriously and look for a compelling reason to lift a message out of its particular setting and place it into a general context. “Pastor preaches sermon” may be the oldest story in the church, but “Some people are unhappy with Pastor’s sermon” might just be the second oldest. It is by itself an insufficient cause for a column.

One last word, by way of fairness: preachers must also accept some responsibility here. Anybody who’s been in the pulpit understands that even the most innocuous sermon can be easily bent out of shape by somebody who wasn’t there, and even sometimes by the people who were. The best sermons aren’t necessarily the least controversial, but they are as a rule the ones that respect both the intelligence of the congregation and its particular, peculiar need to hear the word of God in a new way. Preachers and journalists could learn from that notion.

Daniel Schultz, known as “pastordan” around the internet, is a writer and teacher in Wisconsin.

Past Posts