Monday, March 19, 2007

Taking a second look at the AP's coverage of the Mark Lawrence story

I've taken a second look at Rachel Zoll's AP report concerning Mark Lawrence's failure to win official consent from a majority of the diocesan standing committees in The Episcopal Church. Here's the USA Today version headlined "Episcopalian leader rejects conservative diocese's choice of bishop." The LA Daily News headlined the story "Episcopal bishop election ruled out for at-odds views."

The editorial choices of headlines is understandable given the AP's first two paragraphs:
Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori took the highly unusual step Thursday of invalidating the election of a bishop in the tradition-minded Diocese of South Carolina, which has rejected her authority because of her liberal theological outlook.

The elevation of the Very Rev. Mark Lawrence of Bakersfield, Calif., had become a flashpoint in the denomination's struggle over whether parishioners with conflicting views of the Bible on gays and other issues could stay in the same denomination. The last time the Episcopal Church threw out a bishop's election was more than seven decades ago.
An uninformed reader skimming the paper could easily wrongly conclude that (1) the PB invalidated the election because of Lawrence's views or the diocese's rejection of her authority (has the diocese even rejected her authority?), and (2) the invalidation was not a democratic process by majority vote but her choice.

In fact, the PB's role by church law is to determine whether a majority of diocesan bishops and standing committees had given their consent to the election. By her determination a majority of diocesan standing committees did not submit valid consents. Some did not follow church law in the submission of their ballot, some may have not submitted any ballot, and some voted no.

It is not possible to prove that some standing committees opposed Lawrence because of his conservative views. But the issue that caused sparks to fly was not his conservatism, but issue of whether he would take South Carolina out of the Episcopal Church. However, this issue is not raised until two thirds of the way into the AP article:
Lawrence, a priest in the conservative Diocese of San Joaquin, based in Fresno, Calif., was elected on the first ballot last September as South Carolina bishop.

The San Joaquin Diocese has also rejected Jefferts Schori's authority, partly because it opposes the ordination of women. In December, the diocese took the first step toward a formal break with the denomination. Some Episcopalians believed Lawrence planned to follow suit in South Carolina. He vehemently denied it.

"That was mud that got thrown at me and in some people's mind that stuck," Lawrence said.
Did he vehemently deny it in a timely fashion? I don't think so.

I do not, however, disagree much with this assessment:
McCormick [the Rev. J. Haden McCormick, head of the committee that administers the South Carolina Diocese] called it a "tragic outcome" that he hoped would be "a wake up call" about conditions in the church. Theological conservatives are a minority within the 2.3 million-member Episcopal Church.
I hasten to add that theological liberals are also a minority. The outcome is tragic in many ways, and it does highlight conditions in the church that we have reached the point where it is a concern that dioceses would leave. Is it a wake up call? Most Episcopalians are as aware as they want to be, do not want to be drawn into either camp.

1 comment:

Lionel Deimel said...

It was unfortunate that ENS was not given time to prepare a story before South Carolina was out with its own spin on events.

I, too, have been concerned with coverage of the failure of Lawrence’s bid to become a bishop. I invite you to read my take (“Reflections on the Mark Lawrence Affair” and “Lawrence Bid Fails”).