frgavin on November 18th, 2011
Posted by geoconger

How knowledgeable is your audience? What can a writer assume and what must be explained. One of the arts of journalism is the ability to gauge readers’ interests and abilities — to write not too much nor too little in setting the background of a story. When I write a story for the Church of England Newspaper, the Jerusalem Post or an American newspaper, I have an idea of what needs to be said and left unsaid for that particular audience.

A wire service reporter does not have that luxury. A recent Reuters story on the controversy over women bishops in the Church of England illustrates this question. In less than 400 words Reuters had to  summarize the issues and arguments and offer insights into what lies ahead. And it must do so using non-theological language that is accessible to their readers.  Sometimes it works, but in the article entitled “Church regions back women bishops,” it fell short.

The opening sentences show the problem of vocabulary:

The Church of England’s dioceses, or regions, have voted in favour of consecrating female bishops, campaigners said on Sunday, clearing one hurdle in a long legislative battle to let women break through the “stained glass ceiling.”

Only two of the Church’s 44 dioceses voted against the draft legislation, easily securing the 50 percent required for it to go back to the General Synod, or parliament, for another vote, said WATCH, a group campaigning for women bishops.

Do we really need to have explained what a diocese is? And if so, does “region” explain anything? If the audience is that ignorant should not the article explain what a “bishop” is and what connection a bishop has to a diocese? Explaining that the General Synod is the Church of England’s parliament is fine — but I feel the heavy hand of an editor at work — inserting explanations that break the flow of the story. It is so much smoother to say the “church’s parliament, the General Synod” than the circumlocution offered above.

The news reported in this article is that 42 of the Church of England’s 44 dioceses have endorsed the consecration of women priests to the episcopate. But the flow of the narrative and the informational value of the story deteriorates when Reuters attempts to summarize the arguments and predict the future.

Dioceses have been balloting their members since March this year and Sunday’s result confirmed what had largely been a foregone conclusion following the Synod’s earlier backing of the motion.

Here we have a “yes, but” problem. No, the dioceses have not been balloting  their members. No one has asked the people in the pews for their opinion. The members of the diocesan synods, who are not directly elected by the church’s members either, have been the ones voting.

The article reports that “traditionalist Anglo Catholics and conservative evangelicals have threatened to continue to oppose the draft legislation,” and notes that:

Other Anglican churches, including in the United States, Australia and Canada, already have women bishops.

But traditionalists and evangelicals continue to argue against it on biblical grounds.

The consecration of women bishops is one of the most divisive issues facing the church, alongside same sex marriages and the consecration of homosexuals.

The Church of England has been criticised for being obsessed with such issues at a time when families are struggling with economic hardship amid rising unemployment, higher prices and frozen wages as part of the British government’s attempts to rein in a record peacetime budget deficit.

The Church was seen as weak and confused when demonstrators protesting against the excesses of capitalism last month parked 200 tents outside one of the its most famous places of worship, St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Liberals in the Church, who say it is insulting not to admit women to positions of power, argue concessions have already been made to appease opponents.

About 50 disaffected traditionalist bishops and priests in the Church of England have decided to leave the Anglican Church and take up Pope Benedict’s offer to switch to Rome.

Others have decided to stay and fight from within. They say Jesus Christ’s apostles were all men and that there is nothing in the Bible or church history to support women bishops.

They pointed to the number of dioceses who backed a following motion, or secondary motion, calling for improved provision for opponents to support their case.

This is not evenhanded. The author’s sympathies are on display by the use of “continue”: “continue to oppose”, “continue to argue” in light of the diocesan votes and the example of the U.S., Canada and Australia. (As we have to explain what a diocese is, should we not explain that by the U.S. Anglican Church Reuters means the Episcopal Church? There are a number of churches in the U.S. who use the word Anglican in their names and none have women bishops.)

Writing a story from a press release has its perils also. This appears to have been drawn from an announcement from a group that lobbies for the approval of women bishops. The article notes that women bishops may appear as early as 2014. While this may be the goal of campaigners, it is far from being a “foregone conclusion.”

For the Church of England’s General Synod to approve women bishops, each of its three houses — bishops, clergy and lay members — must approve the measure by two-thirds super majority.  The last statement in the quote above — that protections are being sought for opponents of women bishops — should be fleshed out in order for the reader to understand that this is a live political battle and that the women bishops’ measure may fail. (For those interested in a detailed discussion on this point, I would refer them to English blogger and Huffington Post contributor Peter Ould.)

The digression about the Church of England’s debates over women bishops while the poor remain with us is preaching not reporting. It confuses politics and theology. This tone deafness is sounded quiet clearly in the explanation of the positions of the two opposing camps.  Setting calls for justice and access to power against the Bible is a gross caricature of the arguments.

As the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams — himself a supporter of women bishops — has said, the language of human rights should not be a “show stopper”.  Those in favor of women bishops make their argument out of a particular understanding of Christian Scripture and theology — as do the opponents of women bishops. To paint traditionalists as hide bound misogynists is as a mistake as calling supporters of women bishops the loonie left. Explaining the dispute in political terms misstates the issues. One might as well write that because women can’t be masons, ipso facto, they can’t become bishops of the Church of England.

Does Reuters explain too much and yet say too little? What say you GetReligion readers?

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