Beliefs Culture

Bad Journalism

Since I've been keeping a steady eye on the Episcopal Church for more than six years, I'm always interested in what other journalists have to say about it. In most cases, I learn something.

Every once in a while, though, I read something so counterfactual that I feel compelled to speak out. 

For instance, there's the recent Wall Street Journal column that was so risibly uninformed that even Get Religion gave it a Bronx cheer.

Ross Douthat's piece on Sunday was somewhat more informed, but equally tendentious. 

For example, Douthat writes the Episcopal Church is “flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.”

To underscore his point, Douthat links to a Christianity Today piece about a former Episcopal priest who also embraces Islam and a one-time candidate for bishop who practices Zen meditation.

But Douthat doesn't tell his readers that the former priest, Ann Holmes Redding, was defrocked by her bishop; and Kevin Thew Forrester's election as bishop was by nullified by a majority of Episcopal dioceses

So, it seems that Episcopalians are not quite as willing to “blend Christianity with other faiths” as Douthat would have his readers believe. 

Of course, Douthat is entitled to his own opinion. But good journalism tells the whole story, pesky facts and all. 

About the author

Daniel Burke

Daniel Burke worked for Religion News Service from 2006-2013. He now co-edits CNN's Belief Blog.


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  • I have to take exception to the assertion that the Episcopal Church is “friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form” as well.

    The resolutions which Integrity has supported have encouraged and asked the church to uphold relationships market by fidelity and commitment, giving couples the same rights AND RESPONSIBILITIES as their hetero brothers and sisters. If anything these couples have had to go further to demonstrate these traits.

    Given the fluidity and permissiveness that exists in our culture generally and is especially ascribed to gay men, this is to me a conservative position on the part of the church, which upholds the model of family. Unless one is among those who cling to the fantasy that one can “pray the gay away” altogether, the church’s stance is one I would think the “family-values” crowd would celebrate.

  • Though a survey of syllabi from most syllabi at most Episcopal seminaries would provide ample evidence for Douthat’s claims. Don’t think so? Then take a look.

  • Sounds interesting, JKAS. I’d love to see a few sample syllabi if you have time to send them.

  • Thanks for pointing out the obvious, which unfortunately is not obvious to the swath of folks who gain some type of benefit out of believing and promulgating the idea that “liberals don’t have a worldview to speak of”.

  • Thanks for this, Daniel. And as a further note, having “kept a steady eye on the Episcopal Church” for a lot LONGER than six years, I want to note that these two op-eds … as blatantly biased and egregiously erroneous as they were … were unpresentative of the media response to the actions of the Episcopal Church at its 77th General Convention. Instead of headlines and handwringing about what would happen IF we moved to fully include all the baptized in all the sacraments, we got reporting on the fact that we DID move forward to more fully include all the baptized in all the sacraments.

    “Paradigm shift” may be an overused term, but in this case I think it’s fair to say it is accurate. Now we as a church get to put our evangelism where our resolutions have been and tell the Good News of a church grounded in scripture, tradition and reason and growing into God’s future — drawing the circle wider rather than circling the wagons. And what I know from my experience at All Saints Church in Pasadena — which is about to break ground on a building project to make room for the mission and ministry that has outgrown our facilities — is that there are plenty of people out there who think they know enough about being Christians NOT to want to be one … and when we invite them in we change their minds. Thanks again, Daniel!

  • Dear JKAS,
    I teach at an Episcopal seminary and know the curricula and missions of the other Episcopal seminaries. I see no evidence of the doctrinal indifference or other matters you allude to. Where is your evidence? I have my syllabi to back up my claims and I am happy to share.

  • Ann Redding was cheered in by her local Bishop in Seattle but it did turn out she was under another one. Count that as 50/50. In Seattle what happened was very unpopular with Episcopalians

  • Thanks for this piece. It is refreshing when a journalist declares that one position is right and another wrong. Objectivity should not mean indifference to facts. Giving truth and falsehood equal time is not objectivity; it is abdication of moral (and journalistic) responsibility.

  • Daniel,

    I have no problem with two faith traditions trying to “understand” each other. However, if by interfaith ceremony you mean an event where there is a blending of, for example, the Christian and Buddhist beliefs in some sort of liturgy then that fits the definition of syncretism (the combination of different forms of belief or practice)

    I am not saying that every Episcopal parishioner is a syncretist. However, individual leaders and corporate structures of The Episcopal Church have demonstrated that they are quit comfortable with combining different forms of religious practice.

  • Thanks again, Robert. I agree with your definition of syncretism there – to some extent.

    There are lots of interfaith services – mixed marriages, for example, that I don’t think could considered syncretistic. There’s no blending, as you say – or only very rarely.

    So when does a liturgical appreciation of pluralism cross the line into syncretism? That’s a very good question. I think conservatives and liberals would draw the line in very difference places.

    My point about Douthat is that he a) makes an overly broad condemnation of The Episcopal Church and b) draws on (by hyperlink proxy) two examples that actually counter his point.

    For what it’s worth, I seem to recall that Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s installation service also incorporated elements of Native American spirituality. Maybe an addition to your report?

    Again, thanks for writing and for sending the report. If I follow up with an article on this, I’ll be sure to be in touch.


  • I searched that article and just could not find where the RC’s said that there was any path to God other than Jesus. I didn’t see one single word that disputed scripture as the authority of the Church. That is not the case in the episcopal church. Indeed, had the Muslim-Episcopal priest been resident in the diocese of Olympia, the bishop would have allowed her to remain. He celebrated her diversity. In fact, the episcopal leadership sought to have the issue with Ms. Redding kept “under the radar.”

    Another example is the bishops are refusing to discipline priests who do not follow important issues such as communion without baptism despite the fact, they just reaffirmed the importance. Other examples of priests who failed to follow canon would be those who blessed ss unions long before allowed. These are just a few issues. ECUSA would be hard pressed to dispute the fact that they have thumbed their noses at biblical authority and replaced it with the current culture beginning with the lack of sound exegsis on the issue of practicing homosexuality as it relates to the church. ECUSA has become a tiny island that has isolated itself from the rest of Christianity while being absorbed lock, stock and mitre into the current culture.

  • Mike is quite correct–if Anne Redding had been resident in Seattle rather than Rhode Island, she’d still be an Episcopal priest today.

    You might also comment on the controversy surrounding the placing of pagan rites on the women’s ministry page a few years ago. Yes, it was taken down after some conservative bloggers made a stink, but until then that was apparently okey-dokey. It’s also by no means the only instance of Episcopal churches or web sites offering prayers, rituals, or services that intentionally blend a variety of religious perspectives.

    I also can’t help but notice that though Douthat writes that TEC is “flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes,” you actually only respond to the third point. I take it that means you agree with his other three. If you don’t, please explain why not.

  • The current bishop of Olympia said that he agreed with the decision to defrock Ann Holmes Redding, so I don’t know how you could argue that she would still be a priest today.

    David, I don’t have time to respond to all of Douthat’s points. Maybe someday, but not now.

    I’d be interested in what anti-syncretists have to say about Christianity’s roots.

    Can it be argued that the faith is a blend (quite consciously in the mind of Sts. Paul and Peter) of the first century Jesus movement and temple Judaism?

    After all, Paul was participating in a Jewish rite on the day he was arrested. 21:26-21:26&version=KJV

    And that’s not even counting all the paganism (dates of Christmas and Easter, anyone?) that Christianity picked up across the centuries.

    So, in some sense, are the current Episcopal syncretists actually more faithful to Christianity’s roots than the conservative crowd?

  • Are you attempting to deny that duly elected and sitting bishop of the Diocese of Olympia, Bishop Warner, accepted Ms. Redding as a Muslim-Episcopal priest? If so, please explain his statements to the contrary. You might recall the fact it was in the diocesan newsletter being trumpeted as a good thing.

    The leadership seems to have a habit trying to keep their public image away from their controversial and awkward decisions. Here’s an email about the Muslim-episcopal priest from 2007 trying to keep this “under the radar” back then also.

    From: Jim Naughton [mailto:[email protected]]
    Sent: Tuesday, June 19, 2007 9:58 AM
    To: [email protected]
    Subject: RE: [talk]: “I am both Muslim and Christian”

    I fervently hope that it will be possible to ignore this story until it slips back beneath the radar.

    Jim Naughton
    Canon for Communications and Advancement Episcopal Diocese of Washington/202-537-7162 Episcopal Church House / Mount Saint Alban / Washington, D. C. 20016

    Do you really think that the Buddhist bishop would not have been approved if the conservative blogs had not outed him?

    I find it interesting that ECUSA has put out this full blitz trying to change their image. What is it – now that they have jumped the shark they want people to think they embrace Scripture? Ask the GLBT lobby at GC77 that were shocked to learn that the bible actually contains language that condemns the practice of homosexuality.

    Are you sure you want to throw the gaunlet down to the MSM about the real ECUSA?

  • Rickel was not Bishop when it appeared the dioceses of Olympia had jurisdiction, Warner was. Warner would have allowed her to stay. Like I said, that claim is 50/50 but I would find it impossible to prove that some portion of the Episcopal is not syncronistic.

  • Jackie,

    You said that Holmes Redding would still be a priest today. According to the sitting bishop of Olympia, Greg Rickel, she would not. There was, as it were, a new sheriff in town.

    I don’t know if Thew Forrester would have been denied if conservative bloggers hadn’t highlighted his Zen practice. That’s a counterfactual conditional, as the logicians say.

    I do know this: Thew Forrester was “outed” and his election was nullified.

    Which goes to my point contra Douthat. The overwhelming number of dioceses – and bishops – were not willing to “blend Christianity with other faiths,” as he put it. In fact, just the opposite.

  • I think the struggle here is what is meant by syncretism and being open to it. I think to people who worry about it these examples are just proof of how far it has gone and that the stuff short of that, or under the table, represents the willingness to blend. Like I said, it is kind of nonsense from my moderate position to debate if some large, but not majority, portion of the Episcopal church is interested or not concerned with religious blending. The error here might be use if the slippery slope argument and a little of leaven rising the whole loaf, not if it is ok to say it exists. Unless the problem is just specifically the article he linked to and not the overwhelming sentiment the point was meant in.

  • Daniel –
    Not that it’s of major importance to your article, but you wrote:- …”And that’s not even counting all the paganism (dates of Christmas and Easter, anyone?) that Christianity picked up across the centuries. ”

    I’m not sure that’s the case. The date for Easter is based on the first Sunday after 14th Nisan in the Jewish calendar, as being the synoptic date of Jesus’s resurrection (assuming the estimate of the year of his crucifixion being correct of course) – it moves around because the Jewish calendar was lunar rather than solar. Maybe you were thinking of its name, which recalls Eostre who was indeed an Anglo-Saxon pagan deity?

    It certainly used to be thought that Christmas was an attempted replacement for the Roman festival of Sol Invictus, but that’s been seriously questioned by evidence that it seems to have been celebrated before Sol Invictus was instituted. There was a pious Jewish belief that especially holy people were conceived on the same date that they would die, and Dec 25th is the projection onto the Gregorian calendar of the appropriate 9-month gestation period.

    Certainly the church used to take over local pagan celebrations and make them its own, though whether the converts saw things that way is another matter.

  • Daniel, Kevin Thew Forrester’s Zen Buddhist practices were important (event vital) in bringing him additional scrutiny during the consent process. That being said, those practices are not what disqualified him in the eyes of most of those declining consent: his unilateral editing of the baptismal rite (including deleting references to the devil) inflicted far more damage. Douthat is correct in citing KTF as an example of syncretistic belief in parts of the Episcopal Church.

    Don’t take my word on it, read Jim Naughton’s comments below this Episcopal Cafe post:

  • Jeff,

    I’m well aware of Naughton’s interpretation, but in my reporting on Thew Forrester, many bishops and standing committee members told me that it was indeed his Buddhist practices that swung their vote against him.

    Do you have hard contrary evidence – similar interviews from bishops and other Episcopalians?

    Thanks for writing.

  • I am boggling at how this comments thread has descended into hair-splitting controversy about “syncretism.”

    As if so many “conservative” churches were not syncretistic as all get-out, in their fusion of the Gospel with an aggressive, competitive, jingoistic, prosperity-gospel-preaching, guns-blazing, war-mongering civic religion, or their pharisaical hysteria about abortion, contraception and homosexuality in contrast to Jesus’s emphasis on love and economic justice; or even (heaven forfend!) a strain-at-a-gnat-and-swallow-a-camel prying under every rock of the Episcopal Church for evidence of occasional enrichment via borrowings from other world religions.

    Mote and beam, friends.