The Episcopal News Service report on the Council of Anglican Province in Africa's recently completed bishops' conference is now online. Among its sources is a report by Jan Butter, the director of communications for the Anglican Communion which laments that coverage of the conference focused primarily on controversy over human sexuality.
I sympathize with anyone who is trying to get the good works of their church covered, but when I read this sort of essay, I generally feel that the mainstream media is perfectly justified in ignoring the themes we hoped will attract them. To take this instance as a case study: CAPA as a body has no particular track record in righting the many wrongs it claims that it wants to address. This isn't necessarily CAPA's fault; it is a young and underfunded organization, and its day as a major force might yet come, but looking at its goals, my reaction as a secular journalist would be: These are fine sentiments, get back to me when you have done something. And, again, CAPA is just a case study here. I hear the same kinds of complaints about why the secular media doesn't write about the resolutions we pass at General Convention which express our church's good intentions but make nothing happen.
Of course, if you actually were making something happen, I would have endeavored to know about it before you held a conference. If I am going to write a story about a bishop who is going to plant a million trees before he dies, to cite one of Butter's examples, I am not going to do it by following him around to write a feature story, not by covering a speech he gives at a conference. The fact that he is giving this speech is perhaps the least interesting thing about him. It can't be the peg for my story.
The simple facts are a) that journalists hate covering conferences, which are primarily occasions for speechifying; and b) that journalists are much more likely to write about how we use power than that we aspire to influence. There is a vast chorus speaking out on climate change (which isn't to say we shouldn't do it, only that our doing it is not necessarily newsworthy) whereas we are the only ones who will decide how the Anglican Communion ultimately handles the issue of human sexuality.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing--at least for the Episcopal Church. One frequently reads about church people lamenting the fact that the media never looks beyond the sexuality debate. The assumption here seems to be that there is a given number of column inches committed to our church, and that they all get used up on sex. This isn't the case. We are one percent of the US population. If reporters weren't writing about the sexuality debate, they wouldn't be writing about us at all. Better to use the interest generated by the sexuality debate to reach out to people whose views on this issue are similar to ours than to lament that fact that no one is paying attention to the good work of program X, which, in most instances, is dwarfed by a similar program run by somebody else.
And while we are at it, we should get comfortable living in the midst of controversy. It is where people who profess to follow Jesus should expect to find themselves.