[Ancient Faith Radio; October 4, 2007]
Frederica: There goes the bell on the door of the Virginia Barbeque, I guess that’s the name, the simple name of this place. We’re sitting here, my friend Doug LeBlanc and I, on the main street leading into Ashland, Virginia where Randolph-Macon College is, really a gorgeous little town. And Virginia Barbeque is set in a house that looks to me like from about 1900; it’s a charming little house with a front porch and an American flag waving out there, and what’s unusual is they don’t do just one kind of barbeque. You can get Texas, North Carolina, or Virginia style. They did not have South Carolina style, which I was deeply disappointed about, because that’s the best. I’m sitting here talking to my friend Doug, whom I’ve known since, I think it was 1991 when we met for the first time, wasn’t it?
Doug: Yes, we were both at General Convention. I was there working for Episcopalians United and I know you were there with the Baltimore Declaration, and I believe with NOEL.
Frederica: That’s right, yes, the Baltimore Declaration had just been written and released, and my husband and the other five Episcopal priests who wrote it had gone to the trouble of printing it on, like, parchment, so it unfolded into a big poster you could put on the wall, and it basically had no impact on the Church at all, as far as I could tell. But it was a last-ditch effort to recall the Episcopal Church to theological orthodoxy. The sexual morality questions weren’t that high profile then; back then it was, Is the Virgin Mary really a virgin? Did Jesus really rise from the dead? And those were the kinds of things we were working on then. It was a tumultuous General Convention, that 1991 one. I remember that was the convention of the Frey resolution. Bishop Frey had proposed a resolution that Episcopal clergy abstain from sex outside of marriage, and it was defeated. When that resolution was defeated it was quite a blow to us, and that’s when my family began to pull away from the Episcopal Church, where my husband had been a priest already for 15 years. But you stayed; and you have stayed the course all this time, working for some conservative Episcopalian organizations. What keeps you in the Episcopal Church at this point? What is it that you’re fighting to preserve?
Doug: Well, part of it I think is because I was born an Episcopalian, and I don’t think that there are accidents entirely, within the provenance of God, so I try to ask myself, ‘What did God have in mind, when he had this happen in my life?’ Especially considering that my mother was a lapsed Baptist, my dad was an observant church-going Roman Catholic, and they had to find some kind of middle path. And they could have found it anywhere.
Frederica: That’s a very familiar story; the Episcopal Church is a choice between the liturgical and non-liturgical parent. They meet there in the middle.
Doug: Right. And they could have just as well been Lutherans, but they ended up as Episcopalians in south Louisiana in Baton Rouge, and in the intervening years, I’ve come to have relationships that I really cherish with people across the aisle within the Episcopal Church. I would say those relationships have been strained in recent years; some of my friends have been perhaps less gracious in victory than I would have hoped for. But I can’t think of people on the other side in the Episcopal Church who hold me in contempt either. It’s just, there’ve been
relationships that have been harder to keep together, as the Church expresses a greater clarity about what it expects to become, or what it wants to do especially on the front of sexual morality. Yeah, I guess I should leave it at that.
Frederica: There were two things that I always admired about you - my husband does as well, we were talking about this the other day - one was that you were diligent about forming honest relationships with people you disagreed with. And that you could be so respectful of them and so open to hearing what they had to say that it sort of earned their respect; it sounds like that respect hasn’t continued as it was earlier. The other thing was, as a reporter, your work was always so fair. Earlier you said that you wouldn’t accept the label ‘unbiased,’ maybe nobody can really be unbiased, because we see the world through our own angle, but you worked hard to make sure that when people read what you said they believed, that they would recognize it. And when you quoted them, you quoted them accurately. You weren’t going to, like some writers might do, pull out some crazy quote and try to spear them with it. You really tried to put them in their best light and to hold yourself, your own personal opinions, back. It was something we really treasured about your work. Recently you were saying that there’s not as much value placed on that kind of reporting anymore, and that the development of the blogosphere means that reporting is more reckless and that commentary is more polarized and agitated. Tell me about how this has affected your own ability to do your job.
Doug: Well, to some extent I think it has limited my ability to find a job like I had in the 1990s. In the 90s I worked for an activist group called Episcopalians United for Revelation, Reformation, and Renewal. And it still exists; it’s called Anglicans United, but it’s a much smaller organization than it was. It doesn’t concentrate as much on reporting although there’s still an element of that in what Anglicans United is doing. And my former boss with Anglicans United, Todd Wexel, is a dear man, he’s remained a good friend. Whenever we are both at an event, whether it’s General Convention or something else, we make a point of getting together and just exchanging war stories, to some extent. But I think especially with the consecration of Gene Robinson in 2003, both sides have kind of dug in more, and become more embattled, and in a sense more interested in victory than in how are we going to get through all of this together. So that sometimes it expresses itself more as, ‘Come the revolution, we’re going to drive out knaves like you.’ Or heretics like you, or whatever. The blogosphere has contributed to that in the sense that sometimes there’s simply an emphasis on getting a document into circulation. It drives me crazy to see people say, ‘This X blogger,’ so often operating under a nom de plume, ‘reports this or that.’ Usually there’s precious little reporting going on; it’s just linking to something and saying, ‘Hey, look at this!’ And the other way the blogosphere contributes to that is with comments, which almost any blog, if it wants to attract much of a readership or especially if it wants to get high rankings among other blogs, it will accept comments. Most blogs do not require you to register and give a legitimate email address. So you can identify yourself as the Archbishop of Canterbury Jr., and post whatever crackpot comments you want.
Frederica: Do you think that there is some degree of masking going on, that people pretend to be someone on the other side and say crazy things to smear their opponents?
Doug: [Laughter] That’s probably not necessary, because the extremists on both sides are extreme enough, although I’m sure it has happened. I can think of one or two examples, not remembering the names people have given themselves, but on some of the blogs I have read, I think I’ve sometimes seen moderators say, ‘We know the game you’re playing and we’re going to stop you from doing that,’ when they’ve recognized that kind of pattern. But when you can just give yourself a fake name, you can pretty much assume whatever identity you want.
Frederica: I think this has been surprising for non-Episcopalians, and hard for them to figure out, considering how firm a foundation there was to this Church, how established and serious and sober it was, and how much dignity it had; it looked as if there were such deep resources. Now to see all this fighting on the surface, it might make outsiders wonder what happened to all the deep, deep roots that the Church had. A friend of mine once suggested that perhaps the problem goes back to the Elizabethan settlement, or the Elizabethan compromise. That Queen Elizabeth, in order to get the high church and low church to stop killing each other, basically said, look, we’ll have a book of common prayer. We’ll pray in common; we’ll say the same words. And if you want to interpret it to mean that the Eucharist really becomes the body and blood of Christ, feel free. And if you interpret it to mean that it doesn’t, and it’s just a memorial meal, that’s okay too. As long as we’re using the same book, we stick together. And perhaps that works for awhile as long as you generally mean the same thing, but when the interpretation of those words become so individualized and so distanced, it’s as if that one fabric that was holding it all together begins to shred. It’s an intriguing idea to me; I don’t know if you had ever thought of that before, if it makes any sense to you.
Doug: It does. I think the Elizabethan settlement was probably the only way to hold things together at the time, as you suggest. I think it has proceeded to shape the entire identity of what the Anglican identity has become. Our mutual friend Terry Mattingly has sometimes said that Anglicanism tries to get John Chrysostom and John Calvin in the same pew, and that that’s impossible. My sense of that is they’re both in heaven, so I’m not sure it’s entirely impossible, or at least an entirely an unworthy goal to try to have them occupying the same pew. For people who want to be in a church like that, I wouldn’t suggest - I think the great danger would be among folk who act as if somehow Anglicanism offers the best of both the Catholic universe and the protestant universe and somehow transcends both of them. I think we need to occupy a certain humility about our place within Christendom; realize that we’re only the third largest body within Christendom because of the way membership is counted, that there are far more people listed on the rolls of the Church of England and the Episcopal Church and many other provinces than are actually believing, observing, church-going Christians. And so after awhile numbers become almost meaningless.
Frederica: Yeah, yeah.
Doug: But Anglicanism is a way of being a protestant that is more attentive, I think, to Catholic order, than you may find in other protestant circles.
Frederica: It certainly was a beautiful church. It still is, I’m sure, with a wonderful sense of the beauty of worship. It seems that there is so much that has been good there; certainly something will come out of it after all this struggle has passed. But it’s been a terrible time. The other thing I wanted to talk to you about was Get Religion; this is a blog that you’re involved in, I
guess, you were right there at the beginning, weren’t you, you and Terry. When did it get started? What was your goal with Get Religion?
Doug: Get Religion is very much Terry’s baby. It is an effort to offer criticism, both just flat out criticism, but also constructive criticism, in praise of religion writers who do it well, or reporters who happen to be stuck with a religion story who sometimes do it well. I think generally speaking, the folk who do it well, or the best, are those folks who have chosen the religion beat, that realize that there should be nothing embarrassing about being a religion editor. For some religion editors, they will say it’s the most interesting beat at the newspaper. Terry once wrote an essay based on a Lou Grant episode in which Lou Grant could not get rid of this deadbeat editor, so he finally assigned him to the religion page, and the editor quit, I think the same day that he got that offer or that reassignment. There’s been a lot of progress on the religion beat since then, so that it’s taken rather seriously and you can read amazing work where folk really strive hard to understand views that they would not espouse. One of the finest religion writers, I think, in the country is with Time magazine.
Frederica: David Van Biema, he’s very attentive when he’s interviewed me, and he’s very careful to state things fairly. I was thinking about religion reporting as being what they’d call the red-headed stepchild that really nobody wants. Recently I read that religion books are outselling every other kind of book to a vast extent. I’ve forgotten the figure, but it was really impressive. Religion books are the happenin’ thing. Today I was reading USA Today and they had three pages, three full pages, about upcoming books in the fall season. And it was novels, and history, and self-help and children’s books, and they and no heading for religion books. So there’s still some allergy in reporting and in the media, as if you feel like, anything you say about religion, somebody’s going to get mad. There’s no way to do it right. You’re going to antagonize people no matter what you do. But getreligion.org on the web, that’s the website where you observe major religion stories and comment, hopefully constructively. Well, let’s wrap up. There’s still a half of a cornbread muffin there to eat, and it’s on your side of the table, but it looks very tempting. Tell me, what do you hope Get Religion can do? What do you hope that you, as an experienced reporter, now looking at other people trying to report religion, what sort of advice or guidelines would you hope to impart, or what do you hope Get Religion could teach?
Doug: I guess my greatest hope for it is simply inspiring journalists to see the religion beat as a source of joy and playfulness and humor and truth, where you have folks, I think whatever religion or even non-religion people espouse, ultimately they’re saying, ‘What I believe speaks to the questions of eternity.’ That with an orthodox Christian, certainly, the Christian is obliged in a sense to say, ‘What I am talking about here affects whether you will spend eternity with God, or by choice separated from God.’ And ever angry atheists like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, these days, and Richard Dawkins would say, ‘There is no God. There is no eternity to worry about, so don’t bother yourself with such questions.’ But I would find it difficult to think of a beat at a paper that could even approach that in terms of the consequences of actions and beliefs and how you live your daily life.
Frederica: I know Terry has talked about the sports sections of the newspaper, how many pages is the sports section every day, and yet how many more people go to religious gatherings or go to worship in a week than go to sports events. I don’t know the number; if Terry was here he could say the number—but it was huge, basically. That’s kind of ending on a feeble note [Laughter] because I can’t remember numbers. Doug, it’s been so great to meet with you here today. Enjoy your cornbread.
Doug: Thank you. Always good to be with you.