Monday, January 08, 2007

Northern California parish's ad about conflict in Episcopal Church garners much reaction

Ad's objective was to broaden context of neighboring rector's decision to leave

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Monday, January 08, 2007

[Episcopal News Service] A full-page newspaper advertisement "meant to change the context" of media coverage of the Episcopal Church appears to be meeting its goal, according to the priest who wrote the ad's text.

The ad, titled "Sex, Religion, and the Culture Wars: An Open Letter to the Community," ran on the back page of the local news section of the January 7 issue of the Santa Rosa, California Press Democrat newspaper.

In the ad, under the sub-headline "Too Boring for the Culture Wars," the Rev. Matthew Lawrence, rector of Church of the Incarnation in Santa Rosa, wrote that "sometimes the only Christians who receive media attention are those who make the most noise with their extreme views. Granted, they do provide entertainment value -- extremists are fascinating. By contrast, most Episcopalians tend toward the boring mainstream."

The ad is due to be posted on Church of the Incarnation's website soon.

Placement of the ad in the newspaper generated coverage by the Press Democrat and television stations in San Francisco and Santa Rosa, Lawrence said.

"What I'm proud of is that we got the media to change the context of the story," he said. "Instead of it being a story about homosexuality splitting the Episcopal Church, it became a story of how the majority of Episcopal churches stand in affirmation of gays and lesbians despite this one little church, and I think that shift in the context of the story is really important and I'd love to see that happen in other places."

In the ad, Lawrence wrote that "this letter is one local pastor's attempt to shed some light on this overheated topic. I do not claim to speak for every member of my church -- one thing we love about our church is its diversity of opinions."

Lawrence told the Episcopal News Service that he got the idea for the ad while talking to a reporter about the decision by the rector and the majority of the members of St. John's Episcopal Church in nearby Petaluma to leave the Episcopal Church.

As he talked to the reporter, Lawrence said: "It occurred to me that the problem is that the vast majority of Episcopal churches are not breaking away; that this isn't a huge issue for most of us. It's really quite settled."

He said he thought about how the media "really amplifies the voice" of the extreme sides of an issue and how "the moderate middle ground doesn't get heard much."

Lawrence said he told his vestry that he was concerned that the coverage of the Petaluma action would portray the Episcopal Church as being split. He suggested to the vestry that they and he ought to "try to balance the record, if you will, to try to make a statement that this is not such a big controversy in the Episcopal Church as far as we're concerned. It makes us sad that a couple of churches are leaving but that doesn't represent the mainstream of Episcopal Church thinking."

The vestry agreed to spend the $1,800 the newspaper would charge for the ad. He circulated a draft to some neighboring clergy for their suggestions and the ad was published under his name.

Incarnation has a sign in its narthex saying it is a welcoming parish but it is not known as being particularly activist, Lawrence said.

"It's not like we've made this a big issue in our lives, but it seemed like it was about time," he added.

Incarnation has an average Sunday attendance of about 250, making it the second-largest parish in the Diocese of Northern California. In 2005, its members pledged about $450,000.

"The response on Sunday from my congregation was absolutely stunning," he said. "I really did not expect them to be as enthusiastic and as proud as they were."

The reaction overall has been "amazing," Lawrence said.

"I've been completely blown over. My inbox has got dozens of emails from people who have written in to thank me for the letter," he said. "It's running 10-1 in support of what I wrote."

In the ad, Lawrence wrote that "it is no coincidence that the few Episcopalians who have left the church must travel to Africa, Asia, and South America to find their support."

"Their sentiments do not fit well with an American constitution that protects the rights of minorities against a tyranny of the majority," he wrote. "Episcopalians tend to accept as a 'given' the open-hearted sensibilities of American democracy."

Readers of the advertisement are invited to a "candlelight evening gathering of prayers and songs" on January 14, the eve of Martin Luther King Day. The theme of the service will be "speaking out against persecution and oppression."

"If you agree with the sentiments expressed in this letter, we invite you and your loved ones to attend," Lawrence wrote in the ad.

The ad's conclusion lists -- with their phone numbers -- St. Patrick's in Kenwood, St. Andrew's in Monte Rio, Holy Family in Rohnert Park and St. Stephen's in Sebastapol, along with Church of the Incarnation as being local Episcopal parishes that "support the direction taken by our church to affirm gays and lesbians as equal partners in the spiritual journey."

The ad also invited readers to comment on the letter by emailing Lawrence or by contacting "your nearest welcoming Episcopal Church."

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.


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