So writes Rachel Cooke in “The Sleek Shall Inherit the Church.” The story she tells is familiar by now — waning attendance in the traditional churches contrasted with youthful exhuberance and pop culture at the evangelical and fundamentalist churches; a gay bishop over whom the denomination seems likely to divide once and for all; and radically different visions of what “love” means.
But the setting is a surprise — Cooke writes for the British Guardian, and the church she so brilliantly explores is the Anglican Communion in England. Her story is religion reporting at its best — there are the statistics (within ten years, evangelicals and fundamentalists may be the majority in the worldwide Anglican communion); there are the talking heads (gay bishops: for or against?); there is history (Anglicans once feared that the introduction of candles into the service would destroy it); and most of all, there is Cooke’s prolonged engagement with the practice of a belief she doesn’t happen to share, both in the new multi-million dollar praise houses and in the musty old churches described above.
By the end, Cooke comes to a more than reporterly conclusion in favor of unity as the highest value. “The very best thing about the Church,” she writes, “whether you choose to make use of it or not, is that it values the few as much as the many. I felt this, powerfully, on the night I showed my Godless face at St Mark’s, when there cannot have been more than £10 in the collection tray. For this reason alone, we must pray that the evangelicals do not, after all, storm off into the dark night, rattling their own coffers loudly.”
And whether or not one chooses to make use of Cooke’s position, her report is so thorough, thoughtful, and fascinating that few will begrudge her these last words.
And a cheat sheet from The Revealer… What makes Rachel Cooke’s “The Sleek Shall Inherit the Earth” such a great story? And how can we follow her example?
1. Immerse. Cooke not only interviewed an array of sources, she spent a great deal of time in church. It seems like an obvious approach, but for a multitude of reasons — anxious editors, laziness, questions of belief — many journalists don’t bother to participate in the ordinary practices of the faith they’d describe. You needn’t go undercover — join in when invited, merely observe when you’re not. (Don’t try to sneak communion!) Pay extra attention to what seems most dull, most ritualistic — therein lie the bones of the practice.
2. Inhabit. Cooke’s open advocacy at the end of her piece isn’t an option for many reporters, but that doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from the same level of analysis. Beliefs are not “facts,” and they can’t be gathered for reformulation into an inverted pyramid with the same ease one might report on a crime scene. Engage the beliefs of those you’re reporting about; ask yourself if you share them, or, if you don’t, why not; try to imagine a worldview in which they make perfect sense.
3. Historicize. Part of what separates Cooke’s article from much of the other coverage of the Anglican controversies is her sense of history — she knows that these conflicts may yet split the Church, but she also knows that the Church has survived similar tensions in the past. When writing about belief — especially that involved in long-established traditions — the frame of the story must be expanded to include seemingly ancient history. Particularly where rituals are involved, since ritual, to many, is a means of erasing the lines that divide the present from the past.