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By PHILIP GAILEY, Editor of Editorials
Published December 12, 2007
Every time I write about religion, I usually hear from readers who not only disagree with me but denounce me as a hopeless secularist, which I am anything but. However, last Sunday's column on the national backlash against church tithing drew a rebuke from a local clergyman who questioned my journalistic ethics and, in the end, concluded that I must be a bitter person. I plead guilty to chronic grumpiness, but I've never thought of myself as a bitter person, although there are probably some things I should be bitter about if I thought about it.
Anyway, permit me to address the complaint of the Rev. Chris Schuller, rector of the St. Thomas Episcopal Church in St. Petersburg. The last two paragraphs of my column recapped a controversy that erupted earlier this year when the Rev. Schuller, in his first act as rector, fired the church organist and choir director, Bill Sharrow. He never bothered to meet with the man and in his public comments opened the door to speculation about why he dismissed the organist, an accomplished musician who had served at St. Thomas for 22 years.
The story was covered in our news pages at the time, including the fact that one congregant reduced her annual gift to the church to $52 to protest the rector's action. I mentioned it in my column only to make the point that some churchgoers use their checkbook to make a statement to the church or the pastor. Apparently, those two paragraphs knocked the scab off an old wound that, I am told, had been healing nicely.
The Rev. Schuller scolded me for not mentioning in the column that I had once been a member of the St. Thomas congregation. I thought about making that disclosure, but since I left the church in 2001, I figured enough time had passed to make it irrelevant. However, I told the rector I would be glad to come clean on this part of my past in my next column lest there be any questions about my journalistic ethics or my motives.
And oh yes, he said, what about the fact that the woman who slashed her giving to a dollar a week was a former employee of the St. Petersburg Times? Shouldn't that have been mentioned? he asked. I don't see why, unless, of course, the idea was to suggest some kind of bizarre conspiracy on the part of Times staffers, a number of whom are faithful St. Thomas congregants. By the way, Anne Long was not a Times staffer. She was a stringer who handled recipes for the paper's features section.
During our phone conversation, which had its testy moments, the rector used the term "shoddy journalism," although the context remains fuzzy in my mind. I'm pretty sure he was not talking about those two paragraphs in my column, which he acknowledged contained no factual errors. My sin was one of omission, in the rector's view. At one point, he asked who my boss was. I get that question a lot from upset readers.
While I'm in a disclosure mode, I should make some other points. First, I knew Bill Sharrow only as the church organist. He is not a friend, and, except for one funeral, I have not seen or spoken with him in more than six years. Also, the reason I left the Episcopal Church had nothing to do with St. Thomas and everything to do with the pathetic, weak-kneed statement issued by the Episcopal bishops in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
The bishops called for reconciliation and seemed to suggest that the loss of nearly 3,000 American lives should be seen in the larger context of human tragedies around the world. The statement mentioned that at least that many children died from starvation in the world every day, as if starvation is the moral equivalent of an act of evil. That's when I bolted from the Episcopal church.
So there you have it - full disclosure on my part. You can decide if any of this bears on my ethics.
Meanwhile, I wish the Rev. Schuller would engage in a little more disclosure of his own, starting with a fuller explanation of why he fired Sharrow and then made some private comments about the organist that he says I have misunderstood.
As I can now attest, disclosure is good for the soul. As for me being a bitter person, I'm going to work on that. But first I have to figure out what it is I am supposed to be bitter about.
Philip Gailey's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Last modified December 11, 2007, 22:21:10]