by David Mills
Spinning for Gold
Conservatives were surprised this summer when the activist group Episcopalians United let go their writer and editor Douglas LeBlanc. He had edited The United Voice, an excellent quarterly newsletter, from editing which EU had recently removed him, replacing it with a four page flyer, mostly promotional.
He also covered all the ghastly meetings with which Episcopal life is filled and reported them fairly, for which the rest of us are in his debt and for which he is respected and liked even by partisan liberals. Doug has been hired as an associate editor by the Evangelical monthly Christianity Today, so he has fallen upward. (He is, I should say, a friend but does not know I’m writing about him.)
EU has a bigger budget but fewer members than Forward in Faith/North America. At the beginning of the summer the director of EU told me they raised $700,000 a year — down, he said, from $1.2 million a year — which does make one wonder what they are doing with the money that they can’t afford Doug’s work.
EU began in the mid-eighties to bring together Catholics, Charismatics, and Evangelicals. At that point, they “bracketed” the question of women’s ordination so that people on both sides of that question could work together. At some point they began to support the innovation, though without announcing the change in policy save by references in their mailings to “godly men and women in ordained ministry.” They did full-heartedly support the conservatives’ alternative candidate for Presiding Bishop, who had voted for the canon (3.8.1) effectively outlawing the traditional view of sex and orders.
(In reading through their letters, I did notice that in their January 1998 letter they claimed to have “delivered a significant voting block for the conservative candidate” but in their letter of the previous October had said that EU “did not endorse any nominee for Presiding Bishop.” This is not exactly a contradiction, but it isn’t consistent either. This sort of thing does not induce confidence.)
Their bread and butter issue has been homosexuality. They appeal to the suburban middle classes who, as I’ve remarked before (in my November 1998 letter, for one), are fairly latitudinarian on most moral questions but will not tolerate homosexuality. Aborting a child is for them less offensive then two men living together. This explains, among other things, why EU’s budget is so much bigger than the Episcopal pro-life ministry NOEL’s.
Other than Dr. Beaver’s poster campaigns, I don’t think American-style advertising has come to the English Churches or even to your activist groups. Your groups ask for money almost apologetically, which raises less money but at least gets it from people who really want to give it.
The usual form for activist fund-raising here, of which EU’s is a textbook example, is a mass mailing with some catchy slogan on the cover of the envelope, a long letter inside covered with fake underlining — made to look as if the writer had underlined in pen the things he particularly wanted you to see — and fake marginal notes, and a return form with some peppy response (“Yes, Todd, I want to . . .”). The letters themselves usually carry some news fitting the theme of the appeal — bad news for crisis appeals, good news for success appeals — and often some gimmick to get people to respond and while they’re responding, decide to give something.
The most popular of these gimmicks is the petition, which makes some ringing appeal the group promises to deliver to some high official, by signing which your name will be added to thousands of other concerned Episcopalians in an important, crucial, urgent, effort to “impact” this official. I am not sure if the people who send out these petitions really believe they’ll have any effect, but I don’t know anyone else who does.
Always attached to the top or bottom of the petition is a response card, marked in big letters “DO NOT DETACH,” by which you can also give the group money. The reason for this is that people who would not give money might sign and return a petition, and the people who study such things (the study of how to manipulate people with advertising must be at least a venial sin) say that people who return something will often give money even if they didn’t intend to.
One of the great problems groups using direct mail have is getting people to open the envelopes. Two mailings from EU I have in my files arrived in plain brown official-looking envelopes, with nothing to identify them as coming from EU. One had “Legal Notice” in big red letters on the front, the other a official-looking note saying “WARNING: Dated material for addressee only. Tampering with U.S. Mail is punishable as specified by regulations contained in the U.S.P.S. Domestic Mail Manual.”
The purpose, of course, is to alarm you into opening the envelope, which you might not do if it said “fund raising mailing inside.” This is effective — I certainly opened them — but it does seem that making people think there is a real legal document inside is lying. James 1:20 would seem to apply, extending the principle from wrath to deception.
Groups like EU have the added problem of maintaining support when the things do not get better but worse. After years of mailings urging people to help EU “fight for the soul of the Episcopal Church,” and promising great results if they do, and finding things are as they are, even the most naive and optimistic supporter is likely to get discouraged.
The answer is to alternate crisis mailings (to panic people into giving) and success mailings (to make them feel their gift was worth making). The crises are easy enough to find, and EU has put out some spectacularly anti-homosexual letters, calling people to oppose “the fearsome cost of the radical homosexual agenda” and the like. These come predictably before a General Convention or other influential event. (While I’m thinking of it, I wouldn’t be surprised if this letter made its way into an EU mailing, to the effect that they stand firm even when their friends attack them.)
Successes are more difficult to find, because they have to be a general successes, and so we find EU’s first mailing after every General Convention taking credit for anything good that happened, even though those of us who were there are often at a loss to know why. The claim that they “delivered a significant voting block for the conservative candidate” at the last one is an example — as you will know from your own experience, the idea that an activist group can “deliver” episcopal votes is a bit much.
A certain delicacy is needed in writing these letters, to make sure neither the crises nor the successes are so final as to discourage people from giving. In both cases, the appeals end with their urgent need for a lot more money, the crisis appeals with the need to meet the crisis, the success appeals with the need to strike again while they have the advantage.
One final result of this strategy is that a group like EU must, however worried they sound in their crisis letters, be generally optimistic about the Episcopal Church, even its official bodies. This tends not only to make their analysis of events more optimistic than seems to me warranted, but to encourage a certain ambiguity on the theological questions, not least the nature of communion and the limits of membership (on which Fif/NA has tried to speak clearly). You cannot draw lines, if your existence depends on not crossing them.
David Mills is director of publishing at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry and editor of The Pilgrim’s Guide: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Witness (Eerdmans).