Anglican wars: Who’s calling who a “dissenter”?

textPress coverage of the Episcopal House of Bishops is rather low key at this point, since anyone who has covered this story for a decade or two knows this “pastoral oversight” document isn’t going anywhere.

This conclusion is crisply stated, as one would expect, in a lead written by AP’s Richard Ostling. Note that a British paper ran his story with the futility angle out front, at least on its website. Ostling wrote: “Episcopal Church leaders have offered a plan to help reconcile the denomination’s split over the acceptance of gay clergy, but one cleric said the proposal was ‘dead on arrival.’ ”

This is also a case in which — even in short news stories — it is interesting to compare the work of two veteran God-beat reporters who work in the same area code. That would be Alan Cooperman at the Washington Post and Julia Duin at the Washington Times. Of particular interest is Cooperman’s summary statement:

To try to head off a schism, the archbishop of Canterbury summoned international leaders of the 75 million-member Anglican Communion to a summit in October in London, where they urged the U.S. church to make “adequate provision” for outside bishops to minister to the dissenters.

Here we have the whole story in a nutshell. Is this a story about the U.S. Episcopal Church or is it a story about the worldwide Anglican Communion? How you answer this question affects how you use that crucial word “dissenters,” which is the kind of label that changes everything.

If this is a global story, then the majority view of the doctrinal issues involved is traditional. That means that the “dissenters” are the leaders of the Episcopal left who have stepped out in opposition to the overwhelming majority of traditional Anglicans, led by bishops in Africa, Asia and lots of other places far from New York City and London. This would mean that the U.S. conservatives, rather than being “dissenters” are normal members of the larger Anglican body.

But if this is essentially a U.S. story, then Cooperman is correct. This is a small band of “dissenters” fighting the majority will of the progressive Episcopal establishment.

It may help to note that there are about 2 million Episcopalians and somewhere between 40 and 50 million Anglicans in Africa, alone.

P.S. For an example of neutral language in a news report on a similar issue, check out the Reuters report by Greg Frost on reactions to the verdict in the United Methodist trial of the lesbian pastors.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Simon Sarmiento


    Do you really mean “left” in “leaders of the Episcopal left who have stepped out in opposition…”?

    Surely, the use of left and right labels is just the kind of thing you and Doug criticise elsewhere. And if one is to use such labels, surely in this case “right” would be more appropriate? Or is this another case where American and English differ?

  • Tmatt

    I try to use progressive instead of left, about 90 percent of the time. This is especially true in my Scripps Howard writings. Writing on the blog is somewhat different. But I am still careful about labels.

    But this is a debate over changing 2000 years of tradition and candid voices on both sides admit that. Thus, the defenders of the old tradition would be the conservatives. That would make those who wanted to change the old tradition the….. liberals, or the left.


  • james pike

    You would have us believe that “Here we have the whole story in a nutshell. Is this a story about the U.S. Episcopal Church or is it a story about the worldwide Anglican Communion? How you answer this question affects how you use that crucial word “dissenters,” which is the kind of label that changes everything.”

    But is it either/or in this case? Isn’t it both? Coverage of Roman Cathlocism has long acknowledged the positional differences, often substantial, between the US Catholic Church and the Church at large — and depending on the story being covered, the reference point that would make sense of majority/minority measurements changes.

    Is that not the case with regard to ECUSA and the Anglican Communion. It’s understandable that those who would seek to overturn the clear majority decisions reached by the former seek to change the frame of reference to the Anglican Communion, where the majority would be more advantageous to their position? But is this anything more than venue-shopping?

    Certainly the word dissenter can be used with equal legitimacy and justification in both contexts, would you not agree?

    Privileging the rightness of the Anglican Communion’s “position” as the only point of reference is tendentious, and begs the very question at issue.

  • Terry Mattingly

    It all depends on whether you think the U.S. Episcopal Church has any status in a global Communion — with a Large C — that claims any kind of Catholic — with a Large C — status.

    If ECUSA is essentially Protestant, then, hey, go for it. Whatever floats your denominational boat.

    But if this is a Communion, then it is the traditionalists who represent the clear majority.

    Now, ideally, reporters should strive for neutral language in news stories. That is why I singled out the Washington Post, noting that it had framed this as essentially a NATIONAL story, rather than GLOBAL, or even, as you said, both.

    Oh, one other thing: I think the minute you have the American Catholic Church re-define a Sacrament — large S — then you will see the Roman Catholic Church act like a Church — with a large C.

    And then the progressive Catholics in this country can become Episcopalians, without such constricting ties to a Church.

    BTW, are you actually named James Pike or are channeling the late bishop in order to speak in his voice?

  • Ed Jennings

    We members of the Anglican Catholic Church read this writing on the church walls back in 1976. That is why we left the Episcopal church. That is why we are starting to see more and more former Episcopaleans at our services.

    You are all welcome.