Toppling a three-legged stool

Stool4I think it’s time to say this again: We have entered the age in which many reporters and their sources are going to have to record interviews that are linked to complicated and/or controversial stories.

People on both sides of the notebook record each other so that the reporter knows that the source knows that the reporter knows what the reporter asked and what the source said. This can be a hostile thing or it can be a smart thing (or both) in an age in which just about anyone can, with a few clicks of a mouse, use a website to post a hostile review of a story or, even better, a verbatim transcript of the interview.

So turn on that digital recorder. Otherwise, we are left with he said vs. he wrote debates — like this one.

Reporter Adam Parker of The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., recently waded into the Anglican wars while covering the election of a new bishop in the Diocese of South Carolina. The headline was terrible, which is always a bad start: “Bishop vote reflects schism.” So, who used the loaded “schism” word? This is important since this is one of the seven dioceses in the U.S. Episcopal Church that have asked Canterbury for “alternative primatial oversight,” rather than submit to the authority of the progressive establishment on this side of the Atlantic.

Much of the story was based on an interview with Father John Burwell, dean of the Charleston deanery, including this passage:

Burwell explained the controversy by citing 14th century theologian Richard Hooker’s “three-legged stool.” The church, Burwell said, is governed by three primary forces, the most important of which is Scripture, followed by reason and tradition. God’s word trumps all, he said, but he endowed human beings with minds and expects them to be well used. When Scripture and reason conflict — which is inevitable because reason, a imperfect human quality born of the fall of man, can lead to sin — the tie-breaker is tradition, or the precedence set by the church over the centuries.

Thus, Burwell said, “the Church can err. If the Church is doing something counter to Scripture, we have to stop it, we have to repent. This has been the genius of Anglicanism all along: Law.”

Thus, it must be somewhat awkward for Parker and his editors to see Burwell’s letter to fellow clergy, as posted at the TitusOneNine weblog for conservative Anglicans and others who want to read several dozen items a day about the Anglican civil wars:

If you saw this morning’s Charleston paper, you saw quotes attributed to me that I did not make. … I did not, nor would I ever refer to a “three-legged stool.” I spoke to the reporter about the primacy of Scripture, and how, because of the fall we may err in our ability to interpret what Scripture says (what I called “reason”). I told him that many today are placing wrong interpretations of what Scripture plainly says. And I told him that we Anglicans have always additionally consulted what the Church has thought on a particular Scripture subject down through the ages (tradition), to counteract flawed reason. I called this reliance upon the primacy of Scripture the genius of Anglicanism.

There is not a “three-legged stool,” nor can there be, because a stool, with three equal-length legs, would infer that Scripture, reason and tradition are equal. They are not. I did say that the Church can err. She does, and She has on numerous occasions.

. . . I never once mentioned the name Hooker. Not once. As you no doubt know, Hooker did not speak of a three-legged stool. Neither did I. I have no idea where Adam Parker (the reporter) came up with these statements that he attributed to me. Perhaps one of the other people he spoke to used “stool” language, and he assumed that I would agree. I only know that I didn’t, and wouldn’t, and don’t.

Ouch. In effect, Parker quoted a conservative leader using language that is, these days, almost totally the vocabulary of the Episcopal left. This is not good. There is a snowball’s chance in hell that Burwell said what he is quoted as saying.

However, if Parker has a digital audio file stashed somewhere, then the ball is in his court.

Does the priest have the interview on a disc somewhere? Does Burwell have a transcript he can post?

He should. That’s the age we live in.

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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.

  • Martha

    Ouch, indeed.
    “- because reason, a imperfect human quality born of the fall of man, can lead to sin – ”

    Yes, I would have been extremely surprised indeed to see any flavour of Anglican talking about reason in that way. Original sin has weakened our will, darkened our understanding, and given us a natural tendency towards sin, but our will and our reason are still good. That sounds more like Martin Luther:
    “But since the devil’s bride, Reason, that pretty whore, comes in and thinks she’s wise, and what she says, what she thinks, is from the Holy Spirit, who can help us, then? Not judges, not doctors, no king or emperor, because [reason] is the Devil’s greatest whore. (German: “Vernunft … ist die höchste Hur, die der Teufel hat.”)
    Martin Luther’s Last Sermon in Wittenberg … Second Sunday in Epiphany, 17 January 1546. Dr. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtsusgabe. (Weimar: Herman Boehlaus Nachfolger, 1914),Band 51:126,Line 7ff.”

    As regards the three-legged stool, I too have seen this floating around (and attributed to Hooker). So he didn’t say it after all?

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  • Kevin Kallsen

    Maybe this is the future of internet reporting?

    Nothing can be taken out of context.

  • Deborah

    This whole “reason is the devil’s whore” argument is interesting coming on the heels of Benedict’s “relationship between reason and faith” speech! I’ll have to read it again to see where he sits on that continuum.

    But I think Burwell points out a disturbing tendency among those who try to “contextualize” comments from religious leaders and end up mistaking “folk religion” for deep theology. Kudos to Burwell for his articulate response.

  • Raider51


    It’s my understanding that a lot gets put in the mouth (or pen) of Hooker. He’s sort of like Lincoln in that way. I’ve heard that he did/did not sat this — the 3 legged stool. I have yet to see proof that he did say it. For obvious reasons, proponents have the burden to prove it.

    It seems to me, this is one of those appeal to authority arguments. Although it could just be an instance where people want to properly attribute an idea to its source.

    Another apocryphal Hookerism is this, the church is…

    “an inn where all are received joyously, rather than a cottage where some few friends of the family are to be received.”

  • Raider51


    I should’ve proof read my comment before hitting that submit button.

    That should read “I’ve heard that he did/did not say this — the 3 legged stool.”

    I guess when I see a stool, I think of sitting…

  • Martha

    “I’ve heard that he did/did not sat this — the 3 legged stool.”

    One of the legs too wobbly? ;-)

    I’d like to know where the stool was purchased, so to speak, if Fr. Burwell says he never mentioned it. Possibly an attempt by the reporter to give some quick background for the non-Anglican readers, that ended up being edited together into “Burwell said…”?

    Given the way the explanation of the role of reason was mangled, I wonder what else got thrown in the blender?

  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    The “three-legged stool,” wherever it comes from, assumes an equality of the three legs. In actually, one leg is usually longer than the other two, depending on which group of Christians you observe.

    Feel free to read The Doctrine of the Means of Grace.

  • Joel

    I spotted yet another error: the reporter was unable to spell “San Joaquin.” Even allowing for his never having set foot in California, in this day and age there’s no excuse for a reporter at his/her desk misspelling a major place name. Google says 23,700 hits for “san juaquin” but recommends “san joaquin” instead with 11.3 million hits.

  • Richard

    Richard Hooker, “14th century theologian”??? Who knew he articulated the Anglican approach to theology a full two centuries before the Anglican schism? A prophet indeed.

    Try 16th century folks. It’s not that hard.

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