Peace! The Post Episcopal story was solid

resurrection iconAnyone who reads GetReligion — or the Washington newspapers — knows that one of the biggest religion stories going right now here in Beltwayland is the decision by a circle of major churches in Northern Virginia to exit the Episcopal Church. Let me stress once again that this is a global, national, regional and local story and it is just getting started.

So several faithful readers have continued to pepper me with emails, asking when I was going to comment on the recent Washington Post story by Alan Cooperman and Jacqueline L. Salmon focused on the influence of the charismatic renewal movement on life in Truro Episcopal Church and The Falls Church, the largest and most famous of these churches that are rebelling against the liberal U.S. establishment in order to remain in Communion — large “C” — with the majority of Anglicans around the world.

I wanted to comment, but I wasn’t sure quite what I wanted to say. Many people were infuriated by the opening of the story, which made it sound as if The Falls Church (and Truro, too) are packed with holy rollers of the most Pentecostal ilk. Yes, I saw that lede and I, too, thought it was over the top:

Parishioners say it happens quietly, unobtrusively: As the sick make their way to the altar, some worshipers begin speaking in tongues. Occasionally, one is “arrested in the spirit,” falling unconscious into the arms of a fellow congregant.

The special faith-healing services, held one Sunday night a month at The Falls Church in Fairfax, are a rarity in the Episcopal Church. But members of The Falls Church have long felt at odds with fellow Episcopalians, who they believe have been drifting theologically in an ever more liberal direction.

Wow, they have a small Sunday-night charismatic service once a month? How many Washington-area Catholic churches have a charismatic service at least once a month?

But that is almost beside the point. Cooperman is a veteran religion-beat writer and he just has to know Anglicanism well enough to know that The Falls Church is a large but typical low-church evangelical parish, one that has been influenced more by the likes of the Revs. John Stott and J.I. Packer than by Father Terry Fullam and the giants of the charismatic renewal movement in Catholic and mainline Protestant churches. Now, Truro is another matter, although — as noted in the Post story — worship in that parish is also quite mainstream these days.

The lede was bizarre. But I want to focus on something else — the fact that Cooperman and Salmon grasped that there is much, much more to the global Anglican warfare than battles over sexuality. Some people are so mad about the lede that they missed the fact that the core of this story is spot-on accurate.

How? The charismatic movement did have a major impact on the Episcopal Church, even in the old-line evangelical parishes — almost as large an impact as the Sexual Revolution had in Episcopal seminaries and the national church’s elite leaders. And, yes, the charismatic movement is a major force in the expansion of Christianity in the Third World, affecting a wide range of mainline, Catholic and evangelical churches. The story gets that right. I am also sure that, as these more conservative parishes boomed in Northern Virginia, some liberal Episcopalians moved to other churches. Duh.

But the key to the whole story comes near the end, framed in quotes by Father Rick Wright, associate rector at The Falls Church. This is a long quote, but read it all:

Wright said the diverse membership of both congregations illustrates one of the great changes in American religion of the past half-century: The divisions between denominations are far less important today than the divisions within denominations.

… Attitudes toward homosexuality are one of the brightest lines between the liberal and conservative camps. But few members of Truro or The Falls Church say the division is, fundamentally, about whether to bless sex-same couples or whether to ordain gay ministers — the issues that have strained relations between the Episcopal Church and the rest of the 75 million-member Anglican Communion, the worldwide family of churches descended from the Church of England.

Many say the rift involves something deeper — whether the Bible is the word of God, Jesus is the only way to heaven and tolerance is more important than truth. When he was a newly ordained priest almost 20 years ago, Wright said, he talked with several other priests about how to respond to a teenager who asked, “Do you really believe in the Resurrection of Jesus?”

“The rest of the priests agreed that it was a sticky question, and they felt that way because they didn’t believe in it, but they didn’t want to say so,” he said. “That’s where the Episcopal Church has been for the last 20 years. It’s not where we are.”

rainbow vestments 01This thesis was underlined in an op-ed piece in the Post that followed the page-one news report, written by Father John Yates and the famous writer and apologist Os Guinness:

The core issue for us is theological: the intellectual integrity of faith in the modern world. It is thus a matter of faithfulness to the lordship of Jesus, whom we worship and follow. The American Episcopal Church no longer believes the historic, orthodox Christian faith common to all believers. Some leaders expressly deny the central articles of the faith — saying that traditional theism is “dead,” the incarnation is “nonsense,” the resurrection of Jesus is a fiction, the understanding of the cross is “a barbarous idea,” the Bible is “pure propaganda” and so on. Others simply say the creed as poetry or with their fingers crossed.

Now, should any of this sound familiar to longtime GetReligion readers — drinking game alert?

You betcha, because Cooperman and Salmon have offered us a perfect illustration of the infamous tmatt trio, as seen in the real-life wilds of Anglicanism. Here is the trio, once again:

(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

Check. That’s in there.

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

Check. That’s in there, too.

(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

Check, although the Post story accurately notes that this is not the pivotal issue.

So what is going on here? The key words are “via media.”

Long ago, a wise Episcopal bishop illustrated the church’s famous “via media,” middle way, compromise approach to doctrine for me in this manner. The right, he said, says, “Jesus is Lord.” The left says, “Jesus is not Lord.” The via media is, therefore, “Jesus is occasionally Lord.” He was joking, of course. Anglicans on the left and right use the term “Lord,” but they merely define the term differently.

But here is another example: “Sex outside of marriage is a sin,” says the right. “Sex outside of marriage is not a sin,” says the left. The via media becomes, “Sex outside of marriage is occasionally a sin.” See how it works? Let’s try it again: “The biblical accounts of the resurrection are true,” says the right. “The biblical accounts of the resurrection are not true, in the literal sense of that word, but true in some spiritual or symbolic sense,” says the left. The via media? “The biblical accounts of the resurrection are occasionally true and, thus, the doctrine is optional or can be defined in a thousand different ways, but please do not talk about this in front of the laypeople.”

So the Post story got far more right than it got wrong. Three (a trio even) cheers!

Now is it time to move one step further and ask the special bonus question that I have long used in coverage of the Anglican wars? That question is: “Should churches in the Anglican Communion ban the worship, by name, of other gods at their altars?”

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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.

  • Jerry

    Many say the rift involves something deeper — whether the Bible is the word of God, Jesus is the only way to heaven and tolerance is more important than truth.

    As a followup to the comments about the PBS reportwhere the use of “some” was questioned, I would expect a good reporter to ask how Father Rick Wright knows that “many” believe something and how many are “many” anyway?

    Long ago, a wise Episcopal bishop illustrated the church’s famous “via media,” middle way, compromise approach to doctrine for me in this manner. The right, he said, says, “Jesus is Lord.” The left says, “Jesus is not Lord.”

    Um, who is this ‘wise’ bishop? And how does he define ‘left’ and ‘right’? We see more and more that left and right political labels do not automatically map to how someone thinks about Jesus.

    The middle way observation seems reasonable, but how he illustrated that is suspect because there was no questioning of his sources for his observation.

    I would expect a reporter to have asked him for his sources to his conclusion about what the “left” and “right” thinks.

  • Bob Smietana

    Peter Boyer made a statement similar to Yates and Guinness in an online New Yorker interview on his piece about the ordination of Gene Robinson

    Much of this debate is taking place at the level of bishops and priests. Do you have a sense of how the membership itself is coping?
    One of the wonderful things about the Episcopal Church, and about any liturgical church, where you sit and follow a program, is that it is possible for parishioners to go to a church and not know where its politics lie. But in the marketplace of faith it does seem that there’s no contest between the liberal view and the theologically conservative view. The liberal, mainline churches are losing parishioners across the board. The conservative churches are not only growing but growing by leaps and bounds. To me, the reason seems obvious: if you’re shopping for faith, faith is the thing you want, not a watered-down version of a civics lesson. That’s not to say that the evangelical or more orthodox view is just a marketing tool, but people who get up on Sunday morning and say “I think I’ll go to church today” tend to want the genuine article, rather than a speculative “maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not true, we’re all on this journey together” exploration. Because it’s a lot easier, frankly, to stay in bed and get up in time for the first football game.

  • Kevin P. Edgecomb

    My understanding of the original appearance of the term “via media” in relation to Anglicanism, from what little I’ve read of the formation of the Church of England (mostly Recusant stuff), was the term related originally primarily or even solely to matters of liturgy. That is, “Henry’s New Toy” needed a way to determine an appropriate liturgical practice, somewhere between the excesses of late medieval Roman Catholicism, and the severe austerity of the non-liturgical Reformed churches. The new, modern use of “via media” (as far as I can see, primarily if not exclusively wielded by liberals in the Anglican Wars) describes all positions between extreme theological liberalism and extreme theological conservatism, with that “middle way” being claimed to be sufficiently wide enough to accomodate the passage of people like Archbishop Akinola and Bishop Spong, without rubbing shoulders. The term, while a part of early Anglicanism’s particular tradition, and therefore something some Anglicans perhaps think is therefore malleable to their attentions, has essentially lost any meaning in this common usage. If the “middle way” is so wide and easy that anything goes, then one might as well just get it over with and say, “Anything goes,” without the stereotypically Anglicanny knack of having to find a snappy stock quote from one or another Ye Olde Anglicanne Clerick.

    Has anyone seen this alteration in the usage of this phrase addressed anywhere?

  • Nick Dupree

    A question about the famous “tmatt trio.”

    Does #2 of the tmatt trio require people to condemn Jewish people like me to eternal torment in Hell?


  • Cole

    If I’m not mistaken, “via media” comes from Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.

  • Mattk

    I do not know much about the Anglican Church. I assume they practice the same 7 Sacraments as the Roman Catholics and Orthodox (although, some say the Orthodoxhave more than 7). It would have been nice if the article had described any conection between the healing Sacrament called Holy Unction (in Orthodoxy) and the Saturday night healing services in these anglican parishes. How do these Anglican parishes integrate faith healing with Sacramental healing, which, of course, also requires faith?

  • Ralph Webb

    I also commend the Post’s authors to a degree, particularly for pointing out that the congregations are leaving for complex reasons. Still, some points could have used further investigation.

    Regarding healing services: They’re common across the country in mainline denominations. I see them advertised in church bulletins all the time; they’re one method used by churches to minister to their aging members.

    There’s a difference, though, between a “healing service” and a “faith-healing service.” The latter term is used to connote a charismatic healing service, and often (usually?) a particular type of charismatic healing service where faith is presented as a prerequisite for healing. The leaders of such services may (but will not necessarily) associate a lack of healing with a lack of faith. The first term has no such necessary connotations.

    At Truro, we have a quarterly healing service. There is no hint of the charismatic in the service structure. You come in and sing a lot of songs. You listen to a sermon. You have collective prayers. Finally, you get to the major part of the service: personal prayers for individuals by prayer teams of two. One or both of the prayer team members may be charismatic, or they may not be. If they are charismatic, the person being prayed for may or may not see or hear any evidence of that. What you won’t see as an observer of the service, though, is any obvious manifestation of the charismatic. You won’t see people “arrested in the Spirit” or “slain in the Spirit.” You won’t hear speaking in tongues or “singing in the Spirit.” It’s not impossible that those things could happen, but I’ve never seen them — and if they were to happen, they would be individual responses rather than something arising out of the service structure. Truro’s past charismatic influence has become a small part of its larger evangelicalism.

    Since this is true for Truro, which was strongly influenced by the charismatic movement, I find it hard to believe that the much more historically evangelical and “low church” The Falls Church has a “faith-healing service.” I do not doubt that it may well have charismatic members of the prayer team and congregation. I find it hard to believe, though, that the service itself is a charismatic one per se that emphasizes the necessity of faith for healing. In other words, I’m skeptical that it’s a “faith-healing service” as opposed to a “healing service.”

    Another detail that I take issue with regards the authors’ description of Truro’s library. Certainly you will find evidence of Truro’s theological conservatism there, but you’ll also find many academic books either written by theological liberals or respected by them. Truro’s library has copies of Old Testament studies by Walter Bruggemann, all of the late Raymond Brown’s major works, a set of the Ancient Christian Commentaries, and many other evidences of a more complex picture than the authors gathered.

    And to paint Truro as a conservative stronghold is at best a partial truth. Truro has a fair number of theological conservatives who are not strictly politically conservative. Truro also has a surprising mixture of people from different socioeconomic classes given its location in the prosperous Northern Virginia area. There’s a lot more going on here than meets the eye.

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