Update from Episcopal/Anglican language land

resurrection ChristIt’s time for a quick update from the Anglican/Episcopal wars in northern Virginia.

No, this doesn’t have anything to do with the lawyers for the churches or the national Episcopal Church establishment. This has to do with the other major player in this battle — The Washington Post.

As I mentioned the other day, it does appear that some people at the Post now grasp that the battles between Anglican conservatives around the world and the liberal Episcopal Church establishment here in North America didn’t start a few years ago with the consecration of one noncelibate gay bishop in New Hampshire. The fighting has been going on for decades and focuses on some very basic issues — which is that whole “tmatt trio” thing again. (Drinking game alert!) Here is a short version of those questions again:

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

(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)?

(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

And then there is my Episcopal bonus question: “Should churches in the Anglican Communion ban the worship, by name, of other gods at their altars?”

You can see echoes of the first three questions in a story late last week — “Praying for Answers” was the headline — by reporter Michelle Boorstein.

So here we have the latest draft of a crucial element of this controversy, which is how the Post explains or doesn’t explain what the fighting is all about. This story focuses on a parish in tiny Heathsville, Va., that was, more than any other in Virginia’s dispute, divided by the vote to leave the Episcopal Church. The vote was 33 to remain in TEC and 99 to affiliate with the Church of Nigeria.

So what is the fight about, other than who gets to use the sanctuary?

Tensions at St. Stephen’s, as at the other eight churches, had been building for years over a question roiling the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the global Anglican community: What does it mean to live according to scripture? Those who voted to leave think the Bible should be read literally, on the story of Jesus’s resurrection and on issues such as homosexuality and salvation. Those who voted to stay believe there can be more than one way to interpret scripture.

For starters, I am not sure that there was supposed to be a comma after the key words “read literally.” The sentence makes more sense without it.

The key here appears to be that the Anglicans who are fighting the Episcopal Church are biblical literalists — at least on the issues cited. It is hard to argue against that statement, although it is crucial to note that most newspaper articles that use this kind of biblical literalism language do so in order to link the believers in question to Christian fundamentalism. That’s why the comma is so important in that sentence. It is very rare to find Anglicans — liberal or traditionalist — who “think the Bible should be read literally” and that’s that. Period.

However, this battle is not about whether the Bible should be read literally — period — but whether the ancient Christian creeds should be read literally. And then there is the lovely Book of Common Prayer itself, with those oh-so-picky 39 Articles of Religion, including this one:

IV. Of the Resurrection of Christ.

Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature; wherewith he ascended into Heaven, and there sitteth, until he return to judge all Men at the last day.

Still, we can see that the Post team is making progress. There is more to this story than sex. There is also more to this than biblical literalism, in the sense that most newspaper people use that loaded term.

Perhaps it is best to say that this is a showdown between Anglican doctrinal literalism and Episcopal church property-law literalism. Which side wins, in a clash between the property laws and the Articles of Religion? The Anglican right is saying that the Bible, the creeds and the Prayer Book veto the church’s laws on buildings, pensions and the rights of bishops. The Episcopal left is calling for legal literalism and doctrinal mushiness. What a world.

Print Friendly

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.

  • http://god-of-small-things.blogspot.com Bob Smietana


    Allow me to disagree rather bluntly for a minute.

    The ECUSA fight seems to be about fannies in the seats, both now and in the future. Demographically, the ECUSA is on a journey towards extinction and the Presiding Bishop, at least from her comments in the NY Times, seems at peace with that. And the church has a huge nest egg of property to sustain it in a lengthy retirement.

    The folks in Virginia don’t want to go along with the extinction plan and are getting out while the getting is good. They’d like to have another generations of fannies in the seats. No problem, until they take the property with them–and threaten the ECUSA nest egg.

    The crux of the Presiding Bishop’s statement about the church property in Virginia comes here: “As a Church, we cannot abrogate our interest in such property, as it is a fiduciary
    and moral duty to preserve such property for generations to come and the ministries to be served both now and in the future.”

    These churches are making the same argument–for the sake of future generations, they are leaving.

    OK, I’ll get off my soap box. But I don’t think the press will “get religion” on this story without dealing with demographics and following the money.

  • http://pos51.org/2007/01/18/literally/ Elmo


    I’m getting sick of people tossing the word “literal” around when describing the beliefs of theologically conservative Christians. They say things like, evangelicals are:

    Protestants who believe that the Bible is literally true, that salvation requires a “born again” conversion, and that one must share that faith with others. Some belong to established groups like Methodist and Baptist churches.

    I can’t decide if it’s ignorant or insidious. One of two things is true, they don’t have any clue about the nature of the Bible, or they are intentionally trying to paint us as simple, gullible morons.

    Why do I say that? Because no one in their right mind would take the Bible literally. That’s just stupid. We all know that. The Bible is 66 books. There are histories, narratives, songs, poems, prayers, biographies, prophecies, and law…all folded neatly into a leather-bound package. Of course we don’t take the Bible literally, not as a whole. But there are parts that we do[...]

  • Don Neuendorf

    Thank you.

    You picked the right sentence, but I can’t see that the comma makes any difference except to reveal the poor education of some journalists.

    Surely you are not suggesting that religious leaders could, at times, be motivated by filthy lucre! Like those non-literal interpreters of the Bible, I will take your comments to mean that men and women of goodwill who belong to differing socio-economic groups might well have a different, but certainly of equal validity, perspective on many theological issues.

    speaking of weak grammar…

  • Pingback: CaNN :: We started it.

  • Martha

    It certainly is a horrible mess, and it seems like it will only get messier, with court cases and solicitors’ letters and what have you being tossed about. My sympathies to the Anglicans; I can’t see this ending up well no matter what happens.

    Suppose TEC does get its way and gets the property and the endowments – if there are no bodies in the pews, what are they going to do? Seeing as how they don’t seem to want to (1) ensure new generations of Episcopalians by having kids (2) do want to ‘reach out’ to the unchurched, but by removing all signs or traces of doctrine, so that’s what left is a Sunday morning get together for coffee and a nice chat, with maybe a bit of fund-raising for good causes. Which the unchurched could do just as easily by contributing to their favourite charity, so why sign up to be an Episcopalian?

  • http://god-of-small-things.blogspot.com Bob Smietana


    People of good will can disagree on some theological matters. And Terry’s theological trio reveals a great deal.

    But to frame this as primarily a theological dispute is to miss the point.

  • Joel

    >Episcopal church property-law literalism.

    Sorry, I don’t see it. There are 3 legs of the stool. One faction applies tradition to the interpretation of scripture, the other applies reason (in support of a social reform agenda) to interpret the Bible.

    The property law is just a weapon that one side is using in its scorched earth combat. They are not fighting to uphold principles of property law, they’re just using it as a club because they can. Just as in California, the traditionalists have successfully used it as a shield to defend themselves.

  • http://www.accidentalanglican.net Deborah

    Terry, you picked the right sentence, but I can’t see that the comma makes any difference except to reveal the poor education of some journalists.

    Oh, that comma makes a difference, all right. Without, the sentence focuses on how conservative Anglicans are holding the line on a traditional interpretation of Christian chastity and soteriology using specific text references; with it, the sentence becomes a value judgment about Christian “ignorance” on correct interpretation of ancient texts in general.

  • Pen Brynisa

    Perhaps it is best to say that this is a showdown between Anglican doctrinal literalism and Episcopal church property-law literalism. Which side wins, in a clash between the property laws and the Articles of Religion?

    What about those Episcopalians, myself included, who want to keep both the Articles of Religion and the parish property?

  • Kevin P. Edgecomb

    Terry is right to bring up the point that the TEC bosses and their lawyers are far more interested in the application of their canon laws relating to property (real and other) than they are in the application of those canons involving theology, morality, etc. This selective application of their canons should have been addressed at some point already. I find it humorous that so many of the bishops involved in this slow-motion train wreck are so very attached to a (dare I say it?) fundamentalist reading of their property canons, all of recent date, while their reading of Biblical texts regarding theology and morality, far more foundational and well-established by centuries of tradition, are up for alternative reading or held entirely inapplicable. I don’t think they realize how grasping and ridiculous this looks.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Elmo’s point is very important about the Bible including many types of literature–some to be taken literally, some not. Indeed, there are few Christians anywhere who take every word and syllable of the Bible literally. And this is where Tradition comes in. Without Tradition and a belief that that Tradition is as Holy Spirit guided as was the writing of the Bible–and a recognized Spirit guided final authority (the living and continuing mission of the successors of St. Peter and the apostles.)- then you have a recipe for disunity and chaos as is evident in the Episcopal Church.
    What many Protestants and Evangelicals don’t realize is that much of what they believe and how they handle or interpret the Bible is the Reformation Tradition as explicated by the earliest Protestant Reformers. But now that cohesive Tradition is disintegrating in many mainline Protestant churches.
    What amazes me is, with all the media coverage of religion in general, and crises in individual churches, how little coverage there seems to be of Mainstream Protestantism in general as a movement in history and where this movement is headed today–if anywhere. Or will classic Protestantism completely disappear to be replaced by Evangelical, Fundamentalist, or Charismatic forms of the Protestant movement.

  • ceemac

    A curious non Episcopalian wonders….

    My experince of TEC is limited to a brief venture at a SOUTHern Episcopal liberal arts college around 30 years ago.

    A very narrow but interesting slice of TEC I am sure. And probably not representative but…

    I certainly encountered a number of liberal E’s. I also encountered conservative E’s. But the conservative E’s by and large were not at all like the folks that appear to attend Falls Church/Truro Church in Va. or Christ Church in Plano Tx. They were upper class southern traditionalist conservatives with an emphasis on the “Southern.” I have difficulty imagining them embracing an African Bishop. In all the articles I have seen on the disputes in the TEC I have seen no refernce to these folks. What is their role in the current conflict? Have they passed from the scene or are they not as numerous and as influential in the church as I assumed through the years?

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com Mattk

    I love the Get Religion Drinking Game. But very quickly my wallet and my health required me to switch from gin to two buck chuck.

  • Jack Savidge

    One point of comment. The use of the word literal and literalist is misleading. No thinking person is a Biblical literalist. That would mean that they believe God has hands and eyes or that the the sin rises (hello Galileo). The better term in inerrancy, the belief that the bible is true in all that it affirms. We must realize that poetry and metaphor are not to be taken literally, it is not there essential nature. but the Bible can be said to be true and without error.

  • Deb W.

    As a member of the United Methodist Church I am very interested in how all of this plays out – our polity is based on the Anglican Church, so we too are guided by Articles of Religion – and church property clauses. We are also embroiled in our own debates about the hot button issues mentioned above.

    Sadly I do think that it comes down to power and money, rather than thoughtful discussion about theology. While I appreciate the media coverage, I wonder if the people in the pews are ever going to be willing to actually open their Prayer Books (or Book of Discipline in the UM denomination) and read for themselves what we believe as a Church.

  • evagrius

    I believe the term “literal” is a clumsy term with regards to the Bible.
    However, it’s used now because so many do believe its “creation myth” is literally true without reflecting on its theological truth, i.e; the world was really created in 6 days exactly like the Bible “says”.

  • http://nickdupree.blogspot.com Nick Dupree

    I’m Jewish, and the “invoke other gods by name” thing is LOATHSOME, much more offensive than normal Christianity to me.

    Why isn’t there news coverage of this everywhere?

    Where are the parishioners protesting with pitchforks?

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK


    It is shocking, isn’t it? It as though they’ve become so smart that they now see that Molech, Baal, and Ashteroth are really okay to worship. Nevermind what those old fuddy-duddies Samuel, Elijah, and Isaiah have to say about the matter. And surely, Moses didn’t really mean to leave Ra behond in Egypt. Perhaps, these Episcopalians are smarter than the prophets. No?

    It reminds me of that poem by Kipling. Well, it will all be taken care of in the end, won’t it? Terror and slaughter, indeed.

  • Frank Hutto

    I wish religion writers were allowed to report that some modern religious leaders don’t believe the Bible or at least parts of the Bible. A rule in my 1980 edition of The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual instructs: “Do not use the term Bible-believing to distinguish one faction from another, because all Christians believe the Bible. The differences are over interpretations.”

    Though I’ve not seen this rule in other stylebooks, I think it governs most religion writing in the secular media. It’s why, I think, religion writers must say a leader who denies our Lord’s resurrection and God’s moral standards isn’t taking the Bible literally, although it would be more accurate to say the leader simply doesn’t believe what the Bible says about those things.

    If people who deny our Lord’s resurrection and God’s moral standards are somehow interpreting the Bible figuratively, why don’t religion writers inform us what the figurative interpretation is? I’d love to know the figurative meaning to the commands against committing adultery or worshiping other gods.

    Until the secular media permit religion writers to distinguish belief from unbelief, believers such as I will have to continue relying on religious journals for the truth about the splits and disagreements in mainline denominations.

  • Harris

    There’s actually a great deal of mushiness about the word “literal” as it typically is not meant literally, but rather is a summary of an existing theological position. “Biblical literalists” are actually a church party, one more faction; it’s a label. I think that is why it is better for people to describe themselves in their own terms, rather than expect the journalist to do orthodox parsing for us (that is, after all, why we have religious magazines).

    There is an irony here, when such language appears in an historically liturgical church. This is the language pre-eminently of Protestantism of its low church form, as too, is the notion of the congregation controlling its property. Both positions derive from a view of the church more in tune with Westminister and its descendants than say, Cantebury.

    As to the split in Virginia, one aspect seems to be ignored, or passed over in the final comments of TMatt. Is it really a matter of bible v. church constitution? From other sections of the paper, it sounds much more like a particularly bitter divorce. Much has been written about those leaving, their grievances and hurts, but not so clear, at least as a motivating factor, is the role of personal grief and hurt the action has brought to those ‘left behind.’ Is it really a battle about church constitution, or something closer to ‘it will be a cold day in H*** when she gets the Jaguar!’

  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Well, if one follows (for instance) various liberal Episcopal bloggers, one can see that it is about both power and theology. A central tenet of the liberal side is that the church (meaning the insititution) is a locus of power from which to change the larger society. Therefore it’s not just the liberal’s “retirement fund” that’s at stake; it is their power base itself. That’s precisely where the bitterness comes from: the conservatives, traditionalists, whatever resent that the diocese/denomination takes their money to promote views that are anathema to them. But further– and this is something that the media is really tone-deaf to– the whole thing was made possible by the traditional Anglican indifference to a lot of theological difference. The radicalism of the hierarchy now stands in opposition to this.

    Bishop Lee epitomizes the problem because he is one of those who has been saying that “Schism is worse than heresy.” The conservatives have understood for a while that this means, “as long as you don’t oppose us radicals, we will tolerate you; but we won’t tolerate any attempts on your part to free yourself from our domination.” None of this has been well-covered in the mainstream media, perhaps because of the considerable historical understanding required.

  • Michael

    None of this has been well-covered in the mainstream media, perhaps because of the considerable historical understanding required.

    One should never confuse “historical understanding” with viewpoint. History, like literalism, is still an interpretation. One person’s “history” is another person’s “spin.” That’s why the work of a reporter is so difficult. The minute someone says they are giving my historical perspective, I put on my “spin detector” because I know I’m about to be fed some opinion.

  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Please. Saying “viewpoint” that way has much the same problem as opposing “literal” and “figurative”: a lot of opinions are just wrong.

    Besides, we’ve got a citable authority: the findings of the Righter trial, which ruled that some doctrine was “core” and some was not, and then consigned homosexual conduct to the latter. Combine that with the current “abandonment” depositions, and one can conclude readily that one can only object to homosexuality if one’s objections are ineffectual.

  • Ed Mechmann

    It might be useful if journalists (and others) spoke instead of the difference between literal interpretation (i.e., interpretation according to the original intention of the human and divine authors of Scripture) and literalistic interpretation (i.e, the words mean exactly what they say and nothing else). The distinction is most clear when you read Mt 5:29 (“If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away…” (NIV)). The literalist interpretation would demand self-mutilation; the literal interpretation demands purification of our mind, custody of the eyes, and rigorous avoidance of occasions of sin.

    It might also be helpful if journalists (and others) became familiar with the way that different denominations interpret the Bible. So, is the denomination one that recognizes individual interpretation of Scripture, or is it one like the Catholic Church that recognizes the Magisterium as the authoritative interpreter of Scripture?

    These concepts are not too difficult for journalists to grasp and explain to their readers, and could avoid much confusion.

  • http://www.accidentalanglican.net Deborah

    I wish religion writers were allowed to report that some modern religious leaders don’t believe the Bible or at least parts of the Bible.

    But how many “non-Bible-believing” Christian leaders actually identify themselves this way? For instance, “they” say they don’t disbelieve Christ’s resurrection, miracles, etc. – they say they “understand” them to be metaphors or allegories or some such and cite some critical theory/theorist to support their “interpretation” of what the Scripture in question “really meant” to its original readers. It’s a modern-day illustration of the dangers of double-mindedness.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Perhaps we can agree that “literalist” is a red herring?

    You should look at the hyperventilation between pre-tribulationist, dispensationalists, and so on over the “rapture question”.

    “WE follow the plain sense of what scripture SAYS, while YOU adopt a metaphorical, spiritualizing hermeneutic!”
    “Hogwash! YOU are being just as metaphorical, only about DIFFERENT verses!”

  • Frank Hutto

    I wish religion writers were allowed to report that some modern religious leaders don’t believe the Bible or at least parts of the Bible. — Frank

    But how many “non-Bible-believing” Christian leaders actually identify themselves this way? For instance, “they” say they don’t disbelieve Christ’s resurrection, miracles, etc. – they say they “understand” them to be metaphors or allegories or some such and cite some critical theory/theorist to support their “interpretation” of what the Scripture in question “really meant” to its original readers. — Deborah

    Sadly, we’re not likely to learn the answer to your good question, because the Associated Press has decreed that “all Christians believe the Bible.” Were the AP’s decree not accepted dogmatically, we might find that some modern religion leaders think some biblical passages were not inspired by God but were added by or at least corrupted by the scribes of ancient homophobic, male-dominated civilizations.