LA Times mangles the Anglican timeline

9780060775377No wonder so many reporters get confused about the whole Anglican timeline issue.

Click here and take a look at a conservative website’s version of how the Episcopal Church reached its current crisis. This is the kind of info that is all over the place.

Now this is a useful timeline in many ways. It has all kinds of information about all kinds of events over a long period of time and, for reporters, saving this URL would put them one click away from basic documents in the middle and on one side of this global debate. Let me repeat that this is a conservative timeline and folks on the left would say that it omits many important facts and events.

That’s my point, too. Take a look at this section of the timeline:

1989 – Bishop John Spong, Diocese of Newark, publicly ordains first non-celibate, openly-partnered, homosexual.

1991 – Bishop Walter Righter, Diocese of Washington, D.C., ordaines a non-celibate homosexual.

1994 – General Convention of ECUSA approved Resolution C042 calling for preparation of a report considering rites for blessings of same-sex unions.

1994 – Bishop Spong drafted the “Koinonia Statement” defining homosexuality as morally neutral and affirming support for the ordination of homosexuals in faithful sexual relationships (signed by 90 bishops and 144 deputies). See also Spong’s 12 Theses.

1996 – The American Anglican Council is incorporated.

1996 –- Both counts of heresy against Bishop Righter dismissed in an ecclesiastical court, which declared there was “no clear doctrine” involved regarding the ordination a non-celibate gay man.

1997 – The Kuala Lumpur Statement, is released by the Second Anglican Encounter in the South, upholding traditional theology on human sexuality. At General Convention, Resolution B032 to endorse the Kuala Lumpur Statement was defeated in the House of Bishops 94 to 42.

1998 – Lambeth Conference upholds Scriptural and traditional teaching on marriage and human sexuality in resolution 1.10. Showing their dissent for resolution 1.10, 65 ECUSA bishops sign a pastoral statement in support of lesbian and gay Anglicans.

Now, this shows that the fighting has been going on a long, long time — certainly before the ordination of a certain noncelibate gay bishop in a tiny diocese in true blue New England.

That’s good. That’s factual.

But read this timeline — a conservative one, remember — and you would think that this is all about sex or, at best, sex and the Bible. In a way, this bias in the timeline helps the Episcopal left make its case that this is all about sex and biblical literalism.

I bring this up because of a recent Los Angeles Times article by Louis Sahagun that has been nagging me all week. Something in it bugged me and I have had trouble pinning it down. The article focuses on the conservative Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin and its controversial leader, the Rt. Rev. John-David Schofield. Here is how it opens:

FRESNO – For Bishop John-David Schofield, the question is central to the future of the church he loves: Does the American Episcopal Church believe the Scriptures are the revealed word of God?

In a recent vote, a majority of his flock answered with a resounding “no,” and that is why Schofield is leading his San Joaquin Diocese in an unprecedented effort to pull away from the Episcopal Church.

And later in the same article we read this summary:

Schofield’s diocese, which had been largely ignored for decades by top Episcopal leaders, is sharpening the national debate over church identity and mission. Although the Fresno-based diocese has focused on its differences with the national church, Episcopal leaders have stressed their commonalities, such as core beliefs about the salvation promised by Jesus Christ.

… Schofield’s goal is to place the diocese under the jurisdiction of a conservative prelate, possibly one in South America or Africa.

Now, this is truly strange — especially that phrase that the U.S. Episcopal Church is stressing that it remains united to conservatives because of “core beliefs about the salvation promised by Jesus Christ.” This is strange, because the national church has tabled or rejected attempts to affirm a simple statement affirming (tmatt trio question No. 2) that salvation is found through Jesus Christ, alone. There is no way that salvation theology is a source of unity in modern Anglicanism — at least not in the First World.

But as I pondered the Los Angeles Times article, something else hit me. Schofield is known as a leader among the conservative camp known as “Anglo-Catholicism.” His emphasis has been on the Catholic — large “C” — nature of the church and its doctrines. This is a man who would, with his first breath, defend the creeds and sacraments. I cannot find, anywhere in this article, a clear reference to this fact. He is not an Evangelical or Reformed Anglican. He is an Anglo-Catholic.

And there is another problem in the story. In that timeline at the start of this post, note the little phrase: “See also Spong’s 12 Theses.”

Now what is that all about?

Consider this section of the Times article:

In a message to his congregations in December, Schofield said the Episcopal Church’s departure from doctrine began in 2003 when for the first time it consented to allow an openly gay man to be elected bishop.

Later, church leaders failed to challenge a retired Episcopal bishop who published a book denying the virgin birth and questioning the divinity of Jesus. Then in November, Jefferts Schori, a supporter of same-sex unions, became the first woman to lead a national church in the Anglican Communion’s roughly 500-year history.

spong coverThe word “later” makes it seem that this “retired Episcopal bishop” published his radical views after 2003.

This has to be a reference to retired Bishop Jack Spong of Newark and his 12 theses to modernize Christianity. When did that firestorm take place? Well, I wrote about it in 1998 — well before the events of 2003. The key is that Spong — click here for the details — rejected the very heart of theism as well as Christianity. Thus, I wrote:

Anglicanism begins and ends with The Book of Common Prayer.

Obviously, this volume is full of prayers — morning prayers, evening prayers and prayers for all the times in between. There are hundreds of pages of prayers for Holy Communion, baptisms, ordinations, funerals and other events and most begin with “O God,” “Heavenly Father,” “Eternal Lord God” or similar phrases. The working assumption is that the God of the Bible hears these prayers and can answer them.

Wrong, argues America’s most famous Episcopal bishop.

The Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong believes the time has come for intelligent Christians to grow up and admit there isn’t a personal God of any kind on the receiving end of these prayers and petitions. The bishop of Newark fired this shot over the bow in a recent missive containing 12 theses, starting with: “Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead.” The logical implication appears as his 10th thesis: “Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.”

There’s more. What about Jesus? What about the cross? Heaven? Hell?

After ditching theism, the bishop says it’s “nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity.” He rejects miracles in general, humanity’s fall into sin and any belief that the Bible contains revealed, transcendent moral laws. He rejects the virgin birth, resurrection and ascension of Jesus as historical events.

In some of his most sweeping language, Spong writes: “The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.” Later he adds: “The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment.”

Spong has never hidden his beliefs and he remains a bishop in good standing in the Episcopal Church. Here is an interesting question for reporters covering the church at this point in its history. Ask Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori which points in Spong’s revolutionary post-theistic creed she would reject and which she would affirm. Read her the list.

This 1998 Spong firestorm belongs on any timeline of the current Episcopal controversy. And it certainly did not take place after 2003 — no matter what the Los Angeles Times says.

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.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    While the conservative Wiki linked here does review important steps along the way, it confuses two ordinations of noncelibate gay clergy.

    Walter Righter was never the Bishop of Washington. Rather, he was the retired Bishop of Iowa when, serving as an assisting bishop in Bishop Spong’s Diocese of Newark, he ordained Barry Stopfel as a deacon in September 1990. That is the ordination for which Righter faced charges in 1996.

    Ronald Haines was Bishop of Washington when he ordained Elizabeth Carl to the priesthood in 1991. A resolution at General Convention in 1991 sought to censure both Haines and Righter for performing these ordinations, but the House of Bishops declined to censure them.

  • Don Neuendorf

    Obviously, more is going on here than just a debate about the details of a timeline. The real issue is not what happened first – but what events caused (or contributed to) other events. And since this is not all that difficult, then the implied question is, why haven’t journalists generally recognized this sequence of events.

    I can’t read motives or minds, but I could suggest some possibilities…

    1. The sexual angle is just more interesting. Not only does it sell more papers, but it’s more entertaining for the journalists themselves to see the church arguing about hot topics like homosexuality. Of course, you will note that the same thing appears to apply to the conservative group that posted the timeline. It’s easier to point to effects than to causes – the flagrant sin is more interesting than the theological roots of it.

    2. Conversely, theological debates aren’t news. Oh sure, a few people are interested. They read about them in the denominational newsletters. But theological debates about fine points of Scripture have been going on for 2,000 years without homosexuals being ordained, so where is the point at which it suddenly becomes interesting to the readers of the New York Times? You and I might say this is big stuff – but the authority of Scripture is so old news. Let’s say… 1920s?

    3. Maybe some journalists realize the order of events here, but they consider them too complex to explain. Or perhaps (and I really didn’t want to go here) some people reporting on these issues of gay marriage and ordination recognize that the root of all this is the authority of Scripture and they don’t want to go there – that is, they don’t want people to think that this is the inevitable result of an anti-Scripture stance. After all, if people went back to the idea that the Bible is the Word of God, then they might reverse any number of things. We could all end up as some kind of fundamentalists!

    And isn’t that the scariest bogie man of them all?

  • Art Deco

    And did any of these inquisitive reporters think to ask Spong why he couldn’t get a normal job?

  • Pingback: titusonenine » Blog Archive » Terry Mattingly: The LA Times mangles the Anglican timeline

  • Rev. Robert Semes

    Jack Spong is the best thing that has happened to Christianity since the Reformation. Also add Don Cupitt to this list. The reporters are right, it’s you guys that are screwed up.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    I forgot to add this praise for the Wiki: It reminds readers that critics of Bishop Spong brought doctrinal charges against him, unsuccessfully, in 1987.

  • Dale

    The reporters are right, it’s you guys that are screwed up.

    Damn the facts, full advocacy ahead!

  • Cathy Hartley

    Maybe you already know this, but please note that the conservative perspective timeline you reference is brand new as of 1/30/2007 and as a wiki is meant as a starting point. See

    I’ll quote Greg Griffith from one of the comments there, which answers some who are questioning omissions in the timeline:

    “please understand two things:

    1. The bulk of Andy’s time on this project was spent setting up the program and the server to handle this thing – no small feat. His entries so far have been for the purpose of framing up the house – not of floating sheetrock and laying carpet and tile. Give the guy a break.

    2. The nature of a “Wiki” is of a community project – by definition, it’s not presented as a finished product, but as a work in progress. ”

    FYI – since it was announced there has been discussion on several blogs regarding what else should be added to the timeline and people are researching dates, etc.

  • John Parman

    You might have missed the excellent ‘polite argument‘ about the future of the Episcopal Church focusing on the developments in the diocese of Virginia. We feature the asst rector of Falls Church and the rector of St. James’ in Leesburg.

  • evagrius

    I like Sponge- not because I agree with him but because he states things that should be explored.

    There’s a nice phrase that describes why Christianity, espececially the “conservative” kind is in such a moribund state- “theology of repetition”.

    Merely to repeat what has been stated before, without attempting to understand why it was stated in the first place, is to perform no theology at all.

    The questions Sponge asks have already been explored in Christian theology.

    His attacks on “theism” are , in their own way, a “theology of repetition” even if he does not know it.

    All one has to do is look up and examine what is known as “negative theology”. That’s been a well developed theology beginning with the early fathers of the Church. Reading Dionysius the Aeropagite should give any one a good basic grounding and enable one to be quite comfortable knowing the relativity of language about God.

    Of course, the trick to “negative theology” is that its real application is not conceptual but in prayer.

    Sponge is doing a good service for those who, because of his questioning, seek a deeper reason to be Christian besides the “theology of repetion”.

  • Matthias

    Douglas LeBlanc wrote: I forgot to add this praise for the Wiki: It reminds readers that critics of Bishop Spong brought doctrinal charges against him, unsuccessfully, in 1987.

    According to commenters at T19 those charges were for ordaining a practicing homosexual, not for denying the tenets of the Nicene Creed.

    To the best of my knowledge no Episcopal bishop since Pike in the 1960s has been charged with heresy for denying such doctrines as the virgin birth, the resurrection, the trinity tc.

    It is this fact that it was decisive in my own conclusion that those principles simply are not “doctrine” in any meaningful sense in the EC.

  • Joel

    C’mon, why give so much credit to Spong? He was a piker and a Johnny-come-lately when compared to James Pike. Even Pike’s biggest fans refer to his radical theology as changing American religion, while his death (literally) wandering in the Israeli desert is created far more publicity than any exit that the 75-year-old Spong will be able to manage at this point.

  • Saul

    Well said, Don Neuendorf, but the problem’s been not only with the media, but the Church as well.

    Not teaching the flock properly, always reactive, and losing a lot of people in the process.

    Finally, the Church has realized its error, and this Pope has decided to be not only aggressively orthodox, but to teach and evangelize as Jesus demanded.

    He’s realized that it’s time that people knew their beliefs so that when exposed to the Spong’s of this world, who have been around for millenia, whatever decisions they make, they do so with as fully-informed consciences as possible.

    Or more importantly, we will be ready to face whatever challenges to the faith, intellectual or not, anticipated or not, that arise in the future.

  • Bob Smietana

    I’m still holding out that fannies in the pews plays a huge role in the Anglican wars. Take this correction from the LA Times.

    Episcopal Church: A story in Sunday’s California section about San Joaquin Episcopal Diocese Bishop John-David Schofield quoted him as saying there are about 780,000 Episcopalians in the United States. Officials of the Episcopal Church in New York say the church has about 2.3 million members.

    Turns out they are both right. Membership is 2.3 million but on any given Sunday, the attendance is somewhere around 780,000 (it stood at 787,271 in 2005, according to the official Episcopal research office.)

  • Matthias

    Yes, Joel – regarding Pike and Spong one might say that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce, and the third time as Katherine Jefferts Schori.

  • Dave G.

    12. All human beings bear God’s image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one’s being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.

    Well, I have always had the itchy feeling that the reasons for Spong’s other 11 thesis is to prepare a way for the 12th. Like so many, it is this last ideal which belongs at the front, for it is what guides the rest. So maybe the Times isn’t so far off after all, at least not according to Spong.

  • Samantha

    Sorry T. Lee Beck, you are incorrect. The Anglican Communion is made up of Anglican provinces around the world, of which the Church of England is but one. Certainly the Anglican church was born in England but the Episcopal Church, as the American province of the Anglican Communion, is as Anglican as the Church of England.

  • Joel

    Justin — yes and no. Legally anyone in communion with Canterbury is Anglican. Theologically, it would take believing in the 39 articles.

    GC 2006 rejected on a procedural move resolution D058, which asked delegates to affirm their agreement with Article XVIII of the 39 articles. Given that the (non)reaction of the GC, it seems fair to say a majority of the delegates do not believe in Article 39 and thus are not Anglican in the sense that it has meant since 1534.

  • Nancy Reyes

    Some would say the problem started when they allowed divorced bishops like Bishop Pike.
    Catholics would say it started in the 1930′s when the Lambeth conference approved of contraception.
    The base of all of this is a confusion about seuxality, i.e. the reason that God made man and women, and the rejection of the link between reproduction and sexuality.

  • Scott Allen

    I believe the Book of Common Prayer is the main problem. I do not want to over-generalize based on 1 example, but I saw my father’s Episcopal “study group” meet once. They opened the Book of Common Prayer, read it together for 1/2 hour, then left. I was mystified regarding the purpose of this exercise. There was no discussion, and even if it had occurred no one brought a Bible as a reference.
    I also asked an Episcopal priest, following a service, about the meaning of the day’s Bible passage (since it was required reading, but he had not commented on it during his homily). He said he hadn’t thought about it. This “read something and move on” approach was disturbing.

    The Book of Common Prayer is poetic, but there is no substitute for getting the Truth from the Source, the Bible.

  • Capt Windsor

    It is just a shame that those who held and hold to the tenets of the Church of England – Anglican Protestant Reformed (see Coronation Oath and Bill of Rights,England),who were and are (Northern Ireland) martyrs for this Faith, many knighted by the Sovereign for Service of Valor, now observe the Church they formalized in the U.S. as no longer.