The “official,” “authorized” word from Tanzania

CanterburyNuke1It’s hard to know where to start with all of the coverage of the Anglican primates story, now that the late-late-night negotiations are over and the official statements are out.

(Yes, the Canterbury nuke graphics are back — even though a schism was avoided — because of the explosive nature of some of the results of the conference.)

First, let me clear up a key point in the Associated Press report by Elizabeth A. Kennedy — which led to a few puzzled emails coming my way. Here is how that wire story begins:

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania – Anglican leaders demanded yesterday that the U.S. Episcopal Church unequivocally bar official prayers for same-sex couples and stop consecrating any more homosexual bishops to undo the damage North Americans have caused within the Anglican faith.

In a statement ending a tense six-day meeting, the leaders said that past pledges by the U.S. denomination on homosexual unions and consecrations have been so ambiguous that they have failed to mend “broken relationships” in the 77-million-member global Anglican Communion. The Episcopal Church, the U.S. wing of Anglicanism, must clarify its position by Sept. 30 or its relations with other Anglicans will remain “damaged at best.”

For starters, there are two crucial documents being discussed. One is the rough draft of a global Anglican Covenant that is supposed to draw some theological borders for life in the communion (don’t hold your breath on that one). The second is the statement mentioned in Kennedy’s lede — the Communique stating the decisions reached by the archbishops during their closed-door sessions.

The AP lede makes it sound as if the Anglican Communion has somehow tried to ban all “prayers” for gays, lesbians and bisexuals. The word “prayers” is just too vague and “official” further confuses the point.

This is crucial, because the this is the section of the communique by the primates that is open to some spin and interpretation. Here is the actual statement itself:

… (We) believe that there remains a lack of clarity about the stance of The Episcopal Church, especially its position on the authorisation of Rites of Blessing for persons living in same-sex unions. There appears to us to be an inconsistency between the position of General Convention and local pastoral provision. We recognise that the General Convention made no explicit resolution about such Rites and in fact declined to pursue resolutions which, if passed, could have led to the development and authorisation of them. However, we understand that local pastoral provision is made in some places for such blessings. It is the ambiguous stance of The Episcopal Church which causes concern among us.

What Kennedy meant to write was that the primates took a stand against “authorized” and, thus, official, Rites of Blessing on same-sex unions. In other words, formal, Prayer Book-style rites that resemble marriage are out. But there is the rub. The Episcopal Church has not — as the communique mentions — created an authorized rite of this kind. What has happened is that many dioceses have started using informal, unofficial rites of their own. Anglican insiders usually call this a “local option” approach.

Many people are going to read the AP lede and be further confused.

So read the materials on your own. There are all kinds of websites running all kinds of info on the fallout from Tanzania, but here are some essential places to start. On the left, head back to daily episcopalian, Father Jake Stops the World and epiScope, the official Episcopal Church website. On the right, head over to Titus One Nine, the CaNN Web Elves and Stand Firm in Faith. You will find all kinds of links at these sites to documents, press coverage, transcripts, reaction statements, etc.

For Episcopal leaders, the key question, as always, is: What did The New York Times say? Here is the lede on that story:

Facing a possible churchwide schism, the Anglican Communion yesterday gave its Episcopal branch in the United States less than eight months to ban blessings of same-sex unions or risk a reduced role in the world’s third-largest Christian denomination.

Anglican leaders also established a separate council and a vicar to help address the concerns of conservative American dioceses that have been alienated by the Episcopal Church’s support of gay clergy and blessings of same-sex unions. Although the presiding American bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, agreed to the arrangement, some conservatives described it as an extraordinary check on her authority.

The directive, issued after a five-day meeting of three dozen top leaders of the Anglican church gathering in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, constituted a severe rebuke of the small but affluent American branch. Conservative Anglicans described the communique as a landmark document that affirms the primacy of Scripture and church doctrine for the world’s 77 million Anglicans, only 2.3 million of whom are Episcopalians.

CanterburyNuke2 01That’s a solid summary. However, as you can see, these lede also raises the same question: The primates tried to ban the blessing of same-sex unions. But will the Episcopal Church’s leaders insist that the document only bans “authorized” rites of this kind? Thus, since there is no such national rite, there is nothing “official” to ban. That’s the question.

Out of all of the stories that I have seen (The Washington Post ran a wire report, even though the primates seemed to focus attention on the legal wars in northern Virginia!), I think that Cathy Lynn Grossman’s report in USA TODAY was the most ambitious — trying to sum up both documents and the possible impact of these conflict on other oldline Protestant denominations. Here is the top of that story:

Leaders of the 77-million-member Anglican Communion — deeply divided over the biblical view of homosexuality and other issues — ended a contentious six-day meeting in Tanzania Monday with the first steps toward a set of core principles spelling out who is truly Anglican and who is not.

The feared schism and expulsion of the liberal U.S. branch, the Episcopal Church, did not happen, but a new set of requirements was issued in yet another effort to quell seething tensions between the western church and the conservative churches of Africa and South America.

The USA’s Episcopal Church may be tiny, with just 2.2 million members, but the affluent, historic denomination has influence in American culture far beyond its numbers. The choices it makes and the consequences it faces may well be played out in other, larger Protestant denominations.

At the end of her report, Grossman spotted another key wording that will lead to debate. The rough draft of the covenent says that Anglican churches will commit to:

… (U)phold and act in continuity and consistency with the catholic and apostolic faith, order and tradition, biblically derived moral values and the vision of humanity received by and developed in the communion of member Churches.

Once again, there’s the rub. Can Anglicans agree on what the Bible says about these issues? Ditto for centuries of “catholic and apostolic faith, order and tradition.” If Anglicans could agree on the content and authority of scripture and church traditions, this conflict would not be dragging on and on, decade after decade.

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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.

  • Raider51

    Thanks, tmatt — as always, your analysis is spot-on.

  • Karen B.

    Nice roundup Terry.
    Jim Naughton’s continued “we can do all the blessings we want, just not authorize any rites” spin is interesting, and is a dangerous loophole.

    But in that context, your citing of Elizabeth Kennedy’s article helped me because it brought to mind one crucial phrase:

    In a statement ending a tense six-day meeting, the leaders said that past pledges by the U.S. denomination on homosexual unions and consecrations have been so ambiguous that they have failed to mend “broken relationships” in the 77-million-member global Anglican Communion.

    So, there is another factor here. It’s not just whether ECUSA can somehow manage to come up with some way to meet the absolute minimum “letter of the law” in terms of the Communique’s wording. There’s the “does it help mend relationships” and rebuild trust test? And on that score Jim Naughton’s taunting: this doesn’t matter, we can play word games with allow vs. authorize doesn’t help mend relationships at all. You and E. Kennedy may have highlighted very crucial language here.

    Thanks as always for the coverage of the Anglican soap opera!

  • Larry Rasczak

    “For Episcopal leaders, the key question, as always, is: What did the New York Times say? ”

    So wonderfuly put!!

    “Can Anglicans agree on what the Bible says about these issues? Ditto for centuries of “catholic and apostolic faith, order and tradition.”

    Again well put. The New York Times Christians are the ones who put the opinion of this World first… hence their belief that “the Church must change to get with the times”…(or “get with The Times” may be more appropriate).

    The Bible Believing Christians put the opinion of the next world first, (that whole “treasure in Heaven” thing) hence their belief that the World must change (or be changed) to conform with the teachings of the Church.

    Bottom line, that is where the split comes from.

  • Sarah Webber

    I know these issues are important. I’ve been following the story closely since last summer, mainly here and at Christianity Today online. But I am haunted by what we might be missing by devoting so many resources to this tangle, especially after reading the Washington Post articles about struggling, ill soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital. I guess I would pose this question to all you resident religion reporters: is there a way to find out if these churches and organizations have had to redirect funds and time to wrestling with these issues that previously would have been devoted to “widows and orphans,” those in our society who need assistance. I know these authority issues need to be resolved, but are they overtaking other missions of the church? And the million dollar question then, is, should they?

  • Will

    My first reaction to the NYT treatment was irritation at the absence of any definite actor in their story. The “directive” was “issued” — by whom? Blank-out.

    Probably someone out there thinks I am quibbling. But this kind of indefiniteness is a prime source of confusion. As when everyone from the Pope to some Congregation staffer becomes “the Vatican” and “it” is treated as some kind of ectoplasmiic hive mind. Or when the third assistant bottlewasher says something, and it is pomptly translated into “Did you hear what THEY did this time?”

  • C. Wingate

    And a weird bit from the Guardian story:

    Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire The first openly gay bishop (there are plenty of privately gay ones), elected in 2003 despite living in a faithful, same-sex relationship

    It’s perhaps nice to know that he’s faithful to his current spouse (not that I’m saying he strayed from the first, mind you) but “plenty of privately gay ones”? Really? How many Anglican bishops are unmarried? How many in the USA?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    This Episcopal-Anglican turmoil should be labelled “The Never-Ending Story.”-the soap opera that never ends. For it can be traced in many ways all the way back to Henry VIII when the first doctrinal “modernization” of a social “moral” issue was adopted in England::divorce and re-marriage. Now the debate is–among other issues- over whether Gays can be married in the church (the Robinson model of the Church marrying the Henry VIII model of the church). One wonders what the next creative permutation of marriage will be pioneered in Anglican circles and whether the NY TIMES will give it its apostolic blessing.
    Note: I have seen some nasty comments about the NY TIMES being Jewish owned. Someone correct me if I am wrong please, but I understand the TIMES owning family is Episcopalian.

  • Matt H

    Well, Sarah, you’re right and you’re wrong, too.

    On the one hand, you’re right in that it is a shame that so much time and energy is being spent arguing about doctrinal issues settled more than a thousand years ago. Unfortunately, there are folks who aren’t satisfied with the faith “once delivered to the saints” and have made a career of unsettling mainline churches. I’m sure lots of money has disappeared into this hole, along with lots of everything else.

    But Christianity never has been a religion of social work in and for itself. The money for “widows and orphans” is an example of charity — another word for love — and only makes sense if we see the world in a certain way — only if we have a certain understanding of God’s nature and ours — only if we believe Jesus Christ to be who he says he is. And that’s the real issue behind all the squabbling.

    The first mission of the Church is to bring make Christ known so that people can come to the knowledge and love of God, and so be moved to do all those social works (which are, in effect, a by-product of true faith). The “social gospel” that sees no transcendent meaning in our life, but attempts to hijack Christianity for “social” causes has no real life and, in the end, cannot bring about any real social improvement, because the first improvement must be self-improvement, through repentance and inner change (good Lenten themes!) that the social gospellers have ditched, along with all the (to them) tedious theology.

    So, unfortunately, it’s absolutely necessary for those who would see their church remain true to Christ to spend the effort to bring their confused brethren back to true knowledge and faith, even if it means temporarily diverting resources from somewhere else. Before you worry about delivering any cargo, you must first keep the ship from sinking outright.

  • tmatt

    OK, it’s time to return to discussing the actual news stories about this event.

    I know some discussion of the doctrines is hard to avoid, because we’re trying to discuss how the press covers both sides of this story. But try to focus on the press coverage.

  • Will

    This morning, a release received through Anglican Communion News Service 4256 is headed “Presiding Bishop of ECUSA reflects on Primates’ Meeting”.
    Which are we to conlcude? That the Episcopal News Service does not know the “correct” abbreviation for what you insist on calling “TEC”? Or that your “stylebook” has incorporated a “traditionalist” version of Political Correctness?

  • tmatt


    They have changed the name. That detail is in many of the MSM news reports. I have no idea why ENS would stay with the old initials.

  • Jeff in Ohio

    Several of the bishops in TEC have already stated they will not co-operate in the measures called for by the Primates. Their statments are on the blogs you’ve linked to. It will be interesting to see how these play out in the press.

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