An Episcopal timeline victory

vgr circle 02Readers who follow the Anglican wars know that one of the official GetReligion hobby horses is that this ecclesiastical drama is unfolding on several levels at the same time.

If you only focus on the American angle, you tend to lean left (Tiny conservative movement attempts to split the U.S. Episcopal Church to defend old-fashioned dogmas).

If you only focus on the global level, you tend to lean right (Tiny liberal churches in the First World causing schism by promoting doctrinal innovations that are rejected by majority of the world’s Anglicans).

It’s all about who’s causing an evil “schism,” right? Who has to wear the black mitres?

But there’s another idea that we have continued to promote, another piece of a popular Episcopal wars story template that is simply inaccurate. For a long time now, many reporters have based their stories on the assumption that all of this fighting began with the ordination of the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, the openly noncelibate gay bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire. Things were rolling along toward tolerant modernity and then the church consecrated a gay bishop and the nasty traditionalists went ballistic.

Forget all of those other fights that have been going on for decades. This is just about homosexuality. Forget Bishop James Pike. Forget Bishop John Shelby Spong. Forget all kinds of stuff in a long and very complicated timeline.

Even if the issue is homosexuality, one need only flash back to 1979 and those controversial guidelines that showed where the fault lines were developing in the House of Bishops. The key passage read:

There are many human conditions, some of them in the area of sexuality, which bear upon a person’s suitability for ordination; Every ordinand is expected to lead a life which is “a wholesome example to all people” (Book of Common Prayer, pp. 517, 532, 544). There should be no barrier to the ordination of qualified persons of either heterosexual or homosexual orientation whose behavior the Church considers wholesome. …

So with that in mind, let us celebrate the top of this New York Times story about the D-Day that is now facing Episcopalians in Pittsburgh:

The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh will vote Saturday on whether to secede from the national church, part of the continuing fallout from 30 years of theological disputes that boiled over five years ago after an openly gay bishop was elected and consecrated in New Hampshire.

If it does vote to secede, as expected, Pittsburgh would become the second diocese to vote to leave the American branch of the Anglican Communion, which has 2.4 million members. The diocese in San Joaquin, Calif., voted to secede last December. Two other dioceses, in Fort Worth and in Quincy, Ill., are contemplating similar votes.

Should a split occur, the Pittsburgh Diocese intends to align itself with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, a theologically conservative province that covers six nations in South America. The San Joaquin Diocese also joined that province.

Now the lede does put this fight in the U.S. context. But, hey, it is The New York Times, after all. New York is everything, the center of the universe (and one can make a strong case for that for Episcopalians).

However, note that a glimpse of that longer timeline does make it into the lede as well, one that hints at conflict that is wider than mere sexuality. Of course, I am referring to this language — the “continuing fallout from 30 years of theological disputes that boiled over five years ago.”

I am sure that combatants on both sides might quibble with some of that, but this language is a major improvement. I know that lots of editors and reporters tend to look to the Times for leadership, when trying to decide how to frame these kinds of complex, multi-level stories. This is one case where I hope they do so. Progress!

Photo: The consecration of Bishop V. Gene Robinson

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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

    I appreciate the lack of the atom/hydrogen bomb image since as you pointed out it’s been a long time coming and a long time unfolding instead of a sudden explosion.

  • Jay


    I think this is also a rebuttal to the usual claim that it’s impossible to capture nuance and context due to length limits. One little subordinate clause is enough.

    I disagree on the atom bomb, however. The scorched earth policy of the TEC (or alternately, the relentlessness of the American schismatics) certainly suggests an all-out warfare that the Anglican communion hasn’t seen since Henry’s children were trying to work out this whole Catholic but Reformed thing (or in Mary’s case, the Catholic not Reformed thing).

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  • FW Ken

    Granted that the consecration of Bp. Robinson is best viewed as one piece is a long story of theological disintegration, let’s admit that the meltdown of the last 5 years is unprecedented. Therefore, I would say that

    the “continuing fallout from 30 years of theological disputes that boiled over five years ago.”

    is an accurate description of what is actually happening. Except that it’s still boiling over.

    And again, I think the real story emerges when you look at the Episcopalians in the context of the classic American protestant mainline with it’s various origins, establishment within the wider culture, theological decay, and decline.

  • Jinny Brow

    To Jay, RE: “the relentlessness of the American schismatics”. For 20 years, I have attended one of the Virginia churches that has had to realign itself with CANA and the Diocese of Nigeria. There has been nothing schismatic about our decisions: they have all been made with broken hearts. We have only been relentless when it comes to our pursuit of the freedom to worship and follow our collective conscience to be “Christ-centered, mission driven, outwardly focused, and committed to evangelism, discipleship and church planting. We are proud to be Anglicans. Our passion is to reach and serve the least, the last, and the lost.”
    God bless you.

  • Jeff in Ohio

    This former combatant makes no quibble with the relevant clause–except to point out that tensions would likely have boiled over by now even without the consecration of Mr. Robinson. Since the story is dealing with events which did happen, past tense, that is no quibble at all. This is an improvement on the standard line, although most stories have included a quote from someone along the lines of “This fight is about interpretation of Scripture as much as homosexuality,” somewhere in them. Still, I say kudos to the Times and Mr. Hamill.


  • Dana Henry

    I have known Sean Hamill since the 4th grade – he is a fair and balanced reporter, and did a great job on this story – he was my buddy in sunday school, confirmation, and youth group. Way to go, Sean!