It’s the doctrine, stupid

imgp1198 1As you would expect, the Anglican wars receive quite a bit of attention in the major newspapers today with the announcement by conservatives that they are forming the Anglican Church in North America, as opposed to the U.S. Episcopal Church.

There is much to debate in the articles, if you are a partisan on the left or the right. Once again, journalists are struggling — oh my, do I not envy them — to describe this puzzle in words that are accurate at all four levels of Anglican polity, which would be local, diocesan, national and global. This announcement, of course, establishes a parallel organization and the national level, which then throws a wrench into the proceedings at the local and diocesan levels.

What happens at the global level? Well, as I have been saying, the issue is whether the final decision is made by the Church of England (which is just as divided over doctrinal issues as the churches in the U.S. and Canada) or at the global, Communion-wide level. My bet? They call it the Church of England for a reason. The symbolism of Canterbury still matters, in a Communion that, in the powerful, rich, west is united by aesthetics and culture more than doctrine. Think of it as NPR at prayer.

Or is the battle about doctrine? The mainstream coverage today includes some shockingly blunt use of the L-word that looms over these wars. No, not that one. I mean, “liberal.” More on that in a minute.

I also would be interested in knowing what GetReligion readers think of the many references to the formation of a new “denomination.” Isn’t, in Anglican polity at all levels, the proper word “province” since the framing word for Anglican unity is “Communion”? Here’s a typical lede, from veteran Laurie Goodstein at the New York Times:

WHEATON, Ill. – Conservatives alienated from the Episcopal Church announced on Wednesday that they were founding their own rival denomination, the biggest challenge yet to the authority of the Episcopal Church since it ordained an openly gay bishop five years ago.

OK, then later we read:

In the last few years, Episcopalians who wanted to leave the church but remain in the Anglican Communion put themselves under the authority of bishops in Africa and Latin America. A new American province would give them a homegrown alternative. It would also result in two competing provinces on the same soil, each claiming the mantle of historical Anglican Christianity. The conservatives have named theirs the Anglican Church in North America. And for the first time, a province would be defined not by geography, but by theological orientation.

I know that this is a tricky equation and the Times is not alone in blurring the lines between these terms. But a province is a piece of a larger whole. A denomination is its own church, its own frame of reference. The conservatives are claiming that they are a legitimate piece of the larger whole. The liberals would say that this new body is a splinter, a new denomination on its own. These words matter.

Most of the articles have appropriate quotes from leaders on the left and the right. Most of the articles, to some degree, offer variations on the familiar Anglican warfare timeline (please click here, I dare you), which says that people have been fighting for a long time, but that the real issue was the selection of a noncelibate gay bishop here in America.

Over at the Washington Post, Michelle Boorstein took another shot at describing the conflict in terms of a wider, clearly doctrinal agenda. Frankly, this is really close to getting at the heart of this matter in — oh my, what a thankless task — a matter of a few sentences in a public newspaper.

In the lede, we read:

Conservatives from the Episcopal Church voted yesterday to form their own branch of Anglicanism in the United States and said they would seek new recognition in the worldwide church because of their growing disenchantment over the ordination of an openly gay bishop and other liberal developments.

Like I said, the word “liberal” is a fighting word and, until recently, you rarely saw it used like that. Then, later we read that conservatives are upset about the 2003 consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson, “the role of female clergy, the church’s definition of salvation and changes to the main book of prayer.”

Now, this article and many others dealt openly with the fact that these conservatives have — within their new province — pledged to agree to disagree on the issue of ordaining women as clergy. That’s a story in and of itself. But, later on, Boorstein takes another crack at the wider doctrinal divide:

In the past year, four U.S. dioceses have broken from the Episcopal Church, citing Robinson’s ordination and brewing dissent over issues such as the necessity of Jesus for salvation and the literal truth of the resurrection. In Northern Virginia, more than a dozen churches voted to break from the Episcopal Church. That split has cost millions in legal fees and remains in Fairfax County District Court as the two sides fight over church property.

rainbow vestments 05Note the frank statements about salvation and the resurrection.

This is “tmatt trio” territory, of course, so let me end there. This battle is, ultimately, about ancient faith vs. modern and even postmodern faith. It’s about clashes over doctrine. Honest. Thus, journalists can ask these questions and, by listening carefully to the many variations on the answers, find out who is who and who will end up kneeling where:

(1) Are the 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 the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

And then there is my special Anglican wars bonus question!

Should churches in the Anglican Communion ban the worship, by name, of other gods at their altars?

Stay tuned. This will not be over for a decade or two. Maybe.

First photo: If you can name most of these men, you are an Anglican traditionalist.

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.

  • FW Ken

    From the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

    The writer starts with the gay issue:

    Unable to tolerate the positions of the U.S. Episcopal Church on gay issues, leaders from Fort Worth and three other dioceses have established a breakaway denomination.

    For years, Fort Worth Bishop Jack Iker has voiced his displeasure over the blessing of gay unions and the 2003 consecration of an openly gay man as a bishop.

    but closes with a theological quote that captures the doctrinal issues, if somewhat briefly:

    But the Rev. Bill Dickson, rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, said the disagreements between the factions runs deeper, to biblical authority and willingness to accept discipline.

    Gay issues and women’s ordination “are just symptomatic of an underlying malaise,” he said.

  • FW Ken

    I meant to point out this other interesting bit from the ST:

    The Rev. Frederick Schmidt, an Episcopal priest and theology professor at Southern Methodist University, said that only the Archbishop of Canterbury can decide who is a part of the Anglican Communion.

    Compare that to this statement from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s spokesman.

    “There are clear guidelines set out in the Anglican Consultative Council Reports, notably ACC 10 in 1996 (resolution 12), detailing the steps necessary for the amendments of existing provincial constitutions and the creation of new provinces,” the

  • Jeff

    I haven’t sifted through the articles, but has any journalist yet been tuned in enough to explore the parallels between this and the formation of parallel Anglican/Episcopal “denominations” in the past (post St. Louis, etc.)?

  • Jerry

    What? No mushroom cloud graphic?:-)

    I know that this is a tricky equation and the Times is not alone in blurring the lines between these terms. But a province is a piece of a larger whole. A denomination is its own church, its own frame of reference. The conservatives are claiming that they are a legitimate piece of the larger whole. The liberals would say that this new body is a splinter, a new denomination on its own. These words matter.

    More seriously, there is a style question I have when there’s semantic disagreement. What is a reporter supposed to do? To be balanced presumably both words or definitions need to be mentioned and used the same number of times in a story. But that would be clunky. In this case should we ideally see usage like: The new (province/denomination)… or constructs like “Today the (anti-abortion/pro-life) group…”?And to be PC equality standards, presumably the words would be reversed 50% of the time so that there would be no bias charged?

  • Rev. Michael Church

    I think Jerry’s style question is exactly correct.

    But in the present case, it helps to remember that “province” is a clearly defined term; if the new organization is in fact recognized as an Anglican province, it takes on an easily-articulated institutional character. One only wishes that more newspaper readers were likely to understand Anglican polity; if one writes “province,” they may think a piece of Saskatchewan is being liberated.

    “Denomination” is not clearly defined. It is used variously to refer to what we Lutherans would call a confession (for example, all Presbyterians) or to a church body (for example, the Presbyterian Church in America), I can’t speak for journalistic stylebooks, but neither the dictionary nor general usage is much help on this sort of thing.

    It must be hell for reporters; it is certainly irritating for readers seeking clarity.

  • The young fogey

    Interestingly ACNA’s the same name the first four Continuing bishops used in 1978, with the same hope of being recognised by Canterbury and replacing the Episcopalians as the American Anglicans.

  • Pingback: Sarx » Blog Archive » It’s the anti-gay doctrine, stupid

  • Unconvinced2

    A nit picking article. Quibbling over the choice of words used to describe an area/province/group rather than discussing the issue.

    Furthermore, what are we supposed to make of this?

    Should churches in the Anglican Communion ban the worship, by name, of other gods at their altars?

    It it intended to imply that they are so relaxed on doctrine that they no longer even care which god you pray to in their church?

  • David (in Edinburgh)

    Additionally to Jerry’s style points, how should the word ‘conservative’ be used? It is not referenced whatsoever in the original statement (unless my eyes deceive me), but is found in every article I’ve seen so far.

    If ‘province’/’denomination’ are to be given 50% rotation, then what terms should be available in this case? Orthodox/evangelical/fundamentalist/gay-haters vs liberal/open-minded/quasi-pluralist/relativist? Or something further from the truth ;)

    Of course, in the coming week what I’d really like to see is some human interest stories of families of Anglicans torn apart, parents and children separated by their bishops, and quotes about ‘if you do not hate your father and mother …’.

  • tmatt


    Yes, the issue of whether to soar past ecumenical worship into INTERFAITH worship is very much an issue in the Episcopal Church, even if one rarely debated openly.

    See the recent coverage of the serving of Holy Communion to non-believers as a hint at this. Or follow the link provided to my Liturgical Dances With Wolves piece from long ago.

  • tmatt


    “Liberal” certainly does not describe all of the people who want to remain in the Episcopal Church. No way.

    What I thought was interesting was that several major newspapers have begun using that word to describe certain changes in church doctrine. That’s an interesting development.

    Of course, if someone is a conservative, someone else is a liberal.

    My Anglical Quartet of questions was developed in the mid-1980s in an attempt to find the doctrinal battles that help draw the lines.

  • Chip


    I am surprised you left out your comments on Jeffery Weiss’s blog for the Dallas Morning News

    My musing: At this point I put these folks in the same basket as the women who claim they’re Catholic priests, Christians who say they are “Messianic Jews” and Mormons who say they are Christians.

  • Neil

    Dear Tmatt,

    I have a question about your “trio.” Can they really be designated – without more nuance – proper instruments to distinguish between “ancient faith vs. modern and even postmodern faith”? I think not.

    1. This member of the “trio” is least problematic. But it is – forgive me – somewhat crude. How “accurate” should we expect the Biblical accounts to be? Must this “accuracy” include, say, the empirical incidence of earthquake in the Gospel of Matthew? Furthermore, does the question about whether this event “really” happened implicitly lend itself to a “modern” – that is, Lockean – claim that the Resurection is credible because it withstands the same critical scrutiny that we use to determine whether any other historical event “really” happened? (See the work of Sarah Coakley.)

    2. Does this mean that the Pope does not hold “ancient faith”?

    3. Would this mean that Christians who hold to only the so-called dominical sacraments, and would speak of marriage as an expression of the will of God but not as a “sacrament,” are incapable of holding to “ancient faith”?

    Thank you. I don’t want to suggest that these questions are useless – and I do sense that they have a deep personal meaning for you. But I don’t think that they are particularly helpful, at least not by themselves, in definitively categorizing Christians.

    I hope that I do not sound rude.


  • Brian Walden

    Neil, the questions aren’t so much about reaching the right answers as they are about what we learn from how a person responds to them. They’re a quick way of getting to know a lot about what a person believes.

  • Brian Walden

    When it comes to doctrine I usually prefer to use the terms orthodox/heterodox instead of conservative/liberal. I guess in this case there’s the difficulty of determining what constitutes orthodox Anglican doctrine.

  • The young fogey

    12: not fair right now. But chances are the Anglican Communion will reject the new province in which case those analogies would be true. Which is why when writing of the Continuing churches (the fragments of the first ACNA) I sometimes write anglican not Anglican (the C of E, the Southern Cone and the Episcopalians).

  • Pingback: Anglican Church in America « Claytonius