Are Episcopalians now a ‘sect’?

Mary_Glasspool_origA long, long time ago, while doing my first round of graduate studies, I took a class that focused on contemporary cults, sects and religious movements and their impact on church-state law. Now before everyone goes nuts talking about what is and what is not a “cult,” please be aware that we were working primarily with doctrinal definitions (as opposed to focusing on some of the more controversial elements of sociology).

I have to admit that, while others argued about the c-word, I was always fascinated by another problem — defining what is and what is not a “sect.” There’s no question that the word has a negative connotation, for most people. Yet the definitions seem so bland.

Here’s the American Heritage Dictionary, for example:

1. A group of people forming a distinct unit within a larger group by virtue of certain refinements or distinctions of belief or practice.

2. A religious body, especially one that has separated from a larger denomination.

3. A faction united by common interests or beliefs.

Nothing really shattering there, right? Now consider the first definition offered by the Collins English Dictionary, which specifically focuses on how the term is used to describe splits inside Christian bodies:

1. … a subdivision of a larger religious group (esp the Christian Church as a whole) the members of which have to some extent diverged from the rest by developing deviating beliefs, practices, etc.

Now that’s closer to what we were studying in class. In other word, a sect is a group that has chosen to leave, or has been asked to leave, another Christian flock because the new group has developed some set of beliefs, doctrines and practices that makes necessary this parting of the ways.

I raise this question because of a headline in this morning’s Baltimore Sun than ran atop another report focusing on a major development in the local, regional, national and global Anglican wars. In this case, the story has a strong local hook, even though the event being covered took place in Southern California. First, here’s the top of the Associated Press story. Yes, it’s interesting that the Sun did not assign a reporter of its own to this event, which was by no means a surprise.

The Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles elected a Maryland woman as assistant bishop Saturday, the second openly gay bishop in the global Anglican fellowship, which is already deeply fractured over the first.

The Rev. Mary Glasspool of Baltimore needs approval from a majority of dioceses across the church before she can be consecrated as assistant bishop in the Los Angeles diocese. Still, her victory underscored a continued Episcopal commitment to accepting same-sex relationships despite enormous pressure from other Anglicans to change their stand.

Now, the original headline on this story, at least the one atop the story in the newspaper that arrived in my front yard, read:

Md. woman elected in pointed Anglican vote

Mary Glasspool would be sect’s 2nd openly gay bishop

Now, there are several problems with this headline, in my opinion.

First of all, this election took place in the Episcopal Church, while the word “Anglican” usually is used in connection with events at the global level in the Anglican Communion. I know that there are exceptions. Still, why not say “Episcopal”? The old headline writer in me notes that the words are precisely the same size (in terms of counting the spaces required). Did the copy editor wrongly assume that he or she needed to say “Episcopalian,” which is actually a noun, not an adjective?

nuke1As usual, this wire service report is forced to deal with the fact that the Episcopal Church remains, in the eyes of the Church of England, the official Anglican body in North America. Yet, at the same time, a majority of the world’s Anglicans — numerically speaking — now question the Episcopal Church’s status, due to a wide range of doctrinal innovations, including several in the area of moral theology. There are also debates about biblical authority, the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth of Jesus, the uniqueness of Christ’s role in salvation, etc., etc., etc.

All we get in this Associated Press report is:

The Episcopal Church, which is the Anglican body in the United States, caused an uproar in 2003 by consecrating the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Breakaway Episcopal conservatives have formed a rival church, the Anglican Church in North America. Several overseas Anglicans have been pressuring the Anglican spiritual leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, to officially recognize the new conservative entity. …

The 77-million-member Anglican Communion is a family of churches that trace their roots to the missionary work of the Church of England. Most overseas Anglicans are Bible conservatives.

“Bible conservatives”? What in the world does that mean? “Biblical conservatives,” perhaps? And, as always, the Anglican wars are said to have begun with the consecration of the first openly gay, noncelibate bishop in 2003. This is, sadly, becoming par for the course in short news reports.

But where did that word “sect” come from?

Apologists for the Episcopal Church would argue that it is still a truly “Catholic” body that is part of historic Christianity, even claiming valid “apostolic succession” that links its ordained clergy to the great tree of the ancient churches. The Vatican and the churches of Eastern Orthodoxy disagree, of course.

On the other side, I think that most of the Episcopal Church’s critics would simply claim that it has — to put it bluntly — chosen to veer away from historic Anglicanism to become another liberal Protestant denomination. I know that some critics use stronger language than that, but that’s mere shouting.

But is the word “sect” appropriate? From the viewpoints of the critics, the U.S. church has “deviated” from historic Anglican traditions and, thus, have left to create a new body. But, still, does that mean that anyone would claim that the Episcopal Church has become a “sect”?

I’m asking, as a matter of newspaper style. Is the word accurate in this case?

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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.

  • Martha

    Whatever about the definition of “sect” (and it probably is too harsh to call the Episcopal Church a sect just yet), the headline about a “pointed Anglican vote” may actually have some justification.

    The Archbishop of Canterbury had a statement out practically as soon as the results of the second ballot were official, and he said:

    http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/2650

    “The election of Mary Glasspool by the Diocese of Los Angeles as suffragan bishop elect raises very serious questions not just for the Episcopal Church and its place in the Anglican Communion, but for the Communion as a whole.”

    So this election is not just an internal matter for the Episcopal Church, it does have wider ramifications for the Anglican Communion, especially with the adoption of Resolution DO25 (which states, in part, “That the 76th General Convention affirm that God has called and may call such individuals, to any ordained ministry in The Episcopal Church, and that God’s call to the ordained ministry in The Episcopal Church is a mystery which the Church attempts to discern for all people through our discernment processes acting in accordance with the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church”) in response to the call for “graciouis restraint” in consecrating bishops “whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church”.

    Bishop Bruno of Los Angeles has said, about the possibility that Bishop-Elect Glasspool may not receive consents from other Standing Committees and Bishops in TEC, that “To not consent in this country out of fear of the reaction elsewhere in the Anglican Communion is to capitulate to titular heads.”

    The headline writer may have got it right this time! :-)

  • http://www.cyberbrethren.com Rev. Paul T. McCain

    I’m curious about something, and perhaps Get Religion has already answered this question, but why is that the ECUSA receives so much media attention when it is a relatively small church body, and growing ever more small by the year?

  • Lymis

    Okay, having complained about the word, which one would you substitute?

    Franchise?

    You can hardly argue that the Episcopalian Church is not a separate entity in some form, nor that it doesn’t share significant, even defining, attributes with other parts of the Anglican Communion.

    While you don’t explicitly say it, you seem to strongly imply that only the offshoot is a sect. I don’t think that’s an accurate use of the word.

    When the main body splits into two subsets (whether the newer group separates itself or is asked to leave) they BOTH become sects of the larger group.

    That’s like saying only the groups that schism become denominations.

    I think you can make a case that the Episcopal Church has been a sect ever since it became the Episcopal Church with an identity distinct from the Anglican Church.

    The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church are two different sects of the same tradition. How far the separation has to go before they are seen as entirely different denominations is a different question.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt
  • northcoast

    Just a small point. ECUSA has gone the way of PECUSA. Now the Episcopal Church in the United States is simply TEC.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Lymis:

    The Sun used the word, not me.

    I am trying to figure out what the reference means in context.

    Of course, who is leaving who depends on the level of the conflict — national or global.

  • John Willard

    I have a question which is perhaps off topic. tmatt said that the Vatican would dispute the apostolic succession of the Anglican church.

    Would they? Of course the Vatican would say that the Anglican church has failed to keep the faith, but wouldn’t they still say that Anglican bishops are successors to the apostles through the physical act of the laying on of hands?

  • http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/dec/06/lesbian-elected-episcopal-bishop-in-los-angeles/ Julia Duin

    Here is our staff-written story: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/dec/06/lesbian-elected-episcopal-bishop-in-los-angeles/.
    Although Matthew Brown did blog about Glasspool’s win, am not sure why the Sun didn’t have him covering it as a news story. Both the Sun and the WPost used AP while yours truly sat on the phone all Saturday afternoon communicating with clergy inside the convention center – and with PR persons for the Maryland and LA dioceses – and filing a finished story at 6:30 p.m. and an accompanying blog later that evening. It was awkward, though possible to cover this off-site.

  • Dave

    The word “sect” is inapropos here in terms of consistency. It would have to apply to every parting of the ways within Christianity if it were consistently applied, and that would distract from coverage of the underlying events.

  • Jerry

    I know you’re in love with the mushroom shaped cloud, but I think another image is more apt: http://unrepentantoldhippie.files.wordpress.com/2009/02/teapot-tempest.jpg

  • http://www.reenchantment.net Ken Larson

    Among theologically mature Christians, the Mormon “church” is a sect.

    When you attend ECUSA events such as the one just held in Riverside, CA you will encounter a majority of boys and girls wearing collars who will agree that accepting the divinity of Jesus Christ is not a prerequisite for membership in their club. They are a sect. But wait, there’s more…..

    Wester says a sect is a group of people with somewhat different religious beliefs (typically regarded as heretical) from those of a larger group to which they belong.

    That seems to make it a no brainer. In this case, ECUSA is “a group” and the 80 million in the Anglican Communion are “a larger group” — get it?

  • John Messimer

    I’m glad to see my “traditional Episcopal teaching” of “there is neither slave nor free, male nor female but we are all one in Christ Jesus” come into fruition with the election of Canon Glasspool.

  • Will

    Northcoast, you are wrong, wrong, wrong. “TEC” is a conservative PC epithet. Otherwise, show me the legislation.

    Ahem. The Vatican (and this time it WAS the Vatican) “questioned” — more accurately, denied — the legitimate succession of the whole Anglican communion in 1896, when Pope Leo issued Apostolicae Curae. Therein, all ordinations by Archbishop Parker and his successors are declared “absolutely null and utterly void”.
    Remember, all the priests who have “seceded to Rome” under the Pastoral Provision had to be (re-)ordained. And when the PB whose name I have repressed threw a public fit about it, Cardinal Cooke responded with a carefully worded statement denying any intent to denigrate their previous “ministry”.
    FIRST THINGS quoted a Roman prelate who referred to a woman as “Bishop” so-and-so, and when questioned retorted “Why not? She’s as much a bishop as the res tof them.”

    That is not a mushroom cloud. It’s Bishop de Wolf turning in his grave.

  • Will

    An “episcopal vote” would be a vote by any old group of bishops. (Whenever I see a reference to “an Episcopal bishop”, I think “As opposed to what other kind?”)

    And the old adage is “We are a church, you are a sect, They are a cult.”

  • Will

    Yesterday I saw a story somewhere reporting that the elevation of Glasspool would “upset the Archbishop of Canterbury”. Like it is just a personal crochet of his?

  • northcoast

    Will, ??????? ‘TEC’ is used exclusively at the Episcopal News Service site. I don’t know when ECUSA was dropped, but I think the new designation was chosen because there are overseas dioceses. Humbly, Northcoast

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

    For the PECUSA/ECUSA/TEC squabble, I would point out that, unless they amended it just this year the constitution and canons still calls it the “Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.

    As far as the headline is concerned, the obvious word to use instead of “sect” is “church”.

  • Passing By

    Pour me another sherry and we can have a fascinating discussion as to whether TEC is a church, sect, or cult group.

    However, a newpaper that prints “sect” raises negative connotations that are more effectual than what the word actually denotes. Let the facts speak, not loaded phrases.

  • Bruce Duggan

    tmatt: You say: “…the Episcopal Church remains, in the eyes of the Church of England, the official Anglican body in North America.”

    Except, of course, for the Anglican Church of Canada — which actually has about as many members as the US-based Episcopal church.

    And, of course, there is Mexico…

  • Tyson K

    To bring this back to journalism after a bunch of diversions that those of us not versed in the Anglican wars don’t completely understand…

    To me the use of “sect” here reads just as a headline-writer or copyeditor looking for a more creative word to use than “church” or “group,” without a realization of the broader issues involved. Unfortunate, but probably not a huge deal.

  • John D

    Words matter. I remember an exchange with Mollie in which I objected to the term “traditional marriage.” Her response was that it’s permitted by the AP Stylebook.

    And we all know how words are used to draw lines in discussion of abortion.

    Personally, when I read this, I first thought, “isn’t sect just a shorter word for denomination?” Then I looked it up.

    Oxford American

    a group of people with somewhat different religious beliefs (typically regarded as heretical) from those of a larger group to which they belong.

    On the other hand, the Merriam-Webster 10th Collegiate has

    1b a religious denomination; 3a a group adhering to a distinctive doctrine or to a leader.

    “But what about definitions 1a and 2?” I hear you cry.

    MW stacks definitions, oldest first, grouping them by general sense. 1a agrees with Oxford. 2 is a Shakespeare reference punning on “sex.”

    The Chicago Manual of Style heads section 8.105 “Denominations, sects, orders, and religious movements.” That’s not much help, although it does seem to show that CMOS doesn’t take a pejorative meaning for “sect.” Note the absence of “cult,” or “heresy.”

    I think the writer wanted a shorter word for “denomination,” without taking into account some of the historical pejorative meanings for “sect.”

    More fun with dictionaries
    The Oxford American defines denomination as:

    1 a recognized autonomous branch of the Christian Church.

    And then gives the example:

    a group or branch of any religion : Jewish clergy of all denominations.

    Clearly in this continuation of definition 1, it can’t mean “a recognized autonomous branch of the Christian Church,” or we’d be saying:

    “Jewish clergy of all autonomous branches of the Christian Church.”

    That’s a pretty small crowd.

    Just to note, Jews prefer the term “movement.”

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Let’s make things even more complicated. How about cult instead of sect??? My Webster’s New World Dictionary defines a cult as: “2a) devoted attachment to, or extravagent
    admiration for, a person, principle, or lifestyle, esp. when regarded as a fad/the cult of nudism/.
    Isn’t that what has become of this religious organization–a devoted or extravagent attachment to liberal principles and lifestyles (at the expense of Catholic doctine and Biblical teachings).
    On the other hand, I think that the Catholic Church recognizes the apostolic succession of those called Old Catholic (who sprang up after Vatican I) and that a few Anglican-Episcopal bishops have been ordained bishops by one or more of the Old Catholic bishops. It IS true that Rome does not recognize Episcopal ordinations in general, but I am not sure that the Old Catholic connection has been
    decided on.
    And t. matt–how do the Orthodox stand as far as Episcopal orders for priest or bishop go????

  • dalea

    From the Sun:

    The Episcopal Church, which is the Anglican body in the United States, caused an uproar in 2003 by consecrating the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

    I have long been puzzled by the reporting that links gay with openly. Does this mean, as it appears to, that the only objection is to the bishop being public about being gay? That were he to continue in a sham marriage with discrete affairs on the side, there would be no problem? Since the phrase appears here constantly, can someone explain why openly gay is reported as something different and less desirable than just plain gay? The reporting gives me that impression.

  • Dave

    dalea, I take the opposite of “openly gay” to be “closeted gay” in this MSM context. Who knows how many gay bishops any episcopal denomination really has?

  • John Willard

    dalea,

    I am sure I will be accused of dragging the conversation down, but I think the difference lies in the bishop’s self-understanding. Theoretically, no part of the Anglican church should have a problem with a bishop who has homosexual urges. But if a bishop openly identifies himself as a gay man, thus embracing the modern understanding of sexual orientations, then he is implicitly making a doctrinal statement that homosexual acts are not sinful. It is the difference between struggling against certain urges as sin and denying that those urges are sinful.

    That at least is how I understand it. I also imagine that there were more than a few closeted bishops in the history of the Church…

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    John D.,

    I have a notoriously bad memory but I don’t think I appealed to the AP Stylebook for a defense of the term “traditional marriage.”

    But my bad memory is made even worse by my baby-caused sleepless nights! So I could be wrong.

  • Tyson K

    John D says:

    I think the writer wanted a shorter word for “denomination,” without taking into account some of the historical pejorative meanings for “sect.”

    This was exactly my point, articulated more succinctly and clearly. Thus, I’m not sure we should be puzzling too much over this oversight or wondering what the writer’s intent was– it was probably just too find a shorter word for “denomination.” It is, however, just the sort of thing that GetReligion should mention, because in coverage of religious news, words do certainly matter.

  • Julia

    The Vatican (and this time it WAS the Vatican) “questioned” — more accurately, denied — the legitimate succession of the whole Anglican communion in 1896, when Pope Leo issued Apostolicae Curae.

    Actually, it wasn’t The Vatican , it was Pope Leo.

  • John D

    Mollie,

    I must correct myself. Yes, we did have a discussion of the use of the phrase “traditional marriage,” and in that thread you did make mention of the AP Stylebook.

    During our discussion, someone said we should get back to the media issues. In doing so, he brought up a question of how the word “fundamentalist” was used and you noted what the AP Stylebook has to say on that.

    There, as here, writers need to be careful not to unintentionally take sides or cast slurs, choosing language that is balanced and neutral. This sends the word “cult” off the page, despite its innocuous origins. I think the term is almost wholly pejorative today.

    Straying off topic for a moment, congratulations on the baby.

  • dalea

    John Willard says:

    But if a bishop openly identifies himself as a gay man, thus embracing the modern understanding of sexual orientations, then he is implicitly making a doctrinal statement that homosexual acts are not sinful. It is the difference between struggling against certain urges as sin and denying that those urges are sinful.

    What about those who do not struggle but still conform to expectations? There are probably a few bishops who appear to be heterosexual while carrying on a full gay life. The phrase reporters use, openly gay, makes it appear that appearances are all that matter. That the faithful will settle for someone who puts on a show and prefer that to someone who is honest about who s/he is.

  • John Willard

    What about those who do not struggle but still conform to expectations? There are probably a few bishops who appear to be heterosexual while carrying on a full gay life. The phrase reporters use, openly gay, makes it appear that appearances are all that matter. That the faithful will settle for someone who puts on a show and prefer that to someone who is honest about who s/he is.

    If it is true that reporters are using the phrase ‘openly gay’ in that way, than reporters are wrong

  • http://www.vivificat.org TDJ

    Took you a little bit long to reach this conclusion, which I’d reached the conclusion that the EC was not only a “sect,” but also “an irrelevant, marginal sect” back in June 2009.

    It’s sad, but true. As we see the theological premises of the EC, we have to conclude that this body is no longer a historical, orthodox, catholic body but a voluntary association grouped around artificial constructs built by theological technocrats bent on reinterpreting Christianity into acceptable, postmodern forms.

    -Theo


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