A 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?
As 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?