What can one say about the Pentecostal slap-fest that is currently going on between Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and his counterpart here in the United States (his counterpart in every form of Anglican power that is meaningful, these days) Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori?
Let me make a few comments that strike me as rather obvious.
* First of all, the “Pentecost continues!” letter (full text here) from the presiding bishop is a huge story and the contents of this document have received next to nothing in terms of the news coverage that they deserve.
That is what makes the Religion News Service story by Daniel Burke so important. Other than a short piece by Reuters, the RNS piece is the only thing that is happening in the mainstream press. Here is the top of that Burke story:
Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has forcefully defended her church’s embrace of gays and lesbians, and firmly rejected efforts to centralize power or police uniformity in the Anglican Communion.
Anglicans should be led by local communities rather than powerful clerics, Jefferts Schori argued in a Wednesday (June 2) letter to her church’s 2 million members. And, after 50 years of debate, the Episcopal Church is convinced that gays and lesbians are “God’s good creation” and “good and healthy exemplars of gifted leadership within the church, as baptized leaders and ordained ones.”
* The RNS story notes, as it should, that the Pentecost letter is drawing cheers from the liberal Episcopal establishment, as she stands up to Canterbury’s timid calls for some vague form of creedal orthodoxy at the global level of this global communion. Thus, we read:
Liberal Episcopalians applauded Jefferts Schori’s letter, which was remarkable for its full-throated defense of Episcopal Church policies.
“It is an understated declaration of independence,” said Jim Naughton, editor of the blog Episcopal Cafe. “The presiding bishop is not going to allow the Archbishop of Canterbury to establish the terms of the debate anymore.”
However, anyone who follows the Anglican wars closely would know that, behind closed doors, Anglican traditionalists are also cheering Jefferts Schori for her candor and bluntness, just as, long ago, they cheered for Bishop Jack Spong of Newark. Every time he opened his mouth, he made their lives easier — in terms of giving them quotes to illustrate what the mainstream left advocated more quietly. The presiding bishop has her moments when she serves the same flag-waving purpose for folks on the left and right.
* Journalists should note that Jefferts Schori has done them a great favor in placing the Anglican wars in a broader context, in terns of history. In her actual letter, she proclaims:
The Episcopal Church has spent nearly 50 years listening to and for the Spirit in these matters. While it is clear that not all within this Church have heard the same message, the current developments do represent a widening understanding. Our canons reflected this shift as long ago as 1985, when sexual orientation was first protected from discrimination in access to the ordination process.
Now that’s a long timeline she has there — 50 years worth.
Meanwhile, most mainstream journalists continue to argue that the divisions in her church and the wider communion began with the ordination of you know who in New Hampshire. But this is old GetReligion territory. It’s great to have the presiding bishop make the point so strongly for journalists.
* As always, there are hints that the fight is about more than sex. In the case of this showdown, it is clear that Williams is frantically trying to hold the communion together on a wide range of doctrinal issues, with sex as the issue that, alas, always grabs the headlines. Jefferts Schori, meanwhile, sees this through the lens of Romeaphobia and claims that Canterbury is trying to enforce an anti-Anglican form of creedal orthodoxy, with Williams playing the role of pope.
The irony, of course, is that Williams has already established himself as a progressive on sexuality. Williams knows, however, that there are other doctrinal issues at play that matter far more to traditionalists around the world. What might those issues be?
* So, if this ongoing spirit of Pentecost is leading the Episcopal Church to edit and update centuries of Christian doctrine on sex and marriage, what other doctrines are being affected by these Winds Of Change? That’s the big question.
Would it be wrong for the communion to try to maintain doctrinal standards on other issues? What might those issues be that are causing tensions between the Episcopal establishment and the overwhelming majority of the world’s Anglicans? The real fighting isn’t, for example, about the ordination of women. Remember that bizarre story in The New Yorker?
Now think back a few years. What about that tiny media flareup about Jefferts Schori’s views on the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in salvation theology? That’s smoke from a real fire.
Thus, I am afraid that this all means that it’s time for another reference to the infamous “tmatt trio” of questions that journalists can use to sort out these kinds of disputes. When applied to Anglican conflicts, this becomes a quadrilateral. Here are those questions again:
(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Was this a real — even if mysterious — event in real time? Did it really happen?
(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Is Jesus the Way or a way?
(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin? The key word is sin.
(4) Should Anglican leaders ban the worship, by name, of other gods at their altars?
How are these issues affected by this new Pentecost? Just asking.
So, where is the coverage of this remarkable Pentecost letter? There are so many questions to ask and angles into this story. It’s a big one.