I am, to be blunt, a church-history fan and that affected both my undergraduate and graduate educations as I prepared to seek work on the Godbeat. To get personal about it, this is also the sort of interest that can inspire a Baptist to swim the Bosporus.
Thus, I was pretty excited about that recent New York Times story about a historic find in the ruins of Jamestown. Here’s the lede:
JAMESTOWN – For more than a decade, the marshy island in Virginia where British colonists landed in 1607 has yielded uncounted surprises. And yet William M. Kelso’s voice still brims with excitement as he plants his feet atop a long-buried discovery at the settlement’s heart: what he believes are the nation’s oldest remains of a Protestant church.
The discovery has excited scholars and preservationists, and unearthed a long-hidden dimension of religious life in the first permanent colony.
It may prove to be an attraction for another reason: the church would have been the site of America’s first celebrity wedding, so to speak, where the Indian princess Pocahontas was baptized and married to the settler John Rolfe in 1614. The union temporarily halted warfare with the region’s tribal federation.
Now, I am sure that for most Disney-era readers the key word that jumped out was “Pocahontas.” That’s to be expected.
The word that I focused on, however, was “Protestant.”
As the story notes, there were earlier chapels that, apparently, produced no ruins. Then there are ruins of 16th-century Catholic sanctuaries. Then there are these new and exciting ruins.
The story continues with historical background :
… (The) 2010 discovery and continuing excavation has generated excitement partly due to the size of the 1608 structure — at 64 feet by 24 feet, it was an architectural marvel for its time — and also because of how little has been understood about religion in Jamestown.
Some scholars lament that popular knowledge of colonial-era religion has been flattened into a view of the Virginians as greedy and indolent, while later colonists in Plymouth, Mass., were pious and devout. The distinction is rooted in their origins. While Virginians were largely loyal to the Church of England, the pilgrims in Plymouth repudiated the church and came to America to escape it.
So what’s the point, in terms of accurate church history? Well, are we talking about the ruins of a “Protestant” church or an “Anglican” church?
Them’s fighting words, you see. From its birth, the Church of England has stressed that it offers a Reformed Catholicism, a “via media (middle way)”, between the Reformation and Rome. Anglicans have always insisted, for example, that they retain valid lines of apostolic succession back to the early Catholic and Orthodox faith, thus validating their bishops and priests.
Some Anglicans call themselves Protestants and many, many more do not. Still, many church historians do talk about Catholics, the Orthodox, Anglicans and then “Protestants.” It was certainly news when the Blessed Pope John Paul II weighed in on this issue in Dominus Iesos, with Anglicans coming out on the short end.
The bottom line: The story seems to assume that this was an Anglican sanctuary, which would have been the norm in colonial Virginia (in which the Church of England was the established church). But it only refers to it as a “Protestant” site.
OK, Episcopalians and Anglicans out there. Did anyone else stumble over this lede? It’s a fine story, but there is a level of complexity that appears to have escaped the copy desk.