If you’ve been reading GetReligion for very long, you probably know that “cult” is the kind of word that is almost impossible to use in public media without causing riots. Are we talking about a dangerous sociological cult? A doctrinal cult? If so, which religious group’s doctrines are providing the frame of reference in this case?
Another word that causes trouble from time to time is “sect.” This is not a fightin’ word, per se. But it is horribly vague.
Consider the shades of meaning in the three definitions offered in one online dictionary:
sect (skt) n.
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.
That third one is so vague that it’s useless and the second one isn’t much better.
The important thing to note, once again, is that the main definition contains an important theme — that the “sect” has left a larger body because it has made innovations or “refinements” in doctrine, belief and practice. That’s why the “sect” has chosen to leave the larger denomination or movement or, on occasion, has been forced to leave.
What kind of “refinement”? How central were the doctrines in question to the historic, mainstream form of this particular faith?
In the context of Christian history, making changes in a doctrine as central as the Holy Trinity gets you the “cult” label. Arguments about which gifts of the Holy Spirit are or are not active in the modern world may earn a breakaway body the “sect” label, in some cases.
Truth is, “sect” is a vague, yet a word with moderately nasty doctrinal implications. It’s best for journalists to avoid this term.
Which brings us to a recent story out of Cleveland, in which editors at the Plain Dealer put the following language into print. Here is the top of the story:
BAY VILLAGE, Ohio – A nationwide rift among Episcopalians has fractured St. Barnabas church, where the bulk of the congregation has broken away from the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio and is worshipping in an auditorium at Bay High School.
In recent years, a number of Episcopal congregations across the country have been at odds with church hierarchy over Christian teachings. Essentially, breakaway groups see the church drifting from orthodox Christianity to a more liberal creed, including allowing openly gay, partnered clerics to serve as bishops.
“When they talk about Jesus, it’s not the same Jesus I talk about,” said the Rev. Gene Sherman, pastor of the 250-member breakaway congregation from St. Barnabas. “They say Jesus is a way to salvation. I say Jesus is the way to salvation.”
As you can see, the conservatives think that the liberal Episcopal establishment has made major innovations when it comes to doctrines linked to salvation and sexual morality. The conservative priest, however, used pretty neutral language.
Later in the story, however, the newspaper itself gets theological — whether it meant to or not.
The breakaway groups joined the Anglican Church of North America, a dissident sect not officially affiliated with what is called the Anglican Communion, a worldwide denomination headed by the Church of England. The Episcopalians, however, are a part of the Anglican Communion, though its spiritual leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams of England, sometimes raises an eyebrow over the actions of his American flock.
Several comments must be made. First of all, I am sure that the leadership of The Episcopal Church would be rather miffed to learn that they are, in any legal way, the “American flock” of Rowan Williams. That implies some kind of formal control, which is certainly lacking in Anglicanism. Second, it’s true that the Anglican Church of North America is not “officially affiliated with what is called the Anglican Communion.” (By the way, that is the “what is called” language all about?) However, the American conservatives are in Communion — with a large “C” — with many of the largest branches of the global Anglican Communion. The biggest complication is, of course, the status of Communion with the Church of England, itself.
Third, what are we to make of the “dissident sect” reference? Under the vague definitions of the term, this language is accurate. However, this story is clearly about a set of doctrinal conflicts. Thus, one needs to ask: What were the doctrines of the global Anglican Communion that this conservative body twisted or redefined in order to earn the “sect” label?
I am sure that many on the doctrinal right would say that the Anglican Church of North America is a splinter from The Episcopal Church, but that The Episcopal Church is a “sect” in comparison to the faith and practice found in the larger, growing bodies within the Anglican Communion. The doctrinal left would disagree.
So how to handle this situation in print? Don’t use this label when talking about the right or the left. It causes way more trouble than it’s worth. “Sect” has become a word that contains very little useful content.
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