Who’s calling who an Anglican “sect”?

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.

IMAGE: Back by popular demand.

Print Friendly

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.

  • Jeff

    “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.”

    “Doctrinal right” is itself a loaded way of putting this position — which is the postion of the doctrinal *center* of the spectrum of Anglican churches world-wide, and the position held by the vast, vast majority of individual Anglican Christians world-wide.

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

    Obviously this usage is taking advantage of the “not much better” second meaning, and in that wise it’s not such a bad usage. The real connotation problem, though, is the insinuation that the differentiation is over something that’s basically unimportant. That, after all, is how the word functions in the phrase “sectarian violence”. I think the argument against “flock” is slightly stronger; I would tend to prefer “brethren”. Personally this strikes me a bit as splitting hairs.

    Two other aspects of the story, however, are more egregious. First, the biggest problem with their description of ACNA is the lack of explanation of how it separated. Saying that four dioceses quit the national church gives a quite different picture for the language they used, sect or no sect. Second, the use of the word “trust” to describe the claim of the diocese on the properties is misleading due to the ambiguity of the word. It would have been more accurate to say the the claim was made through church canons.


  • Bain Wellington

    I agree that nothing useful is to be gained by analysing doctrinal, disciplinary and ecclesiological issues in terms of “left” and “right”. It plays right into a very crude understanding of those issues.

  • Bain Wellington

    As for the defects of the piece itself: to be sure, members of TEC are not part of the flock of the Archbishop of Canterbury; and to be sure the Anglican Communion is not a denomination, is not headed by the Church of England, and does not have the Archbishop of Canterbury as its spiritual leader (the most that can be said is that he is a focus of unity). And maybe room might have been found for mentioning GAFCon and the continuing gestation of the proposed Anglican Covenant as an attempt to hold the Communion together.

    On the other hand, the use of the term “sect” (and, further in, “faction” which is much more negative than “sect”) is not disparaging to ACNA because the piece, taken as a whole, is not hostile in tone to ACNA or its new Cleveland affiliate.

    That’s the way I read it, anyway.

    Incidentally, I enjoyed one of the comments to the piece which picked up the end quote from TEC spokesman, Rev. Alan James:-

    “We’re looking for a person skilled at growing churches,” said James.

    and offered this solid guidance:-

    “That Person would be the Holy Spirit . . “

  • Martha

    “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 position of ACNA with regard to the Anglican Communion is also not quite as clear-cut as that makes it sound; last December, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, issued a statementstatement about a motion in the General Synod of the Church of England callling for recognition of ACNA; the two archbishops recommended that:

    “We would, therefore, encourage an open-ended engagement with ACNA on the part of the Church of England and the Communion, while recognising that the outcome is unlikely to be clear for some time yet, especially given the strong feelings on all sides of the debate in North America.”

    So who is and who isn’t in the Anglican Communion and who gets to decide? As ever, more of that famous Anglican nuance is at work:

    “8. In relation to the second question, the concept of membership of the Anglican Communion is not entirely straightforward. The Communion itself (in common with the Church of England) has no legal personality. In addition (and unlike the Church of England) it does not have a set of canons which set out its core beliefs and regulate aspects of its internal governance.

    9. Thus, from the time of the first Lambeth Conference in 1867, those Churches whose bishops have been invited by the Archbishop of Canterbury of the day to attend, participate fully and vote in the deliberations of the Conference have been regarded as part of the Anglican Communion.

    10. The creation of a new legal entity in the 1960s – the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) – created the need for a more formalised basis for membership of that body. Under the ACC?s constitution a Church can be added to the ACC schedule of membership by decision of the Standing Committee of the Communion and with the assent of 2/3 of the primates of the Churches already listed in the schedule.”

    I would hesitate to say that the newspaper is working off a press release or set of notes issued by The Episcopalian Church when calling ACNA “a dissident sect” but I have to say, it sounds rather like it to me (why not ask ACNA what they consider themselves to be?)

  • ceemac

    It’s been a long time and my memory may be a bit rust. About 30 yrs ago in a sociology of religion class I read a piece that described and defined the terms sect/denomination/church and placed them on a continuum. By Troelstch I think.

    I think that was the std. work as far as guiding one in the usage of those terms.

    Based on those definitions (again if my memory is good) the use of the term sect in this article is correct.

    Anglican Communion is a church
    TEC is a denomination
    ACNA is a sect

    ACNA could move towards becoming a denomination but for now it is a sect.

  • John

    It seems that ACNA is Anglican according to the Archbishop of Canterbury http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2iNTybrPjXk

  • Jeff


    TEC is indeed a denomination of something or other, but not of what most Anglicans world-wide regard as catholic, orthodox, Anglican Christianity.

    ACNA and the many other non-TEC Anglican bodies distance themselves from TEC precisely *not* to be “sects,” but rather faithful, continuing members of catholic, orthodox Anglicanism world-wide — which is what they are regarded as being by the vast, vast majority of Anglican Christians world-wide, regardless of what some quickly-cribbed TEC press-kit might say — or some glibly repeated TEC talking-points.

  • Ceemac


    So am I not remembering the Troelstch (?) typology correctly. Or am misusing it.

  • Ceemac

    By the way I am not TEC or ACNA. Just a guy who read an article years ago that I thought might be helpful.

  • bob

    It’s even harder to pin down who’s breaking away from whom. About 500 years ago the “Church of England” broke away from Rome, for a spell the Anglicans in the US were seen as breaking away from that, now another (there have been earlier ones) is breaking away from the Episcopal Church. It seems reasonable to call the ACNA by that term but it would be more informative to push the history of church dissent in Britain a little further back than the last 5-10 years. It has a long history that helps clarify the very recent changes.
    But the press has the attention span of a house cat as do most of the readers. History makes the eyes glaze over.

  • Jeff


    Well, technically speaking, the Church of Rome broke gradually away from all the other Christian churches to its east prior to 1054, such that the Church of England’s later assertion of its independence from the Church of Rome was really just a move back toward an earlier, more orthodox and catholic state of things — just as with various Anglican bodies’ breaks today away from TEC. But I digress …

  • Bain Wellington

    Can we please stay away from rehashing “who broke away from whom”? These historical reflections are generally too brief to be of any except (wittingly or not) polemical value.

  • Mark Baddeley

    It is a bit more complex still. There are a number of groupings of churches around the world that are considered to be ‘Anglican’ inasmuch as they can trace their origins to the Church of England and fairly recognisably keep the more obvious signposts of Anglicanism – the Prayer Book, some kind of recognition of the 39 articles, episcopacy.

    But they aren’t part of ‘Anglican Communion’ – these days that term has come to mean a more formal grouping of dioceses and provinces that have membership in three “instruments of communion” (their bishop is invited to the Lambeth Conference, their Primate is part of the Primates Meeting, and their delegates are allowed to go to the ACC) and they are ‘in fellowship’ with the fourth instrument – the Archbishop of Canterbury.

    The problem is that individual bits of that “capital c” Communion are not in communion with each other (a large slab of the diocese and provinces of the Anglican Communion are not in communion with TEC with the exception of the Diocese of South Carolina and a few other places) *and* that many are in communion with anglicans who are not part of the Communion.

    As part of this tension, questions are now being raised about the status of the Communion and there’s an interest, being led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, of creating yet another layer of Communion membership, a covenant, and another interest, being lead by what is called GAFCON, to return things to more ‘pre-instrument’ days and have the “Communion” be a ‘communion’ by ignoring the instruments and simply forging working relationships between those parts of the “Communion” who have enough theologically in common to be in “communion”.

    Simply focusing on the formal structures makes the narrative much simpler for journalists to explain – TEC is in the Communion, ACNA is out of the Communion but is supported by constituent members of the Communion located elsewhere.

    *If* a journalist has a bias towards TEC, then telling the story that way helps their case as well. But, while I would align myself with ACNA on the issues in question, I don’t think that bias is all that is going on here.

  • Jeff


    I agree that bias isn’t all of the problem here. It’s bias and ignorance in tandem. I’m guessing the reporter here doesn’t know enough to do much justice to the issues at hand and that he or she more or less deferred to TEC’s position on things. TEC are the “liberals” or “progressives,” so they must be “right,” right?

  • ceemac

    Jeff, Mark, Bob et al…….

    You guys are really missing the point here.

    This really is not about TEC or ACNA.

    This is abut the usefulness of a particular term in this case “sect.”

    Tmatt suggests that “sect” is not a useful word for journalists to use in discussions of religion.

    I offered a suggestion based on a class I took that it is an extremely useful word with an accepted definition.

    No one has responded to my suggestion.

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

    Ceemac: I went to the dictionary conveniently placed on my imac and found this.

    Sect – a group of people with somewhat different religious beliefs (typically regarded as heretical) from those of a larger group to which they belong.
    • often derogatory a group that has separated from an established church; a nonconformist church.
    • a philosophical or political group, esp. one regarded as extreme or dangerous.

    The many Anglican (1928 Prayer Book, 1940 Hymnal) churches in the U.S. would no doubt – me included – have a problem with your textbook’s definition as it applies in addressing the issue of TEC and the continuing faith that is present and nurtured in our “breakaway” churches.

    In light of what I just wrote, I agree with TMatt.

  • John Pack Lambert

    In some European countries “sect” is used with basically the same level of pejorative meaning as “cult” is in the United States.