Has Time printed the worst Anglican article ever?

How Will Anglicans React if New Hampshire Episcopalians Elect Another Gay Bishop?” Time Magazine asks in a 17 May 2012 article printed on its website.

To which this Anglican responds, “Why don’t you ask them?”

Question headlines are often a flag of trouble ahead for an article — a signal that the article will be weak. The question is usually a rhetorical one — the answer is given by the editorial voice of the article. Or it is some sort of “come on” — an exaggerated statement to attract the reader’s attention.

No, this is not the worst Anglican article ever printed. There have been silly Anglican articles, wrong Anglican articles, dumb Anglican articles, partisan/hack job Anglican articles, and egregiously cruel and ignorant Anglican news articles printed over the past few decades, so it is false and unkind of me to say this is the worst Anglican article ever. Nor can the author be blamed for the silly headline, as reporters seldom write their own headlines.

But this article on the forthcoming episcopal election in the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire is a wreck. While the editorial voice of this ill-informed story supports the progressive agenda in the Episcopal Church, it does so by treating the actors in this drama as one dimensional creatures — cartoons who represent issues rather than people whose lives are not exclusively driven by issues in human sexuality.

The lede of this story begins:

In the summer of 1992, an Episcopalian priest in Baltimore officiated at the wedding of two female congregants. Though he had been “careful to obtain all the necessary permissions,” it wasn’t long before the Rev. William Rich found himself on the front page of the Baltimore Sun and at the center of a religious controversy. Rich was criticized by many in the community and church for performing a gay wedding ceremony, but he’s never regretted the move. …

First problem — the claim that Fr. Rich performed a wedding for two women is false. The 1992 Baltimore Sun article reported that a blessing ceremony took place — but also stated this ceremony was not a marriage and should not be construed as being a marriage.

Father Rich, who is a chaplain at Goucher College, says the ceremony he devised at the request of the women involved was not a wedding but “the blessing of two people committed to each other.”

The Bishop of Maryland told the Sun:

Bishop Eastman said he was assured by the priest “that the liturgy in question was not in any sense intended to be a marriage as Christians understand that sacrament.”

“It was meant to be a private event addressing personal, pastoral needs,” the bishop added. “Neither the two women involved nor Father Rich desired to advance a cause or make a public statement of any kind.”

There is a difference between marriage in a church and the blessing of two people in a same-gender relationship. It is a gross error to conflate the two.

The article then transitions into the story that Fr. Rich is one of three candidates standing for election as Bishop of New Hampshire. It reports that he is an “openly gay man” and and notes that delegates to the diocesan electoral convention:

… will cast their vote by secret ballot to choose a replacement for the current bishop, the retiring Gene Robinson, who is also gay. If a second gay man is elected to the post, the selection will likely reverberate through the staunchly conservative arms of the Anglican Communion, a global network of churches to which the Episcopalians belong. It could also widen a fissure in the network that’s been forming for quite some time.

Second problem — the analysis offered here is just plain dumb. Gay and lesbian clergy have stood for election in several dioceses of the Episcopal Church since Gene Robinson was elected in 2003, and one was elected suffragan or assistant bishop in the Diocese of Los Angeles in 2009. The news that a gay clergyman is standing for election as bishop of New Hampshire is hardly shocking to anyone who has any knowledge of the Episcopal Church or the wider Anglican Communion.

The assertion that the election of Fr. Rich would widen a “fissure in the network” is an equally silly statement. The Anglican Communion is not a network of churches but a communion of churches — this is a theological term. The Lutheran World Federation is a network of churches. The Roman Catholic Church is a single church — it would say it is the church. Anglicans like the Orthodox are in between. They see themselves as part of a single catholic church whose members reside in autonomous national churches — one of the battles being waged within the Anglican world is on the nature of this autonomy. Is it absolute or conditional?

To call Anglicans a network of churches implies Time has decided that it backs one side in the dispute — or is an indication of ignorance.

I suspect it is ignorance on Times‘ part, as the impending fissure has already happened. Approximately 22 of the 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion are in some form of impaired communion with the Episcopal Church. This rupture has taken many forms, but the break has already occurred.

(Last October the Episcopal Church’s national office released talking points disputing the figure of 22 of 38 cited by GetReligion’s Mollie Ziegler Hemingway in an article she wrote for the Wall Street Journal. However, a little checking showed the Episcopal Church’s claim to be false.)

The current state of play is of a broken communion. One where some bishops will not attend meetings if other bishops, whom they regard as apostate, are present. A communion where its leaders can no longer worship together as they cannot all receive the Eucharist, Holy Communion, in the same service has already split. As the former primate, (the archbishop or presiding bishop of a province) of the Province of the Southern Cone (the southern half of South America) told me in 2009, the traditionalists do not believe the leaders of the Episcopal Church are “Christians as we understand it.”

The article attempts to place what it thinks might be the impending split in historical context, stating the:

… crack in the Anglican community began to appear about nine years ago when Robinson became the first openly gay (and not celibate) man to be ordained as bishop.

Problem three — The crack has been around for almost 40 years and has been steadily widening. The consecration of Gene Robinson was a significant event, but hardly the first event in the splintering of the Anglican Communion. GetReligion‘s tmatt has written extensively on this point and I need not restate the accurate Anglican timeline here.

The language used by this article is biased and ill-informed and full of questionable assumptions and conclusions. The story of Gene Robinson wearing a bullet-proof vest to his consecration is shared. And yes, it is true he wore such a vest. Yet the article does not go further in developing this point and the claims repeated over the years of physical danger. The only clergyman whose murder so far can be laid at the feet of the Anglican wars is Canon Rodney Hunter of Malawi. Popping in the death threat business without context speaks to the lack of knowledge of the subject under review.

Ignorance continues to drive this story to its end. It notes:

It doesn’t look like the issue is dying down, either. Last month, an ultra-conservative Anglican offshoot group, the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, held a conference in London to address the gay bishop question.

Problem four — The FCA conference was not held to address the gay bishop question. The FCA seeks to reform and renew the Anglican Communion from within and by doing so, win souls for Christ. It is also laughable to call the FCA an “ultra-conservative Anglican offshoot group” as it leaders represents the majority of members of the Anglican Communion. One might was well say the Diocese of New Hampshire is an “ultra-liberal Anglican offshoot group”.

The article continues with silly statements and assertions about the structure of the Anglican Communion, why Archbishop Rowan Williams announced his retirement, but returns to New Hampshire for its close.

When asked about the potential for controversy if the diocese were to elect another gay bishop, Reverend Adrian Robbins-Cole, the president of the Standing Committee, insisted that the committee only felt excitement about Rich, as well as the other two candidates, Rev. Penelope Maud Bridges, and Rev. A. Robert Hirschfeld. “What we really focus on is trying to be guided by God to elect the bishop who we need in New Hampshire and whom we think is going to thrive and grow,” Robbins-Cole says. “That’s our real focus.”

An Associated Press style point here. It should be “the Rev.”, never  “Rev.”

I do feel sorry for Fr. Rich. Time is touting his candidacy in such a vulgar way that it might well trigger a backlash among New Hampshire voters. It also does a disservice to Fr. Rich’s candidacy as it turns him into a one dimensional figure whose only merit is that he is gay. Being classified as a novelty candidate, or a one issue priest, treats him as a token and implies the Diocese of New Hampshire sees only that aspect of his  life and work.

What then can one say about this wreck? It is factually incorrect, ill-informed about the issue, dismissive and disparaging of one side, and condescending towards the other. It asks a question of Anglican conservatives, but goes for answer to a white Australian conservative — when the majority of voices arrayed against the liberal wing of the church are African, Asian and Indian.

This may  not be the worst Anglican article ever written, but it comes close.

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  • http://radref.blogspot.co.uk Phil Wood

    I have to agree. I’m no Anglican, but this piece is Unhelpful with a capital ‘U’. It’s a classic example of why the forum for an argument matters more than the argument itself. I confess to rea strain and sadness to see so many passionate disagreements distorted into a form of gladiotorial combat by commentators and journalists determined to present every conversation as an adversarial narrative.

  • Mark C.

    “There is a difference between marriage in a church and the blessing of two people in a same-gender relationship. It is a gross error to conflate the two.”

    It is? What else does the church do when a couple marries in a church but to bless their relationship?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Clearly Mark C. is a low-church Protestant?

    A marriage is a sacramental liturgy. Creating a gender-neutral rite of this kind — formally, with episcopal assembly approval at the national church level — would be a bombshell. Has that happened yet, even in the TEC?

    The very vague term “blessing” is part of the problem in this story. No one knows precisely what that is.

  • Richard F Hicks

    I’d like to see all bishops gay – “happy and mirthful.” Gene Robinson and the rest of the pointed hat lot are grim faced drones managing the desk chairs aboard a sinking ship.

  • http://catherineguiles.com Cathy G.

    Maybe bad stories deserve bad headlines.

  • Dennis

    I think it’s time for journalists to retire the “ultra-conservative” label. I’d say it’s time to retire “ultra-liberal,” too, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen that used.

    “Ultra-conservative” seems to just be a stand-in for an improper usage of “fundamentalist”. I could see the use in the case of an article describing multiple factions, but that’s rarely the case when it’s used. You usually get moderate, liberal, and ultra-conservative. They rarely, if ever, substantiate the use of “ultra”. Throwing the usual three labels around without substantiation is a little lazy, but acceptable. But if you start adding non-standard modifiers, they have to be explained in order to mean anything.

  • northcoast

    I’m trying to get my mind around this quote: “What we really focus on is trying to be guided by God to elect the bishop who we need in New Hampshire and whom we think is going to thrive and grow.” I don’t think they really expect their next bishop to assume gargantuan size, but this is a church (TEC) which hasn’t seen much growth recently.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    As it happens, the election has been done. The gay candidate didn’t get the job, but I’ve been reading that the winner is the fellow from Massachusetts who stopped doing weddings until he could marry gays.

    A side issue: it’s true that the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire has declined under Bishop Robinson, but at a lesser rate than the Episcopal Church as a whole, and at about the rate it was declining before he was elected. While average Sunday attendance declined 19.7% from 2000 to 2010 that is neither the highest nor lowest rate of decline in the Episcopal Church, which declined 23.2% in the domestic dioceses during that same period. It would be inaccurate to attribute any decline to his episcopacy.

  • Jeff

    Passing By,

    It would be inaccurate to attribute any decline in his diocese to his episcopacy, but it would be *very* accurate to attribute to his episcopacy — or rather to the heresy it represents — a *very* great deal of decline in TEC as a whole.

  • geoconger

    In 2009 Gene Robinson told the New York Times his diocese was bucking the trend of collapsing attendance in the Episcopal Church.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/17/us/17bishop.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1

    As the charts referenced by Passing By show, this has not turned out to be the case.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Fr. Conger,

    I can’t find the membership chart right now, but my memory is that New Hampshire did post a slight gain one or two years, which means Bishop Robinson was probably telling the truth. I linked to the chart of average Sunday attendance, which does decline steadily.

    Jeff -

    The decline of the Episcopal Church began in the 70s at about .5% per year. That rate increased to 1%/year in the 80s, 1.5% in the 90s, and about 2% over the past decade or so. There are some slight bumps around the recent parish and diocesan leavings, but those are one time events (Fort Worth won’t be leaving again) and the numbers are not that large (about 6700 average Sunday attendance in Fort Worth).

    It’s not relevant here, but I agree about theological issues. You just can’t tag it to Bp. Robinson. Even if correlation proved causation, there is no correlation.

    • geoconger

      I agree there has been no systematic long term study of the reasons for the collapse in membership within the Episcopal Church over the past decade. By the late 90′s the membership decline had been staunched, but the pace of decline soon quickened — and in my reporting on this issue over the past decade much of the loss can be attributed to the Robinson consecration — not the man I should stress, but what his consecration symbolized.

      An example of the fall out can be seen in this blog post by the former dean of an Episcopal Seminary, Nashotah House — describing the collapse of the Episcopal Church’s mission association.

      http://toalltheworld.blogspot.com/2011/10/epgm-disbands-after-21-years-of-service.html

  • John Pack Lambert

    Common journalistic coverage of Anglican issues fails because they speak of Robinson’s election as cause rather than sympton. The deep divide in the Anglican Churches is not over whether sexual activie homosexuals can be ordained bishops. It is over whether the Bible is a normative text. Until a journalists understands that Biblical authority is the question both sides are grappling with, the journalist will make flase assumpions about what is going on and what motivates both sides.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Rule #1 of MSM reporting on the Anglican Crisis, never admit that the conservatives are black. Thus, they might even admit the death of Canon Hunter, since he is conveniently white, but will never deal with Denis Kayamba, the last of the three men who stopped the seating of the ultra liberal as Bishop of Lake Milawi, because he is black and will disrupt the image of the conservatives the MSM tries to project.

    That said, the MSM has given the death of Canon Hunter far, far, far too little coverage. If it had been a liberal who was murdered in Malawi we would never have heard the end of it, at least not until someone finally managed to tell the truth of white liberals trying to impose their will on the Christian masses of Africans on the assumption, held by most white Anglican liberals, that black Africans are stupid people who cannot understnad the true nature of the Bible.

  • John Pack Lambert

    On the issue of a marriage, for starters when a Church acutally marries someone, at least in the US, this means they are married in the eyes of the law, and there are all sorts of legal issues. On the other hand, marriage is also a formal Episcoapal right and to call something marriage is inherently different.

    Father Rich’s actions clearly do not sit well with those who believe the Bible is a normative text. They clearly endorse sexual behavior that is out of line with the teachings of the Bible. However, If he had actually called what he was doing a marriage in 1992 it would have torn the Episcopal Church to the core. I would go as far as to say that if he had called it a marriage the MSM could not lie about things and pretend the election of Bishop Robinson was the start of commotion, because leaving bishop Rich in as a priest would have caused some Ecclesiastical Provinces in Africa to end all connection to the Episcopal Church in 1992.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Some of the decline of TEC over the last decade is do the low fertility rates among its members combined with low success at keeping the children of parioshioners in the diocese. These are issues that date to long before Robinson was a somewhat known person. So at some level it is the reality of demographics, not the specifics of policy that have driven the change. Of course, there are other complicating factors, and whole dioceses leaving en masse has not helped, but some of the issues would in theory exist even if Episcopal Priests and bishops had never questioned the authority of the Bible. In reality, if the Episcopal Church leadership had a different attitude towards the Bible, it might mean a different fertility rate and other differences, so it is at least possible that the various factors behind the decline of the Church are interlinked.


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