Rum, sodomy and the cash: The Episcopal Church 2012

The Wall Street Journal’s “Houses of Worship” column has printed a spirited review of the recent General Convention of the Episcopal Church held 5-12 July 2012 in Indianapolis. The reporter’s style in “What Ails the Episcopalians” is engaging as is the ebullient energy found in his report on the church’s follies.

Yet, there is a problem — the author’s insights are largely superficial and the reader cannot rely on him as a guide to the deeper meaning of the things he describes. Silly things take place at Episcopal Church General Conventions — I have covered the last six — yet, the Episcopal Church and its presiding bishop are not guilty of the crimes leveled against them in this article.

Let me concede up front that this article is written as a commentary or news analysis piece, and as such, normally not subject to critique by your GetReligionistas. However, the narrative offered to substantiate the opinions presented here “ain’t necessarily so.” This is an egregiously bad article, and that is unfortunate as the leaders of the Episcopal Church, along with those of many other mainline denominations, need to be shaken out of their complacency.

Follow me through this article and I will show you were the problems lie.

The author begins his report stating the church had just concluded the triennial meeting of its General Convention, notes the large number of participants in the gathering and then states:

General Convention is also notable for its sheer ostentation and carnival atmosphere. For seven straight nights, lavish cocktail parties spilled into pricey steakhouses, where bishops could use their diocesan funds to order bottles of the finest wines.

Alas if this were only true — I was present at the General Convention from start to finish and somehow missed the bacchanalia he describes. Among the nearly 5000 deputies, bishops, guests, exhibitors and members of the press corps some may have had the wherewithal to host “lavish” cocktail parties that moved on to “pricey steakhouses” – but they were not bishops. The era of privately monied bishops ended some time ago.

It continues:

During the day, legislators in the lower chamber, the House of Deputies, and the upper chamber, the House of Bishops, discussed such weighty topics as whether to develop funeral rites for dogs and cats, and whether to ratify resolutions condemning genetically modified foods. Both were approved by a vote, along with a resolution to “dismantle the effects of the doctrine of discovery,” in effect an apology to Native Americans for exposing them to Christianity.

Yes, among the 600 resolutions brought to the convention there were some odd items that were fatuous politically correct drivel — no question about that. However, the church did decline to endorse requiem masses for pets. But his next argument about the polity of the church — the way it orders its life — is false.

But the party may be over for the Episcopal Church, and so, probably, its experiment with democratic governance. Among the pieces of legislation that came before their convention was a resolution calling for a task force to study transforming the event into a unicameral—that is, a one-house—body. On Wednesday, a resolution to “re-imagine” the church’s governing body passed unanimously.

Formally changing the structure of General Convention will most likely formalize the reality that many Episcopalians already know: a church in the grip of executive committees under the direct supervision of the church’s secretive and authoritarian presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori. They now set the agenda and decide well in advance what kind of legislation comes before the two houses.

The first assertion, that the church’s tradition of democratic governance is in jeopardy, and the second, that a cabal controlled by the “secretive and authoritarian presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori” controls the convention are incorrect. While she has enormous influence, the presiding bishop and her staff at the national church offices in New York City have no control over “what kind of legislation” comes before the two houses (as an aside it is the House of Deputies, what the WSJ calls the “lower house” that is the senior of the two, not the House of Bishops.)

Legislation in the form of resolutions can be proposed by the church’s national committees, bishops, any one of its 111 dioceses grouped in nine geographic provinces or by deputies to the convention. To say the presiding bishop controls “what kind of legislation comes before the two houses” speaks to a lack of knowledge about the church’s legislative process.

There is also a “dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t” tone in this article — the church is ridiculed for some of the silly things that are brought to the convention and  Bishop Jefferts Schori is accused of controlling the legislative process which brings forth these silly things. Which is it? Is she responsible for packing the legislative calendar to achieve her nefarious ends, or is she responsible for the froth and frippery that takes up so much of the convention’s time?

The article takes a turn away from the convention to pursue Bishop Jefferts Schori.

Bishop Schori is known for brazenly carrying a metropolitan cross during church processions. With its double horizontal bars, the metropolitan cross is a liturgical accouterment that’s typically reserved for Old World bishops. And her reign as presiding bishop has been characterized by actions more akin to a potentate than a clergywoman watching over a flock.

I’ve witnessed two of her predecessors as presiding bishop carry a metropolitan cross, and the one she is carrying in the photo appended to the article was given to her by former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold at her installation — bit of an unfair dig. The article also takes up the church’s property battles and money woes — pressing the conservative line with some vigor, and then takes a bizarre turn — one that is a dead giveaway that this author does not know what he is talking about.

And yet there are important issues at stake if laymen are further squeezed out of what was once a transparent legislative process. A long-standing quest by laymen to celebrate the Eucharist—even taking on functions of ordained ministers to consecrate bread and wine for Holy Communion, which is a favorite cause of the church’s left wing—would likely be snuffed out in a unicameral convention in which senior clergy held sway.

The assertion that lay celebration of the Eucharist is a “favorite cause of the church’s left wing” is preposterous. It is not the left but the low-church, evangelical right that has pushed for lay presidency. The chief proponents of this change to the church’s teachings are found in the Diocese of Sydney, Australia and among low churchmen — the most vocal opponents of Bishop Jefferts Schori  within the wider Anglican world.

The article moves from mistake to misstatement to mistake.  The “entire delegation” from the Diocese of South Carolina did not “storm out” — six of the eight members quietly withdrew. South Carolina Bishop Mark Lawrence explained to his colleagues why he felt called to leave early — his sadness at the adoption of rites for the blessing of same-sex couples — but made it clear that he, and the diocese, had not left the Episcopal Church.

And it is here that I have my greatest difficulty with this article. There were a number of highly contentious issues before the General Convention — the authorization of local rites for the blessing of same-sex unions, changing the requirement that a person be baptised before they receive Holy Communion, opening the ordination process to trans-gendered persons. Yet the controversy over gay blessings and the compromise reached within the church — a local option whereby it is lawful in those parts of the church that support the idea and unlawful in those areas that do not, and no priest may be compelled to perform such a ceremony — is not mentioned at all.

The first mistake the author makes in this story is in not defining his terms. What is a General Convention? What are its powers? This question currently is the subject of litigation before the Texas Supreme Court and lower courts in California and Illinois. Grounding the article by stating the powers exercised by this gathering are in dispute amongst Episcopalians would have been a better start.

However, the problem with the Episcopal Church is not cocktail swilling bishops or a power-mad gargoyles peering down at the church from a penthouse in Manhattan. Problems with alcohol and homosexuality, money and power are derivative issues that arise from the divide over the interpretation of Scripture and an understanding of the person of Jesus Christ. The fight may take the form over secondary issues such as morality of homosexual behavior or the role of women in the leadership of the church, but it is based upon a division over who Jesus Christ is and how Christians read, interpret and live out the teachings of the Bible.

While I am sympathetic to much that has been said, the article was a wasted opportunity to explain what really is going on. Reading “What Ails the Episcopalians” will not leave you any the wiser — and that is a shame. Just think what could have been done with this story, and was not.

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  • Gail Finke

    I thought it was a mishmash, and even though I am not an Episcopalian I knew several large things (such as the transgender thing mentioned above) were missing. But what this non-TEC person found most perplexing was the assertion that lay presiding was sure to be a lost cause. The rest of the article did not point to this conclusion. (BTW: The only people I know who are for it are DEFINITELY left-wing, so perhaps it appeals to different groups in different countries? As a Catholic, I don’t understand why it would appeal to anyone, though several of these folks have kindly tried to explain it to me.)

  • FrH

    The assertion that lay celebration of the Eucharist is a “favorite cause of the church’s left wing” is preposterous. It is not the left but the right who has pushed for lay presidency. The chief proponents of this change to the church’s teachings are found in the Diocese of Sydney, Australia and among low churchmen — the most vocal opponents of Bishop Jefferts Schori within the wider Anglican world.

    May I gently suggest that the problem here is that “left” and “right” aren’t really applicable terms here (nor are “liberal” and “conservative”)? Lay presidency is a radical change, one not even encountered in the immediate aftermath of the English Reformation.

    The high-church sacramental wing tends to be the one that plays most fast and loose with most doctrinal teachings–the “left wing,” more or less. I think this stems back to the reaction of the establishment to the Oxford Movement and its followup, the Ritualist movement. To commit to either meant, in the end, a disrespect for the authority of the Church in favor of individual choice. To the high church descendants of these movements, ritual and structure remain important as part of their identity, and thus the concern for sacramental orders (assuming they indeed have them, of course).

    The low-churchers, on the other hand, are attached to fidelity to biblical faith as they understand it–IOW, to some semblance of an external standard of belief. This renders them less vulnerable to alleged movements of the Spirit concerning morality. But they are also the heirs of the anti-Oxfordians, leaving them much more Protestant in spirituality, and thus more willing to propose the idea that anyone at all can preside at the Eucharist.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Bp. Smith of Arizona responds, basically making the same comments as Fr. Conger. So there you have two Episcopalians who agree about this article, not (I suspect) about not a lot of other matters. :-)

    I’m still trying to figure out how a unicameral convention diminished democracy.

  • Kathryn Jeffrey

    Why the exagerrated title here? I am not saying that the WSJ article is perfect, but methinks there is a tad too much protesting about the level of expense and exuberance. I am a veteran of three General Conventions, albeit not the last two; perhaps budget cutbacks have begun to change the culture and norms. That would be a good thing.

    I couldn’t agree more with the description, “carnival atmosphere,” especially in the Marketplace of display booths. I didn’t think that was necessarily a bad thing. I also was invited to lavish parties while attending, some of them on the church dime. While the hosts (again, some operating out of their 815 budgets) didn’t order the most expensive wines, there certainly was an arrogant sense of entitlement about the menu selections certain staffers and assorted hangers-on made in some very upscale restaurants.

    This year, I only watched on webcam, but even with limited viewing time, I heard ++KJS herself announce twice within five minutes about bar openings. At the time, I assumed it was a joke, the bar references coming as they did after the vote on SSBs. Still, even joking references do tend to make a certain impression on outsiders, to which reporters would not be immune.

    Has the bashing of convention-reporting become a new sport? It may be fun and necessary, but let’s keep it within bounds, with an eye towards avoiding hyperbole.

  • Julia

    Here’s another opinion piece by Jay Akasie in the NY Sun from 2008. It explains where this writer is coming from.
    I found the link in the comments box of the blog post by the Arizona Bishop which Passing By provided above.

    This is the concluding paragraph of Akasie’s rant on the state of the Episcopal Church in 2008 preparing for Lambeth:

    Rather than dealing with the growing — and increasingly irreversible — schism in the Episcopal Church and the American personalities that are causing it, the archbishop of Canterbury is ignoring it, instead choosing to make sweeping calls for the institution of Islamic law in Britain. Bishop Pike would be proud.

  • Will

    The “brazenly” is uncalled-for brazen editorializing, and assumes that Americans know enough about ceremonial to notice (and will not just respond to “typically reserved for Old World bishops” with “Says who?” (Or “what about Canada?”))
    But… last time I looked the Presiding Bishop was on the “Primates’ Conference”… and while PECUSA technically does not HAVE “metropolitans”, if it did, she would be ABOVE them.

  • Will

    Because, Passing By, bicameral legislatures as a law of nature, even when both houses are elected on the same territorial-population basis— and even when Nebraska did not get the memo. I guess that makes it a hotbed of tyranny.

  • bob

    There are a couple of the topics that could have been combined into one but most people following episcopalian topics miss it. The issue of same sex unions and “lay celebrants” not to mention pet funerals all have this in common: all are done or certainly will be. Episcopalians have absolutely zero interest in telling anyone “no”. They have nothing in place to do if someone starts doing them. What would happen to a layman who made it known he/she was doing their own mass in their living room Sunday morning, anyone is welcome? Precisely nothing. In the same way, nothing ever happened to clergy who performed same sex unions in church. The decisions they make are to not decide out loud. Then when something is done long enough they say it’s common practice so they don’t have to decide. Gravity works more than thinking. That’s a religious story about this denomination that doesn’t get explored.

  • Timothy Fountain

    MSM reporters know little about big theological issues, let alone church polity factoids. So in some ways no surprise that the WSJ piece had flaws. That’s GR’s raison d’etre, after all!

    But add to the mix TEC’s zeal for incoherence (“We’re a hierarchy! We’re a democracy!”), and you can see where a reporter wouldn’t be able to get much more than broad impressions.

  • tmatt

    This is not the place to come do target practice, firing at will at TEC. Please discuss the media coverage of this event.

  • Timothy Fountain

    Not target practice. I’m talking about how the WSJ reporter wound up with some contradictions that GR rightly catches.

    I took the word “incoherence” from an Episcopal Church Foundation report a few years back. It was used to describe our inability, as a denomination, to express our leadership.

    So if an already ill equipped MSM reporter goes into a governing body, and is told by some folks that it is an absolute hierarchy and others that it is a complete democracy (which is what the sources honestly believe), is it any wonder that the article, as you point out, accuses the convention of both leadership by cabal and mob rule? The contradiction is there in the WSJ piece – but it’s also there in the source material.

  • Alan Jackson

    Wall Street Journal, Fox “News”, whatever. Their reputation for treating facts with flexibility only increases. When facts become unimportant, who needs fact checking?

  • Jeffrey

    This has always been a problem with the WSJ faith column. It is routinely biased to the right and traditionalists. There’s very little variety of perspective in the columns, with this being typical.

  • The Rev. Liz Huskey Simmons

    Thank you for so thoughtfully taking this baffling commentary one point at a time, but also being critical enough to suggest that there really are some things that “ail” Episcopalians! Andvthank you especially for grounding the “sides” in our disagreement on the person and mission of Jesus Christ. Sometimes the liberals I most often represent don’t do a good enough job articulating this. I will in tomorrow’s sermon.

  • geoconger

    Please remember to direct your comments to the coverage, not to the merits or demerits of the Episcopal Church. Thank you, geoconger

  • Mary HeRn

    I’d like to know where WSJ reporter got his information, was he even there? Or did he just make stuff up. Maybe he’s not been to an episcopal church or a general &/or diocesan convention for years and “lavish cocktail parties” and dinners took place at during that time or only in his imagination!

  • Brian John Murphy

    Is the mission of the church to save souls by leading them to Christ, and to pass on the deposit of faith? Or is it to make everyone feel good, by legitimizing everything they do as church-approved?
    Is there any constituency within the Episcopal Church for passing on a faith–traditions and all– that would have been understood by a second century Christian? By Cranmer? By a typical lay Episcopalian of 1900?
    If the church stands for everything, it stands for nothing. People don’t want validation (even though they sometimes swear that they do). They want the Rock against which the gates of Hell can never prevail.

  • Passing By

    Hope this isn’t too far afield, but Ross Douthat takes a swing at the Episcopalian ball and comes closer. But he misses, I think, by using “liberal” and “conservative” in a religious context.

  • J.R. Venable

    Brian John Murphy–

    Wish I could give you a dozen thumbs up for that comment!

  • Jay

    If we’re critiquing oversimplified coverage of the decades-long Anglican wars, how about this one? Does this similarly deserve criticism?

  • eddie the geek

    Bottom line – we are all witnessing the disintegration of the Anglican Communion. No thinking person can really disagree with that. The differences among the factions run too deep. The church has long since left the rails; one faction longs to return it to the rails while the other seeks to drive headlong in the direction it’s been heading.

    This was, from its infancy in the courtroom of Henry VIII, the ultimate end. A church born in rebellion against the authority and tradition handed down from the Lord and the Apostles surely can not endure.

  • Brian John Murphy

    What is disintegrating the Anglican Communion…and the Roman Catholic communion and the “main Line” Protestant churches are the great cultural changes begun in the 1960′s. Fearing that they would become irrelevant, Christian leaders fell over themselves to accommodate all comers, especially critics and those seeking special treatment who would have normally been denied same because of tradition or, more seriously, because of unrepented sin or ongoing serious moral failings.
    It is the sin of rash judgment to say that a certain individual is surely going to hell. Is it not also rash to decide to change the church’s doctrines or to ignore either sin or virtue as described in the Bible, in order to promote political correctness? To avoid popular mockery?
    The Gospel must be preached boldly and faithfully, by every Christian of every denomination. Christ was born; Christ died, Christ rose from the dead! In HIM we have life eternal! Hallelujah!
    That is worth all the scorn and mockery society can heap upon us. That is worth any oppressions we might suffer, even unto death. If our churches must fall, let them fall to the sound of our voices raised high to thank and glorify the merciful God who sent his only Son to die that we might live!

  • julie

    Wow. I find the WSJ usually reliable, that is, my only test being when I read an article I know something about, that article is usually spot on. So just like the WSJ writer may have his/her (I didn’t read the article) bias coming forth, is it possible the GR commentator has the same? Without, in any way trying to sound critical because I really like GR and thanks for laboring on it, is it really valid to take offense with some characterizations, such as the parties, that the GR person may have simply missed and/or simply not looked for? I think GR may stray from its mission a little when it criticizes an article as is done here — almost with an offended tone.

    As to Brian John Murphy’s comments, an as a transgendered, conservative/libertarian myself, I only remind him that Christ saved his strongest and most consistent condemnation of the priests – those who seek to bar anyone from the Kingdom of God. Doing it now puportedly in His name doesn’t make it anymore right.

  • asshur

    Jay, Julie
    While on the same subject, and sharing a lot, both articles can’t be more different, as i read them. WSJ’s one reads, almost, satirical (and this is hard work, when it comes to TEC), being the NYT’s a reflection on first principles.

    As a follower of the Episcopalian “soap opera” for some years, Douthat’s is more my taste. I think he went spot on

  • Ralph

    It is journalistic skills. The Wall Street Journal article “What Ails the Episcopalians” suggests that the necessary skills for a journalist to accurately report on the stock market may not automatically transfer to accurately “report” on religion and religious conventions.