Nice but, at times, confusing news on Virginia Anglican wars

Inspiring, uplifting stories have been hard to find in recent decades in the world of Episcopal vs. Anglican infighting, especially when it comes to in-the-trenches doctrinal warfare at the local and regional levels.

However, the religion-beat team at The New York Times thought it had one the other day. The headline: “Two Ministers Forge Friendship Across a Church Divide.”

This news feature worked, kind of, on the macro level. However, many of the micro details were out of focus and Anglican-fluent readers were left, methinks, wondering what was really going on.

This is the story of the unlikely friendship between the Rev. Tory Baucum, a doctrinal conservative, and the Rev. Shannon Johnston, a doctrinal progressive who, among other things, strongly supports same-sex marriage.

This is how the story identified each man — “the Rev.” The problem is that the liberal priest is, in fact, Bishop Shannon Johnston. Don’t get me wrong: Johnston is quickly identified as a bishop, but I still wondered who he was not granted that title when he was first mentioned. Strange. Another key point of confusion slips in print in this key fact paragraph:

Mr. Johnston is the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia — the most populous Episcopal diocese in the United States — and a supporter of same-sex marriage who has blessed same-sex couples. Mr. Baucum is the rector of an unusually vibrant parish, Truro Church in Fairfax, which left the Episcopal Church over the election of the gay bishop, Gene Robinson, the final straw in a long-running dispute over theological orthodoxy. By the time the two men arrived in Virginia, in 2007, their flocks were suing each other over who owned the Truro property, worshipers had been forced to choose sides, and sharp-fingered bloggers were trading medieval-sounding epithets like “heretic” and “schismatic.”

The story notes that this parish “left the Episcopal Church” but, for some strange reason, never calls this congregation by its new name — Truro Anglican Church.

This is picky stuff, but there are crucial facts related to that name that readers need to know to grasp some of the subject material covered in this story. Truro is now part of the conservative Anglican Church in North America and is located in the Diocese of the Mid-Atlantic.

To cut to the chase: Baucum serves under the authority of another bishop.

It’s nice to know that the priest gets together from time to time for a beer and fellowship with the liberal Episcopal bishop, but it’s especially important for readers to know that these two men are, literally, not in Communion with one another at the level of shared views of Sacraments, ordination vows and ministries. They cannot share the same altar and, I am sure, Baucum’s own bishop would have wished that these facts were clearly presented in the story.

So who is Baucum’s actual bishop? At the very end of the story, readers are finally told the following, concerning the atmosphere surrounding this right-left friendship:

The backlash intensified when Bishop Johnston allowed a prominent author, John Dominic Crossan, who has questioned the literal truth of key elements of the New Testament, to address his diocesan clergy. In response, the leader of breakaway Anglicans in Virginia, Bishop John A. M. Guernsey, asked Mr. Baucum not to appear in public with the Episcopal bishop. Bishop Guernsey explained in an email interview that “the Episcopal Church’s embrace of false teachers and false teaching made it impossible for the relationship to continue.” (The relationship has, in fact, continued, but more privately and with less frequent get-togethers.)

In other words, Guernsey is in fact Baucum’s bishop and he has told his priest one of two things. Either Baucum was (1) supposed to end his amicable “relationship” with the competing Episcopal bishop or (b) he was supposed to cease appearing in public with him.

Well, which is it? What did Bishop Guernsey tell his priest? Is Father Baucum currently ignoring the expressed wishes of his bishop or not?

These are rather important facts to pin down, in light of the fact that the friendship is the news hook for the story. I would assume that this is the precise angle of this story that Anglicans, as opposed to Episcopalians, are talking about at the moment.

The point of the Times story, however, is that this friendship is a positive vision of where things could go if these people could, you know, just get along and be civil. As the report notes early on:

… (In) its own way, the friendship is paying striking dividends. Even as the Episcopal Church nationally has waged blowout legal battles against parishes and dioceses that have broken away, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and Truro Church have settled their litigation and forged an amicable truce. The diocese was declared the owner of the Truro property, but is allowing the breakaway congregation to continue to occupy it, rent-free, in exchange for maintaining it. …

Merely the fact of a friendship between two church leaders on opposite sides of a theological debate, a property dispute and a schism has been so promising that it has attracted the attention of the archbishop of Canterbury, who knows both men, and who last month installed Mr. Baucum as one of the Six Preachers — an honorary guest lectureship established in the 16th century.

And then there is this interesting info related to this era of conflict:

Truro is a storied and large suburban church, which attracts about 1,200 people to worship each weekend. It traces its roots to the mid-19th century, and, in one of its current buildings, a Confederate officer captured a Union official during the Civil War. But its numbers had been dwindling since the late 1980s, and its current leaders, who supported the split with the Episcopal Church, believe an ongoing focus on that split consumed so much energy and time that it made the church unattractive to newcomers. …

When Mr. Baucum announced that he was forming a friendship with Bishop Johnston, a few of his parishioners left, feeling betrayed by the outreach. But the parish also began to grow more rapidly, in part because of its intensified focus on an introduction-to-Christianity program called Alpha, which helped introduce outsiders to the parish.

All of this may in fact be true and there are some clear statements attributed to current Truro members. Good.

But note the interesting lack of actual statistics and facts in this section of the story. The church is now rapidly growing, due to the healing balm of the Baucum-Johnston friendship? It would be nice to see some on-the-record facts to back that up, don’t you think?

Also, note the lack of information about the current health of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. With several of its largest parishes exiting to this new Anglican body, what has happened to its membership totals? If Truro declined a bit in the combat years, what about the diocese? It might be nice to see both sides of this equation. Don’t you think?

So this is an interesting story and I suspect there is more news underneath this rather smokey fire. Stay tuned.

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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.

  • http://www.BrianJones.com/ Brian Jones

    Terry an interesting story indeed. One has to wonder if these particular schisms can ever be resolved.

  • James Gibson

    Thanks for posting this. The questions you raise need to be answered, as this story is getting a lot of attention on social media.

    Bishop Guernsey’s admonition (see http://www.standfirminfaith.com/?/sf/page/30242 ) was pretty clear. It was not simply a request that Baucum stop appearing in public with Johnston. It was a pastoral directive to cease and desist, and Baucum agreed to it. Now, I don’t think Baucum is going behind the back of his bishop, as one might be led to think from the parenthetical statement in the story about the continued friendship between him and Johnston. Rather, I think the NYT came late (very late) to this story, needed something to fill their Easter quota, and slapped this piece together from a few scattered fragments. The fact that Bishop Guernsey is only quoted from an e-mail suggests this was a rush job.

  • Brent R. Orrell

    Let me offer a few clarifying (hopefully!) responses to the article and to the comments below. (Since this is the blogosphere, I’ll present my credentials: I’m the current junior warden at Truro and have first-hand knowledge of what follows.)

    Bishop Guernsey’s intervention ended only the public aspect of the friendship between Tory Baucum and Bishop Johnston as the bishop’s authority extends to questions relating to ministry not to personal relationships.

    Truro’s membership has grown slightly over the past several years. There may have been confusion in the article between church membership and the church’s burgeoning Alpha program which is drawing hundreds to each new cycle of classes, most of whom are not currently members of any church. In other words, the growth we are getting is through evangelization rather than transfer. Moreover, Truro’s slight growth needs to be compared to the fact that its membership had fallen by half in the previous decade or so and the half that was left was greying rapidly. The decline has been halted and the number of families with young children is increasing. With regard to EDV and TEC, it is no secret they are in decline and regularly publish attendance numbers to prove it. Has anyone seen ASA figures for ACNA? I have not, and there’s probably a reason for it. We need to be careful about tooting on that particular horn.

    With regard to the other questions raised in the article, some of that is just the normal journalistic translation issues. Getting every detail right (like clarifying which bishop has jurisdiction) is important to readers who have followed the matter closely but less important for general readers. The important theme came through clearly: Truro is seeking to make peace with its former denomination and that peacemaking effort is having positive practical and spiritual impacts on the parish.

    One other contextual note not covered by the article. When Truro left TEC/EDV in 2006, the vestry published a statement (available on the church website) entitled “Sources of Division”. This document laid out clearly and carefully the reasons for the parish’s decision to separate itself from EDV/TEC. It also stated that it was the desire of the parish, its rector (Martyn Minns at that time), and the congregation to maintain “the highest level of communion possible” with the Episcopal Church, its clergy and its members. Seen in this light, the Baucum-Johnston story is one of continuity with Truro’s history rather than a departure from it.

    In relation to the comments, the article itself has been in the works for a number of weeks so “rush-job” is probably not a fair reading. Both Bishop Guernsey and Archbishop Duncan were invited to offer comments which they chose to do via email rather than in-person. Based on my knowledge of the parish and its situation, I’d say the reporter gave a complete and very fair telling of our story.

    • SCBluCatLady

      Interesting insights Brent Orrell and thank you for providing them. As one who has followed this story via the Stand Firm, I had no idea that Truro wanted to “maintain the highest level of communion possible with TEC” when the parish left. That strikes me as odd but that is MHO. [Don't get me wrong, I hope Truro Anglican thrives for many years]. In light of the parish statement, then the friendship between Baucum and Johnston makes sense. I do understand why Bishop Guernsey admonished Baucum for his friendship with Johnston. I also know, when my diocese (South Carolina) left TEC, there was no regret and certainly no desire to remain in communion with TEC leadership for many here. Those who wanted to remain in TEC did so but those of us who left TEC have no regrets. We have moved on as our bishop likes to say and we are continuing to make Biblical Anglicans for a Global Age.

      • Brent R. Orrell

        Truro’s emphasis on unity is the product of a fairly unique congregational make-up. We are made up, in roughly equal parts, of Evangelicals, Anglo-Catholics and Charismatics and therefore place a high value on unity within difference. We know there are many brothers and sisters who have remained within TEC/EDV and we want to remain as close to those people as we can. For obvious reasons, we could no longer walk with them in a common ecclesiastical structure but we have sought to find ways to live in peace and to pray earnestly that we might be one. That full one-ness is not likely to be achieved in our lifetimes but we are trying to think about how we want this world to look for our children and grandchildren. If you have an interest, you can read the 2006 vestry statement at this link http://truroanglican.com/wp-content/uploads/Vestry_SourcesofDivisionStatement2006.pdf.

    • tmatt

      My remarks on membership and attendance were not in a tooting vein. I was simply saying that it is nice to back up claims with facts and statistics. If stats are not available, say so.

      • Brent R. Orrell

        Hi, Matt – as far as I know, none of the churches in DOMA publish ASAs. ACNA doesn’t publish ASA numbers either. The only people who do are TEC and they are rewarded for their transparency by Anglicans crowing about the decline of a once-great church.

        Truro’s ASA is stable and growing after 20 years of decline when its ASA fell by 50%. Its demographics are shifting younger. Based on my conversations at diocesan meetings, that’s quite a bit more than what most of the other DOMA parishes can say. You might check-in with Bishop Guernsey’s office and see what they can tell you about the comparative performance of his parishes but I doubt DOMA will tell you as much as I have.

        At Truro we concluded that we could have our anger or we could evangelize but not both. Led by our rector, we’ve let go of the anger toward TEC and it is doing wonders for the life of our parish. You’re local. Come check it out.

  • Julia B

    “a prominent author, John Dominic Crossan, who has questioned the literal truth of key elements of the New Testament”

    Interesting – this is an ex-Catholic priest/retired theologian & professor who is a founding member of the Jesus Seminar. He questions a lot of very fundamental elements in Scripture. Google him.

  • John Chilton

    The NYT article was not a rush job. Responses by email are commonplace in journalism these days.


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