Every time I sit down at a computer keyboard to write a 700-word column about the global Anglican wars, my head starts spinning.
There is just too much history, too much doctrine, too many names and too many competing networks, jurisdictions and churches. How can anyone keep all the facts straight? How can you describe the various sides in the debates in language that is accurate and as neutral as possible? I have the advantage, as a columnist, of being able to take a narrow focus on specific voices, issues and opinions. But I remember what it was like when I was a reporter covering news stories linked to this global conflict.
This is hard work and I know it. Believe me, I know it.
As I have written before, most mainstream reporters are framing their stories as if the votes by traditionalists to flee the Diocese of Virginia and the U.S. Episcopal Church are part of a national, American story. Period. This is wrong. This is a local story, a diocesan story, a national story and a global story. The global story is the biggest, since it involves the possible splintering of the third-largest Christian body in the world. And then there is the issue of when this national, Episcopal war began. It’s been raging, at the very least, since the late 1970s.
So how do you write that in a newspaper? Here is how veteran religion-beat specialist Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times opened her pre-game report on the Northern Virginia votes. People may dispute some of her choices later in the article, but I think this is about as good as you can get with the larger picture:
For about 30 years, the Episcopal Church has been one big unhappy family. Under one roof there were female bishops and male bishops who would not ordain women. There were parishes that celebrated gay weddings and parishes that denounced them; theologians sure that Jesus was the only route to salvation, and theologians who disagreed.
Now, after years of threats, the family is breaking up. As many as eight conservative Episcopal churches in Virginia are expected to announce today that their parishioners have voted to cut their ties with the Episcopal Church. Two are large, historic congregations that minister to the Washington elite and occupy real estate worth a combined $27 million, which could result in a legal battle over who keeps the property.
In a twist, these wealthy American congregations are essentially putting themselves up for adoption by Anglican archbishops in poorer dioceses in Africa, Asia and Latin America who share conservative theological views about homosexuality and the interpretation of Scripture with the breakaway Americans.
. . . Together, these Americans and their overseas allies say they intend to form a new American branch that would rival or even supplant the Episcopal Church in the worldwide Anglican Communion, a confederation of national churches that trace their roots to the Church of England and the archbishop of Canterbury.
The archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, is now struggling to hold the communion together while facing a revolt on many fronts from emboldened conservatives. Last week, conservative priests in the Church of England warned him that they would depart if he did not allow them to sidestep liberal bishops and report instead to sympathetic conservatives.
And so forth and so on. Click here to read the follow-up story in the Times.
I have read quite a bit of the mainstream coverage this morning, and it is pretty much what I expected.
But if you really want to grasp some of the subtleties of what is happening, please pause for a moment and consider this joke that I first heard back in the mid-1980s, although I assume it is older than that. It’s a joke that says quite a bit about First World Anglicans on the left and the right. It’s a joke that is sure to offend folks on both sides, and this is how I heard the joke told long ago:
The year is 2010 and two graduates of the very conservative Anglo-Catholic seminary called Nashotah House are standing in the back of the Washington National Cathedral as the church’s latest presiding bishop and her lesbian partner process down the long center aisle, carrying a statue of the Buddha aloft while surrounded by a cloud of incense.
As they watch this scene unfold, one of the priests leans over and quietly tells the other: “You know, one more thing and I’m out of here.”
Note that this is a joke traditionists tell on themselves, one that produces bittersweet laughter. The joke is rooted in the fact that Anglicanism is famous for its ability to compromise on almost every doctrinal issue faced in the Communion.
But now some Episcopalians are taking some big risks involving property, endowments, careers and pensions, rather than compromise. It is a sign of the times that public advocacy of homosexuality has become the line that many cannot cross, after decades of quieter debates about the liberalization of of so many other doctrines linked to salvation, the nature of Jesus Christ, the resurrection, divorce, the blending of world religions, the ordination of women, etc. This may tell us as much about the news media as it does about conservative and liberal Episcopalians.
Then again, as the joke suggests, maybe not. As a conservative bishop once told me, Episcopalians have become so skilled at compromise that they struggle when asked to face an issue on which compromise is impossible.
It goes like this: One side says that sex outside of marriage is a sin. The other says that sex outside of marriage is not a sin. The Anglican compromise? Sex outside of marriage is occasionally a sin. Here’s another: Salvation is through Jesus Christ, alone. Salvation is not found through Jesus Christ, alone. The compromise? Salvation is occasionally found through Jesus Christ, alone, which means that the right was wrong in saying that salvation is found through Jesus Christ, alone, in the first place. Or something like that. The debates, in the end, center on how fast to move toward a modernized or compromised version of the faith. The method only allows change to move in one direction — away from ancient absolutes.
But I digress. If you want to compare the competing views of events on Sunday, all you have to do — once again — is read the accounts in The Washington Times and The Washington Post. Read the stories and then ask yourself these questions.
• Can churches remain in sacramental Communion with one another when they disagree over creedal and sacramental issues?
• Would Episcopal liberals agree or disagree that the church’s doctrines have been changed in recent decades? If it is wrong to say that the doctrines have become more “liberal,” what is the accurate word to use that is not slanted? “Modernized”?
• We have to ask the big question again: When did the fighting begin?
• Is the fighting about one issue, homosexuality?
• Will the conservatives essentially become congregationalists? Will they become members of different or even competing American networks or churches?
• And, finally, here is a journalistic question that editors will have to answer, a question of newspaper style and Anglican doctrine at the same time. The question: Is Martyn Minns a bishop?
Note that in some newspaper stories he is still a priest and in others he is — in terms of Associated Press style — identified as a priest who is for some reason called a “missionary bishop,” while other Americans are identified as real bishops — period. Yet Minns was ordained by a large circle of Anglican bishops and archbishops, men whose standing is equal to that of their American counterparts.
Think about it. So is Minns a bishop when he is in Africa but not a bishop when he is in North America? Is he a bishop when he is in England? What about when he is on an airplane flying over the Atlantic Ocean? Does his status change from bishop to priest somewhere in the process of going through U.S. customs?
Or, just maybe, we have learned that newspaper editors get to decide who is a bishop and who is not. And, yes, some will ask: Is someone a bishop when American hands are placed on a person’s head and the proper prayers are said by Anglican bishops, but is not a bishop when African hands are placed on a person’s head and the proper prayers are said by Anglican bishops?
Perhaps this issue could be addressed in the Associated Press Stylebook.
You know that, sooner or later, it will be addressed at Lambeth Palace and, perhaps, in the U.S. Supreme Court.
The first photo is from the White House, taken during the funeral of President Ronald Reagan.