Wrestling with that old Anglican timeline, in South Carolina

Anyone who follows news on the religion beat knows the drill when it comes to reporters framing the global, national, regional and local conflicts between Anglicans: The battles are about homosexuality, period, and all heck broke loose in 2003 when the tiny Diocese of New Hampshire elected an openly gay and non-celibate bishop.

The problem with that news template is that it’s simplistic. Debates over sexuality have driven the headlines, but the doctrinal debates are much broader than that. Also, crucial cracks began forming in the Anglican Communion long before 2003.

Thus, it is good to celebrate even the most humble of journalistic victories in the fight against what your GetReligionistas have long called “Anglican timeline disease.” Note this lede in an Associated Press report about developments down South:

ST. GEORGE, S.C. — About 50 conservative Episcopal churches in South Carolina are in court this week, trying to keep their name, seal and $500 million in land and buildings after they broke away from the national denomination in a wide-ranging theological dispute.

The breakaway group, the Diocese of South Carolina, said it had to leave the national church not just because of the ordination of gays, but a series of decisions it says show national Episcopalians have lost their way in the teachings of Jesus and salvation.

Bravo. Later in the story, however, there is a close encounter with the “everything began in 2003” myth.

The Episcopal Church, along with other Protestant denominations, had been losing members for decades before gay rights came dramatically to the forefront when Episcopalians elected their first openly gay bishop in 2003.

So “dramatically to the forefront” isn’t a bad way to word this, I guess, but what about the earlier theological adventures of New York Bishop Paul Moore Jr. and Newark Bishop Jack Spong? What about the 1998 global Lambeth gathering of Anglican bishops and its crucial affirmation of ancient Christian doctrines on marriage and sex?

As a public service — especially for scribes covering the battle in South Carolina — here are one or two other landmarks to consider adding to the timeline, just in case editors grant room for one or two more strategic facts.

Let’s start with this 1979 resolution at the Episcopal General Convention in Denver:

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Unforced Episcopal errors from the Wall Street Journal

Even the best newspapers will drop a brick now and again. And today’s piece in the Wall Street Journal about the Episcopal wars in South Carolina is a real stinker.

I’ve been reading the Journal since the early 1980s when I went to New York to work as a floor clerk at the Commodities Exchange for Drexel Burnham Lambert. In those far off misty days of my misspent youth (the lark’s on the wing, the snail’s on the thorn, Reagan’s in the White House, God’s in His heaven, all was right with the world) I would start at the back of the paper every morning and work forward after I had finished with the futures prices.

As my life and interests took a different path (no more filthy lucre for me) I began to enjoy the paper’s forays into religion, art, literature and other highbrow genres. The Wall Street Journal has consistently done a fine job in covering these topics bringing a depth of knowledge and balance to its reporting — and is one of the best written, best edited English language newspapers in the business.

Hence my disappointment with today’s article entitled “Church Fight Heads to Court: South Carolina Episcopalian Factions Each File Suit After Split Over Social Issues”. The story gets just about everything of importance wrong. The lede misrepresents the underlying issue. It begins:

Episcopalians along the South Carolina coast are battling in court to determine which of two factions owns an estimated $500 million in church buildings, grounds and cemeteries, following an acrimonious split last year over social issues.

The leadership and about two-thirds of the members of the Diocese of South Carolina, based in Charleston, broke away from the national Episcopal Church last November over its blessing of same-sex unions, ordination of gay clergy and its liberal approach to other social and theological issues.

No, that is not what happened. In South Carolina the diocesan convention voted to withdraw from the General Convention of the Episcopal Church after the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church suspended the Bishop of South Carolina with the intent to depose him (remove him from the ministry). Yes, South Carolina has opposed the innovations of doctrine and discipline introduced over the past two generations — and I guess you could say, taking the long view, that social issues were subsidiary issues — but last year’s split was in response to specific actions taken by the leadership of the national church.

Farther down the article some of the details about the South Carolina fight are presented and the story gets the facts back on track.

In South Carolina, bad blood between the diocese and the national church has been building for about 15 years. It reached a breaking point last summer, when the bishop and other leaders of the diocese walked out of the triennial General Convention in Indianapolis, following the national church’s approval of policies on blessing same-sex unions. The walkout triggered a series of events, including the national church’s removal of the Rt. Rev. Lawrence as bishop, and subsequent lawsuits.

(A hint that the writer is not au courant with religion reporting is the “Rt. Rev. Lawrence” — proper style is to use the first name after the Rt Rev and then Bishop or Dr if you want an honorific before the last name.)

The story also collapses the time line of the Episcopal wars and is written as if the South Carolina lawsuit is new news when the latest lawsuit was filed about six weeks ago.

The schism in South Carolina is one of many that have erupted over the past decade between local Episcopal parishes and dioceses and their national church—particularly since the election of a gay bishop in 2003. Thousands of conservative members left their churches over such issues around the middle of last decade, a time some Southern churchgoers call “the Great Unpleasantness,” the same euphemism once used for the Civil War. Other mainline Protestant denominations also have struggled with issues related to homosexuality, with many congregations moving to leave the Presbyterian Church USA after its leadership voted to allow openly gay clergy.

The split between liberal and conservative Episcopalians has been around for almost 40 years and has witnessed dozens of lawsuits between congregations and diocese. Beginning in 2006 the national church headquarters entered the fray spending upwards of $24 million (this in addition to the fees paid out by the dioceses and parishes). Nor did the fight begin in 2003  — GetReligion‘s tmatt has written extensively on this point and I need not restate the accurate Anglican timeline here. (more…)

AP frames Benedict XVI in some warped timeframes

On one level, I am rather disappointed to note that the editors at the Associated Press have already fixed an awesome typo that a Beltway journalist sent to me early today, the one that said the Pope Benedict XVI has, as is common among elderly men, experienced “some prostrate problems” in recent years.

Yes, that’s certainly the truth. Arthritis can make it hard to do prostrations during liturgical prayers.

Perhaps that typo crept into the copy while members of the AP team frantically worked to turn the basic obituary story that they had stashed away in a digital file into a live, breaking news report about the pope’s stunning announcement that he was retiring.

The nearly 3,000-word report that quickly hit the wires today contains a sweeping overview of Benedict XVI’s life, just like an obituary. It doesn’t contain the kinds of errors that will make faithful Catholics scream and spill coffee into their computer keyboards. That’s good, since this AP story is the one that millions of newspapers will see in their local newspapers — the many, many local papers that do not have fulltime religion specialists.

What this AP story has, however, is the kind of framing language that always makes me think of those moments in sporting events — especially in soccer and basketball — when one player fouls another, forcing the angry person who was fouled to lash out in response. The referees then, inevitably, call a foul on the second player. We do live in a sinful, fallen world.

All too often in daily journalism, reporters (and especially editors) have a tendency to think that big important stories actually begin when they first realize that they exist, as opposed to when these stories actually start affecting life in the real world (as opposed to newsrooms).

Take, for example, that whole “Anglican timeline” thing, with all of the stories proclaiming that the Episcopal Church battles over doctrine, sacraments and sexuality started in 2003 with the election of an openly gay, non-celibate bishop in the tiny Diocese of New Hampshire. In reality, the battles had been going on — with international consequences — for several decades.

In this AP story about the retirement of Benedict XVI, the big story is the sex-abuse scandal. There are times, in this report, when the editors truly seem to realize that there is no singular scandal, but a series of connected scandals that have been unfolding since the early 1980s. Many of these flareups actually received attention in the mainstream press (as well as in Hollywood).

However, the headline at AP states the thesis: “Pope’s mission to revive faith clouded by scandal.” There are several places in which the AP team fits Benedict into this picture. For example:

The German theologian, whose mission was to reawaken Christianity in a secularized Europe, grew increasingly frail as he shouldered the monumental task of purging the Catholic world of a sex abuse scandal that festered under John Paul II and exploded during his reign into the church’s biggest crisis in decades, if not centuries.

That isn’t bad, but, actually, the scandal did much more than fester during the long, long tenure of the Blessed Pope John Paul II — it exploded into view several times. For example, didn’t The Boston Globe win its Pulitzer in 2003 for earlier coverage of the scandal, before Benedict XVI became pope? I am aware that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was already involved in the story, but it’s simply wrong to make it appear that the scandal began on his watch or that the worst abuses came to light during his papacy.

You can see the timeline struggle again a bit later in the report.

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And now, ironic Episcopal PR from South Florida

I wish there was some way, legally and technically, that I could have GetReligion readers take a look at the following two stories about the advent of same-sex union rites in the Episcopal Church without readers being able to tell which one is from a mainstream newsroom and which one is from the denomination’s own information source.

Guess which one makes a more concerted effort to wrestle with and to report on the views of Episcopalians who disagree with this doctrinal revolution in their church?

Well, not this one:

Gay couples who seek spiritual affirmation of their relationships can now sanctify their unions with special blessings at South Florida’s Episcopal churches.

Priests in the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida have been given permission to perform a distinct rite, different from the marriage between a man and a woman. Called “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant,” the ceremony, to be introduced this month, was approved by national convention delegates over the summer.

South Florida’s Episcopal priests had been performing a locally approved liturgy for the past two years for couples who have been married in other states, Bishop Leo Frade said. Florida law does not recognize same-sex marriages. Frade said none of the priests in the 77-church diocese, which covers six South Florida counties, have told him they are morally opposed to the blessings.

This story contains the usual flaws in the Anglican timeline on these issues, with the conflicts (sigh) and schisms beginning at the usual point — the gay bishop reaching his throne in the tiny diocese in New Hampshire. The state of broken Communion inside the American body, and its fallout overseas, actually began years earlier.

Hey, church history is complex? Who expects accuracy on such matters in mainstream newspapers. Right?

The more significant flaw is linked to the fact that — despite the fact that not a single priest in South Florida objects to this evolution — there are other Episcopal dioceses in the state that oppose the rite and consider sex outside of traditional marriage to be a sin. GetReligion readers will be stunned to know that this mainstream report only talks to people on one side of this issue, a hot-button issue that continues to cause cracks in the Anglican Communion here in North America and, obviously, around the world.

Other voices? We don’t need no stinkin’ other voices!

Obviously, a report from the actual Episcopal News Service is going to represent the viewpoint of the denomination’s hierarchy. The Episcopal Church is, at the level of the hierarchy, an overwhelmingly liberal body on issues of doctrine and liturgy and this story shows that.

That is to be expected, in a denominational, advocacy, news source. However, this low-key and thorough story does note:

The blessing liturgy is authorized only with the permission of the diocesan bishop, and clergy can decline to preside at a blessing ceremony. Resolution A049 specified that bishops, particularly in dioceses located in civil jurisdictions where same-gender marriages, civil unions or domestic partnerships are legal, could provide a “generous pastoral response” and that bishops could adapt the liturgical materials to meet church members’ needs.

In the months since General Convention approved use of the liturgy, bishops throughout the church have issued pastoral letters outlining the policies for their dioceses.

This implies, of course, that some bishops are outlining options other than enthusiastic acceptance. Thus, those other voices are part of the national story and, to some degree, this ENS report.

The issue, in the South Florida coverage, is whether (a) there really are ZERO traditional Anglicans left in that liberal dioceses with whom to discuss this very newsworthy development or (b) whether a newspaper that portrays itself as a regional newspaper needs to take into account, in any way, the fact that what is a de facto sacrament in Miami remains a sin and even a heresy in Orlando.

The journalistic question: Why did the mainstream news report adopt a more blatant form of advocacy journalism than the denominational voice?

Now, that’s what you’d call ironic.

Missing voices in coverage of the National Cathedral rites

For some reason or another, quite a few folks who read this here weblog want to know what I, and the other GetReligionistas, think of the decision by leaders of the Episcopal Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul — better known as Washington National Cathedral — to officially begin performing same-sex union rites.

Well, for starters, that’s a question about an event in the news, not a question about mainstream-media coverage of an event in the news. So that really isn’t a GetReligion question.

Personally, I’m an Eastern Orthodox Christian, so I don’t have a horse in that race. At this point, I think it’s safe to say that modern Protestant bodies who hold votes to decide major doctrines are free to do whatever they want to do. However, various camps within the 600,000 or so Episcopalians who continue to worship in their local parishes on a regular basis will, and should, care deeply about this development. Press coverage should make note of that.

However, does this liturgical decision really surprise anyone? The trends in the Episcopal Church establishment have been steady for a decade or two. Episcopal clergy here in DC Beltway-land have been performing forms of same-sex union rites for three decades.

Now, a national rite has been approved and the contents are there for all to see. It would be a much bigger story if this symbolic cathedral declined to use these rites.

One longtime GetReligion reader did raise another interesting question, one that could be a hook for valid journalistic coverage. She wrote:

A friend told me yesterday that it’s irritating to keep reading about the National Cathedral in the news — as if that Episcopalian church was really the official US cathedral. So I was checking it out and see that the Washington National Cathedral is the church’s official name and it claims “it is called to serve as the spiritual home for the nation.” …

In spite of the … provision that we have no established church, why does the press continue to treat the Episcopal Cathedral in DC as if it is the official US religious center for political events? … Why is this situation not seen as a church-state difficulty by the press?

It is certainly true that, in terms of history, Episcopalians have, well, outperformed their numbers when it comes to having an impact on national news and American history. At this point, I think few would challenge a statement that National Cathedral is America’s most important liberal Protestant sanctuary. But, in terms of numbers and demographics, does that make it the “spiritual home for the nation”?

That might be a hook for an interesting story, but it really isn’t the key issue in this story about same-sex marriage.

When I started reading the coverage, I wanted to know if the teams in our major newsrooms realized that this symbolic action was a typical Episcopal-Anglican story, one with implications at the local, national and global levels. I also wondered if journalists would consider the ecumenical impact of this decision, in terms of the cathedral’s relationships with larger bodies of American believers — such as Catholics, evangelicals, charismatics, etc. Who knows, there was even a chance that journalists might interview one or two important religious leaders who opposed this action.

Hey, it could happen.

But don’t hold your breath.

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