The Wright stuff: Anglican issues worth arguing about

Nt_wrightGetReligion.org readers need to know that Douglas LeBlanc has this thing against putting references to his own journalistic endeavors on this blog, especially when that work appears in the pages or cyber-spaces of that great evangelical fortress called Christianity Today.

I have tried to play along with this LeBlancophobia, but I am going to make an exception today. Any journalist who is interested in the current media sexuality wars the Anglican Communion and the Windsor Report needs to read LeBlanc’s interview with the Rt. Rev. N.T. Wright, author of a host of books — popular and academic — including “The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God).” Informed reporters need to do so for precisely the reasons that Doug cites.

N.T. Wright is the rare sort of theologian who attracts respect from both conservatives and liberals. He became Bishop of Durham in 2003, and for the past year has served on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lambeth Commission on Communion.

Many Anglican conservatives are in full meltdown mode at the moment and Wright is not one of them. For starters, he does not automatically assume that the central issue in this ecclesiastical civil war is homosexuality. Some very low-church Protestant people are firing away at Anglican traditions on another sacramental issue, arguing that lay people can lead celebrations of Holy Communion. That’s hard to put in a sexy headline in the New York Times, but it is an explosive issue nonetheless. And then there is the postmodern challenge to moral theology itself — pick a doctrine, any doctrine. Wright notes:

What we all have to do is to say about any issue — whether it’s lay celebration [of Communion], whether it’s episcopal intervention, whether it’s homosexual practice — How do we know, and who says which differences make a difference and which differences don’t make a difference? [Presiding Bishop] Frank Griswold and his colleagues make a great song and dance about difference and about accepting difference and respecting difference. That’s almost the only moral category that is left within postmodernity, welcoming the other, which is actually a very difficult moral standard to implement right across the board.

Near the end, Wright steers the interview off in an interesting — and I believe highly newsworthy — direction. What if the current media storms centered on some other issue? What might a truly Communion-shattering theological dispute look like? Here’s Wright again:

The critical thing is there are some differences which would divide the church. For instance, if somebody decided to propose that instead of reading the Bible in church, we should read the Bhagavad-Gita or the Qur’an, most Christians would say this is no longer a church and that’s a difference that we simply cannot live with. But if somebody says I really think we should never put flowers on the altar and somebody else says I think we should always have a bowl of flowers on the altar, most people would say that’s an issue which we must not divide the church about. It’s a local issue, which each church will have to decide for itself. And there’s no point in getting in a lather about it.

Now the question is, all these different issues that we face, which of those two categories do they come into? How do you know? And who says? Until we have prepared to address the question in those terms, the thing will just remain as a shouting match.

And all the people said, “Amen.” Wright knows that he is touching on an issue that burns quietly behind the scenes. Anglicans in the Third World are upset about the fading of traditional Christian sexual norms in the post-Christian West. But bishops from Africa and Asia would be just as upset, if not more so, if they knew about the emerging world of syncretistic prayers and rituals that have influenced the Episcopal Church and other oldline church groups. As a reporter, I have been following this trend for more than a decade.

Wright is right. Sex is not the only Anglican issue out there. But it’s the only issue in the headlines.

Ghost appears (again) in the New York Times bias debate

Daniel_okrentOK, my column is out for this week and I am getting tired of reading Anglican stories. Speaking of which, have any of you out in GetReligion reader-land seen any Anglican stories that you want to nominate for special awards? Best? Worst? I realize that these designations may flip-flop, depending on one’s creedal affiliation. But give it a try.

Meanwhile, I have been mulling over the latest installment of Daniel Okrent’s attempt to hash out the political biases of the New York Times. He has been at this for some time now and he is stirring up some interesting debate. Next week: Thoughts from his readers.

But in this week’s episode, Okrent (pictured) decided to let Columbia University j-prof Todd Gitlin make a case that the newspaper of record has actually leaned to the political right, allowing President Bush to get away with murder in terms of playing loose with the facts. It is no surprise that Gitlin stresses issues of economics and the war in Iraq. He seems to be asking the Times to stop quoting people on both sides of these issues and to simply haul off and say: “The president is a liar.”

Then Okrent lets the right speak, in the person of Bob Kohn, a California lawyer who is the author of “Journalistic Fraud: How The New York Times Distorts the News and Why It Can No Longer Be Trusted.” Did they really get that title on the spine of a book? Kohn argues that the Times has consistently leaned to the cultural left and, thus, has attempted to nail President Bush on issues that are important with his base voters on the cultural/moral right.

Before you know it, Kohn has gone and done a very nasty thing. He quotes Okrent to make his point, flashing back to a column earlier this summer. In effect, Kohn spots the “ghost” in this debate.

Clearly, we live in an age in which issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, stem-cell research, public education materials on life origins and faith-based initiatives are central to our political debates. On these issues, the Times is a choirleader for the lifestyle left. This, in turn, affects its political coverage.

Several weeks ago, Daniel Okrent, this paper’s public editor, courageously stated the obvious: of course The New York Times is a liberal newspaper (“Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” July 25). And he wasn’t just talking about an editorial page he finds “thoroughly saturated in liberal theology” or the Sunday carvings of Frank Rich, who “slices up” President Bush and friends in the Arts & Leisure section.

More incisively, the public editor demonstrated how The Times — in its purportedly objective news pages — leans left on the social issues, showing by example how The Times presents same-sex marriages in a tone that approaches “cheerleading.” Now, turning to politics, the public editor would have us believe there is no systematic bias against either presidential candidate.

Now, I am convinced that both of these gentlemen may be right.

The Times may lean right on some issues of government, economics and foreign policy. It is certainly possible to fire away at the newspaper from the political left on those issues, just as Howard Dean could fire away at John Kerry during the primaries.

Meanwhile, the Times certainly leans left on cultural and “theological” issues. I have yet to hear anyone dispute that. Correct?

So what unites these two points of view? Is the Times a “liberal” newspaper or, in its heart of hearts, is it a newspaper that leans toward radical individualism and, perhaps, a more cultural form of libertarianism? It is culturally liberal, much more than it is politically liberal. Correct?

Meanwhile, Kohn asks his liberal readers to try to imagine the world of the New York Times turned upside down. Can they dare to imagine how they would feel if their beloved newspaper was just as partisan, only from the right:

… (Put) put yourself in my slippers: imagine how your Sunday morning coffee encounters with The Times would sour if the front page of the Arts & Leisure section were turned over to, say, Ann Coulter. Is that the kind of paper you want? That’s the paper you have.

Late Great news

Late Great news
Friend of this blog Rod Dreher has a funny, but serious, column out about the “ghost” in the VeriChip story.

Dreher quips that this is one story where the evangelical- pop culture implications were so obvious that “even the New York Times” was able to grasp them. But this is one case where hard-core libertarians ought to be screaming bloody murder, as well as the fundies. Dreher’s lead is a classic: “Holy Hal Lindsey!”

The exit door?

A few months ago there was this. As an Orthodoxer myself, I am still not quite sure how I feel about seeing the words “Prince Charles” and “Mount Athos” in the same sentence every now and then. Might he convert? What does his non-wife say?

Now (tip of the hat to CT’s weblog) there is this spin on an old report, in part based on the status of the prime minister’s family. Here is the money paragraph:

“Fr Timothy Russ, whose parish includes Chequers, disclosed that Mr Blair, an Anglican, had raised the question of conversion with him and said: ‘If you ask me do you think he wants to become a Catholic, I would say yes.’ Fr. Russ indicated, however, that he did not believe that Mr Blair would take such a step while Prime Minister and suggested that he had ‘some way to go’ on important moral issues.”

Kerry wars, again

Anyone who wants to follow the latest saga concerning Sen. John “I was an altar boy” Kerry and his many dedicated critics in the traditional wing of the Catholic Church can find all the links and all the action at — where else — Amy Welborn’s Open Book. The New York Times is on the case, which means this is another chance to fire up the voters on the liberal side of the church aisle as well as on the right. And no one is sure what the Vatican did or did not say. Cheers.

How to be a professional religion news reporter

Canterbury_cathedral_1Don’t you hate it when you have a great quote and you cannot remember who said it? Long ago, someone offered the following summation of how the Anglican Communion works. I have heard it many times since then.

“The Africans pray, the Americans pay and the British write the resolutions.”

In other words, the growing Third World church has the spiritual power, the declining American church still has its trust funds from previous generations and the British always get the last word, writing the documents that contain enough via media fog to hold everything together.

The odds are good that the person who told me this was Time’s Richard Ostling, while bouncing through the streets of Vancouver, B.C., in a rental car during the 1983 assembly of the World Council of Churches. It’s hard to recall the specifics this far down the road.

I bring this up because the next few days will be dominated by fallout from the Report of the Lambeth Commission on Communion, or the Windsor Report. This is the long-awaited document in which the powers that be in Anglicanism will try to find a way to make the progressive Episcopal Church and its allies lose enough face to please the traditional Christians in the Third World, while failing to undercut any of ECUSA’s holdings in banks, property or process. That slap on the wrist has got to really sting, or the next gathering of the vast majority of the world’s Anglican bishops will be in Lagos, not Canterbury.

The coverage will take several days to unfold. But, before we dive into all that (and Doug LeBlanc is considered one of the top scribes in that field by the liberal establishment as well as leaders on the right), I want to pause and salute an advance stories written about the event over the weekend. It is, you will not be surprised, a basic, hard-news effort by Ostling, who now writes for the Associated Press.

This is not an unusual story from Ostling, which is a compliment. It simply quotes facts and intelligent voices on both sides of this bitter conflict. It makes defendable statements of facts. It treats this as a global story, yet with careful emphasis on events in the United States. It is a bit of a primer on how to be a hard-news religion reporter. What do I mean?

You need to read it for yourself, but here is a big chunk of background material. You may want to print this out as a guide to use while reading reports from other news sources.

… (An) emergency panel called the Lambeth Commission will issue recommendations on how the Anglican Communion can remain a coherent, united segment of global Christianity despite severe disagreements over homosexuality and interpretation of the Bible. At stake may be the long-term future of the Communion, the international association of churches with roots in the Church of England.

Findings will also resonate beyond Anglicanism to Christians in all denominations who believe their faith has oppressed gays and lesbians, and equally for those who consider changes a direct attack on the Bible and 2,000 years of Christian teaching.

Two top London newspapers said the commission would propose disciplinary measures against the Episcopal Church, Anglicanism’s U.S. branch, for consecrating Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, a gay man who lives openly with his partner.

Other explosive matters include increasing ordinations of openly gay priests in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Church of Canada. Last year’s U.S. church convention recognized that Episcopalians “within the bounds of our common life” conduct same-sex blessing ceremonies and this year’s Canadian synod affirmed the “sanctity” of gay couples. Those events have divided North American parishes and dioceses, and created acrimony among the Anglican Communion’s 38 self-governing national churches.

Worldwide, Anglican conservatives are heavily in the majority. A 1998 conference of all Anglican bishops declared gay practices “incompatible with Scripture” and opposed gay ordinations and same-sex blessings in a 526-70 vote with 45 abstentions.

Like I said, read this advance story and then hang on. There be spin zones ahead — on both sides.

666 1.0

Do you think anyone out there in “Left Behind” land is going to read any of this story in light of the Book of Revelation? The New York Times has the privacy angle, but not the religion ghost that is in this story.

But real privacy concerns have emerged. “At the point you place the chip beneath the skin, you’re saying you will not have the ability to remove the ID tracking device,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest advocacy group in Washington. “I think, increasingly, if this takes off — and it’s still not clear that it will — the real social debate begins around prisoners and parolees, and perhaps even visitors to the U.S. That’s where the interest in being able to identify and track people is.”

Indeed, the debate over civil liberties and privacy has made it harder to discuss any practical benefits of a technology like VeriChip.

Tape unto others, as you would want them…

Dson2581During my days at the Charlotte Observer, I had quite a few tense interviews with Southern Baptists. This in not surprising in a major New South city in the early years of the great Southern Baptist Civil War.

While in Denver, I had many tense interviews with United Methodists, Presbyterians and other oldline Protestants. This is not surprising in a progressive Western city during the era of oldline Protestant decline, in terms of numbers and social clout.

I learned a lesson in both settings. When facing hostile sources, urge them to tape the interview for themselves. That way, you have a tape and they have a tape. Everyone knows that everyone else knows what everyone said during the interview. In effect, you are saying: I am doing everything I can to be accurate and fair. If you feel I have misquoted you, then you can play this tape to my editor. Now can we talk?

The bottom line: Tape unto others as you would want them to tape unto you.

Obviously, the World Wide Web adds another potential scene to this little drama between a source and a reporter — as demonstrated this week by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Denver. It has published a full transcript of the recent showdown between the conservative Archbishop Charles Chaput and the “issues that divide conservatives” specialist at the New York Times.

Currently, the transcript can be found on the front page of the archdiocesan website. In the future, it may end up on the archbishop’s own site, along with his newspaper columns and other media materials. Here is the transcript introduction, complete with its blogger-style link urging Catholics to read the New York Times report for themselves. Nice touch.

The motto of The New York Times is, “All the news that’s fit to print.” On October 6, 2004, David Kirkpatrick, a reporter for The Times, conducted an extensive interview with Denver’s Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., on issues surrounding this year’s national elections. In the interests of accuracy, archdiocesan staff recorded the interview. A heavily truncated and framed version of the archbishop’s views appeared in an October 12 New York Times story. Read story here.

A transcript of the full interview appears below. Readers are invited to compare the published New York Times story and the actual interview transcript, and then decide for themselves whether the October 12 Times story is slanted or fair; complete or misleading.

Odds are, the archbishop believes that the Times turned him into a narrow, right-wing fundamentalist talking head.

The Times cannot, of course, run the whole interview. Sources are always going to wish that reporters had used 10 quotes instead of one. That’s journalism. But the whole interview does show the degree to which there were multiple dogmas involved in this Times report. Read it for yourself.

Meanwhile, here is the context of the most controversial Chaput quotation that the Times saw fit to print. Let’s go to the tape.

NYT: Archbishop Burke in St. Louis caught my attention again on Friday [October 1]. He issued a statement basically stating that it’s a sin if you vote for a pro-choice politician[.] I believe he was saying even if that wasn’t the reason you voted for him, that you voted for a pro-abortion politician that is still something that you ought confess. Is that ?

AB: I don’t believe that’s where you should start. The place to start would be, does our voting for someone make us responsible for what that person does as a legislator or as a judge? And the answer is yes, because we are in some ways materially — we use the word “materially” — cooperating in that person’s activity because we’ve given [him or her] the platform to be elected. Now, if the person does something wrong, are we responsible for that? Well, if we didn’t know they were going to something wrong, our participation is remote, but if we knew they were going to do something wrong and we approved of it, our responsibility would be really be close, even if we knew they were going to do something wrong and we voted for them for another reason, we would still be responsible in some ways.

The standing is that if you know someone is going to do evil and you participate in that in some way, you are responsible. So it’s not “if you vote this way, should you go to confession?” The question is, “if you vote this way, are you cooperating in evil?” Now, if you know you are cooperating in evil, should you go to confession? The answer is yes. There’s a more sophisticated thing here it’s not so crude. The reason I want to stress that is because it is not like bishops are issuing edicts about who should vote for whom. It’s issuing statements about how a Catholic forms her conscience, or his conscience and remote material cooperation or proximate material cooperation is cooperation, and it’s important for Catholics to know that, to be sophisticated in their judgments.


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