Are Catholics about to loosen Communion rules?

Bernard Longley

The professional skill of a reporter can be tested by his abilities to weigh the importance of his sources. “Who” said something is as important as “what” was said.  The Telegraph‘s Religious affairs editor John Bingham in an article entitled “Anglicans could receive Roman Catholic communion, Archbishop suggests” shows how this is done in religion reporting.

A senior Catholic leader in England stated Anglicans may one day be permitted to receive Communion in Catholic Churches, but The Telegraph further states the Archbishop of Birmingham has no authority to permit such an innovation. The British daily offers an exciting lede, offering a potential blockbuster of a story, but qualifies the news high up in the story. The author’s skill is shown by having a great “come-on”, a hook to get the reader past the lede. But his professionalism is scene in his fidelity to the facts.

The article opens with:

The ban on Anglicans receiving Roman Catholic Holy Communion could be relaxed as part of moves to bring the two churches together after centuries of division, one of Britain’s most senior Catholic clerics has suggested.

Followed by:

The Archbishop of Birmingham, the Most Rev Bernard Longley, signalled that restrictions, which can be traced back to the Reformation, might be “reconsidered” as a result of “deeper sharing” between the two churches.

Although he insisted that he was expressing a “personal view”, the Archbishop’s comments will be closely watched as he is the senior Catholic cleric responsible for dialogue with the Anglican churches.

In his lede paragraph the author pushes the story as hard as the facts allow, crafting an eye-catching opening. He then qualifies the first sentence, nudging the story so as to make clear that though Archbishop Longley is one of the senior Catholic bishops in England, his statements do not represent official policy but are his personal views.

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Calvin the Fundamentalist and other General Synod myths

Monday’s vote by the General Synod to allow women bishops has put the Church of England onto the front pages of the world’s press. News reports and commentary from around the globe have weighed on this development giving voice to a variety of opinions. Some of this reporting has been quite good, most of it average, while a few pieces have fallen short.

The Huffington Post‘s piece contained two errors of note. At the end of the piece the article confused the numbers for the Church of England for the wider Anglican Communion. A correction subsequently noted:

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said incorrectly that the Church of England has 80 million members in more than 160 countries. Those are the figures for the worldwide Anglican Communion.

A minor slip, but the second raised questions as to whether the Huffington Post followed the debate, or recycled information it had gleaned from second hand sources. The article stated:

Like the vote that year, more traditional Anglicans, including evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics, argued in front of the synod that having women as bishops would go against the teachings of Jesus. If Jesus intended women to be among the top church leaders, he would have had a woman among the Twelve Apostles, some of the traditionalists said.

By my reckoning, of the almost 100 speakers in the day, only one (lay delegate Jane Bisson from the Diocese of Winchester) raised the issue: “If Jesus intended women to be among the top church leaders, he would have had a woman among the Twelve Apostles.” The overwhelming majority of voices opposed to the change in church teaching couched their arguments around the Apostle Paul’s teachings on “headship” and the role of women in church assemblies — with arguments from tradition running second. Check for yourself.

Summarizing the arguments against women bishops along the “Jesus intended” line does a disservice to the debate in Synod and across the church. Painting the opponents of women bishops as Biblical-literalists is lazy reporting.

An otherwise excellent news analysis piece in The Guardian also makes this error — but this time John Calvin is the “fundamentalist” in question.

Calvin was not a fundamentalist. The Guardian Style Guide does not contain an entry for “fundamentalist.” However, as noted many times here at GetReligion, the Associated Press Stylebook makes this observation:

 “fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

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‘Reformers’ win British battle over women in the episcopate

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The Church of England has taken what appears to be a definitive step toward women in the episcopate and, as you would expect, journalists at our major newspapers are pretty pumped up about that. You can see this quite clearly in language near the top of the Washington Post report about the historic vote in this symbolic national church.

The move effectively shatters the glass ceiling that prevented women here from being promoted to top church jobs and was made possible after reformers and traditionalists reached a compromise that would satisfy parishes opposed to female bishops. …

That it has taken this long for the church, the mother church of the Anglican Communion, to make the move may seem baffling to Anglicans in countries such as the United States, Canada and New Zealand, where women already serve as bishops. It has been baffling for many here, too, with churchgoers and even the prime minister accusing the Church of England of being out of step with the times.

Once again, note the language used to frame this event.

The word “traditionalists” is certainly appropriate, since this was a debate about centuries of Christian tradition in churches that claim apostolic succession from the early church.

But what about that other word, “reformers”? As I have noted in the past, that is a problematic term for use in doctrinal disputes because it automatically assumes that something needs to be reformed. This term pretty much settles the issue, telling readers precisely who the good people are in this story, which means that folks on the other side are the kinds of blokes who are opposed to “reform.”

Do an online search for definitions of “reform” and you can see what I’m talking about. Here are some samples:

* make changes for improvement in order to remove abuse and injustices; “reform a political system”

* bring, lead, or force to abandon a wrong or evil course of life, conduct, and adopt a right one; “The Church reformed me”; “reform your conduct” …

* a change for the better as a result of correcting abuses; “justice was for sale before the reform of the law courts” …

* improve by alteration or correction of errors or defects and put into a better condition; “reform the health system in this country”

* a campaign aimed to correct abuses or malpractices. …

So we are talking about the defeat of traditionalists who oppose the correction of abuses, the righting of injustices, the defeat of evil, etc., etc. Needless to say, the bad people on the losing side of the vote are not given much room to discuss their beliefs and concerns.

The Post team does mention people in the opposition, however, even while failing to listen to their voices.

… (The) issue of women as bishops remains highly divisive in the global Anglican community. The majority of the world’s 80 million Anglicans reside in Africa, where many vehemently oppose the idea.

In concessions to opponents with theological objections, the package of measures passed Monday allows a parish unsatisfied with a female bishop to ask for a male alternative and take its complaints to an independent body.

“You don’t chuck out family or even make it difficult for them to be at home,” Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said in reference to the traditionalists during a lively, five-hour debate that preceded the vote.

Oh, those backward Africans.

Meanwhile, an analysis piece at the BBC — which was more balanced than the hard-news piece at the Post — dug a bit deeper and noted that quite a few of the major players in the highly Evangelical Protestant churches of Africa have no major objections to allowing their female priests to be considered as bishops. That piece also hinted at one of the major issues looming in the background, based on past history here in the United States and elsewhere:

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Resistance to the Guardian is futile

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The General Synod of the Church of England — the legislative organ of the Protestant state church — will take up the question of women bishops this week. Should the delegates to synod be unsure as to how they should vote, the doctrinal authorities at The Guardian appear to be instructing them what they must do.

On July 9 the newspaper of the English establishment ran a silly news report entitled “Church of England women bishops: archbishops will overrule synod” that made the extraordinary but unsubstantiated claim that unless synod did what the establishment wanted, the archbishop of Canterbury would do it for them.

Why do I say that this story is silly? Why that word? Besides being petulant, exaggerated and, in journalism terms, unbalanced — it is also untrue. Rumor and opinion are packaged as fact. What the reader gets is the views of certain unnamed persons of what ought to be done, presented as what is to be done.

What we see in this story is not an example of media bias, but basic advocacy journalism. Let me be clear: This is not a failure to get religion or simple error. The non-objective approach taken by The Guardian is deliberate. To use that new GetReligion term, this is “Kellerism.”

The lede states:

The archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby is preparing to drive through legislation to allow women bishops even if it is rejected by the church’s governing body, the General Synod. The synod is poised to vote again on the vexed plan next week but senior sources have told the Guardian that should the move be blocked again, there are now options being considered to force the change on the church.

The story is that if the plan for women bishops is thwarted a third time by the synod the archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Justin Welby, will “force the change” through synod. Yet a close reading of the two sentences shows us the strength of the first is being modified by the second. The subject shifts from the archbishop will act to the archbishop is being presented with a choice of options.

Sources are cited in support of the archbishop’s putsch — but they are not named. The standard practice in classic journalism is to give an identity to your source so that the reader may judge the source’s credibility. What is fact? What is gossip? What is wishful thinking? What motives are at play?

When the source cannot be revealed, there is most often an explanation why and some version of this clause appears in the story: “a source with direct knowledge of the situation who was not authorized to speak to the media told …. ”

The Guardian article offers several options but does not take their measure. What is fantasy? The ground shifts with each paragraph in this story. The title states “archbishops” implying this is about the archbishops of Canterbury and York. The lede, states the archbishop of Canterbury will act. (Have we lost York?) The details in support of the lede say these are options and scenarios suggested by unnamed pro-women bishop campaigners.

The credibility of the article is further damaged with this paragraph.

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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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You can confess — but not to an Anglican priest

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The Adelaide Advertiser reports the Anglican Church of Australia has lifted the veil of secrecy between priest and penitent, no longer requiring its clergy to maintain the seal of the confession.

I expect many people will be surprised and some upset by this development. Not least of all the writers of mystery thrillers who will see one of their favorite plot devices disappear.

Alfred Hitchcock used this motif in his 1953 picture I Confess. In the film a priest, Montgomery Clift, hears the confession of his gardener, who has just killed a shady lawyer. A police inspector, played by Karl Malden, investigates and comes to suspect the priest — who may have been blackmailed by the lawyer. The killer plants evidence in the priest’s room and our hero is arrested and brought to trial.

The Quebec jury finds Clift not guilty, but a mob assembles outside of the court house and threatens him. This proves to be too much for the killer’s wife, who shouts that her husband the gardener was the killer. The gardener tries to kill the priest, but is himself shot and fatally wounded by the police. The film ends with the killer dying in Montgomery Clift’s arms after he gives him absolution. Classic.

Without the seal of the confession, Hitchcock’s story makes no sense and is much less fun.

Unfortunately the Roman Catholic understanding of the priesthood and the sacrament of confession a la Hitchcock has been applied to this Advertiser article about Anglicans. The reporter has used Catholic language and Catholic assumptions to report an Anglican story. While they share a common heritage, haberdashery and vocabulary — Anglicans are not junior Catholics with the addition of women — they have different doctrines. Confession is one of them.

The lede states:

Church leaders have unanimously backed a historic change that starkly sets Anglican policy against that of the Catholic Church, which maintains that “the Seal of Confession is inviolable”, and creates grounds for a major rift between the nation’s two most powerful Christian bodies.

About 250 members of the Anglican Church, including bishops and clergy representatives, voted to amend the 1989 canon on confession at the General Synod in Adelaide on Wednesday. The Christian convention of strict secrecy of confessions is believed to be more than 1000 years old.

The article cites the local Anglican archbishop who favors the change, while the layman who proposed the initiative notes priests should be required to report instances of child abuse and other crimes: “it seemed to me that protecting children and the vulnerable takes precedence over the confidentiality of confessions.”

The details of the charge are:

The existing law says the confession of a crime is to be kept confidential unless the person making the confession consents to a priest disclosing it. But the new policy will allow priests to report serious crimes if the person making the confession has not reported the offence to police and director of professional standards. These crimes include child abuse, child pornography or other offences that would lead to a jail term of five years or more.

The article closes with comments from the Catholic archbishop.

But Australia’s most powerful Catholic, Archbishop of Sydney George Pell, insisted that priests who hear confessions of child sex abuse must keep quiet because “the Seal of Confession is inviolable”.

The article is nicely crafted and well laid out. However it suffers from the handicap of thinking private confession or auricular confession in the Anglican sense is the same thing as private confession in the Catholic sense. Private confession in the Catholic Church takes place in the context of the sacrament of reconciliation followed by absolution.

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So, are there unique Episcopal saints or not?

Noticing some fair-haired children in the slave market one morning, Pope Gregory, the memorable pope, said (in Latin), “What are those?” and on being told that they were Angels, made the memorable joke — “Non Angli, sed Angeli” (“not Angels, but Anglicans”) and commanded one of his saints called St Augustine to go and convert the rest.

W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman, 1066 and All That (1930)

The Durham Herald-Sun reports on celebrations of a local woman who has been made a saint by the Episcopal Church.

Is that right? Do Episcopalians have their own saints?

No they do not. While the events recounted in the story are correct, the reporter has muddled her terminology, using Catholic language to describe a Protestant phenomenon.

The lede sentence of the story entitled “Pauli Murray celebrated as saint at annual service” states:

The Rev. Pauli Murray, the Durham-raised woman who went on to become the first African-American female Episcopal priest and was made a saint by The Episcopal Church in 2012, was celebrated July 1 at an annual service held at St. Titus’ Episcopal Church in Durham.

The article recounts the sermon given at the service. The details of her life show Murray to have been an exemplary, worthy individual — perhaps even a saint in colloquial language. But the article asserts that she was not that sort of saint but an individual “made a saint” by the Episcopal Church in 2012.

I understand what the reporter is trying to say, but her infelicitous language will confuse all but the most devoted Anglican observer. The Episcopal Church has no power to make her, or anyone a saint. Nor do the Catholics or Orthodox “make” saints — they recognize them, canonize them, but God alone makes them.

Is Pauli Murray a saint? Yes and No.

She is a hero of the church who in 2012 was added to the sanctoral calendar of the Episcopal Church and whose day of commemoration is July 1. The church’s sanctoral calendar in the beginning of the Book of Common Prayer lists the feast days and commemorations of the saints and heroes of the church — but notice only some individuals are called saints: Mary, Joseph, Peter, Paul, Matthias, Bartholomew, Matthew, Michael, Luke, James, Simon, Jude, Andrew, Thomas, Stephen and John.

All others are identified by titles such as priest, missionary or theologian. The only people called saints are New Testament figures. Episcopal Churches are often named after saints from the post-Biblical age (St. Augustine and so forth), and those individuals identified by the universal church as saints are often called saints. But Anglicans have not created their own saints since the Reformation, with but one local and much disputed exception: King Charles I (St. Charles the Martyr).

What is the difference between a hero of the church and a saint? The answer is theological. Blame Calvin for this. The lyrics of the hymn “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God” spells out the Episcopal/Reformed view. Thus, worshippers sing:

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Pod people: Sometimes editors really need to do the math

I have never been much of a math guy, but sometimes you have to see the numbers written on the walls.

For example, what essential thread runs through the following religion-beat stories? I am not arguing that this math hook is the only factor at play in these stories, but that this X-factor is a key piece in these puzzles.

* Nationwide, the Catholic church has been forced to close many of its parishes, especially in urban areas, along with their schools — due to falling numbers in pews and desks.

* The Southern Baptist Convention has experienced a consistent, even if relatively small, decline in membership numbers. Baptisms have continued to decline. Meanwhile, the denomination’s work with Latinos and African-Americans provides a crucial boost.

* Christian colleges, like their secular counterpart, now face increasing challenges in enrollment — especially with the post-Millennial generation “cliff” looming ahead.

* Mormon numbers continue to rise. Same song, with new verses.

* Liberal Protestant churches continue a multi-decade demographic implosion, leaving a majority of congregations smaller, older and often (even with endowments from previous generations) swimming in red ink. The radical decline in the old mainline leaves a giant gap in American culture that provides an opening for evangelicals to grab the cultural spotlight.

* Jewish congregations, schools and social institutions face declining numbers, especially when it comes to finding families with children — the link to the future.

* Greek Orthodox churches in North America face a shortage of priests who are, well, Greek and Greek-speaking. Many parishes (some tense about this) now have convert or Slavic priests.

* Conservative denominations — think Missouri-Synod Lutherans, for example — face falling enrollments in some of their elementary, middle and high schools, especially older schools far from suburbs.

* Home-schooling families continue to wield an increasing amount of power in evangelical circles.

I could go on and on with this. However, there is one other story linked to this issue that recently drew major coverage — sort of — in The New York Times and was the subject of my “Crossroads” podcast chat this week with host Todd Wilken (click here to tune that in).

Can anyone guess the topic?

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