As Canterbury Turns: Dissing the lady bishop

350px WashingtonnationalcathedralGreetings from Oxford, England, where the climate is as hot as blazes — weather-wise and Anglican-wise. I am busy all week teaching at the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life, where a group of 16 journalists from all over the world (I am the only person from the United States) are presenting papers on “Freedom of the Press Versus Blasphemy in the Internet Age.”

However, I do have some Internet access at the old, old, but friendly St. Edmund Hall. Thus, I noticed that The Washington Post has mentioned in a local story that one of the most powerful priests in its circulation area has been elected as a bishop in Nigeria. That isn’t in the lead, but it did get into the newspaper. Did I miss an earlier reference chasing the much-debated Julia Duin report in The Washington Times?

The story by veteran Alan Cooperman focuses on fallout from the election of Nevada Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, an outspoken leader on the Anglican left, as the new presiding bishop (or archbishop) of The Episcopal Church. However, I think that this story may, for some readers, blur a key line in this already complicated conflict. Here’s the key information:

Although she will not take up her new role until November, six U.S. dioceses already have rejected her authority, and that number is rising. Many church leaders expect that by the time she takes office, about five more, for a total of 10 percent of the nation’s 111 Episcopal dioceses, will have joined the rejectionist camp.

Moreover, conservative Anglicans overseas have made no secret of their hope that the archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, will not invite Jefferts Schori to the next gathering of the heads of the 38 constituent churches in 2008.

Gender is only part of the reason that some conservatives in the church are unhappy about her election.

That last sentence — and some background material later in the report — is very important.

There are a few U.S. dioceses that still reject the ordination of women, period. There may be a few more that accept women in the episcopate, but, as a practical matter, wish the U.S. church had not elected a woman as presiding bishop at this time — since there are many Anglican leaders in the Third World who still follow the ancient Christian practice of an all-male priesthood. England has made up its mind about the priesthood, but is stalled at the switch on the episcopate.

So different Anglicans — here in the United States and abroad — are upset with Jefferts Schori for different reasons, and it is important to help readers know who is who in this church that tries to keep evangelicals, Anglo-Catholics and liberals (modern and postmodern) kneeling at the same altar.

The key in this case is not gender, but her enthusiasm about modernizing the Sacrament of Marriage for use in a world of pluriform sexuality.

And check out this quote from the Post article:

“All language is metaphorical, and if we insist that particular words have only one meaning and the way we understand those words is the only possible interpretation, we have elevated that text to an idol,” she said in a telephone interview. “I’m encouraging people to look beyond their favorite understandings.”

Jefferts Schori’s “all language is metaphorical” approach is a giant red flag to traditionalists at home and abroad who believe that the Episcopal Church is heading toward schism because it has departed from the plain words of the Bible.

However, the new presiding bishop’s theology is now normative in Episcopal seminaries and in the church’s House of Bishops. She represents the elite theology of this era in her church. She is normal. In many places, she has tenure. It is the traditional Anglicans who are, well, not very traditional in the here and now.

In America, the old-fashioned Anglicans are rebels. In the Third World, the traditionalists are normal Anglicans. And that clash is what this story is all about. This is a complex story, so it’s important to keep the lines clear between the various camps.

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As Canterbury Turns: Yelling in Virginia

chichester(Musical cue: Another swell of English cathedral pipe organ)

Yes, the lead of this story was wrong, but what DID the reporter hear that made her write what she did about what the bishop was told? I find it astounding, and a bit unbelievable, to think that the reporter (Julia) heard, in effect, “We’ve told the bishop we’re leaving” when the message was “We’re going to have a ‘discernment’ process in the fall” (which she did include in the story). …

Unlike the Rather memo, the reporter apparently gained a truthful insight into this church that it (or at least some within it) is preparing for departure. Again, the reaction of the church to the story tells me they are simply embarassed that these plans were revealed too early.

Posted by Stephen A. at 10:50 am on June 30, 2006

It’s time for another episide of As Canterbury Turns: The Virginia Story. The following thoughts are my own, based on my experiences as a reporter and editor.

Julia Duin’s controversial story in The Washington Times is back online with this correction added at the top. Click here to read my original post on this affair.

CORRECTION: The Washington Times mischaracterized a meeting Wednesday between the Rev. Martyn Minns and Virginia Episcopal Bishop Peter J. Lee. Representatives of the Falls Church Episcopal and Truro Episcopal churches now say no final decision on leaving the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia has been made.

This is one of the strangest corrections that I have ever seen. Let’s cut in in half, because there are two different issues here.

Here is the lead:

Two of Northern Virginia’s largest and most historic Episcopal churches — Truro and the Falls Church — informed Virginia Bishop Peter J. Lee yesterday that they plan to leave the diocese and that as many as two dozen other parishes may follow suit.

The hot word in this lead, the source of the whole controversy, is “plan.”

Note that the correction stresses that the leaders of Truro and the Falls Church denied that they have decided to leave the Diocese of Virginia. This is a fascinating statement, since the original story never says that they have made this decision. The story says they are preparing — along with a large circle of other parishes — to start a 40-day spiritual process that will lead to a decision.

Is that the same thing as “planning” to leave?

OK, here is my guess on what happened here. For at least a decade, traditional Episcopal parishes have known that, at some point in the future, they might — note the word “might” — need to find an exit door to escape The Episcopal Church. In almost all of these parishes this is a move that would have majority support in the vestry and the congregation, which is why they have been exploring a wide variety of options in the first place. But there are debates and divisions in these congregations, due to the legal risks involved linked to buildings, pensions, endowments and whatnot.

Most of these meetings, of course, take place behind closed doors and reporters find out about them after they have taken place. The most accurate way to describe these sessions is to say they involve church leaders who are discussing “contingency plans” that may or may not be used in the future. They are making plans, but they have not made the final decision to put them into effect.

Thus, the original Duin story says:

Truro and the Falls Church have a combined $27 million in assets. Situated on some of Northern Virginia’s most valuable real estate, both churches are having 40-day “discernment” periods of prayer, fasting and debate, starting in September and ending just before Thanksgiving, before announcing a final decision. …

The Falls Church and Truro Church presented their plan in Fairfax on Saturday to a meeting of officials representing 20 to 30 Episcopal churches around Virginia. Thirteen to 14 churches already have agreed to have their own 40-day period, he said.

Rectors of two other large Northern Virginia parishes also told The Washington Times yesterday, on condition of anonymity, that they, too, may be leaving. One is involved in secret negotiations with the diocese over property issues; another says his vestry, or governing board, approved the 40-day idea Tuesday night, but his parish needs to vote on it Sunday.

The official disclaimer from the Falls Church says the following:

The Washington Times reported that our church informed our Bishop that we are leaving the Diocese of Virginia and leaving the Episcopal Church. This certainly is not true and misrepresents where we are as a congregation.

Does the original Duin story say that the parish has decided to leave the diocese? It does not. So why did the Times correct a statement that its own story did not make?

This brings us back to the word “plan” in the lead.

There is a big difference between “they plan to leave” and “they are making plans that may lead to their departure.”

My guess is that this lead was, in the editing process, strengthened. The phrase editors use is “pump it up.” Reporters can resist this process and almost always do so. But it happens. Editors do not like words like “may” or “might” in leads on page one.

In this case, the qualifier was needed and you can see that in the actual text of Duin’s story. As I said earlier this week, the heart of the story is the meeting in which parish leaders from Truro and the Falls Church formally presented their plans for the 40-day discernment process. That’s the story.

Plans are being made. However, the decision to put them into effect is in the future, even as steps are taken that show which way things are going. There are dozens and dozens of stories ahead.

Stay tuned, and prepare for lots of yelling by people in mitres.

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As Canterbury Turns: A bishop at Truro

stjohndiv sootcover lg(Musical cue: swelling chord on a pipe organ)

Ouch. As best I can tell online, here is the Washington Post story of the day — care of the Associated Press — on the national and global developments in the Anglican World War.

The only problem is that the biggest Anglican story out there is a local story, one centered in some of the most powerful Anglican parishes in the United States, parishes that are located in the Washington suburbs, in the Diocese of Virginia, which is the nation’s largest Episcopal diocese. This story can be found here, on page one of The Washington Times, and here, in what appears to be a blend of Google hits and a press release from The Episcopal Church (formerly the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America).

Here is the top of the story by veteran religion writer Julia Duin at The Washington Times. I should mention that Duin has been a friend of mine since she broke onto the religion beat back in the 1980s at a Scripps Howard newspaper down in South Florida. This is one reason that I don’t cite her work on this blog as much as I might otherwise. Her story is basic hard news, and you can see signs that this has been percolating for some time.

Two of Northern Virginia’s largest and most historic Episcopal churches — Truro and the Falls Church — informed Virginia Bishop Peter J. Lee yesterday that they plan to leave the diocese and that as many as two dozen other parishes may follow suit.

And the Rev. Martyn Minns, rector of Truro Church, was elected a bishop yesterday by the Anglican province of Nigeria with the mandate to oversee a cluster of U.S. parishes that minister to expatriate Nigerians. Mr. Minns was driving north on Interstate 95 from Richmond when he got the news on his cell phone from Anglican Archbishop Peter J. Akinola. The archbishop then put him on a speaker phone to address a gathering of Anglicans in Abuja, the country’s capital.

“I said I was honored by their willingness to place their trust in me,” said Mr. Minns, 63, who earlier this year had announced plans to retire.

Instead he will oversee the Convocation for Anglicans in North America, which includes more than 20 Anglican churches that cater to Nigerian immigrants in the U.S. but could be enlarged to include Episcopal congregations fleeing the 2.2-million-member denomination.

For years, Episcopal insiders have jokingly referred to tensions between the Diocese of Virginia and what some started calling the Diocese of Truro. People could just as easily call it the Diocese of Falls Church. These are giant, multicultural parishes that in recent decades have been linked to the charismatic and low-church evangelical renewal movements in mainline Protestantism.

Another interesting element of this story is that the Falls Church is also rich in another important Beltway resource — scribes. The megachurch may as well open a side chapel for all of the journalists and think-tank writers who attend.

But, as Duin notes, these two parishes sit at the top of a pyramid of other parishes in the region that are, to one degree or another, now looking for a way out of the modern Episcopal Church.

Truro and the Falls Church have a combined $27 million in assets. Situated on some of Northern Virginia’s most valuable real estate, both churches are having 40-day “discernment” periods of prayer, fasting and debate, starting in September and ending just before Thanksgiving, before announcing a final decision.

Officially, the 40-day period has “no predetermined outcome,” said the Rev. John W. Yates, rector of the Falls Church, but it’s clear that “the growing crisis and dysfunction in the Episcopal Church” is pushing the orthodox toward the exit doors.

“It’s certainly a step no church — especially one with a history we’ve had — takes without the greatest humility,” he said in an interview at the parish where George Washington once worshipped. “But so many Episcopalians in the pews are so irate over what’s happened, and it’s harder and harder to call on people to wait.”

The Falls Church and Truro Church presented their plan in Fairfax on Saturday to a meeting of officials representing 20 to 30 Episcopal churches around Virginia. Thirteen to 14 churches already have agreed to have their own 40-day period, he said.

There are other major Episcopal and Anglican developments, of course, including an openly gay candidate to be the next bishop of — surprise — the Diocese of Newark. This link takes you to a conservative blog, but one with more links to other sources. Or click here for Thinking Anglicans or click here for a London Times story.

I think Ruth Gledhill of the Times spoke for many when she wrote yesterday:

I’ve been getting a little tired of this whole story, and want to start writing again about Hindus, Muslims, Catholics and the Jewish community.

Well, the story isn’t going to go away for a while — at least a decade, I would say. The only people who are laughing are the lawyers. Please let us know the best stories and websites — on both sides — that you see online.

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Time for “As Canterbury turns”

canterbury cathedral2Today’s New York Times report about the sobering epistle from Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams included several passages that I am sure raised eyebrows extra high among Anglican leaders in Pittsburgh and Episcopal leaders in New York City. As you would expect, this news story by the team of Laurie Goodstein and Neela Banerjee will be carefully parsed on this side of the Atlantic, because the Times is the holy writ for leaders in The Episcopal Church (formerly the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America).

For starters, it is important that the issue of same-sex unions is placed in the lead, along with a reference to the 2003 consecration of the openly gay Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

My reading of the archbishop’s statement — with its repeated emphasis on a threat to the sacramental unity of the Anglican Communion — is that attempts to modernize the ancient Sacrament of Marriage to include same-sex unions is just as divisive an issue for traditional Anglicans (and Catholics, and Orthodox Christians, and evangelical Protestants) as the issue of openly gay bishops. Here is one of the most crucial sections of the letter to the Anglican primates:

… (The) debate in the Anglican Communion is not essentially a debate about the human rights of homosexual people. It is possible — indeed, it is imperative — to give the strongest support to the defence of homosexual people against violence, bigotry and legal disadvantage, to appreciate the role played in the life of the church by people of homosexual orientation, and still to believe that this doesn’t settle the question of whether the Christian Church has the freedom, on the basis of the Bible, and its historic teachings, to bless homosexual partnerships as a clear expression of God’s will. That is disputed among Christians, and, as a bare matter of fact, only a small minority would answer yes to the question.

Unless you think that social and legal considerations should be allowed to resolve religious disputes — which is a highly risky assumption if you also believe in real freedom of opinion in a diverse society — there has to be a recognition that religious bodies have to deal with the question in their own terms. Arguments have to be drawn up on the common basis of Bible and historic teaching. And, to make clear something that can get very much obscured in the rhetoric about ‘inclusion’, this is not and should never be a question about the contribution of gay and lesbian people as such to the Church of God and its ministry, about the dignity and value of gay and lesbian people. Instead it is a question, agonisingly difficult for many, as to what kinds of behaviour a Church that seeks to be loyal to the Bible can bless, and what kinds of behaviour it must warn against — and so it is a question about how we make decisions corporately with other Christians, looking together for the mind of Christ as we share the study of the Scriptures.

My one criticism of the Times piece is that it does not allow leaders on both sides to debate this theological and doctrinal side of the Canterbury statement. That would, of course, have taken more than a few inches of type. Click here for my attempt in a Scripps Howard column.

Of course the crisis is linked to politics, inside and outside the church, and the story had to stress that. But the reason that Anglicans on the right side of the cathedral aisle are cheering today is that (a) Rowan Williams consistently described this as a conflict that must be addressed as an issue affecting the whole church, the global church, and that (b) he repeatedly said answers must be found in Scripture and in ancient church traditions. He mentions the historic flexibility of Anglicanism on cultural issues, but not as often as he underlines the authority of, for example, the “Bible and historic teaching.”

But back to what the Times report does include. Which phrase leaps out at you in this passage?

Conservatives hailed the archbishop’s move as an affirmation that the American church stepped outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy when it ordained a gay bishop three years ago.

The archbishop wrote, “No member church can make significant decisions unilaterally and still expect this to make no difference to how it is regarded in the fellowship.”

Leaders of the Episcopal Church — the Communion’s American province, long dominated by theological liberals — sought to play down the statement’s import, saying it was just one more exchange in a long dialogue they expected to continue within the Communion.

Yes, says the Times, the U.S. church is dominated by “theological liberals” and those words — which are loaded, but factually accurate in almost any reading of modern Christian theology — can be used in broad daylight. If anyone is going to challenge this phrase, they would need to argue that the true ruling elite among Episcopalians is made up of pragmatists who are more interested in the survivial of the institutional church than they are in any one particular theological point of view. The most honest debates among Anglicans are held between honest and candid leaders of the left and the right who are willing to state their beliefs openly and then defend them.

cbury cross2Then there is this eye-opening paragraph:

The Anglican Communion has about 77 million members in more than 160 nations. Members in conservative provinces far outnumber those in the liberal provinces. The Episcopal Church has about 2.3 million members but contributes a disproportionate amount to Anglican Communion administration, charities and mission work. The Anglican Communion Network, a group leading the conservative response, said it had 200,000 members last year.

Bravo. There are all kinds of hard truths in that one punchy summary statement — from the disproportionate clout of American dollars in British offices to the growing statistical reality of conservatives in the Third World. And note the small size of the Anglican Communion Network. Or, is that actually small? How many Episcopalians are there perched on kneelers on any given Sunday?

This will be a major story for at least a decade, in church courts and secular courts. Who gets to write this covenant that is supposed to unite the communion? I would assume the archbishops of the 38 Anglican provinces will do much of the work and supervise the rest. They might seek input from Catholic and Orthodox leaders. And what will be the key issues they end up debating?

I’ll stick with my list of four tough questions that I posted the other day:

(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Was this a real — even if mysterious — event in real time? Did it really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Is Jesus the Way or a way?

(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin? The key word is sin.

(4) Should Anglican leaders ban the worship, by name, of other gods at their altars?

Stay tuned. And make sure you let us know the URLs for the best blogs — on the Anglican right and the Episcopal left — that are discussing this story and posting public responses by bishops and activists.

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Money of the past vs. Money of the future

ChristChurchThe aftershocks from the 2006 edition of the oldline Protestant sex wars continue to rattle around through the infrastructures of churches at the local, national and global levels.

As I stressed the other day, both the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and The Episcopal Church — a name that leaves it one step away from declaring itself a global body — are now essentially in the same position, a neverland called “local option.” Neither has formally abandoned 2000 years of Christian tradition on sex and marriage, but both have voted to allow regional bodies to do so without punishment. The Episcopal Church also quietly declined to formally support gay marriage, but openly proclaimed that it was opposed to all efforts to oppose gay marriage. It’s called via media.

Over at The New York Times, veteran religion scribe Laurie Goodstein produced a news feature that tried to sum up this purgatory state, this land between a clear victory for either the left or the right. Here’s the statement of her thesis:

For the Episcopal Church U.S.A. and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), as with other mainline Protestant churches, the summertime convention season has become a painful ritual. In each church, the conservatives and the liberals are bound together like brawling conjoined twins.

The liberals dominate the power centers of the denominations — the national offices and the legislative arms. The conservatives have threatened to walk away, but most have not because they say the church is rightfully, theologically, theirs. …

Members of both churches had looked to this year’s conventions to clarify their positions on ordaining gay clergy members and blessing same-sex couples. But instead, each convention produced the kind of parliamentary doublespeak that some Episcopalians call “Anglican fudge …”

That is part of the story, but I believe she missed — probably due to lack of space — several key elements.

The conservatives do have theology on their side, but it is the theology of the past, the actual teachings of the Protestant Reformers and, on moral theology, the ancient churches of East and West. But part of their problem is that they do not have the theology of the present on their side, in large part because almost all of their denominational seminaries have for decades been solidly modernist and now postmodernist. Thus, year after year, the conservatives are losing control of the theology of the future in these national churches that are committed to evolving — or reforming — their way into a future based on majority or super-majority rule.

The establishment leaders in these oldline churches also have money on their side — sort of. They legally control the structures that affect property and pensions, although conservative congregations have won a few battles against progressive regional executives and-or bishops. These are expensive battles for people on both sides, but, in the Anglican wars, many of the bishops in old, historic cathedrals have endowment funds to tap.

In other words, they control the money of the past and will use it to defend the theology of the future.

However, the conservatives have the growing congregations — locally and globally — and, thus, tend to have healthy budgets in the here and now. Many of them are outgrowing their sanctuaries or have just built giant new facilities that their local bishops or presbyteries literally cannot afford to operate if the people in the pews (and their checkbooks) walk away.

In other words, the conservatives control — in many key zip codes — the money of the present and will use it to defend the theology of the past.

Episcopal Shield 01How will this play out at the local level? One of the biggest religion stories in America today is unfolding down in the Dallas area, although you would not know that by looking at the online front page of The Dallas Morning News.

It seems that the flock many hail as the single largest Episcopal congregation in the United States — when it comes to live people sitting in real pews — has decided that enough is enough and is leaving The Episcopal Church. Click here to read the story by religion reporter Jeffrey Weiss and click here to read blog commentary by Rod “Crunchy Con” Dreher of the newspaper’s editorial-page staff.

As Weiss notes, the key to this story is that this massive congregation has the support of the local Episcopal bishop. They like him and he likes them. Still, the congregation has decided to leave the American church in order to show its loyalty to the larger global Anglican Communion, which, especially in the Third World, remains quite traditional in terms of doctrine and practice.

Weiss notes:

What happens next is not clear. Under the rules of the Episcopal Church, parish property does not belong to the congregation but to the diocese, which is supposed to act in accord with the national denomination’s rules. So in theory, according to some church law experts, the Dallas bishop could demand that Christ Church’s congregation no longer meet in the church campus, on Legacy Drive.

But Christ Church has the support of Dallas Bishop James Stanton, who opposed the 2003 vote that confirmed Bishop Robinson. Christ Church says it still regards the Dallas bishop as its “apostolic leader.” And Bishop Stanton said Monday that he intends to allow the congregation to continue to use the campus. “They bought it. They paid for it,” Bishop Stanton said.

National church leaders could not be reached for comment.

What this story does not dig into, yet, is the financial side of this local crisis. What is Christ Church’s building (pictured) worth? How much money has this megachurch, by Anglican standards, been paying into the diocesan budget? Can the national church afford to lose more pledges from major parishes and dioceses?

Meanwhile, everyone is waiting for a word from Canterbury. Will Archbishop Rowan Williams remain loyal (his views on moral theology are progressive) to the endowments of the past (to his theological class, so to speak) or to the churches that are experiencing growth in the present and are striving to protect their futures?

At some point, the Third World will not settle for fudge. However, what about Queen Elizabeth II?

UPDATE: Well not, it seems that even as I typed those words the Archbishop of Canterbury’s statement on these issues was coming out and starting to draw attention in London, if not on this side of the pond. It appears that he will attempt a kind of “local option,” but with two different levels of ecclesiastical and doctrinal ties that bind.

rowanwilliams narrowweb  200x290Are we talking Communion vs. communion, with The Episcopal Church being the small “c” in the eyes of the majority of the world’s Anglicans? Click here to go to the Ruth Gledhill report in The Times and here for her blog, with many other key links. The headline is going to spoil a lot of lunches today in blue Episcopal zip codes: “Worldwide Anglican church to split over gay bishop.” Here are the crunch paragraphs:

… Williams is proposing a two-track Anglican Communion, with orthodox churches being accorded full, “constituent” membership and the rebel, pro-gay liberals being consigned to “associate” membership.

All provinces will be offered the chance to sign up to a “covenant” which will set out the traditional, biblical standards on which all full members of the Anglican church can agree. But it is highly unlikely that churches such as The Episcopal Church in the US, the Anglican churches in Canada and New Zealand and even the Scottish Episcopal Church would be able to commit themselves fully to such a document.

In this relationship, The Episcopal Church and those who support it would have a status not unlike members of Methodist bodies, who have some historic ties to Anglicanism, but are not part of the formal structures of the global Anglican Communion.

That said, everything I wrote here still stands when it comes to money issues and legal issues. Can the Anglican Communion pay its bills without the big bucks it gets from American endowment funds? Remember that old saying: The Africans pray, the Americans pay and the British get to write the resolutions.

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Name of the mainline game is “local option”

rainbow altarIn the end, it was the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that made the biggest news on the front lines of the liturgical culture wars this week. However, it should be noted that the most important action taken by the oldline Presbyterians was to adopt precisely the option that the Episcopalians have been using for quite some time now.

The name of the game is “local option,” meaning that officials in blue pews get to read the Bible (and the denomination’s own teachings) in a way that allows them to move foward on issues such as the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians and the creation — semi-officially, of course — of church rites to celebrate same-sex marriages. Meanwhile, people in red pews get to keep believing what they have believed for centuries and, of course, they get to keep sending in their pledge dollars to support national agencies that act as if basic points of doctrine and moral theology are moot, even if they remain on the books.

This is called compromise. The problem is that there are true believers — on the left and the right — who keep acting as if they believe they are actually right and that there is such a thing as truth and that it should be defended. It’s the people in the middle who keep asking: What is truth? It’s the people in the middle who want to wrap their seminaries and pension funds in a protective layer of doctrinal fog. And that’s the story that is hardest to write, because it is impossible to say that one side lost and the other side won.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been poised to make this leap for 30 years, while watching the people in its pews age and its statistics slide as traditional believers drift away to other churches. Here is how religion-beat veteran David Anderson summed up the story for Religion News Service:

The nation’s largest Presbyterian denomination, in a seismic shift on the role of gays and lesbians in the church, voted on Tuesday (June 20) to allow local and regional bodies to ordain gays to the church’s ministries.

After nearly three hours of debate, delegates voted 298 to 221 to approve a complex proposal that allows local congregations and regional bodies known as presbyteries to bypass the church’s current ban on “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy. Current rules from 1996 that require “fidelity in marriage … and chastity in singleness” will remain on the books, but local bodies can now allow exceptions to those standards if they wish.

The question now is: What happens next?

Once local option is in place, any attempt to overthrow it is viewed by the establishment as an intolerant attempt to create schism. This is precisely the stage of the game facing traditional Anglicans who remain in what has now formally been named The Episcopal Church, as opposed to the old name, which was the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. What does this name change mean? Is this the formation of a new, multinational church that will sooner or later stand opposite the Anglican Communion? That’s a good question.

But I digress. Back to the mainline Presbyterians, a shrinking flock already rocked by $9.15 million in budget cuts at the home office in Louisville. As Richard Ostling wrote in the main Associated Press story, the move to “local option” on hot issues is a bold and even courageous move, if one is a progressive who depends on offerings from conservative pews.

Consider the dice rolled.

The Presbyterian establishment, including all seminary presidents and many officials, promoted the local autonomy plan, which was devised by a special task force. The idea is to grant modest change to liberals but mollify conservatives by keeping the sexual law on the books.

It’s not clear whether that will work.

“We have been painfully aware that in some ways our greatest challenge was not preparing for this assembly but preparing for what happens after this assembly,” the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, chief executive at denominational headquarters, told delegates after the votes.

So what are the key issues affected by “local option”? Issues linked to homosexuality get all the headlines, of course. But there are other sexual issues that are — behind the scenes — just as controversial. What about the status of premarital sex? How about adultery? Why are conservatives so slow to talk about divorce and the Bible?

I’ve been covering this story since the early 1980s and, long ago, I came up with three basic questions that I always ask when covering battles in oldline pews. Some of you will say that these questions are rooted in my own bias and beliefs. I can honestly say that I can justify them as a journalist because they are the questions that, for me, have always led to the most revealing questions, the most interesting quotes. Here they are.

(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Was this a real — even if mysterious — event in real time? Did it really happen?

saint john the divine 20021214(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Is Jesus the Way or a way? Thus, it was highly symbolic that the Episcopalians tabled a resolution declaring the church’s “unchanging commitment to Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the only name by which any person may be saved” and acknowledging “the solemn responsibility placed upon us to share Christ with all persons when we hear His words, ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6). …”

(3) Is sex outside of the sacrament of marriage a sin? The question is a matter of moral theology, not national policy. The controversial word is sin.

Want to find out who is a true liberal and who is a waffling conservative? Who is a person who worships the institutional church and its pension fund? Want to see the full scope of “local option”? Ask those three questions. I have asked those questions in press conferences and seen bishops simply refuse to answer.

OK, here’s a bonus question: Should the (insert name of mainline Protestant flock here) ban the worship, by name, of other gods at its altars? That’s a hot one, especially at seminaries with covens.

“I am the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have none other gods but me.”

Well, that depends on the zip code. “Local option” is a powerful thing.

P.S. If you want a gigantic collection of links to MSM reports on the events of the past week, click here and head over to the Christianity Today weblog.

If you want to see veteran London Times correspondent Ruth Gledhill look ahead, attempting to read the mind of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, then click here. Here’s a sample of what she hopes he is thinking:

As a Welshman who by instinct supports a degree of antidisestablishmentarianism, I would privately welcome the opportunity to dismantle the old system of fixed parochial, diocesan and provincial boundaries and set about doing so. I would do this while ensuring that my office remained the “focus for unity” for the worldwide Church, thus making me a kind of Anglican Pope. Without any real power. Which I don’t want anyway, so that’s all right.

I would contemplate once more some of the liberal principles I had when first I took office. I would find some way of reassuring the liberals who have deserted me as I strive for truth and unity that I may still hold those views, albeit privately. I would tell them that in a deconstructed globalised Church, parishes and dioceses would be at liberty to seek episcopal and primatial oversight from almost whomever they wished. There would be room for Episcopalians and Anglicans, and everyone could focus then on promoting the message of Christ. Or Christa.

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All eyes are on Canterbury (again)

acns3950low resI guess this is why Anglicans pay the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, the big bucks.

For several years now, the worldwide Anglican Communion has been involved in a high-wire act involving two issues linked to moral theology. The first is the open, public ordination of gays and lesbians to the priesthood and, then, to the episcopate. The second is the open, public approval of sacramental church rites to bless same-sex unions, thus redefining the sacrament of marriage. Both of these issues threaten to shatter the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Behind the scenes, Williams has been pondering another issue — how to handle the global Anglican tensions that will result, and the ecumenical bridges (think Rome and the Orthodox East) that will be burned — by the Church of England’s march toward female bishops.

It is true that many, perhaps even most, Anglicans have accepted the ordination of women to the deaconate and priesthood. But millions have not and most of them are in the rapidly growing churches of the Third World. They view the ordination of women as yet another imperial power play by the pushy Americans and, soon, the British. But the ordination of female priests only affects the status of those priests. The ordination of a woman as bishop affects the status of all of the priests that she ordains, both female and male. For millions of Anglicans, the priests ordained by female bishops are literally not priests. Who will keep track of who is who?

The current occupant of the throne in Canterbury knows that, when the mother Church of England ordains women to the episcopate, many more clergy and laity will hit the exit doors of a church that is already in sharp decline. Can the creation of an Anglican Rite Church in Great Britain by the Vatican be far behind? How many will join Eastern Orthodox churches?

Now those pushy Americans have gone and elected a woman — from a tiny Western diocese (PDF) with fewer active members than many Roman Catholic parishes and even more Protestant megachurches — as their archbishop. What will she do when it comes time for her to raise women and men to the episcopate? Will she note her own controversial status by making sure that at least three male bishops take part in the rites, making her role unnecessary?

This is a huge story. The question, once again, is whether the election of Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of Nevada as the Episcopal Church’s new presiding bishop is primarily an American story or an international story.

BishopKatharineLet’s play spot the lead on this one. Here are three leads. Your job is to pick which one is from the Associated Press, with its global audience, which one is from the Daily Telegraph, in England, and which one is from The New York Times, the official newspaper of the Episcopal Church establishment.

There is (a) this one:

A woman was last night elected as the first female leader of the American branch of Anglicanism in a historic but divisive development that could hasten the break-up of the worldwide Church.

The Bishop of Nevada, the Rt Rev Katharine Jefferts Schori, who is a leading liberal on homosexuality, is the first woman primate in the history of Anglicanism. Her role as Presiding Bishop is the equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Her surprise election was greeted with whoops of joy by pro-women campaigners at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, where she was chosen by her fellow bishops in four hours of voting. But conservatives predicted that she would lead the Episcopal Church further along its liberal path on issues such as homosexuality, and her election will dismay traditionalists opposed to women priests.

Then there is (b) this one:

The Episcopal Church elected Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of Nevada as its presiding bishop on Sunday, making her the first woman to lead a church in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Many Episcopalians … cheered the largely unexpected choice of Bishop Jefferts Schori, 52, the lone woman and one of the youngest of the seven candidates for the job. Her election was a milestone for the Episcopal Church, which began ordaining women only in 1976. She takes on her new responsibilities at a particularly fraught moment in the history of the Episcopal Church, the American branch of the Anglican Communion, the world’s third-largest church body, with 77 million members.

And finally there is option (c):

Nevada Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori became the first woman elected to lead a church in the global Anglican Communion when she was picked Sunday to be the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. It was another groundbreaking and controversial move for a denomination that consecrated Anglicanism’s first openly gay bishop just three years ago. …

The choice of Jefferts Schori may worsen — and could even splinter — the already difficult relations between the American denomination and its fellow Anglicans. Episcopalians have been sparring with many in the other 37 Anglican provinces over homosexuality, but a female leader adds a new layer of complexity to the already troubled relationship.

So which is which? Personally, I think the Associated Press story did the best job of covering both the global and American elements of this story. The Telegraph story, writing to the British, focuses totally on that angle. The Times story, writing (I guess) for the New York City audience, sees this story through an almost totally New York City lens.

Many commentators have noted that it is more important that Jefferts Schori was the most liberal candidate in the race on issues of liturgy and moral theology than that she is a woman. That’s true, but that doesn’t help Archbishop Williams much at the moment. Meanwhile, there are almost certainly conservatives who are, in private, cheering today because a bluntly liberal presiding bishop may bring clarity to the current sexuality debate, instead of more fog.

It is also true that — for a host of reasons — there is already broken communion at the highest levels of the Anglican Communion, even if that painful schism has not received major media attention. The election of Jefferts Schori will only put a spotlight on the divisions that affect rites when the Anglican archbishops are together.

What will the alchemist at Canterbury do? That’s the only story that matters right now. In his official reaction statement, he is already teetering on the high wire again — sounding friendly, but noting that the Americans have tossed yet another bomb into a tense global situation. The election of Jefferts Schori will, he writes,

undoubtedly have an impact on the collegial life of the Anglican Primates; and it also brings into focus some continuing issues in several of our ecumenical dialogues. We are continuing to pray for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church as it confronts a series of exceptionally difficult choices.

Photos by Anglican Communion News Service.

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Personality poker at General Convention

bloomboxBrother Mattingly has implored me to keep GetReligion in mind while I am here in Columbus, Ohio, reporting on the Episcopal Church’s 75th General Convention. My report on Sunday’s election of the first woman primate in the Anglican Communion should appear sometime Monday on Christianity Today‘s website.

In the meantime, here is a feature I wrote for The Living Church magazine. The feature will appear in the latter of two issues prepared during General Convention, but I also would like to sling it into circulation on the Internet.

Leader Resources, an influential distributor of Episcopal curricula, has brought comic relief to the 75th General Convention in the form of cards illustrated with caricatures.

You may recognize some of the types: “The Hostage,” who has a cannon labeled “tradition” pointed at his torso. “Both Sides of the Mouth,” who is gifted with open lips on the left and right sides of his face. “The Boss,” whose mouth is open so wide that her windpipe is visible.

The Rev. Linda Grenz and her colleagues at Leader Resources took the card packs, normally distributed in a curriculum called “The Bloom Box,” and designed several games for them.

One of those games is well suited for plenary debates that generate more exhaustion than enlightenment.

The game assigns each member of a deputation a deck of cards. Each deputy chooses a caricature of a speaker, placing the card face down. When all deputies have chosen a card, they compare their choices. If all four clergy or lay deputies choose the same character, the team wins a point. “The side with the most points at the end of the day wins,” a brief game description says. “Set your own prize — a drink, a dinner, a cheer!”

Some of the other characters’ names are self-explanatory: “The Pontificator,” “The General,” “The Bearer of Threats,” “The Voice of Reason,” “My Way,” “The Free Spirit,” “The Altar Guild,” “The Alien,” “The Matriarch,” “The Child” and “The Airhead.”

“Sometimes humor helps us get through difficult times,” Grenz told The Living Church. “We thought this Convention could use some extra humor.”

Grenz said she believes most Convention deputies will play the game in the lighthearted spirit that Leader Resources has built into it. “There’s a way to be malicious about it, but the caricatures are so funny, I hope people will not miss the point of it.”

Other games designed around the cards offer ways for people to speak through characters or to think outside their self-imposed limits, she said.

“This is a way of getting things on the table that would be in the parking lot,” she said. “People will say things through a card that they wouldn’t own up to directly.”

Leader Resources sells a deputy game and eight packs of cards for $20. Three deputations already had purchased sets by Thursday afternoon. Grenz said she expects demand to grow as Convention’s business grows more taxing during the weekend.

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