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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So that’s where LeBlanc is …

dougleblancOur semi-retired blogger and ghost editor, the Rt. Rev. Douglas LeBlanc, is punching keys at the moment — only not for us. Anyone who wants to follow his work at the Episcopal Church’s General Convention should keep an eye on the websites of Christianity Today and, on the other side of the pond, The Church Times.

Yes, Doug has actually worked on the conservative side of the church aisle during the current round of Anglican warfare. But it’s a sign of the respect that others have for his calm and accurate reporting that major news publications still want to hire him to cover tense, crucial events such as this landmark convention. I have asked him to send us some URLs that link to new stories from the front lines, but don’t hold your breath. He continues to suffer from intense LeBlancophobia when it comes to pointing readers toward his own work.

So click here for his most recent CT report and then click here for his early, first-week report for the Brits. You know our Doug is in the room when the story about the “U2charist” features a phrase such as, “Nearly 1000 were drawn to the dancing-room-only service.” He’s reporting for the The Living Church, as well.

Meanwhile, I am looking for signs that any journalist noticed that the following resolution from Western Louisiana was considered “too hot” to be debated on the convention floor.

Resolved, the House of _____ concurring, That the 75th General Convention of the Episcopal Church declares its unchanging commitment to Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the only name by which any person may be saved (Article XVIII); and be it further

Resolved, That we acknowledge 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); and be it further

Resolved, That we affirm that in Christ there is both the substitutionary essence of the Cross and the manifestation of God’s unlimited and unending love for all persons; and be it further

Resolved, That we renew our dedication to be faithful witnesses to all persons of the saving love of God perfectly and uniquely revealed in Jesus and upheld by the full testimony of Holy Scripture.

Who says that sex is the only issue that divides Anglicans today?

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Episcopalians inside the Matrix

51MatrixCode by KeR medVeteran religion scribe Julia Duin of The Washington Times has written one of those stories that simply had to be written, taking readers inside what I once called the Anglican Web Wars.

There was a time when people from the power pews and pulpits went to national meetings and all they could do for news — other than one or two MSM reports a day — was read newsletters and memos handed out by the special-interest groups. Now, the annual Summer of Sex rites in the oldline world have gone online and, as noted in The Washington Post by columnist E.J. Dionne Jr., the rise of the digital printing press is even beginning to affect the free-for-all congregationalism that is life in the Southern Baptist Convention.

But back to Duin’s handy report from the Episcopal General Convention in the industrial sanctary hall in Columbus, Ohio.

There are, of course, the official websites that seem like they have been around forever. There is the official site of the ECUSA hierarchy and then there is the General Convention page within the unofficial site of the church’s ruling progressive elite — that would be the home page of gay activist and ECUSA power broker Dr. Louie Crew, a site hosted on the servers at Rutgers University in Newark.

Then there is the work, on the traditionalist side of the aisle, by Father Kendall Harmon and his TitusOneNine blog, which, on a slow day, offers several dozen links to documents and news articles about what is going on around the world in the bitterly divided Anglican Communion. Click here for the controversial recent post on the ethics of Anglican blogging, written by the Very Rev. Paul Zahl, dean of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry. Meanwhile, legions of Anglicans around the world still read the baseball-bat reports of cyber pioneer David Virtue (who often, I am afraid, insists on circulating many of my wire-service reports days before it is legal to do so).

Here is how Duin set the scene, in a piece that really, really needs to have all of its hyperlinks live and kicking.

Dozens of deputies, at least 11 bishops and a multitude of other hangers-on are using the Internet to slug it out over the same issues that the convention is considering through its conclusion. … Local blogs include Daily Episcopalian (, operated by Diocese of Washington spokesman Jim Naughton, and Baby Blue Online (, written by Mary Ailes, a vestrywoman at Truro Episcopal Church in Fairfax.

The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia is maintaining, which, although not a blog, posts daily commentaries, one of which jabs the Rev. Martyn Minns, Truro’s rector, for calling on the Episcopal Church to “repent.”

And on and on it goes — Preludium, In a Godward Direction, Father Jake Stops the World and the perfectly named An Inch at a Time, General Convention 2006 and, of course, the ever-present Web Elves. There are dozens and dozens of others, which you can find by digging around in the side columns of the sites — left and right — listed above.

So, all of you GetReligion readers who are closely following the Summer of Sex, what are your favorite links for the Anglicans, the Presbyterians and everybody else? Please leave them in our comments section.

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Goodbye to the White House evangelical

gersonThe departure of President Bush’s close adviser and longtime speechwriter Michael Gerson ends an era in which an evangelical Christian had unprecedented access and influnce in shaping American foreign and domestic policy. Thanks to Gerson’s humility, he never came close to receiving the attention from journalists of the likes of Karen Hughes and Karl Rove, but few were as influential.

Fortunately, a few journalists were smart enough to spot the influence of Gerson, particularly Carl Canon in this National Journal cover story, which received a Aldo Beckman Award for repeated excellent White House reporting, and Jeffrey Goldberg in a New Yorker profile that received a high level of attention. Appropriately, his exit is receiving attention from Washington’s heavyweights:

Here’s The Washington Post‘s Peter Baker:

Michael J. Gerson, one of President Bush’s most trusted advisers and the author of nearly all of his most famous public words over the past seven years, plans to step down in the next couple of weeks in a decision that colleagues believe will leave a hole in the White House at a critical period.

Gerson said in an interview that he has been talking with Bush for many months about leaving for writing and other opportunities but waited until the White House political situation stabilized somewhat. “It seemed like a good time,” he said. “Things are back on track a little. Some of the things I care about are on a good trajectory.”

Since first joining the presidential campaign as chief speechwriter in 1999, Gerson has evolved into one of the most central figures in Bush’s inner circle, often considered among the three or four aides closest to the president. Beyond shaping the language of the Bush presidency, Gerson helped set its broader direction.

The WaPo article was a bit more thorough than the New York Times piece, but that’s to be expected. I did have one small beef with the Baker piece, though, in his reference to Gerson’s sharing Bush’s “conservative Christian faith.”

Gerson stood out in a White House known for swagger. A somewhat slight, pale, bespectacled and soft-spoken Midwesterner, he nonetheless forged a strong bond with the outgoing, backslapping Texan president, in part through their shared conservative Christian faith. He found a way to channel Bush’s thoughts, colleagues said, transforming a sometimes inarticulate president into an occasionally memorable speaker.

I won’t contest Bush’s conservatism or Christian faith, nor will I contest either for Gerson. But it’s just not that simple, as Cannon’s profile clearly demonstrates:

Gerson, in what amounted to a self-directed continuing education, had been immersing himself in Catholic social thought, to try to understand the intellectual underpinnings of these issues. (He currently attends the Falls Church, an evangelical Episcopal church in suburban Virginia that was organized in 1734; George Washington served there as a warden.) Gerson had also been studying how Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services delivered services to those in need. And Bush — in part because of Colson’s work in Texas’s prisons — had become a convert to the idea that government could work in concert with faith-based programs.

“Catholics have long believed that the state has a role to play in alleviating poverty, but that this is not necessarily a role it plays directly,” says Catholic scholar Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “What has happened in the U.S. is that Protestants have embraced this — first with school vouchers, and later with prison outreach, poverty, and other issues. It’s a growing alliance between Protestants and Catholics to help the less fortunate, and Mike Gerson is at the intersection of these two traditions coming together.”

Does description of Gerson’s faith dovetail with what we know of Bush’s faith and politics? That’s a difficult question because much of Bush’s personal faith and its connection to his politics is relatively shrouded by political necessity. Perhaps we will learn more once Bush has left office, but until then, the comparison cannot be made.

It’s clear that Gerson stood out in the White House. It’s not so clear that he and Bush necessarily saw eye-to-eye on everything Christian and conservative. I believe it would be more accurate to say that Gerson’s conservative Christianity influenced Bush just as Karl Rove’s cutthroat politics influenced him.

To wrap up, I’d like to say that without Gerson, one cannot imagine the course of the Bush presidency. Gerson turned Bush into one of the most articulate presidents of all time at various points in the last five-plus years.

Where would Bush be without Gerson? I point you to the White House transcript of a press conference held Wednesday:

Q: Is the tide turning in Iraq?

THE PRESIDENT: I think — tide turning — see, as I remember — I was raised in the desert, but tides kind of — it’s easy to see a tide turn — did I say those words?

President Bush is already missing Mike Gerson.

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Doing that Episcopal media thang

defaultI think Episcopalians get a lot of ink because: (a) there are a lot of Episcopalians in the newsrooms, (b) they tend to be urbanites and well-educated (c) the opposing camps are incredibly well-funded with huge PR machines, and (d) Americans tend to have Anglo-envy.

Posted by Michael at 11:08 am on June 13, 2006

With the annual mainline Summer of Sex rites upon us, I thought it might be fun if I dredged back into my past and shared a bit of an essay that I wrote in 1994 for the Rt. Rev. Doug LeBlanc during one of his earlier turns as an editor on the conservative side of the Anglican aisle.

I must confess that I was, at the time, an evangelical who was already struggling to stay, with his family, in the Episcopal Church while living in the mountains of East Tennessee. I was teaching at the college level and, since I was a columnist and no longer in a newsroom, I was free to write this rather snarky little essay. I apologize for the condition of this inside page of my homepage. I am a total loss when it comes to fixing technical glitches of this kind, which is why there are many changes to GetReligion that are a year or more overdue.

Anyway, I called the essay “Why Journalists Love the Episcopal Church: Sex, Politics, Vestments, Urban Addresses — We’ve Got It All!” I offer a link to it here since this precise topic always comes up when Episcopalians gather for their General Convention under the microscope of a rapt national press. So here is the start of the essay:

People phrase the question in many different ways.

Some do not mince words. “Why in the world,” they say, “does the Episcopal Church get so much media coverage?”

In major media, the nation’s 2 million or so Episcopalians often receive just as much, and sometimes much more, attention than the members of major denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church or the Assemblies of God.

I’ve heard a few leaders of other churches and religious groups ask variations on this question with a slightly anxious, or even jealous, sound in their voices. What they are really asking is this: Why doesn’t my church get as much press coverage as those Episcopalians?

With good reason, many Episcopalians are amused by this question. It is difficult to conceive of a reason why any sane religious leader would welcome the media attention that is given, year after year, to the Episcopal Church. Who would covet someone else’s root canal?

Thus, when many Episcopalians ask about the waves of coverage that the media give their church, the question that they are actually asking is: Why are the secular media always picking on us?

ENS Lambeth98 Bp women walk MedI suggest a number of reasons for this press attention, reasons that are very similar to those suggested by Michael in the opening comment. You can read all of that for yourself, if you wish.

I would add the fact that the urban nature of the Episcopal heritage and the facilities that result also make them convenient for the press and for photo ops. Yes, it is crucial that Episcopalians photograph well when it comes to religious seasons and public events. This is true, even if the number of people in many of the pews is in decline (brace yourself for a storm of comments debating the statistics [PDF] on this issue).

Episcopal clergy look like Roman Catholics, only without — in the blue zip codes that really matter — carrying with them many or even all of those messy ancient doctrines that bug many reporters so much.

This leads to the final statement of my thesis.

I believe the Episcopal Church draws more than its share of media attention because its leaders wear religious garb, work in conveniently located buildings, speak fluent politics and promote a mystical brand of moral liberalism. Episcopalians look like Roman Catholics and act like liberal politicians.

Clearly, this is a flock that will continue to merit the attention of America’s media elite. The Episcopal Church’s buildings will photograph well, even if the only people in them are behind the altars.

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