Can anyone out there speak “British”?

thumb dcameron05 1Is there anyone out there in GetReligionLand who speaks the English dialect called “British” well enough to help me break the code in the following story by John Daniszewski (God bless you) of the Los Angeles Times? It concerns the rise of the ever-so-slightly modish David Cameron as the new leader of the Tory Party at the ripe old age of 39, which is even younger than a TV cyberanchor here in the USA.

Please understand that I know all about the rising tide of secularization in modern Great Britain and I know that social issues do not play much of a role over there.

Please understand that I also know that the Brits are horrified by what many consider the rise of the insane theocrats on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Nevertheless, I sense some cultural issues lurking between the lines of this part of the story:

With British voters having given the Labor Party’s Tony Blair a third term as prime minister in May, Cameron was expected to pledge to put the Conservatives back in touch with ordinary people — just as the last three party chairmen have promised. …

The Conservative Party has been dogged by the perception that it is a declining club for white, elderly, hunt-riding, middle-class, rural and suburban southern Englanders who belong to the Church of England. (Cameron noted Tuesday that women are “scandalously underrepresented” in the party and pledged to correct that.)

Can anyone out there help me with the translation?

You see, I tend to think of the Church of England as a force on the left side of the cultural divide and, sorry, but I get that impression by reading British newspapers as well as following the political and doctrinal exploits of the Episcopal Church here in America and the Anglican Church of Canada. And what does the phrase “back in touch with ordinary people” mean in England, as opposed to here in America? Does that have religious or secular overtones in politics over there? And, if you read on, you will also notice that Cameron is using “compassionate conservatism” lingo and we all know where that came from.

Input. Need Input.

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Episcopal “Tower of Babel” in Chelsea?

tsprintnight 1On one level, this is your typical New York City real estate story with Chelsea neighborhood residents fighting like, well, New Yorkers to preserve the sanctity of their turf and rare views of the sky.

However, what made this recent Shadi Rahimi story in the New York Times interesting to me was the identity of the villains — the always progressive leaders of the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church (seminary PR photo). Here’s a brief look at the top of the story:

With hisses and boos, more than 75 Chelsea residents expressed their contempt at a recent neighborhood meeting over plans by the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church to knock down a four-story building on its campus and replace it with a 17-story one. The new building would have 80 luxury apartments in a glass structure that one resident called “a Tower of Babel.”

In the latest battle waged against tall structures in Chelsea, dozens of neighbors are opposing the seminary’s attempt to build above the about seven and a half stories permitted within that part of a historic district bordered by 8th and 10th Avenues and West 19th and 23rd Streets.

I realize that real estate is, in a way, a religious subject for Manhattan folks. What caught my attention was the fact that the seminary leaders really, really need to do this tower project. And not just because they need a replacement for the 1959 office building and library that they want to tear down. According to Maureen Burnley, the seminary’s executive vice president for finance and operations, the deal:

… (Required) that the new building be at least 17 stories tall for the seminary to receive the $15 million it needs to start repairing the seminary’s historic buildings. The seminary plans to raise the remaining money needed for repairs — more than $35 million — through capital campaigns, tax credits and loans, she said. Since 1999, the seminary has spent $9 million to restore its buildings, Ms. Burnley said.

General Theological faces dire financial problems and has explored other ways of addressing them in recent years, including teaming up with other churches on real estate projects or moving from its Chelsea location of nearly 180 years, said the seminary’s dean and president, the Rev. Ward B. Ewing. But after these options fell through, the seminary believed that a private partnership would be the only way, Father Ewing said. “We needed a partner that could bring capital assets,” he said, adding that luxury housing on a seminary campus is not an ideal solution. But, “we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t have to do it,” he said.

Now this is interesting. I have always been under the impression that the mainline seminaries were backed by rather healthy endowments built up in the past by generations of donors. I have heard oldline leaders say that some of these seminaries could stay open with endowment alone, even without students.

So what is the nature of this financial crisis? Does this have any implications for one of the biggest stories out there right now on the Godbeat, which is the growing crisis within global Anglicanism because of doctrinal innovations that flow from institutions such as this very seminary?

Or is this just a real-estate deal that the seminary leaders cannot pass up? What lit this fuse?

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Los Angeles Times gets religious liberty

AllSaintsIt is rare that you get to watch a great newspaper — in this case the Los Angeles Times — wake up and realize it has published two stories in the same issue that are, in fact, directly related. In this case we are dealing with religion stories, so let me happily help GetReligion readers connect the dots.

Let’s start with story A. This is a news story titled “Antiwar Sermon Brings IRS Warning” by reporters Patricia Ward Biederman and Jason Felch. This is a story that will make your blood boil, if you have even the slightest interest in free speech, the freedom of association and the side of the church-state separation equation in which the state has to keep its hands off the church. Here’s the heart of the story:

Rector J. Edwin Bacon of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena told many congregants during morning services Sunday that a guest sermon by the church’s former rector, the Rev. George F. Regas, on Oct. 31, 2004, had prompted a letter from the IRS.

In his sermon, Regas, who from the pulpit opposed both the Vietnam War and 1991′s Gulf War, imagined Jesus participating in a political debate with then-candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry. Regas said that “good people of profound faith” could vote for either man, and did not tell parishioners whom to support. But he criticized the war in Iraq, saying that Jesus would have told Bush, “Mr. President, your doctrine of preemptive war is a failed doctrine.”

The story also included this fact:

On a day when churches throughout California took stands on both sides of Proposition 73, which would bar abortions for minors unless parents are notified, some at All Saints feared the politically active church had been singled out.

That’s interesting, because the same edition of the newspaper included story B by reporter Jenifer Warren, with the headline “Abortion Proposition Finds Its Forum in the Churches.” This concerned Proposition 73, a ballot initiative which would require doctors to alert parents of minors seeking abortions. Action on this proposition had been surprisingly quiet, this story informs readers:

But as the weeks before election day dwindled, millions of voters began hearing about the initiative in a place not routinely associated with California politics — their neighborhood church. So it went on Sunday, when the faithful up and down the state received a dose of propaganda with their prayer books.

At some Catholic parishes around Los Angeles, it came in a glossy “yes on 73″ flier slipped into the church bulletin. At Methodist and Lutheran churches in the Bay Area, it was dished up by organizers who set up information tables behind the pews and urged a “no” vote. And at some evangelical Christian churches, including the Rock in Roseville, a suburb of Sacramento, pastors made time for a two-minute DVD featuring teenage actresses promoting support for the measure.

Set aside, for a moment, the word “propaganda.” What is interesting about story B is that it appears, to me at least, that the Los Angeles Times does not realize the irony of these two stories being in the same paper. For years, liberal groups have challenged the tax-exempt status of conservative churches that get involved in political fights in the public square. The reality, of course, is that churches and other nonprofits have every right to do this — if they stick to issues, not personalities. It’s a hazy line, but one that protects anti-war activists and pro-lifers at the same time (and, of course, many activists are pro-life and pro-peace at the same time).

In other words, the same laws protect the religious left as well as the religious right (as well as the people who are so consistent that they cannot be labeled).

Thus, I was pleased to get my email summary of the Los Angeles Times this morning and discover story C, with the headline “Conservatives Also Irked by IRS Probe of Churches.” In it, that duo of Felch and Biederman inform us that — surprise! — there are thinking conservatives who are willing to be consistent and defend the free-speech rights of liberals. Imagine that.

… (The) IRS action has triggered an unusual coalition of critics who say they are concerned about the effect on freedom of speech and religion. When Ted Haggard, head of the 30-million-member National Assn. of Evangelicals, heard about the All Saints case Monday, he told his staff to contact the National Council of Churches, a more liberal group.

Haggard said he personally supports the war in Iraq and probably would not agree with much in the Rev. George Regas’ 2004 sermon at All Saints, which was cited by the IRS as the basis for its investigation. But Haggard said he wants to work with the council of churches “in doing whatever it takes to get the IRS to stop” such actions.

“It is a violation of the Constitution for the IRS to threaten that church. It may not be a violation of IRS regulations, but IRS regulations have been wrong,” said Haggard, who is pastor of the 12,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs.

The only problem with this is that this particular coalition is not all that unusual. It has worked on a number of issues, from freedom of religion in the workplace, to environmental issues, to human rights in the Sudan, to sex trafficking and a host of others. Perhaps it is only unusual to see it covered by reporters — other than the excellent religion-news team — in the Los Angeles Times. Note to editors: If you have religion-beat professionals, please involve them in important stories as much as possible.

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Hat tip to Duin (two of them, in fact)

questionsBIG2One of the advantages of having a veteran reporter on the Godbeat is that they have long memories and they can spot key updates in ongoing stories. Here are two fine examples, in the recent work of Julia Duin at The Washington Times. Both of these stories are linked to one of the major U.S. religion trends of the past generation or two, the statistical implosion of what was once called mainline Protestantism.

• Remember those hot United Church of Christ ads that trumpeted this denomination’s more-inclusive-than-thou status on issues of sex, race, singleness, handicaps and who knows what all? The church on the left edge of American Protestantism is preparing another wave of ads, and Duin has a very informative interview with the Rev. Ron Buford about what is ahead in this drive to find a way to do liberal evangelism. Here is a sample:

Although evangelical Christian groups have boomed since the 1960s, mainline Protestant denominations have hemorrhaged members because of differences over women’s ordination, issues surrounding homosexuality, biblical interpretations and the importance of evangelism. After the UCC unearthed, through market research, an undercurrent of alienation among unchurched Americans toward church in general, it began playing up themes of inclusivity and acceptance.

“I consider ourselves evangelical, too,” Mr. Buford said, “but for a different market segment.”

The hook for Duin’s report is that other churches on the religious left are launching similar efforts, trying to reach beyond their aging demographics. (Our thanks to the Episcopal Diocese of Washington for granting permission to reproduce one of its ads in this post.)

• Speaking of Episcopalians, Duin (who has a degree from an evangelical Anglican seminary) latched on to a hot lead out there in cyberspace. It seems that someone connected to (or close to) the Episcopal Church leaked a key set of notes from an anti-traditionalist strategy session to someone who forwarded them to someone who carbon-copied (or blind carbon-copied) a set to the famous (or infamous) Anglican news-blogger David W. Virtue. The key question, of course, is this: Is the material real?

Duin quickly confirms that, along with the detail that plans are in fact underway to toss out as many as 16 conservative Episcopal bishops:

Informally named the “Day After” for the aftermath of the June 13-21 event, the strategy outlines a way to file canonical charges against conservative bishops, unseat them from their dioceses, have interim bishops waiting to replace them and draft lawsuits ready to file before secular courts for possession of diocesan property. The strategy was revealed in a leaked copy of minutes drafted at a Sept. 29 meeting in Dallas of a 10-member steering committee for Via Media, a network of 13 liberal independent Episcopal groups.

“It was a worst-case scenario — what people in various dioceses would need to do if their bishop and much of their diocesan leadership decided to walk away from the Episcopal Church,” said Joan Gundersen, the steering committee member who drafted the minutes. Conservatives also “have made statements to that effect,” she said.

Where in the world are the major dailies on this story? There are all kinds of explosive details in here, including Duin’s note that: “In July, about 20 liberal and conservative Episcopal bishops met secretly in Los Angeles to discuss how to divide billions in church assets in the event of a split.”

UPDATE: Doug LeBlanca participant in this Anglican story, and thus silent about it — tells me that the religious-press scoop on the Via Media story belongs to the venerable journal for Episcopalians called The Living Church. I will try to confirm that, if and when I can ever get the publication’s slow website to respond and let me read the story.

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Katha Pollitt to the rescue

pollitKatha Pollitt shows an occasional capacity for self-mocking humor — I remember her offer, several years ago, to rename her Subject to Debate column to Subject to Everett if two philanthropists by that name would send some jack over to The Nation. (Ideological bonus: Mother Jones reported in 1996 that Edith Everett is “staunchly anti-school prayer.” Blessed be!)

Her column for the Oct. 31 issue lives up to the smile-inducing premise of its headline: “If Not Miers, Who?” The column is noteworthy for two other reasons — her tortured reference to Valley View Christian Church in Dallas as “an antichoice church” (so congregations are now pigeonholed by their beliefs about abortion rather than, say, about God?) and the most candid description I’ve ever seen Pollitt offer of her worldview:

I am not a Christian. This may not strike you as an advantage, given the nature of your base, but think about it. Right now, the Christian right is split: James Dobson says you told him something on the phone about Miers that reassured him greatly, but Gary Bauer doubts she is “a vote for our values.” At Miers’s own evangelical church, the congregation stood up and applauded; but at other churches the pews are in revolt. Honestly, who can figure these people out? They only stopped burning each other at the stake a few centuries ago. Nominating me will unify them instantly: I’m a half-Jewish half-Episcopalian atheist. When they make a fuss, just tell them God told the President to pick me. Given the other advice God’s been giving him — to invade Iraq, for example — it could even be true.

So she’s half-Episcopalian, eh? Based on my onetime coverage of the Center for Progressive Christianity, I’m confident that at least a few [PDF] Episcopal churches would offer Pollitt not just a place at the table but perhaps even put her on track to becoming a priest or — hey, aim high — a bishop. After all, shouldn’t the church’s heinous discrimination against Brights (stake-burnings included) finally be rectified?

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Breaking news: Britain’s church is dead

churchI am sad to report that the Church of England is passing away, at least according to this article in the Daily Telegraph I stumbled upon yesterday.

As I continue to unscientifically poll the British newspapers while riding the London Underground, I have discovered that my initial findings — that there is an “absence of religion coverage” — was not quite accurate, as many of you have pointed out. The papers do cover religion, but not in a way that would make anyone jump for joy at the thought of attending a church service.

A reader of ours, Lee, alerted us to the doomsday Telegraph story that finds the Anglican church past the point of bankruptcy:

Britain’s Churches are in such serious decline that if they were shops, they would have been declared bankrupt long ago, Lord Carey, the former archbishop of Canterbury, said last night.

In a bleak assessment of the future of Christianity in this country, he said that the Churches were approaching meltdown and the “last rites” could be administered at any moment.

In a lecture in a Buckinghamshire church, Dr Carey expressed his exasperation that his efforts to revive the Church of England in the 1990s had been frustrated by lack of support from the clergy.

He delivered a warning to his successor, Dr Rowan Williams, that his initiatives could meet a similar fate.

“Last rites,” “bankrupt,” “meltdown,” “despair,” “plunging congregations,” “club of the elderly” are all quite depressing words for describing Anglican churches.

I guess this story could be reporting the true condition of the Church of England. I am not the expert. The rest of the article deals with the political repercussions of Dr. Carey’s assessment. But there is room for a positive thought at the end of the article:

However, Dr Carey said there was also good news. He cited the 2001 census, in which 72 per cent of the population described themselves as Christian, and said that there was still a “deep allegiance” between nation and Church.

He said the Church had to ["]focus on mission from top to bottom” or it would become “an irrelevancy in the nation and a club for the old, the resigned and those tired of life.”

I don’t know about Dr. Carey’s prediction, but I can personally report that in attending St Helen’s Church in London Sunday evening, I found a packed house of mostly students and young professionals with nary a chair to spare and a Wednesday evening Bible study attended by a similar audience flowing with lively discussion of the Bible.

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Another source for Katrina news & views

hdr rightIf you are interested in news and commentary about the theological issues linked to Katrina, the Anglican Web Elves up north — wise guys in multiple meanings of that phrase — have started a blog that includes all kinds of useful links. This is the CaNN site, which stands either for Classical Anglican Net News or Clergy Against Nabobs of Negativism. I can never remember which is right. Wait, that last one would be Clergy Against Nattering Nabobs of Negativism, which would be CaNNN.

Today’s offerings can be found here. If you want to jump back to digests of previous editions — they are updating the contents every few hours — then you need to start at the home page and scroll way down. It does not appear that they have created an actual Katrina index page for all of the materials that they are collecting.

In terms of truth in theological advertising, be forewarned that this is a niche news site for a pack of quite traditional Anglicans. But right now, they are rounding up all kinds of viewpoints on this hot topic. For example, here is the official post listing the Katrina relief efforts that are recommended for atheists and skeptics. Once again, note the crucial role played by the “P” word:

A Call to Action from American Atheists

“All we have is each other . . .”

AMERICAN ATHEISTS urges all fellow nonbelievers to contribute to the rescue and other humanitarian efforts in the devastating wake of Hurricane Katrina. A number of secular, non-religious aid organizations are active in this relief campaign. They do not incorporate a religious message in their operations, discriminate on the basis of religion, nor do they proselytize to those vulnerable people currently in need.

AMERICAN NATIONAL RED CROSS (Founded by Deist-Unitarian Clara Barton)


NETWORK FOR GOOD (has numerous listings for helping groups, both religious and secular)

HUMANE SOCEITY OF THE UNITED STATES! (Our winged and four-legged friends need help, too!)

* OTHER CHARITIES will be listed as we learn about their legitimate participation in the relief effort. Everyone [contributing] should be aware of scams; unfortunately, not all “charities” are legitimate and have a proven track record. Also, there are “religious” outreaches which do not proselytize as part of their efforts to help others. If you have a suggestion for an established, reputable secular humanitarian group that is worth of our support and would like to see it listed here, contact and we may be able to include it in this list. The list will be found at

I am sure there are denominational relief agencies that are anxious to be included in the non-proselytizing list. I’d like to see that list myself.

On the other side of the aisle, I am waiting — tell me if I have missed one — for a major newspaper to note the excellent job that some very, very conservative believers are doing in dissecting the theological arguments of the “God poured out His wrath” on New Orleans crowd. “Theodicy” is a very tricky business and, as C.S. Lewis liked to say, there really are people who should avoid trying to read and explain adult books.

Meanwhile, let me note that journalists may want to bookmark some of these sites in their browsers. When it comes to tropical storms, we are already up to the letter “O” and North America is still weeks away from the peak of the hurricane season. Sorry to bring that up, but it’s true. And Pat Robertson hasn’t even gotten busy — yet.

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Back to my Anglican hobbyhorse

SeoulNaveAs Terry hinted at the beginning of this month, I have taken a new job with the Anglican Communion Network. Since the early 1990s, my greatest passion as a writer has involved the moral and theological debates within the Episcopal Church.

I was born an Episcopalian because my Roman Catholic father and Southern Baptist mother both knew they wanted a church for themselves and their two boys, but also knew they needed a liturgical via media. During the 1990s I sometimes experienced a love-hate relationship with the Episcopal Church, and I wondered if I ever would have joined it had I grown up in, say, an evangelical Lutheran church. Today that relationship is more of a lover’s quarrel.

Because I will be engaged in an activist’s role with the ACN, I will cut back radically on how often I write about Anglican and Episcopal matters for GetReligion. Indeed, I expect to write on such matters only if I can do so without setting off my Conflict of Interest Meter (which I try to keep fine-tuned).

I will, however, write about magazine articles on many other topics that touch on the concerns of this blog.

I’ll always be grateful to Terry for making me part of this project when I was leaving the full-time staff of Christianity Today, but I’m also eager to rejoin the Anglican discussions I’ve been less involved in for the past several years. I’ll still appear here, albeit it with less frequency.

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