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Wrestling with that old Anglican timeline, in South Carolina

Anyone who follows news on the religion beat knows the drill when it comes to reporters framing the global, national, regional and local conflicts between Anglicans: The battles are about homosexuality, period, and all heck broke loose in 2003 when the tiny Diocese of New Hampshire elected an openly gay and non-celibate bishop.

The problem with that news template is that it’s simplistic. Debates over sexuality have driven the headlines, but the doctrinal debates are much broader than that. Also, crucial cracks began forming in the Anglican Communion long before 2003.

Thus, it is good to celebrate even the most humble of journalistic victories in the fight against what your GetReligionistas have long called “Anglican timeline disease.” Note this lede in an Associated Press report about developments down South:

ST. GEORGE, S.C. – About 50 conservative Episcopal churches in South Carolina are in court this week, trying to keep their name, seal and $500 million in land and buildings after they broke away from the national denomination in a wide-ranging theological dispute.

The breakaway group, the Diocese of South Carolina, said it had to leave the national church not just because of the ordination of gays, but a series of decisions it says show national Episcopalians have lost their way in the teachings of Jesus and salvation.

Bravo. Later in the story, however, there is a close encounter with the “everything began in 2003″ myth.

The Episcopal Church, along with other Protestant denominations, had been losing members for decades before gay rights came dramatically to the forefront when Episcopalians elected their first openly gay bishop in 2003.

So “dramatically to the forefront” isn’t a bad way to word this, I guess, but what about the earlier theological adventures of New York Bishop Paul Moore Jr. and Newark Bishop Jack Spong? What about the 1998 global Lambeth gathering of Anglican bishops and its crucial affirmation of ancient Christian doctrines on marriage and sex?

As a public service — especially for scribes covering the battle in South Carolina — here are one or two other landmarks to consider adding to the timeline, just in case editors grant room for one or two more strategic facts.

Let’s start with this 1979 resolution at the Episcopal General Convention in Denver:

[Read more...]

Reporting on South Carolina Episcopal wars

Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.

Vice-President Joseph Biden

I have a soft spot for the vice-president. I speak not of politics, but of the man when I say I like him. I find him entertaining and always quotable. He was down here in Florida recently speaking to a gathering of the party-faithful, encouraging the troops before they enter what looks to be a hard fought political battle for Florida in 2012. One line in the Gannett newspapers account of his speech caught my eye:

Biden quoted former Boston Mayor Kevin White, who liked to tell critics, “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.” He said Obama will be re-elected when voters focus on policies voiced by the current crop of GOP presidential contenders, and compare them to Obama’s.

The vice-president has used this line before and President Obama has added it to his repertoire. I’ve not seen much commentary on this quip — MSNBC’s “Last Word” with Larry O’Donnell showed an excerpt of the speech, including the Almighty quote, but none of the panel participants found it worthy of remark.

Speaking before Democrat party activists, the vice-president’s words had a certain meaning. For the Democrat faithful the line meant voters should not compare the Obama Administration to an idealized government — “We’re not God, but we’re better than the Republicans.” Were Mr. Biden to say this before a different crowd — say religious conservatives — the audience would come away with a different meaning. “Don’t compare the Obama Administration to God, compare it to Satan.”

Now I would dearly love to write a story whose opening line read: “The Obama Administration is an agent of the Devil, Vice-President Joe Biden told Democrat leaders in Florida yesterday, resolving lingering questions about the president’s religious views by coming out as a Satanist.” Alas, integrity prevents interpreting the vice-president’s quip along those lines. The Gannett report places the quote in context and identifies the audience and historical meaning of the trope. There was no need to find a contrary voice to address the Almighty line, as its meaning was made clear.

When crafting a news report, a journalist must address the question of balance — giving both sides of an argument. This can be taken too far at times, but a good reporter knows when and when not to provide opposing views and provide the amount of background necessary to place the story in context. A report in Monday’s Post and Courier, the Charleston, South Carolina daily provides an example of how not to do this.

Before I dive in to the story, let me offer a disclaimer. I have knowledge and an interest in these issues but am not personally involved.

The article entitled “S.C. Episcopal Diocese releases property claim” fails on several levels. It manages to be credulous and one-sided. It does not examine the veracity of claims put forward by one party in the dispute, and neglects to mention the opposing arguments. It lacks context while the narrative arc of the story is so slanted as to make it appear to be a press release. Let me be clear that I am not commenting on the issue being reported in this story. I am writing about the failure of the Post and Courier to do this story justice. The article opens with:

The distance between The Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina widened last week when the diocese relinquished its legal oversight of all church property, sending what’s called a quitclaim deed to each parish.

The move merely formalizes an arrangement already in place, according to Bishop Mark Lawrence. “A quitclaim deed isn’t giving someone something they don’t have if they already own the deed,” he said.

Some observers say the move could heighten the risk of litigation or other challenges by national church authorities and provide additional evidence to a disciplinary committee now evaluating allegations that Lawrence has abandoned his responsibilities.

The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina sent quitclaim deeds to each of its congregations — that is the fact being reported. The meaning of this action is contrasted by placing a statement made by the Bishop of South Carolina against that of a lawyer associated with a dissident faction in the diocese. And it is here we have the breakdown. What follows is the privileging of one view over another.

“This kind of action, along with participating in the conventions that severed legal ties to the national church, I think those are real problems,” said Melinda Lucka, an attorney critical of recent diocese actions. “On a diocesan level, this further opens the door to parishes that are considering leaving the Episcopal Church.”

But it is the duty of parish and diocese leaders to uphold the canons of the national church, she said. When those laws are cast aside or ignored, it can trigger a response from the church. “Though the church might not want to, it sort of has to,” Lucka said.

The quitclaim deed effectively ends any obligation of the diocese to hold property in trust for The Episcopal Church, as required by a controversial church law.

The Dennis Canon was introduced in 1979 to codify the authority of the national church body over property and has mostly been upheld as valid by civil courts in California, Texas, Virginia, Connecticut and other states in recent years. In 1987, the diocese amended its governing documents to include the Dennis Canon, then removed the law in 2010.

Who is Melinda Lucka? A little context here would be helpful as would the information that Ms. Lucka has been working with officials from the national church office in New York in their fight with the diocese. (It would be nice to have had some background to explain why there is a fight also.) By treating her as an observer and not as an antagonist, the Post and Courier distorts the picture. It may well be true, as Ms. Lucka suggests, that this move by the diocese may provoke a response from the national church offices in New York. But not to mention that Ms. Lucka and her associates might be the ones bringing the response is unfortunate.

The story then moves to a summary of the Episcopal Church canon, or rule, that is in dispute. I do not find the Post and Courier’s characterization of the Dennis Canon to be accurate nor its review of the litigation complete. If these words had been left in Ms. Lucka’s mouth then what the Post and Courier wrote would pass muster as it would be presented as her opinion — but the article presents it as a fact. The history of the disputes in South Carolina follows as does an analysis of the law, but they too are offered from a particular perspective — that of Ms. Lucka’s camp.

Bishop Mark Lawrence speaks, but his words are interspersed with the reporter’s opinion as to the meaning of the facts and law so as to leave the impression the bishop is a bit of a crank and that he and the diocese are the aggressors. This may be the view of one party, but it is far from being settled as fact.

Take a look at this:

This summer, the national church nullified the resolutions that obligated the diocese to follow church laws only when they are consistent with local rules (though, by virtue of those same resolutions, the diocese does not recognize the church’s nullification). Since the diocese is a sovereign body, “the executive council has no canonical or constitution authority to speak on behalf of the church about that,” Lawrence said.

Again we have the diocese painted as the aggressor and opinions offered as facts. This is followed by:

Though a majority of the diocese’s 75 parishes and missions appear to support the bishop, at least five parishes and hundreds of individuals have declared their intention to remain part of The Episcopal Church.

The quitclaim deeds could heighten scrutiny of Lawrence by the Disciplinary Board for Bishops, whose president is the Rt. Rev. Dorsey Henderson, retired bishop of Upper South Carolina. The board currently is considering allegations of abandonment filed by local parishioners.

Barbara Mann, chairwoman of the Episcopal Forum of South Carolina, a group loyal to the national church, said this latest move could influence the board’s evaluation.

“I think this is going to be perhaps the deciding point,” Mann said. “If (Lawrence) says The Episcopal Church doesn’t belong in South Carolina at all, then he is abandoning The Episcopal Church.”

Has Bishop Lawrence said he wants to leave the Episcopal Church? No, he has adamantly denied that he wants to leave. That is not being reported by the Post and Courier. Nor has the newspaper appeared to have been able to find the diocese’s lawyers to ask their opinion of the assertions made by Lucka and Mann. Nor have we heard from any of the recognized canon law experts in this field. It is the belief of some members of the Diocese of South Carolina that the national church wants to kick Bishop Lawrence and 70 of the 75 congregations and 28,000 of the 29,000 Episcopalians in the diocese out of the Episcopal Church. Am I saying this is a fact? No, it is a view and has been the experience of some (and rather more than the Lucka/Mann camp) in the diocese.

So what has this to do with Joe Biden? The Post and Courier article under review has the same degree of professionalism and journalistic integrity as would an article about Joe Biden being a Satanist in light of his Almighty line. One could make the argument that the alternative to the Almighty is the Devil, and that is the standard to which the vice-president aspires. But to do that would be a partisan rant — not journalism. One could construe the words of Bishop Lawrence and the actions of the Diocese of South Carolina to make them out to be cantankerous schismatics who have brought this upon themselves. But such a construction would not be journalism either.

One test of balance is whether both sides can see their point of view described. Can they recognize the reality the article paints as being true to their experiences? A conflict entails differing truths, but a good story provides space for the issues to be heard. This story fails that test.

Episcopal Church Makes Its Move In South Carolina

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote for the Wall Street Journal editorial page about how The Episcopal Church had upped the ante in property disputes with departing congregations and clergy. While the church and its dioceses had long been litigating against departing congregations, they added a new feature in recent months: departing congregations who wished to pay for their church property and remain in it also had to disaffiliate from anything Anglican. They couldn’t have a bishop in an alternative polity, they couldn’t contribute financially or otherwise to any alternate Anglican group and they couldn’t call themselves Anglican.

Thus far, four congregations have agreed to the demands. (I believe Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is the only reporter who has covered this “disaffiliation” story for mainstream news pages.) Some of the people I spoke with who’d agreed to disaffiliate told me that they were surprised at the end of lengthy negotiations to be presented with the demand and were too weary to fight it. Others told me that they simply wanted to do what it took to stop getting sued. Other congregations refused the demand, as Rodgers has written about. I spoke with a member of a departing congregation, for instance, who said that she and fellow parishioners responded to the demand by cleaning up their sanctuary for the last time, turning over the key, and walking away. The Episcopal Church responded to my piece with “talking points” and a letter from a bishop whose diocese has seen quite a few departing congregations, members and clergy. Following my piece’s publication, I’ve heard from dozens of disaffected or departed Episcopalians who’ve told some pretty amazing stories about how the Episcopal Church has fought any conservative unrest.

Just as my “disaffiliation” story was going to press, though, word came out of South Carolina that The Episcopal Church was investigating the conservative bishop there for “abandonment,” even though he hadn’t left the Episcopal Church.

The story hit the Anglican and Episcopal blogosphere like a storm. But we didn’t see too many stories at first. Here’s an Associated Press take on it that’s worth looking at, though. Here are a few preliminary thoughts, though I’m sure the Episcopalian and Anglican readers may have other critiques of this piece:

CHARLESTON, S.C. — After years of controversy over Episcopal Church policy of ordaining gays and sanctioning same-sex unions, the conservative bishop of one of the oldest dioceses in the United States finds himself the focus of a rare investigation to determine whether he has abandoned the church.

A church disciplinary board is investigating Mark Lawrence, the bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina, based on information passed to the national church from parishioners in the diocese.

While the diocese has distanced itself from the national Episcopal Church because of gay ordination and other concerns, Lawrence has repeatedly said he wants it to remain in the Episcopal Church.

A couple of points. While it is an historical anomaly to investigate bishops like this, it’s been somewhat common in recent years for The Episcopal Church to do so. We’ve seen this rule used to kick out the bishops of Pittsburgh, Quincy, Forth Worth, San Joaquin and a select few retired bishops as well.

Further, it’s wrong to state that the complaints were “based on information passed to the national church from parishioners in the diocese.” That may be true but the accusers are publicly anonymous. If the AP has information as to who the accusers are, it should include that. However, later in this same article we’re told that they are unknown. Similarly, the most likely local accusers — those publicly fighting the bishop — have denied that they made the accusations. That information is also later in the article.

“We are working with circumstances that are very, very sensitive about which people have very, very strong convictions,” said Bishop Dorsey Henderson, president of the disciplinary board. His recommendation could go a long way toward deciding Lawrence’s future.

Henderson said it is rare that there is an investigation into whether a bishop has abandoned the church and stressed that right now it’s an investigation and no charges have been made.

It’s not wrong to quote Henderson saying this but this item is certainly in dispute. Canon law is a tricky thing but from what various canon lawyers have told me, allegations against a bishop that are officially investigated by the Episcopal Church are considered charges. Technical minutiae perhaps, but noteworthy. And, in fact, the next paragraph says that the end of the investigation could end with certification of abandonment. All that stands between the South Carolina bishop and being deposed are two votes, it sounds like.

The article includes some helpful information about the size and history of the diocese. It was one of the original dioceses that formed the Episcopal Church, for example.

We get some details on the charges. Or non-charges. Whatever:

A recent letter from the disciplinary board to Lawrence mentioned, among other things, that it has information that diocese has eliminated mention of the national church in the diocesan charter purpose statement and passed a resolution that the local diocese is a “sovereign diocese.”

The letter also said Lawrence had done nothing to stop local parishes seeking to leave the Episcopal church. Two have done so, one since Lawrence became bishop in 2008.

OK, what simply must be mentioned here is that the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled in 2009 in favor of one of these break-away parishes and in so doing said that the Dennis Canon (the trust instrument through which the Episcopal Church claims parish property for itself) had no effect as the title was in the name of the parish. Perhaps there are differing interpretations of this ruling but from my read it seems as if the South Carolina Supreme Court has held that the Dennis Canon is invalid within South Carolina to override a property deed that is in the name of the parish if there is nothing other than the Dennis Canon evidencing a trust claim. So parishes in South Carolina that hold title free and clear in their own names (which is likely most of them) are completely free to go. This article should have mentioned that there is nothing Lawrence can do under South Carolina law to prevent the parish from leaving even if he felt that was what he should do.

The article also makes an error here:

In 2003, the national church consecrated its first openly gay bishop and three years later, the Diocese of South Carolina and two others opposing consecration of gay bishops voted to reject the authority of the national church’s presiding bishop, but stopped short of a full break with the church.

I believe the dioceses that made public statements about rejecting Katharine Jefferts Schori’s authority as presiding bishop were Forth Worth, Quincy and Pittsburgh.

There were some helpful explanatory parts of the article, such as this:

Earlier this year at the diocesan convention in Beaufort he said “it is my expressed hope that this year of 2011 will be free from constitutional and canonical challenges from the national leadership of the Episcopal Church, and that we in the Diocese of South Carolina can get on with the work of growing our parishes, strengthening the lives of our parishioners and churches, and planting new congregations.”

Henderson said that Lawrence is being investigated under new church law that defines abandonment as abandonment of the Episcopal Church. The old rules used to just specify the church.

“Bishops are now held to a standard that they profess their loyalty to the Episcopal Church in the United States and not to the Anglican Communion,” [Frank Kilpatrick, a professor of religion at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and author of "The Episcopal Church in Crisis: How Sex, the Bible and Authority are Dividing the Faithful] said. “That’s an important distinction because a lot of these churches are leaving because they think the Episcopal Church has abandoned the Anglican Communion.”

The accused bishop didn’t respond to requests for comment but I can’t help but think the story would have benefited from just a bit more perspective of the typical South Carolina Episcopalian. Still, a helpful read on a huge story that deserves mainstream coverage.

Down and flirty in South Carolina

Year after year, election after election, South Carolina politics delivers the goods — if you like watching a combination of mud wrestling and demolition auto racing.

This time around, of course, the all eyes are on the race for governor and on Republican Nikki Haley. The question of the day: How many people can leap into the media and accuse her of adultery without providing any concrete evidence?

The Washington Post put this slam-fest on A1 the other day, including this pitch perfect — for the genre — quote about the allegations:

Haley has vehemently denied each claim. … She said that if any [evidence] surfaced after she was elected governor, she would resign.

“I don’t know what they served at the annual Silver Elephant Dinner for Republicans,” said Dick Harpootlian, a former state Democratic Party chairman, “but it must’ve been a combination of some hallucinogenic and Viagra in the punch, because they’re rutting like bull elephants.”

Lovely. But as anyone knows, much of the hot action (so to speak) in South Carolina politics, especially on the Republican side of the aisle, takes place in church pews and the debates revolve around cultural and religious issues. That’s why the Nikki adultery wars are so important.

Thus, the following passage in the Post report is especially important:

From the Bible-thumping Upcountry to the breezy beaches, Palmetto State Republicans have become transfixed by allegations in a campaign that has devolved into perhaps the nastiest brawl in a generation. Haley has fended off unsubstantiated claims from two political operatives that she had extramarital affairs with them. She has swatted away remarks from a state senator who called her a “raghead.” And Haley, every bit as scrappy as she is steely, has been running circles around her opponents — all while propped up in stiletto heels.

The other candidates have bigger names and longer resumes, but Haley, the only woman among them, built a sizable lead by making sport of busting the old-boy fraternity that she says dominates, even corrupts, South Carolina politics.

“When you turn around and threaten their power and you threaten their money, they turn around and push back,” Haley, a fast-talking and polished campaigner, told a crowd here on Saturday night. “But what they don’t understand is I have a strong faith, I have a strong spine, and I have a strong husband that puts on a military uniform every day.”

Now, what does the story tell us about this controversial woman’s “strong faith,” since faith facts are crucial in any GOP race in the Sunbelt, but especially in a state like South Carolina?

That one reference is it. Period.

Friends and neighbors, that just isn’t gonna cut it when politicos start throwing around words like “raghead” in the public square. Facts matter.

As it turns out, Haley’s faith is rather interesting and kind of controversial. Consider this passage from a Politics Daily report on this subject:

Haley, a state representative, was born in South Carolina to Sikh immigrants from India. Sikhism, which is now the fifth-largest religion in the world, originated in 15th-century India, in the Punjab region. Like many Eastern religions, it stresses a philosophical and meditative approach to religious practice and does not promote the idea of a personal God.

Haley converted to Christianity when she was 24 — she is a Methodist — but as CBN’s David Brody shows in a detailed accounting of Haley’s religious makeover, until recently she stressed her Sikh roots and even the fact that she still attended both a Methodist church and a Sikh temple.

By all means, click on over to that Brody report, which has all kinds of interesting, you know, fact-based, journalistic information. And the Post report? If you think that religion is an important force in politics and culture in South Carolina, you can just scan the text for a juicy quote or two and then go elsewhere for your information.

Missing voices (on left) in North Carolina vote

The general consensus in the press this morning was that the North Carolina marriage amendment vote was all about religion. This is certainly the theme that emerges in some of the stories and photographs featured in The Politico email round-up.

LOCAL COVERAGE HIGLIGHTS RELIGIOUS CELEBRATIONS AS AMENDMENT ONE PASSES: The lead centerpiece photo on the front of the Raleigh News and Observer is an African-American pastor cheering the returns showing a ban on gay marriage over the sub-headline: “State to become 31st to Constitutionally forbid same-sex marriage”: The lead image on the front of the Shelby Star is a Baptist pastor holding a sign supporting the ban as cars drive by under the headline “Voters say ‘I do’”: The Wilmington Star-News headline is “Marriage defined” with a photo of a Methodist Church sign in front of a polling place that says “A true marriage is male and female and God”: The two-column banner headline in the Fayetteville Observer is “Amendment One sails to easy passage” with pictures of cheering religious women:

United Methodists? Yes, in the Bible Belt there were even United Methodist congregations that backed the amendment. That said, I would think the odds are good that this was either an African-American congregation, a heavily evangelical congregation or “both/and.”

Which brings us to the wrap-up that ran in The Charlotte Observer, the state’s most powerful newsroom. Starting with the lede, the Observer‘s editorial team did a good job of jumping right on the big idea that this was a vote that crossed all kinds of political, racial and cultural lines — in large part because of religion. Here’s the top of the story:

Riding a Bible-influenced coalition that cut across political and racial lines, the marriage amendment stormed to approval Tuesday, making North Carolina the latest state to put stronger legal barricades before same-sex unions.

With 90 percent of the counties reporting, the constitutional amendment to make marriage between a man and a woman the “only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized,” won resoundingly, 61 percent to 39 percent.

It goes into effect Jan. 1. North Carolina has had a law banning same-sex marriages for 16 years. Turnout, fueled largely by the marriage debate, was the largest for a primary in decades, election officials said.

The story, as you would expect, contains quite a few religious voices and that’s one of its strengths, kind of.

However, speaking as the former religion-beat guy at the Observer, back in the early-to-mid ’80s, I thought the voices featured in this report were a bit too predictable. In particular, the story didn’t do enough to show the variety of voices on the religious left that opposed this amendment. Charlotte is a very complex town, when it comes to religion and this story was, on religion, a bit too simple.

The first person quoted, naturally enough in the Bible Belt, was the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Charlotte, a leader in the drive to pass the amendment. No surprise there. A few paragraphs later, readers heard from leaders on the other side of the church aisle.

The Rev. Robin Tanner of Charlotte, a leader in the effort to defeat the amendment, looked beyond Tuesday’s loss.

“Hope lives on in this place we all call home,” the pastor of Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church said in a prepared statement. “Hope is our promised companion, and equality for all our promised land.”

Added the Rev. Murdoch Smith, pastor of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church: “The goal is not destroyed, just delayed for the moment.”

Now, raise your cyper-hands if you are surprised that the local Unitarians and (most of the) Episcopalians opposed the amendment.

What was I looking for? The story does a great job of showing how this issue divided people in unpredictable ways in terms of politics — quoting Republicans who opposed the amendment and Democrats who supported it. But things became much more predictable when the focus was on religion.

For example, I know from experience that Charlotte has many powerful, powerful “moderate” Baptist churches in which this amendment would have inspired fierce debates. There are even Baptist churches (my wife and I sort of got run out of one long ago) that can, on matters theological, accurately be described as “liberal.”

This is also a city and region in which the entire alphabet soup of Presbyterian life (PCUSA, PCA, EPC, ARPC, OPC, etc., etc.) is represented. When I moved to Charlotte in 1982, it was the only Southern city in which there were more Presbyterians than Baptists. Many of these churches would have been opposed the amendment, while many others would have been in favor.

And then there are the previously mentioned divides within United Methodism in the Carolinas.

Please know that I realize that the Observer team did not — on election night — have the time and space to dedicate an entire story to the role of religion in this vote. The odds are quite good, I would imagine, that precisely that kind of story will hit the newspaper’s front page on Sunday. Nevertheless, I think that, in this case, the newspaper left readers with the impression that this vote came down to, well, Billy Graham and the Baptists vs. the Unitarians and Episcopalians.

That’s too simplistic, especially on the religious left. The situation on the ground was much more complex than that and the story needed a few more voices — especially in terms of capturing the divisions among Baptists and Presbyterians.

For example, consider this quote toward the end of the story:

Charlotte area voters didn’t necessarily follow party affiliations in taking sides on the amendment.

At the Forest Hill Church precinct in south Charlotte, Democrat Don Hawley, 57, voted in favor. “I don’t know that we need to start protecting another class of citizens,” he said.

Mary Settlemyre, 49, a Republican, voted no. “My understanding of the Republican Party is it’s limited in your personal life,” she said. “That (intrudes) in the parts of your personal life they need not be in.”

That “Forest Hill Church” precinct reference brought back some memories for me. I would predict that this is the church formerly known as Forest Hill Presbyterian Church, a large congregation that left the oldline Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) way back in the mid-1980s. And what were the issues way back then that led to the church’s departure from the PCUSA? Let’s just say that, when push came to legal shove, there were three of them and many GetReligion readers would consider them very old news.

Meanwhile, here’s hoping that the Observer team — after talking to the usual suspects — dedicates some coverage to some of the less obvious voices on the left side of the Charlotte scene, especially the Baptists, and also on the right side, especially the various brands of Presbyterians and those United Methodist folks, too.

AP discovers a new faith — “Southern Baptism”

On one level, the error that I am about to spotlight is so silly that it could just be a typo or a stupid (click here for classics) error — like someone calling Sen. Rick Santorum an evangelicalist or reporting that some liturgical committee has decided to modernize the Episcopalian prayerbook, again.

Then again, maybe not.

After all, this version of an Associated Press report on conservative ecumenical work ran at The American-Statesman in Austin, Texas. Now, as a native Texan I am aware that Austin really isn’t located in Texas (it’s in a parallel universe of its own), I would still think that a copy desk located in the heart of Texas would employ one or two professionals who know something about Southern Baptists.

After all, the separation of Baptists and state is a big issue down there. There are parts of Texas in which there are more Southern Baptists than there are people (and roughly the same number of Baptist churches as 7-11s).

So, spot the clinker at the top of this story:

RALEIGH, N.C. – After the White House decreed this month that religious employers would have to pay for workers’ birth control, it was no surprise that Roman Catholic leaders would protest. That evangelical Protestants would rally to their cause was less expected and unthinkable even a generation ago.

“It’s just the common good. We’re all brothers. They’re Christians, we’re Christians,” said Thomas Fallon, 43, a general contractor who lives in Auburn, Mass., and converted to Southern Baptism from Catholicism. “We have that belief system that this is wrong that the government is trying to impose on our religious beliefs.”

LOL. Fallon did what?

Let’s look at that again. We are told that he “converted to Southern Baptism from Catholicism.”

Now, I admit that if this man left Roman Catholicism and joined a Southern Baptist congregation — conservative, centrist and perhaps even “moderate” — there is a good chance that he was baptized a second time, by immersion, as an adult believer.

However, I have never heard of a faith called “Southern Baptism.” I have heard of someone converting from Catholic to Protestant, or perhaps someone joining a particular branch of Protestantism (such as a church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention). But one simply does not convert to “Southern Baptism.” Correction, please.

Perhaps there are some, or even many, editors at the Associated Press who think that Southern Baptists are so foreign and strange that they are their own separate faith. Of course, Southern Baptists are very strange, rare people in American life. There aren’t that many Southern Baptists around in places like North Carolina and Texas. The SBC is only the largest non-Catholic flock in America. It’s a tiny little thing, as religious groups go in this land.

Meanwhile, this story features clinker after clinker. Spot two in the following passage:

Contraception is one of the very issues that have been a wedge between Catholics and evangelical Protestants for decades. But for Protestants who’ve rallied to the Catholic bishops’ side, the question this time is one of religious liberty rather than dogma.

Even after the Obama administration hastily revised the order to require insurance companies, rather than religious employers, to pay for birth control, many evangelicals say the bishops are right to reject the new rule as the same violation of conscience in a different form.

First of all, I have attended dozens of evangelical/Baptist meetings with Catholics through the decades and I have never even heard contraception mentioned. How can it be a “wedge issue” if it’s irrelevant? Evangelicals are not of one mind on this topic, but it’s the last subject that would cause heated debate between Catholics and evangelicals.

And, second, “many evangelicals” say the Catholic bishops are right to see the new Health and Human Services rules as a threat to religious liberty? “Many” do? Can anyone find a single mainstream evangelical parachurch group, network, denomination or what not that has NOT rejected these rules and called them a threat to religious liberty and the separation of church and state?

I could go on. Do read the story for yourself. Even better, if a version of this AP report ran in your local paper, check and see if an editor caught the “Southern Baptism” laugh line before it went into print. I was alerted to the error by a copy-desk pro who did precisely that.

Stalking the ‘moderate’ Southern Baptist

fworthbbc2It has been a long, long, long time since I have been inside the imposing sanctuary of the Broadway Baptist Church in Ft. Worth, Texas.

I do remember my first impressions, however. I walked in, looked around, whistled a few notes to test the acoustics (I am one of those classical-music choir fanatics), and said to myself, “This looks like a Presbyterian church to me.” Indeed, Broadway had a very oldline Protestant air to it back in the 1970s, when I lived in Texas and was very active in one of those strange, liturgically minded Southern Baptist congregations that mainstream reporters like to describe with that troublesome adjective “moderate.”

As it turns out, Broadway Baptist has a fight going on in its pews right now that is, in many ways, linked to the wider, national story that your GetReligionistas keep noting from time to time — the painful rise of a true evangelical Protestant left.

The bottom line: When does a church cross a line from its old roots in evangelicalism and into its new home in mainline Protestantism? What are the signs that you need to look for, in terms of doctrine and in terms of, well, sociology?

This story ran last weekend in The Dallas Morning News — that great bastion of mainline Protestant culture in heavily evangelical Texas — and I missed it. The key issue: Should this church have photos of gay members and/or gay couples in its 125th anniversary photo album? The sharply divided church has decided it will hold off making a decision — perhaps, I think, in light of media coverage.

Doesn’t this sound mainline Protestant? Thus, the News notes:

Broadway is well known in Southern Baptist circles as a moderate church, where a diversity of views is welcomed and women have a strong role in leadership. The church has long had gay members.

But controversy erupted recently over whether photographs of gay couples should be in the directory being assembled for the church’s anniversary.

Brett Younger, senior pastor, said during Sunday morning’s worship service that some Broadway members believe homosexuality is a sin, based on certain Bible verses. Others think differently and note that Bible verses have been used to justify polygamy, slavery and the oppression of women, he said.

Earlier, in a church newsletter, Dr. Younger wrote that some members feel that allowing gay couples’ photos in the directory would be too strong an endorsement of homosexuality. Others hold that letting gay members be shown in the directory, but only on an individual basis, would constitute an unfair “judgment” against gay couples, he wrote.

A third option, recommended by Dr. Younger, would forgo individual and family pictures in favor of more attention to the church’s worship, Sunday school and ministries.

In other words, there is a point of doctrine here that cannot be avoided. The final option is to try to avoid it. The congregation is delaying the Baptist option — vote on it and the winners, well, win — because it is clear that there will be high costs either way.

But what about Broadway’s high standing in the world of “moderate” Baptist churches? This is where this story adds one key detail that shows what life is really like out in this small, niche-Baptist world on the left side of the sanctuary aisle. Pay close attention:

… (Some) Baptist churches welcome gay people as they are. One is Myers Park Baptist of Charlotte, N.C., which left the SBC years ago but continued to be affiliated with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.

When the state convention decided that its churches must refuse to “affirm, approve, endorse, promote, support or bless homosexual behavior,” Myers Park turned itself in as not following such a policy. Last month, amid much publicity, state convention “messengers” voted to expel the church.

Myers Park’s pastor, Stephen Shoemaker, preceded Dr. Younger as pastor of Broadway Baptist.

What a small world. Myers Park was the last Baptist church I called home, before starting my pilgrimage toward the ancient church.

So what is the crucial doctrine at stake in this story? You will not be surprised that I think the doctrines in the infamous tmatt trio — click here or here — are lurking in the background. I also wondered, frankly, if one of the reasons this Broadway fight is so painful is that this church is aging and that gays and lesbians may be a powerful new force, in terms of energy and money, in a declining congregation.

That might be a good angle for a follow-up report. Broadway Baptist is not alone.

Southern Baptists hit the highways — again

dbc buses lineThe year was 1979, the place was the Astrodome in Houston and, for legions of Southern Baptists on the left side of the nation’s largest non-Catholic flock, what took place there forever changed how they looked at church buses.

Church buses? You know, those slow-moving vans and school buses that you pass on highways during the summer-choir-tour and youth-camp season that have church names hand-painted on their sides.

The old ruling elite of the Southern Baptist Convention was in firm control until church buses started rolling into the Astrodome parking lots packed with “messengers” — the convention does not have “delegates” — from churches that wanted to see their national boards and seminaries take a strong turn to the right. It was a landmark event in the history of American evangelicalism and the rise of what would soon be called the Religious Right. The buses were crucial, because they allowed thousands of Southern Baptists who had never played a role in convention politics to roll into the city on the day of the vote and swing the election. How many Baptists live within a six-hour drive of Houston? You don’t want to know.

I bring this up for a simple reasons. It appears that waves of church buses played a major role in the surprise election of the Rev. Frank S. Page of Taylors, S.C., as the new leader of the nation’s 16 million or so Southern Baptists during the current meetings in Greensboro, N.C. How many Southern Baptists are there in the Carolinas, Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia? You don’t want to know. It also pays to know that these states contain a high percentage of Southern Baptists who are conservative, but not as wedded to the new ruling elite that traces its reign to the events of 1979.

The New York Times sent reporter John DeSantis to cover the convention and, in a short report, he captured some of what went down. He also did a good job of avoiding the usual labels used in this kind of coverage — “moderate” and “fundamentalist.” Truth is, it appears that this election turned on factors other than the usual wars over the Bible and social issues. Here is the key section of that story:

… Page and his supporters said his election, on the first ballot on the first full day of the annual meeting of convention, did not mean that the nation’s largest Protestant denomination would change its views on social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion that the three candidates generally opposed. “I do not want anyone to think I am out to undo a conservative movement,” Dr. Page told reporters after his election. …

Page said although his election did not mean that the church was moderating, it certainly meant that change was in the wind. “I believe in the Word of God,” he said. “I am just not mad about it. Too long Baptists have been known for what we are against. Please let us tell you what we are for.”

The Times report also noted that Page drew stronger than suspected support — think church buses again — from people who have previously been on the fringes of the convention’s life.

bus mirrorThis is one of those cases where the nation’s newspaper of record simply could not offer the kind of nuanced reporting that readers would find in niche media. This is especially true for Southern Baptists, since this giant body is actually served by two wire services — Baptist Press (click here for a Page Q&A), representing the establishment, and Associated Baptist Press, which is operated by the progressives, “moderates” or, in some cases, true liberals who have been pushed to the margins since 1979.

The ABP report by veteran Greg Warner includes some fascinating details. The losing candidates, for example, had strong endorsements from the aging leaders of the 1979 movement. Is there division there now?

It is also crucial that only 11,346 messengers were registered at the time of the vote to elect the new president. This meant that voters in the region — driving in from nearby churches to vote for a South Carolinian — were in a position to swing the election.

And Warner also caught this crucial detail about the role of cyberspace:

Page agreed the bloggers, a new phenomenon in SBC politics, made a difference. While the bloggers are few in number, he said, “I think there are a large number of leaders who do read those blogs. I think they played a role beyond their number — perhaps an inordinant amount of influence given their number — but they are a growing phenomenon in Southern Baptist life.”

So two kinds of highways were crucial — concrete and digital. Outsiders have more clout when they have their own printing presses (so to speak).

This election was a blend of the past and the future. Stay tuned.