That gap between 1985 and 2002

Once upon a time, there was a Catholic priest in Louisiana named Gilbert Gauthe. As Time magazine wrote:

Father Gilbert Gauthe, a Roman Catholic priest, delivered spellbinding funeral sermons, won local respect by rescuing a man who was trapped under an overturned tractor, and impressed many older women with his charm in Louisiana’s Vermilion Parish. But most of all, he was a Pied Piper for the children. He would take them on wilderness trips, play games and invite favored boys to spend the weekend in the rectory.

And so it began.

Obviously, there were clergy abuse cases before that, but the Gauthe case took this subject into the national headlines for the first time. That Time report ran in 1985, which is a good point to start a timeline of mainstream media coverage on the scandal.

Note, if you will, that there is quite a gap of time between 1985 and 2002. Do the math.

Now, read the following passages in a gripping Associated Press report that is running in newspapers at the moment. It focuses on the spiritual damage that the abuse scandals — that word is plural, which is crucial — have caused among lawyers such as Eric MacLeish, many of whom are Catholics, who have handled these hellish cases.

The sex scandal that rocked the nation’s Roman Catholic Church took a fearsome personal toll on some of the top lawyers who dared to challenge the institution. While many of them ultimately reaped large fees for their services, the all-consuming workload, the pressure of battling the church and the stress of listening to graphic accounts of children’s suffering were debilitating. …

The crisis exploded in Boston in 2002, after internal church documents released publicly showed that church leaders for decades had shuffled sexually abusive priests from parish to parish. The scandal spread across the country as thousands of lawsuits were filed by people who claimed they had been victimized.

For MacLeish, the clergy cases reawakened memories of being sexually abused as a child.

MacLeish and other lawyers won an $85 million settlement in Boston in 2003 for more than 500 victims. But in the months after the landmark settlement was announced, MacLeish began to unravel. He developed insomnia and nausea, lost 40 pounds and couldn’t work.

Now, it should be noted that this story contains a few references to earlier stages of the scandal, such as a Dallas judgment in 1997. It also mentions that one lawyer has been working on these kinds of cases for 20 years. In many ways — ironically — this story is not all that bad.

However, the emphasis once again is on Boston and the media storm that began there in 2002. As in many other stories, it is easy to think that this is when the real scandal began. However, framing the issue in that manner is simply wrong and often skews coverage and, thus, the public’s perception of these scandals that have been spread out over the past three decades.

This timeline issue is similar, in many ways, to the warped timeline that shapes many reports about the local, regional, national and international conflicts in the Anglican Communion. If you must, click here to refresh your memory.

GetReligion has written about this Catholic clergy-abuse timeline over and over and over. We will continue to do so, because it only takes a few extra words for editors and reporters to get the facts right. This is one cause in which the basic facts have even made it into Wikipedia.

Every newsroom that covers these cases needs to keep a few books in its libraries, books such as Jason Berry’s “Lead Us Not Into Temptation” and, on the Catholic right, Leon Podles’ massive tome “Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church,” which contains enough footnotes to satisfy even the most picky copy-desk pro.

Yes, this is a very hard story to cover. However, it isn’t hard to get a few basic facts right.

Jefferts Schori (quietly) goes Pentecostal

What can one say about the Pentecostal slap-fest that is currently going on between Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and his counterpart here in the United States (his counterpart in every form of Anglican power that is meaningful, these days) Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori?

Let me make a few comments that strike me as rather obvious.

* First of all, the “Pentecost continues!” letter (full text here) from the presiding bishop is a huge story and the contents of this document have received next to nothing in terms of the news coverage that they deserve.

That is what makes the Religion News Service story by Daniel Burke so important. Other than a short piece by Reuters, the RNS piece is the only thing that is happening in the mainstream press. Here is the top of that Burke story:

Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has forcefully defended her church’s embrace of gays and lesbians, and firmly rejected efforts to centralize power or police uniformity in the Anglican Communion.

Anglicans should be led by local communities rather than powerful clerics, Jefferts Schori argued in a Wednesday (June 2) letter to her church’s 2 million members. And, after 50 years of debate, the Episcopal Church is convinced that gays and lesbians are “God’s good creation” and “good and healthy exemplars of gifted leadership within the church, as baptized leaders and ordained ones.”

* The RNS story notes, as it should, that the Pentecost letter is drawing cheers from the liberal Episcopal establishment, as she stands up to Canterbury’s timid calls for some vague form of creedal orthodoxy at the global level of this global communion. Thus, we read:

Liberal Episcopalians applauded Jefferts Schori’s letter, which was remarkable for its full-throated defense of Episcopal Church policies.

“It is an understated declaration of independence,” said Jim Naughton, editor of the blog Episcopal Cafe. “The presiding bishop is not going to allow the Archbishop of Canterbury to establish the terms of the debate anymore.”

However, anyone who follows the Anglican wars closely would know that, behind closed doors, Anglican traditionalists are also cheering Jefferts Schori for her candor and bluntness, just as, long ago, they cheered for Bishop Jack Spong of Newark. Every time he opened his mouth, he made their lives easier — in terms of giving them quotes to illustrate what the mainstream left advocated more quietly. The presiding bishop has her moments when she serves the same flag-waving purpose for folks on the left and right.

* Journalists should note that Jefferts Schori has done them a great favor in placing the Anglican wars in a broader context, in terns of history. In her actual letter, she proclaims:

The Episcopal Church has spent nearly 50 years listening to and for the Spirit in these matters. While it is clear that not all within this Church have heard the same message, the current developments do represent a widening understanding. Our canons reflected this shift as long ago as 1985, when sexual orientation was first protected from discrimination in access to the ordination process.

Now that’s a long timeline she has there — 50 years worth.

Meanwhile, most mainstream journalists continue to argue that the divisions in her church and the wider communion began with the ordination of you know who in New Hampshire. But this is old GetReligion territory. It’s great to have the presiding bishop make the point so strongly for journalists.

* As always, there are hints that the fight is about more than sex. In the case of this showdown, it is clear that Williams is frantically trying to hold the communion together on a wide range of doctrinal issues, with sex as the issue that, alas, always grabs the headlines. Jefferts Schori, meanwhile, sees this through the lens of Romeaphobia and claims that Canterbury is trying to enforce an anti-Anglican form of creedal orthodoxy, with Williams playing the role of pope.

The irony, of course, is that Williams has already established himself as a progressive on sexuality. Williams knows, however, that there are other doctrinal issues at play that matter far more to traditionalists around the world. What might those issues be?

* So, if this ongoing spirit of Pentecost is leading the Episcopal Church to edit and update centuries of Christian doctrine on sex and marriage, what other doctrines are being affected by these Winds Of Change? That’s the big question.

Would it be wrong for the communion to try to maintain doctrinal standards on other issues? What might those issues be that are causing tensions between the Episcopal establishment and the overwhelming majority of the world’s Anglicans? The real fighting isn’t, for example, about the ordination of women. Remember that bizarre story in The New Yorker?

Now think back a few years. What about that tiny media flareup about Jefferts Schori’s views on the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in salvation theology? That’s smoke from a real fire.

Thus, I am afraid that this all means that it’s time for another reference to the infamous “tmatt trio” of questions that journalists can use to sort out these kinds of disputes. When applied to Anglican conflicts, this becomes a quadrilateral. Here are those questions again:

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

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

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

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

How are these issues affected by this new Pentecost? Just asking.

So, where is the coverage of this remarkable Pentecost letter? There are so many questions to ask and angles into this story. It’s a big one.

The ecumenical patriarch does what?

Every now and then I get email from regular GetReligion readers protesting the fact that we — well, me in particular — keep writing about the same subjects too much. In other words, we complain about some of the same errors in the mainstream press over and over and over (think Anglican Timeline Disease).

Take my word: It’s tough work, but someone’s got to do it.

In fact, there are times when I read a story in a major publication and I zip past errors or warped information in the text, for the simple reason that I am used to seeing them. The other day it happened to me when I was scanning a story about a significant event, at the global level, in my own church.

This New York Times story had a Moscow dateline and ran under the headline, “Orthodox Leaders Meet to Heal a Rift.” The news hook was the start of a 10-day visit to Russia by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. Here are the key background paragraphs about this fence-mending mission:

(Bartholomew) spoke after a procession from the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which was blown up at Stalin’s orders in 1931 and rebuilt in the 1990s. A mass at the Cathedral on Monday morning marked the feast day of Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius, Greek brothers who created the Cyrillic alphabet and preached to Slavs in the 9th century. Bartholomew and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church have celebrated liturgy together, in Greek and Slavonic respectively, for two days in a row since the Ecumenical patriarch’s arrival in Moscow on Saturday.

OK, we will pause briefly to note that the Orthodox call the central rite of the faith the Divine Liturgy, not the Mass. This isn’t really an error, I guess. But would reporters cover the pope and say that he observed the Lord’s Supper with the faithful? Just asking.

Back to the Times report:

The Russian Orthodox Church is the world’s largest Orthodox church, while the Ecumenical Patriarchate, now reduced to a tiny community in Istanbul, is symbolically its most important, leading millions of Orthodox Christians around the world.

The Russian church has objected when the Patriarch of Constantinople is described as the Orthodox equivalent of a Roman Catholic pope, and the churches have tangled, often bitterly, since the collapse of the Soviet Union over jurisdictional issues in Estonia and Ukraine, as well as elsewhere in Europe, where an influx of recent Russian immigrants has led to cases of splintered parishes and property disputes. Since his enthronement as Patriarch last year, Kirill has made a thaw in relations with the two historic centers of Christianity, Constantinople and Rome, a key policy.

Did you catch it? Here’s a hint. It is rare to see a major newspaper get something right and wrong in the same sentence.

So look at the first sentence in that passage again. Yes, it is accurate to say that the ecumenical patriarch plays an important symbolic role, serving as the “first among equals” in gatherings of the patriarchs of the East. This is the same as the archbishop of Canterbury, another post that journalists keep turning into a kind of pope for the Anglican Communion role.

However, note that this same sentence claims that Bartholomew’s role consists of “leading millions of Orthodox Christians around the world.” The key word is “leading.” How can he lead the Orthodox churches of the world if he is a symbolic leader, the first among equals in a church in which leadership is provided by the patriarchs as a whole, acting in a conciliar form of church government?

You can see why the leader of the world’s largest Orthodox flock would be concerned that the patriarch of the tiny flock in Istanbul is often portrayed as a kind of Orthodox pope. The Times has, once again, said that the Orthodox have one leader and that is the ecumenical patriarch.

This is wrong. Again.

I read right past that mistake, in large part because of the calming “symbolic” reference in the same sentence.

You see, it can’t be both ways. Bartholomew cannot be a symbolic “first among equals,” while “leading millions of Orthodox Christians around the world.” Right?

Yes, this is picky stuff.

Church history is picky. Government is picky. Facts are often picky, but it’s important to get them right. That’s journalism.

I will say this, the story does end with a solid piece of analysis, care of a Russian insider.

Andrei Zubov, a historian and director of a center for the study of the church and international relations at MGIMO, the Russian foreign ministry’s university, said in an interview on Friday that Patriarch Kirill is working to overcome the legacy of the Soviet past inherited by the Russian church, as evidenced by his efforts to improve relations both with Constantinople and Rome.

“Bad relations with Constantinople and bad relations with Rome were a mandatory condition of Soviet church ideology,” Mr. Zubov said, as part of the Soviet regime’s goal of counteracting centers of Christianity that were outside of its control.

“So what is happening now is namely the overcoming of the Soviet, KGB heritage, the Soviet control of the church,” he said. “This is the restoration of normal, natural relations between the churches after the unnatural relations of the Soviet period.”

The rise of the Soviet state had another major impact on Eastern Orthodoxy at the global level — undercutting efforts by the missionary bishop St. Tikhon of Moscow (another crucial player was St. Raphael of Brooklyn) to plant the faith in Orthodoxy in a way that would transcend divisions between ethnic groups.

St. Tikhon was called home to Moscow and martyred while, in North America, his dream of a unified Orthodox body collapsed.

Frankly, one would have to think that one of the topics being discussed in Moscow at the moment is the ecumenical patriarch’s refusal to recognize the role of the Orthodox Church of America, which has Russian roots and is recognized by Moscow. In fact, they may be discussing the historic assembly of all of the canonical Orthodox bishops of America, which just got underway in New York City (Facebook page is here). Where is the mainstream coverage of that event, by the way?

Reporters who cover this event might want to note, however, that the Greek Orthodox leaders say this is the FIRST such assembly, while pro-unity Orthodox leaders in a variety of other flocks, including the Orthodox Church in America, insist that this is the SECOND gathering of the Orthodox bishops in America (following a 1994 meeting opposed by the ecumenical patriarch).

Might the Times cover this historic gathering in its own back yard? If so, its reporters and editors need to find themselves some good church historians and tread carefully. This story involves complicated facts. Lots of them.

Photos: Pope Benedict XVI meets with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow leads the Divine Liturgy for Pascha (Easter in the West) this year.

Trashing 19 centuries of doctrine?

Whenever I get on my high horse about the ways in which mainstream journalists abuse the term “fundamentalist,” I always urge journalists to simply allow religious believers to describe their beliefs. It is also fair game, of course, to describe the people’s actions in the public square, then ask them to explain how their beliefs shape those actions.

However, a GetReligion reader sent me a Des Moines Register story almost two weeks ago that was so troubling that I’ve been stewing over it ever since — trying to decide precisely what to say. Yes, the word “fundamentalist” plays a role in this, as you will see. But that word only points toward a larger issue of accuracy and fairness in this report.

This is your basic culture-wars story about divisions inside churches that are wrestling with issues of marriage and sexuality. Here is the opening:

Immanuel Lutheran Church in Waukee is five miles down the road from Walnut Hills United Methodist Church in Urbandale. But they have moved further apart, philosophically, since the Iowa Supreme Court ruled on April 3, 2009, to legalize same-sex marriage. …

In January, the Waukee congregation overwhelmingly voted to drop out of its denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — or ELCA — and join another Lutheran denomination. The congregation didn’t agree with the ELCA decision to allow ordination of noncelibate gay pastors. Immanuel became one of 17 ELCA congregations in Iowa and 276 nationwide to vote on leaving the denomination. Most voted to leave; some have not completed the voting process.

The parishioners at Walnut Hills United Methodist Church also took a church-wide vote, but with a very different result. Their vote was overwhelming, too: Parishioners voted to become a “reconciling congregation,” one of 10 United Methodist congregations in Iowa that have taken that step. It means their church not only welcomes gays and lesbians but accepts their sexual orientation as part of their human condition.

Now, it is a good thing that the Register team attempted to explain what these splits are all about. It is also good that we get to hear from some participants as they talk about issues of biblical authority and interpretation.

But something goes terrible wrong in some of the background material. The story uses a classic device — the outside, expert observer. Thus, readers are introduced to a scholar from a secular campus who is allowed to provide a basic set of facts that will serve as a framework for these conflicts.

Ready? This passage is rather long, but it’s hard to understand what’s going on without reading it:

As pastors look out on their congregations, they see a dividing line that runs down the middle of their pews. Pastors know one congregant considers homosexual behavior a sin that Christians must speak out against, while another believes same-sex marriage is a good and moral step toward a more just society. …

Ultimately, the difference comes down to this: Is the Bible the written word or the living word? Is it open-and-shut, or open to interpretation? It’s a battle of traditionalists vs. progressives. Traditionalists point to Romans, to Leviticus, to 1 Corinthians, each of which calls homosexual behavior a sin. Progressives say you must read Bible verses in the context of their time: God also outlawed eating pork, but that was because back then pork wasn’t safe.

“The issue for conservative Christians revolves around the sanctity of the nuclear family as they understand it,” said Mary Sawyer, a professor of religious studies at Iowa State University. “When fundamentalism started in the early 1900s, it was a reaction to the social gospel, to liberal Christianity. One of the things emphasized was personal morality, particularly sexual morality and not having sex outside of marriage. Marriage being between a man and a woman is something that to them isn’t debatable because it’s Biblically based. …

“This is based on passages of the Bible that progressive Christians say is misinterpreted. (Progressives say) you don’t take one line out of Bible and hang the truth on that without reading it in context of the whole chapter.”

Note that the newspaper’s word for those on the doctrinal right is “traditionalist.” Well, that’s better than “fundamentalist.”

Then note that scholar also, accurately, says that the movement that is accurately called “fundamentalism” started in the early 1900s and that, yes, biblical literalism — “inerrancy” is the preferred word — was and is a key part of that movement. But note, also, that there is no content given for the doctrinal approach used by the ancient churches of the Christian faith. It’s the shallow fundamentalists of the 1900s vs. the nuanced progressives who want to read the Bible in context, who want to move beyond simple, isolated proof texts.

What? Where did the other 1900 years go? Where did centuries of thought among Catholics, the Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, Wesleyans, the Reformed and others go? Are the conflicts over issues as basic as the definition of marriage and the sinfulness of sexual acts outside of marriage simply rooted in a showdown between fundamentalists, accurately defined, and progressives?

Obviously, that is too simplistic. You can tell that this scholar’s explanation is too simplistic because the Register story — while never explaining or labeling this third point of view — actually allows a sympathetic local pastor to articulate another approach to these conflicts.

It’s not that the Rev. Mike Housholder, of Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines, avoids talking about homosexuality. Housholder posted an eight-page Q&A on the church Web site shortly after the ELCA vote. But he fears a pithy quote in a newspaper article would be taken out of context — by either side — where a sermon or longer conversation would not. …

His church’s teaching is clear: Sex is a gift from God, shared within marriage between a man and a woman. Anything else is sin. But well-meaning Christians, Housholder said, often lose their balance. On one side, they fall into the ditch of fundamentalism, defining a good Christian as following certain rules. On the other side, they fall into the ditch of relativism, changing God’s rules to fit their fancy.

“We’re a hospital for sinners, not a hangout for morally perfect saints,” Housholder said. “First, Jesus commands us to love everyone. When Christians hate, we lose our moral center and our mission … .

“Second, we’re all sinners in need of a savior,” Housholder continued. “There aren’t different categories of sin. I get nervous when people want to elevate sexual sin as somehow being more of an issue spiritually than other sinful behaviors. Once we’ve established that, then we can speak what we believe to be God’s truth in love regarding sexual boundaries. …”

So, is this pastor a “fundamentalist” or a “progressive”? Where does he fit in Sawyer’s mini-lecture on biblical authority?

This is the paradox that has had me stymied for more than a week. On this Register report is very complete and complex. It contains quite a few voices representing different points of view and we get to hear from these believers in their own words. However, this story also has one of the worst chunks of background material I have ever seen, one that allows a single scholar to slash 19 centuries worth of doctrine off the timeline of church history.

So this story is very, very good and very, very bad. Color me confused.

Nailing the Anglican timeline!

I constantly tell my students that one of the hardest tasks in journalism is to write a balanced, insightful profile of a controversial person. This is especially hard to do here inside the Beltway, but that is not the topic of the day.

No, I want to praise S.C. Gwynne’s news feature in Texas Monthly about Episcopal, or we probably should say Anglican, Bishop Jack Iker of Fort Worth. You may know Gwynne’s byline from his years at Time and then in a wide variety of other settings.

This is another one of those stories about the local, regional, national and global conflicts in the Episcopal Church and, thus, the Anglican Communion as a whole. Iker is a conservative and, in fact, someone who is even out of step with most conservative Episcopalians in the United States in that he continues to oppose the ordination of women, a step embraced by many, if not most, evangelicals and charismatics.

Iker, thus, is a highly symbolic figure for the nation’s few remaining old-fashioned Anglo-Catholics, a man who is truly loved or hated depending on which pews a reporter visits on a given Sunday. This bishop has no problem talking with Catholic and Orthodox leaders, but struggles to make headway in talks with the principalities and powers of his own church — at least in North America.

So Gwynne has his hands full, writing for a Lone Star magazine with a long history of progressive journalism. Frankly, I think he did amazingly well.

However, I was especially interested in how he would handle — you knew this was coming — the inevitable timeline describing the history of the Anglican wars. I realize that this is a magazine piece, as opposed to a 600-word wire report, but check this out:

What happened in Fort Worth was part of a widening schism in the Episcopal Church, and in the larger Anglican Communion to which it belongs, that has been growing for decades. (The Episcopal Church is the American name of the Anglican Church, created by Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic Church in 1534; Anglican churches operate in about 160 countries and have some 78 million members.) The discontent has its roots in the seventies, when the church made changes to its liturgy and decided to ordain women priests. There were also issues of Scripture, as growing numbers of Episcopalians questioned the literal truth of basic tenets of the faith: the Resurrection, the Atonement, the uniqueness of Jesus as savior. The rift opened wide in 2003 when a partnered gay man named Gene Robinson was consecrated by the church’s general convention as bishop of New Hampshire. Many conservatives went into open revolt, some parishes left, and nearly two thirds of the global Anglican church declared itself in “broken” or “impaired” communion with its more liberal American branch.

Then in 2006 the church did something that many of the more conservative Episcopalians could not bear: It elected a woman, Nevada bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, as its presiding bishop, the nominal head of the church. Schori was not only a woman — which to Iker and other conservatives meant that the church, in electing her, had turned its back both on the word of the Bible and on two thousand years of Christian teaching — but one who had voted for Gene Robinson and blessed same-sex unions. She believed that God’s revelation was ongoing (meaning that core doctrines of the church were liable to change) and was prone to saying things like “I simply refuse to hold the doctrine that there is no access to God except through Jesus. I personally reject the claim that Christianity has the truth and all other religions are in error.” This indeed ran counter to age-old teachings of the church. But her election proved that her views, while anathema to the majority of the Anglican Communion, were nonetheless in keeping with the mainstream of thought and practice in the Episcopal Church.

Hosanna! I think he gets it! This summary places the Robinson consecration and the election of Jefferts Schori in a doctrinal context — in relation to Iker, the majority of the global communion and the establishment of the U.S. church.

With those facts covered, Gwynne can return to talking to the conflict on the ground in Fort Worth, carefully talking to leaders on both sides and showing how this legal war could affect thousands of believers in pews from coast to coast.

I have to ask: Does this Gwynne guy actually have some church-history courses in his past? These are not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill fact paragraphs. May other journalists who are covering similar stories in their regions take note. Print this story out and file it for reference. I would be interested in hearing from Episcopalians on the left and Anglicans on the right about this. Do you see any factual errors?

Photo: Hey, I haven’t used it in at least a month.

Are Episcopalians now a ‘sect’?

Mary_Glasspool_origA long, long time ago, while doing my first round of graduate studies, I took a class that focused on contemporary cults, sects and religious movements and their impact on church-state law. Now before everyone goes nuts talking about what is and what is not a “cult,” please be aware that we were working primarily with doctrinal definitions (as opposed to focusing on some of the more controversial elements of sociology).

I have to admit that, while others argued about the c-word, I was always fascinated by another problem — defining what is and what is not a “sect.” There’s no question that the word has a negative connotation, for most people. Yet the definitions seem so bland.

Here’s the American Heritage Dictionary, for example:

1. A group of people forming a distinct unit within a larger group by virtue of certain refinements or distinctions of belief or practice.

2. A religious body, especially one that has separated from a larger denomination.

3. A faction united by common interests or beliefs.

Nothing really shattering there, right? Now consider the first definition offered by the Collins English Dictionary, which specifically focuses on how the term is used to describe splits inside Christian bodies:

1. … a subdivision of a larger religious group (esp the Christian Church as a whole) the members of which have to some extent diverged from the rest by developing deviating beliefs, practices, etc.

Now that’s closer to what we were studying in class. In other word, a sect is a group that has chosen to leave, or has been asked to leave, another Christian flock because the new group has developed some set of beliefs, doctrines and practices that makes necessary this parting of the ways.

I raise this question because of a headline in this morning’s Baltimore Sun than ran atop another report focusing on a major development in the local, regional, national and global Anglican wars. In this case, the story has a strong local hook, even though the event being covered took place in Southern California. First, here’s the top of the Associated Press story. Yes, it’s interesting that the Sun did not assign a reporter of its own to this event, which was by no means a surprise.

The Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles elected a Maryland woman as assistant bishop Saturday, the second openly gay bishop in the global Anglican fellowship, which is already deeply fractured over the first.

The Rev. Mary Glasspool of Baltimore needs approval from a majority of dioceses across the church before she can be consecrated as assistant bishop in the Los Angeles diocese. Still, her victory underscored a continued Episcopal commitment to accepting same-sex relationships despite enormous pressure from other Anglicans to change their stand.

Now, the original headline on this story, at least the one atop the story in the newspaper that arrived in my front yard, read:

Md. woman elected in pointed Anglican vote

Mary Glasspool would be sect’s 2nd openly gay bishop

Now, there are several problems with this headline, in my opinion.

First of all, this election took place in the Episcopal Church, while the word “Anglican” usually is used in connection with events at the global level in the Anglican Communion. I know that there are exceptions. Still, why not say “Episcopal”? The old headline writer in me notes that the words are precisely the same size (in terms of counting the spaces required). Did the copy editor wrongly assume that he or she needed to say “Episcopalian,” which is actually a noun, not an adjective?

nuke1As usual, this wire service report is forced to deal with the fact that the Episcopal Church remains, in the eyes of the Church of England, the official Anglican body in North America. Yet, at the same time, a majority of the world’s Anglicans — numerically speaking — now question the Episcopal Church’s status, due to a wide range of doctrinal innovations, including several in the area of moral theology. There are also debates about biblical authority, the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth of Jesus, the uniqueness of Christ’s role in salvation, etc., etc., etc.

All we get in this Associated Press report is:

The Episcopal Church, which is the Anglican body in the United States, caused an uproar in 2003 by consecrating the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Breakaway Episcopal conservatives have formed a rival church, the Anglican Church in North America. Several overseas Anglicans have been pressuring the Anglican spiritual leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, to officially recognize the new conservative entity. …

The 77-million-member Anglican Communion is a family of churches that trace their roots to the missionary work of the Church of England. Most overseas Anglicans are Bible conservatives.

“Bible conservatives”? What in the world does that mean? “Biblical conservatives,” perhaps? And, as always, the Anglican wars are said to have begun with the consecration of the first openly gay, noncelibate bishop in 2003. This is, sadly, becoming par for the course in short news reports.

But where did that word “sect” come from?

Apologists for the Episcopal Church would argue that it is still a truly “Catholic” body that is part of historic Christianity, even claiming valid “apostolic succession” that links its ordained clergy to the great tree of the ancient churches. The Vatican and the churches of Eastern Orthodoxy disagree, of course.

On the other side, I think that most of the Episcopal Church’s critics would simply claim that it has — to put it bluntly — chosen to veer away from historic Anglicanism to become another liberal Protestant denomination. I know that some critics use stronger language than that, but that’s mere shouting.

But is the word “sect” appropriate? From the viewpoints of the critics, the U.S. church has “deviated” from historic Anglican traditions and, thus, have left to create a new body. But, still, does that mean that anyone would claim that the Episcopal Church has become a “sect”?

I’m asking, as a matter of newspaper style. Is the word accurate in this case?

The Anglican Communion did WHAT? (updated)

vgr_circleThe breaking religion-news story of the day is in Vatican City, with aftershocks in England. As has been rumored, literally, for years, Pope Benedict XVI has reached out to Anglican traditionalists, offering them an Anglican-friendly home in the Church of Rome. His activism in this area dates back to his days as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Major newspapers on this side of the pond will be filing stories on this all day, I imagine. Meanwhile, those who want to read the Vatican document for themselves, as well as reactions from traditionalists in the Church of England, just click here. If you want to read the reactions of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (and lots of updates, I am sure, from English sources) then click here for Ruth Gledhill’s blog at the Times.

All of this, of course, represents a major new marker on that Anglican wars timeline that I keep bringing up here at GetReligion. Yet, please note, that this discussion of Anglo-Catholics fleeing to Rome — once again — is not essentially rooted in the ordination of one noncelibate gay bishop in the micro-tiny Diocese of New Hampshire here in the American colonies.

After all, Father William Oddie was writing his trailblazing book “The Roman Option” in the mid-1990s. It is also interesting to note that a major theme in that book is behind-the-scenes opposition on the Catholic left to the creation of an Anglican home within Catholicism in England. You see, liberal Catholics — those seeking the ordination of women, in particular — did not want the wrong kind of Anglicans swimming the Tiber. That’s a story worth watching, now that Benedict XVI has opened a gate for the Anglo-Catholic refugees.

However, I wanted to rush a post up in response to some troubling word choices in the first major Associated Press report on this announcement, since that is the story most people will be reading today, before the major newspapers weigh in. First, here is the top of the story:

VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI has created a new church structure for Anglicans who want to join the Catholic Church, responding to the disillusionment of some Anglicans over the ordination of women and the election of openly gay bishops.

The new provision will allow Anglicans to join the Catholic Church while maintaining their Anglican identity and many of their liturgical traditions, Cardinal William Levada, the Vatican’s chief doctrinal official, told a news conference. The new church structure, called Personal Ordinariates, will be units of faithful within the local Catholic Church headed by former Anglican prelates who will provide spiritual care for Anglicans who wish to become Catholic.

OK, no problems there. There is, however, some fog in another crucial section of the story.

Levada said the new canonical structure is a response to the many requests that have come to the Vatican over the years from Anglicans who have become increasingly disillusioned with the ordination of women, the election of openly gay bishops and the blessing of same-sex unions in the 77-million strong Anglican Communion. He declined to give figures on the number of requests that have come to the Vatican, or on the anticipated number of Anglicans who might take advantage of the new structure.

Well now. It is true that things would have been worse if the story had said “by the 77-million strong Anglican Communion,” rather than “in” the Communion. But this wording makes it sound like these doctrinal innovations are taking place across the entire global Communion. That is true of the ordination of women, although there are major Anglican churches that have not taken that step as of yet.

However, did I miss something? Note that it refers to the ordination of openly gay bishops — plural. Has that taken place, or are we still talking about New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, singular? I realize that other noncelibate (a key word to include in the coverage), openly gay clergy have been nominated in episcopal elections. But no one else has been elected, correct?

Of course, the door is open here in the U.S. Episcopal Church, but that kind of underlines my main point. This early AP report makes it sound like these changes are taking place at the global level in a global Anglican Communion. They are not — yet. As I have been saying, the key is what takes place next in the Church of England, which is terribly divided and has leadership that, in fine Anglican fashion, continues to seek some kind of compromise that will save the day.

That’s why clarity is so important, when covering these local, regional, national and global Anglican stories.

AnglicanBombDayWhich brings me to another chunk of vague language in this initial story, which I hope is updated and improved.

The Vatican announcement immediately raised questions about how it would be received within the Anglican Communion and the prospects for continued ecumenical talks between the Vatican and Archbishop of Canterbury. Noticeably, no one from the Vatican’s office on relations with Anglicans and other Christians attended the news conference; Levada said he had invited representatives to attend but they said they were all away from Rome.

However, the Vatican’s archbishop of Westminster and Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual head of the global Anglican church, issued a joint statement, saying the decision “brings an end to a period of uncertainty” for Anglicans wishing to join the Catholic Church. The statement said the decision in fact could not have happened had there not been such fruitful dialogue between the two.

The mainstream press has always struggled to understand that the Archbishop of Canterbury is not the Anglican pope, but the first among equals in the hierarchy. That “spiritual head” language is better than nothing, but the phrase “symbolic leader” would be better.

However, the bad language comes right after that. There is a Catholic CHURCH that is based in Rome. There is an Anglican COMMUNION that has its symbolic home in Canterbury. This communion is made up of Anglican churches — plural. It is inaccurate to say that there is one global Anglican church — singular — and that Williams is the leader of it. He is the leader of the Church of England, a national church.

In other words, the Anglican Communion is not structured like the Church of Rome. It really helps to know that. And the doctrinal innovations at the heart of this story are not (again, other than the wide, but not total, acceptance of the ordination of women) taking place in or across the whole Anglican Communion. They are taking place, at the moment, in one small, but very wealthy and powerful, church in the Anglican Communion — the U.S. Episcopal Church.

It’s hard to cover this local, regional, national and global story without knowing how the Anglican Communion actually works. Here’s hoping that the AP reports improve as the day goes on.

Oh, and now there is this press release:

WASHINGTON – Cardinal Francis George, OMI, Archbishop of Chicago and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), issued the following statement, October 20, following a Vatican announcement of a new provision concerning Anglican groups coming into the Catholic Church. His statement follows:

“Today the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has received word of the new Provision in the form of an apostolic constitution issued by the Holy See for the reception into full communion with the Catholic Church of groups from the Anglican tradition. The USCCB stands ready to collaborate in the implementation of that Provision in our country.”

Key words: “In our country.” As in the United States of America.

UPDATE: Yes, a New York Times story is now out and the lede captures that this move will almost certainly have a strong impact in Catholic as well as Anglican pews. And this language on the history of the conflict is much better than that AP:

Cardinal Levada said the Vatican created the structure in response to many requests from Anglicans over the years since the Church of England first ordained women in the 1970s and more recently when it faced what he called “a very difficult question” — the ordination of openly gay clergy and the blessing of homosexual unions.

The American branch of the Anglican Communion, known as the Episcopal Church, has come close to schism over these issues. Disaffected conservatives in the United States announced in 2008 that they were organizing their own rival province of the church in North America.

Photo: The consecration of New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson.

Aaaaaarrrrrrrgggggggghhhh!

AllSaintsWaccamawMaybe “siiiiigggghhhhh” is a better way to say it.

Anyway, it’s time for another lesson in the history of Anglican warfare, which means flashing back a few years in that old, familiar timeline — again.

The year is 2000. As noted in earlier posts, that is when (let’s turn to coverage in The Living Church):

Two American priests, the Rev. Charles H. Murphy III and the Very Rev. John H. Rodgers, Jr., were consecrated bishops Jan. 29 in St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Singapore, by a group of Anglican bishops, including two from the Episcopal Church.

Fr. Murphy, rector of All Saints’ Church, Pawleys Island, S.C., and Dean Rodgers, retired dean of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, were consecrated as bishops and “will be released to minister in the United States of America,” according to a news release. It was not immediately clear who released the bishops. …

The two new bishops are associated with organizations which have been supportive of the formation of a new Anglican province for traditionalists who have been unhappy with the leftward drift of the Episcopal Church. Bishop Murphy is a leader of First Promise, based in Pawleys Island, and Bishop Rodgers is aligned with Association of Anglican Congregations, an organization of Episcopal and “continuing” congregations which has headquarters in suburban Chicago.

Note the role of that truly historic flock on the coast in South Carolina — All Saint’s Parish Waccamaw (first chapel built in 1736). Note that its rector, in addition to being consecrated as a “missionary bishop” for traditionalists in North America, is already the leader of the early First Promise network, which had similar goals.

Again, the year is 2000. A press release for the global Anglican leaders who performed this irregular rite of consecration proclaimed:

“The archbishops and bishops agree that this is a gospel issue, not a political issue. It is an action to re-establish the unity that has been violated by the unrebuked ridicule and denial of basic Christian teaching. They are convinced it is time to give the faithful in the U.S. a place to remain Anglican.

“The sending of these bishops back to the United States is offered as an interim step in an ongoing effort to lead the Episcopal Church back to its biblical foundations.”

Now, let’s jump ahead to a very recent Religion News Service report, as published in USA Today, that also focuses on that same congregation, All Saints Parish. You can read about the current All Saints Parish (as in many Anglican real-estate disputes, there now seem to be two flocks) by clicking here.

In this new report, we are told (brace yourselves):

A South Carolina parish that split from the Episcopal Church in 2004 can keep its church property, the state’s Supreme Court has ruled, handing a rare legal victory to conservative dissidents.

A majority of members of All Saints Church at Pawley’s Island voted to secede from the Episcopal Church five years ago, after an openly gay man was consecrated bishop of New Hampshire. The Episcopal Church maintains that congregations hold their property in trust for the denomination; if they decide to leave, the property stays with the diocese and the national church, Episcopal leaders argue.

Once again, I have no doubt that steps were taken in 2004 that are part of the historical timeline that marks this parish’s journey away from the U.S. Episcopal Church and into the embrace of large, traditionalist Anglican flocks in other parts of the world. And, yes, the year 2004 falls after the Nov. 2, 2003, consecration of New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, that openly gay, noncelibate bishop.

However, if the story is about All Saints Parish, isn’t the crucial date (or at the very least “a” crucial date) actually Jan. 29, 2000, when the parish’s own rector is consecrated as a bishop in a rite that is either illegal, irregular or openly confrontational? And while it’s clear that national debates about moral theology and sex played a crucial role in the consecrations of Murphy and Rodgers, other issues of biblical authority and church tradition were just as important.

In other words, All Saints Parish is in the thick of things in 2000. There is no way to say that the fight begins in 2004, following the Robinson consecration in 2003. That is way too simplistic. The Robinson event is important, but it is simply inaccurate to state or to imply that it stands alone as the defining moment for this parish. Right?

This is one case where I really wish I could find the RNS story — in unedited form — on the wire service’s own website. I have tremendous respect for RNS, so I am left wondering: Was this story harshly edited by a USA Today copy editor?


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