And now, speaking for God …

americanflagcrossjpgIn the wake of EEE’s post on the latest nonNewsweek sermon from the Rt. Rev. Jon Meacham, please allow me to jump in with a comment or two on the Wall Street Journal counter-statement — before several dozen readers send me the URL.

Like the nonNewsweek piece, this is an example of pure advocacy journalism. However, the topic is so crucial to this blog that we will keep trying to talk about it, especially in light of the major (or once major) publications in which these essays are appearing.

The op-ed essay in the WSJ is written by Economist editor John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, who leads the newspaper’s Washington bureau. The are the authors of a book entitled “God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World,” so you would imagine that they do not think much of Meacham’s sermon.

But please note that the headline on this piece, “God Still Isn’t Dead — The decline of religion in America has been predicted again and again” does not actually address Meacham’s central point (yes, I just wrote a partial defense of something in nonNewsweek). Near the top of the essay we read this:

With Easter week upon us, Newsweek‘s April 13 cover proclaims “The Decline and Fall of Christian America.” The new American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) shows that the proportion of Americans who claim to have no religion has increased to 15% today from 8.2% in 1990. The Christian right has lost yet another battle, this time in the heartland state of Iowa, with its Supreme Court voting unanimously to legalize gay marriage. The proportion of Americans who think that religion “can answer all or most of today’s problems” is now at a historic low of 48%.

America has long stood out among developed countries for its religiosity. This has less to do with innate godliness than with the free market created by the First Amendment. Pre-Revolutionary America was not that religious, because the original Puritans were swamped by less wholesome adventurers — in Salem, Mass., the setting for “The Crucible,” 83% of taxpayers by 1683 confessed to no religious identification.

America became religious after the Constitution separated church from state, thus ensuring that religious denominations could only survive if they got souls into pews. While state-sponsored religion withered in Europe, American faith has been a hive of activity: from the Methodists, who converted close to an eighth of the country in the half century after the Revolution, to the modern megachurches.

Meacham would not disagree, of course. When it comes to religion, America is getting more pluralistic. Duh. Yet religious faith remains one of the most powerful forces in American life, especially if you factor in the actions of people who are primarily defining their lives in terms of heated opposition to religion. Duh.

Here’s another crucial point at the end of the WSJ offering about religion and the marketplace:

Looked at from a celestial perspective, the American model of religion, far from retreating, is going global. Pastorpreneurs are taking their message around the world. In Latin America, Pentecostalism has disrupted the Catholic Church’s monopoly. Already five of the world’s 10 biggest churches are in South Korea: Yoido Full Gospel Church, which has 800,000 members, is a rival in terms of organization for anything Messrs. Warren and Hybels can offer. China is the latest great convert. There are probably close to 100 million Christians in China, most of them following a very individualistic American-style faith. Already more people attend church each Sunday than are members of the Communist Party. China will soon be the world’s biggest Christian country and also possibly its biggest Muslim one.

The Christian right has certainly stirred up an angry reaction to its attempt to marry religion to political power. But it would be a mistake to regard this reaction as evidence that America is losing its religion.

The global point is crucial. Ask the Anglicans. Meanwhile, speaking of Episcopalians, did Meacham say anything about American losing its religion, in any major statistical sense of that word? Not really.

Primarily, he was saying that the bad guys — religious traditionalists and those who now avoid nonNewsweek — are losing some clout and, in fact, there is some evidence of that, which will be no surprise to anyone who has ever read a word that evangelical pollster George Barna has been saying for a decade or two. You can see the same trend in GetReligion posts on the struggle to define the word “evangelical.”

Meacham’s other point is that the number of people who say — to one degree or another — that they are secular or nonreligious is on the rise. This is true, too.

Books Winfrey TolleThe actual story here is that America now has two strongly motivated religious armies, each making up about 20 percent of the population — with religious traditionalists on one side and an emerging coalition of secularists and religious liberals on the other. What holds this second group together? I still think the guys at City University of New York are close to the mark when they call them the “anti-fundamentalist voters.”

Meanwhile, the middle is what I call OprahAmerica, a great mass of people defined by a vague quilt of beliefs and emotions. If you want to understand this vague center, then by all means read the work of sociologist James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia — especially one of his least read works, “The Death of Character.”

Or start with the Atlantic Monthly classic defining “The Twelve Tribes of American Politics,” by the omnipresent pollster John C. Green and Beliefnet.com czar Steven Waldman. The actual name of the original piece is “Tribal Relations: How Americans really sort out on cultural and religious issues — and what it means for our politics.” Then you can click here to follow how Green and Waldman have continued to apply their typology to new data.

So is “Christian America” dying? Better question: Did it ever exist, in terms of practice, let alone politics?

Is the power of traditional forms of religious faith fading in American public life? Good question. It does appear that Iraq and the charismatic rise of President Barack Obama has cut into that coalition’s numbers and, thus, threatened its ability to fight the coalition on the left in the most important arena in American life — the courts.

Is America getting less religious? Better question: Is American religion getting more and more vague, personal and private, while remaining remarkably alive in comparison with, oh, Europe? Even better question: Is this trend leading America in the direction of Europe, or are there cultural differences — think the vitality of non-state-endorsed religion — that would prevent this from happening?

Final questions: Should people who care about religion news take vows to avoid reading national magazine cover stories in the final weeks before Christmas and Easter?

Symbolic win for gay rites! News?

centerburynuke1After nearly three decades on the Godbeat, and 15 years in the classroom, I am still fascinated with basic questions about the process of reporting and writing the news. But, before you report and write a story, you have to decide if a particular event, trend or statement is or is not news.

For example, here is a hot-button story from veteran religion reporter Julia Duin at the Washington Times that strikes me as rather important for a host — yes, even scores — of reasons. Let’s find out what readers think, starting with the top of this story from this weekend:

The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia inched closer to blessing same-sex unions … when delegates approved a resolution affirming “the inherent integrity and blessedness of committed Christian relationships between two adult persons.”

The resolution, which passed by an uncounted show of hands by the 700 or so Episcopalians meeting at the Reston Hyatt, first recommended the diocese respond “to the pastoral needs of our faithful gay and lesbian members.” A second paragraph defined the “relationships” as “characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication and the holy love which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God.”

“There is a time to take that step and follow Christ,” said Matt Johnson, a delegate from Grace Episcopal Church in The Plains, Va. “I think this is one of those times. Yes, these relationships have integrity and are blessed. For 20 years, we have been talking about this. Let’s go do it.”

Now, the issue of same-sex unions is, of course, rather important right now at the local, regional, national and global levels of the Anglican Communion.

Why is that? The Virginia diocese is a large and historic body. It is also in the midst of a very high-profile legal battle with a number of very powerful conservative parishes that have fled the U.S. Episcopal Church to align with traditionalist Anglicans in the Global South. Millions of dollars of property is at stake, along with some legal issues that may — not “will,” but “may” — have an impact in courts elsewhere.

So it seems to me that it would be important if that diocese took an open, unabashed step toward supporting rites to bless gay unions and, thus, acts of sex outside of the sacrament of marriage as traditionally defined. Thus, the big question in this Virginia resolution is the meaning of the word “monogamy.” That has been the flashpoint issue for gay theologians for many years.

So, for scores of reasons, this seems like a rather important story to me. Thus, I went looking for it in the Washington Post and in other mainstream media.

It seems that, with a link to an evangelical scribe, that one gay online publication thought this was an important development on the candid religious left.

But I can’t find anything in the Post or other mainstream publications. Isn’t this victory for gays and lesbians in the Episcopal Church news? It’s clear that Virginia Episcopalians remain on the big newspaper’s radar, because this story ran just the other day. And it includes this blunt set of facts:

The Rt. Rev. Peter James Lee, who has been bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia for 24 years, announced yesterday that he will step down Oct. 1 to make way for a successor who was named in 2007.

The diocese, which covers northern and eastern Virginia and includes 80,000 members, is one of the largest in the Episcopal Church, the U.S.-based branch of the global Anglican Communion.

One of the largest in the United States? In the old South, too? And the new bishop will:

… (I)nherit one of the largest and costliest legal disputes in the history of the Episcopal Church, a land fight with a cluster of Virginia congregations whose members voted to leave the national church over what they see as its liberal distortions of Scripture — and sought to keep their church properties, worth tens of millions of dollars. The breakaway conservative movement recently won a decision in district court, but the diocese and the national church are appealing.

Golly. Sounds important.

Photo: Back by popular demand.

It’s the doctrine, stupid

imgp1198 1As you would expect, the Anglican wars receive quite a bit of attention in the major newspapers today with the announcement by conservatives that they are forming the Anglican Church in North America, as opposed to the U.S. Episcopal Church.

There is much to debate in the articles, if you are a partisan on the left or the right. Once again, journalists are struggling — oh my, do I not envy them — to describe this puzzle in words that are accurate at all four levels of Anglican polity, which would be local, diocesan, national and global. This announcement, of course, establishes a parallel organization and the national level, which then throws a wrench into the proceedings at the local and diocesan levels.

What happens at the global level? Well, as I have been saying, the issue is whether the final decision is made by the Church of England (which is just as divided over doctrinal issues as the churches in the U.S. and Canada) or at the global, Communion-wide level. My bet? They call it the Church of England for a reason. The symbolism of Canterbury still matters, in a Communion that, in the powerful, rich, west is united by aesthetics and culture more than doctrine. Think of it as NPR at prayer.

Or is the battle about doctrine? The mainstream coverage today includes some shockingly blunt use of the L-word that looms over these wars. No, not that one. I mean, “liberal.” More on that in a minute.

I also would be interested in knowing what GetReligion readers think of the many references to the formation of a new “denomination.” Isn’t, in Anglican polity at all levels, the proper word “province” since the framing word for Anglican unity is “Communion”? Here’s a typical lede, from veteran Laurie Goodstein at the New York Times:

WHEATON, Ill. – Conservatives alienated from the Episcopal Church announced on Wednesday that they were founding their own rival denomination, the biggest challenge yet to the authority of the Episcopal Church since it ordained an openly gay bishop five years ago.

OK, then later we read:

In the last few years, Episcopalians who wanted to leave the church but remain in the Anglican Communion put themselves under the authority of bishops in Africa and Latin America. A new American province would give them a homegrown alternative. It would also result in two competing provinces on the same soil, each claiming the mantle of historical Anglican Christianity. The conservatives have named theirs the Anglican Church in North America. And for the first time, a province would be defined not by geography, but by theological orientation.

I know that this is a tricky equation and the Times is not alone in blurring the lines between these terms. But a province is a piece of a larger whole. A denomination is its own church, its own frame of reference. The conservatives are claiming that they are a legitimate piece of the larger whole. The liberals would say that this new body is a splinter, a new denomination on its own. These words matter.

Most of the articles have appropriate quotes from leaders on the left and the right. Most of the articles, to some degree, offer variations on the familiar Anglican warfare timeline (please click here, I dare you), which says that people have been fighting for a long time, but that the real issue was the selection of a noncelibate gay bishop here in America.

Over at the Washington Post, Michelle Boorstein took another shot at describing the conflict in terms of a wider, clearly doctrinal agenda. Frankly, this is really close to getting at the heart of this matter in — oh my, what a thankless task — a matter of a few sentences in a public newspaper.

In the lede, we read:

Conservatives from the Episcopal Church voted yesterday to form their own branch of Anglicanism in the United States and said they would seek new recognition in the worldwide church because of their growing disenchantment over the ordination of an openly gay bishop and other liberal developments.

Like I said, the word “liberal” is a fighting word and, until recently, you rarely saw it used like that. Then, later we read that conservatives are upset about the 2003 consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson, “the role of female clergy, the church’s definition of salvation and changes to the main book of prayer.”

Now, this article and many others dealt openly with the fact that these conservatives have — within their new province — pledged to agree to disagree on the issue of ordaining women as clergy. That’s a story in and of itself. But, later on, Boorstein takes another crack at the wider doctrinal divide:

In the past year, four U.S. dioceses have broken from the Episcopal Church, citing Robinson’s ordination and brewing dissent over issues such as the necessity of Jesus for salvation and the literal truth of the resurrection. In Northern Virginia, more than a dozen churches voted to break from the Episcopal Church. That split has cost millions in legal fees and remains in Fairfax County District Court as the two sides fight over church property.

rainbow vestments 05Note the frank statements about salvation and the resurrection.

This is “tmatt trio” territory, of course, so let me end there. This battle is, ultimately, about ancient faith vs. modern and even postmodern faith. It’s about clashes over doctrine. Honest. Thus, journalists can ask these questions and, by listening carefully to the many variations on the answers, find out who is who and who will end up kneeling where:

(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

And then there is my special Anglican wars bonus question!

Should churches in the Anglican Communion ban the worship, by name, of other gods at their altars?

Stay tuned. This will not be over for a decade or two. Maybe.

First photo: If you can name most of these men, you are an Anglican traditionalist.

An Episcopal timeline victory

vgr circle 02Readers who follow the Anglican wars know that one of the official GetReligion hobby horses is that this ecclesiastical drama is unfolding on several levels at the same time.

If you only focus on the American angle, you tend to lean left (Tiny conservative movement attempts to split the U.S. Episcopal Church to defend old-fashioned dogmas).

If you only focus on the global level, you tend to lean right (Tiny liberal churches in the First World causing schism by promoting doctrinal innovations that are rejected by majority of the world’s Anglicans).

It’s all about who’s causing an evil “schism,” right? Who has to wear the black mitres?

But there’s another idea that we have continued to promote, another piece of a popular Episcopal wars story template that is simply inaccurate. For a long time now, many reporters have based their stories on the assumption that all of this fighting began with the ordination of the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, the openly noncelibate gay bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire. Things were rolling along toward tolerant modernity and then the church consecrated a gay bishop and the nasty traditionalists went ballistic.

Forget all of those other fights that have been going on for decades. This is just about homosexuality. Forget Bishop James Pike. Forget Bishop John Shelby Spong. Forget all kinds of stuff in a long and very complicated timeline.

Even if the issue is homosexuality, one need only flash back to 1979 and those controversial guidelines that showed where the fault lines were developing in the House of Bishops. The key passage read:

There are many human conditions, some of them in the area of sexuality, which bear upon a person’s suitability for ordination; Every ordinand is expected to lead a life which is “a wholesome example to all people” (Book of Common Prayer, pp. 517, 532, 544). There should be no barrier to the ordination of qualified persons of either heterosexual or homosexual orientation whose behavior the Church considers wholesome. …

So with that in mind, let us celebrate the top of this New York Times story about the D-Day that is now facing Episcopalians in Pittsburgh:

The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh will vote Saturday on whether to secede from the national church, part of the continuing fallout from 30 years of theological disputes that boiled over five years ago after an openly gay bishop was elected and consecrated in New Hampshire.

If it does vote to secede, as expected, Pittsburgh would become the second diocese to vote to leave the American branch of the Anglican Communion, which has 2.4 million members. The diocese in San Joaquin, Calif., voted to secede last December. Two other dioceses, in Fort Worth and in Quincy, Ill., are contemplating similar votes.

Should a split occur, the Pittsburgh Diocese intends to align itself with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, a theologically conservative province that covers six nations in South America. The San Joaquin Diocese also joined that province.

Now the lede does put this fight in the U.S. context. But, hey, it is The New York Times, after all. New York is everything, the center of the universe (and one can make a strong case for that for Episcopalians).

However, note that a glimpse of that longer timeline does make it into the lede as well, one that hints at conflict that is wider than mere sexuality. Of course, I am referring to this language — the “continuing fallout from 30 years of theological disputes that boiled over five years ago.”

I am sure that combatants on both sides might quibble with some of that, but this language is a major improvement. I know that lots of editors and reporters tend to look to the Times for leadership, when trying to decide how to frame these kinds of complex, multi-level stories. This is one case where I hope they do so. Progress!

Photo: The consecration of Bishop V. Gene Robinson

AP twists Anglican timeline (again)

canterbury cathedral 01Another Lambeth Conference has come and gone and, as you may have noticed, there wasn’t much happening in the way of news. That is, of course, the real news. The archbishop of Canterbury and his staff managed to hold a global meeting of most of the Anglican bishops without anything really bad happening in front of the mainstream press.

The headline for this event: Stay the course.

But there is a problem. Various parts of the Anglican Communion continue to chart separate courses, which was true before Lambeth and that’s still true now.

The bishops who came to Canterbury — as opposed to the 200-plus that did not — agreed that they hope to hang together, somehow. They agreed to produce a new covenant that will draw a few crucial doctrinal borders. Maybe. Someday.

And repeat after me, again: “The Africans pray, the Americans pay and the British write the resolutions.” Who do you think will write this covenant? And, with Lambeth about $2 million in the red by many estimates, do you think the small, but very rich, and thus powerful, American church will have any chips to play in this game of high-church poker? By the way, there were 135 American bishops at this conference, out of the 650 present.

The New York Times offers a few basic facts to sum things up:

The push for a covenant amounted to a stratagem for finding both short- and long-term solutions to a dispute that has bitterly divided an estimated 80 million Anglicans worldwide. The split has expressed itself most keenly in the starkly opposed views of traditionalists, primarily in Africa and Asia, who oppose any concessions on homosexuality, and of more liberal elements, especially in the United States and Canada, who favor the ordination of openly gay and lesbian clergy members and church blessings of same-sex unions.

Archbishop Williams told reporters that he hoped Anglican leaders could agree on a draft covenant within a year, but said that winning approval for it among the 44 national and regional churches of the Anglican Communion could take until 2013. That period might coincide with a push among the bishops here to hold another Lambeth meeting after only five years.

In the meantime, the archbishop said, agreement was widespread for continuing “moratoria” on the ordination of gay and lesbian priests and blessings of same-sex unions and for matching restraint by conservatives who threatened to walk out unless traditional views proscribing church acceptance of homosexuality prevailed.

“Continuing”? There has been a moratorium on strategic actions on the left and the right? How did I miss that?

Meanwhile, the most important words in the short Washington Post story about the Lambeth finale were right there in the byline above the lede:

By Karla Adam
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, August 4, 2008; A-8

LONDON, Aug. 3 – In the end, the 2008 Lambeth Conference will probably be remembered most for the bishop who was not in attendance but who nonetheless threatened to break apart the world’s third-largest church.

Note, in addition to the fact that this story ran on A-8, those telltale words “Special to …” That means that the Post did not send a reporter to cover this event.

Without a doubt, high travel costs and falling revenues had a major impact on Lambeth coverage this time around. This means that the basic Associated Press story by veteran Rachel Zoll is even more important than ever, since it will run in many newspapers from coast to coast and in other parts of the world.

AnglicanBomb1 01 01 01I am sad to report that it repeats one of the most important myths in recent coverage of the local, national and global Anglican wars. Here we go again:

The 77 million-member Anglican Communion has been splintering since 2003, when the U.S. Episcopal Church consecrated the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

Williams barred Robinson and a few other bishops from the meeting, and designed the event without legislation or votes, instead focusing on rebuilding frayed relationships.

So what is wrong with that? Well, click here and head on over to the home page of the Anglican Mission in the Americas, one of several conservative networks that is working with Global South bishops to offer alternative parishes and leadership for Episcopalians and others. There you will find this piece of history:

In a groundbreaking response to the western crisis, some leaders of the Anglican Church in Africa and Asia acted to provide seeds of hope for the dire situation in the U.S., by establishing the Anglican Mission in America (AMiA) .

In 2000, Archbishops Emmanuel Kolini (Province of Rwanda) and Moses Tay (Province of South East Asia) consecrated the Rev. Chuck Murphy and the Rev. Dr. John Rodgers as missionary bishops to the U.S. At a gathering in Amsterdam on July 28 of the same year, the Anglican Mission in America was formalized as a missionary outreach charged with fulfilling the Great Commission through church planting. Four additional bishops were consecrated in Denver in 2001 by Archbishop Kolini and Archbishop Yong Ping Chung (Archbishop Tay’s successor who served as archbishop until his retirement in February 2006).

Note the dates on those extra-legal consecration services — 2000 and 2001.

Those shots over the Episcopal bow took place well before 2003, right? In fact, if you look at a more detailed timeline of the Anglican wars, you’ll see that things have been rolling right along for a quarter of a century or longer.

So it is simply wrong to say that Anglicanism “has been splintering since 2003.” Also, there are a variety of doctrinal issues involved in the fighting, not just the raising of one noncelibate gay male to the episcopate.

A correction is needed. Alas.

Baltimore Sun ‘perceives’ an Episcopal trend

CenterburyNuke1Clearly, the Anglican vs. Episcopal warfare is just getting started at the local level here in the United States, which means that more and more religion reporters are going to have to wade into this journalistic swamp in the weeks, months and years ahead.

This time around, it was reporter Liz F. Kay of the Baltimore Sun, writing about a Pentecost service attended by Anglican Bishop Hector Zavala of Chile, who was visiting a missionary parish of his diocese that is located in Baltimore County.

The heart of the story comes early, in the grit-your-teeth-and-write-it background paragraphs that reporters simply have to write in order to help readers understand what is, supposedly, going on. So here is Kay’s shot at this almost impossible task:

The Church of the Resurrection is one of many in the United States forming relationships with foreign bishops after growing increasingly dissatisfied with the perceived liberal direction of the Episcopal Church, the U.S. arm of the international Anglican Communion.

For several Resurrection members, the 2003 election of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, who is openly gay, as bishop of New Hampshire was a recent — but not the only — evidence of a church straying from biblical values and truths.

Reisterstown resident Vince Clews, a founding member of Church of the Resurrection, said its formation after Robinson’s election may imply homophobia but had more to do with public statements by Episcopal bishops who don’t believe in tenets such as the divinity of Jesus, his resurrection or virgin birth.

That isn’t all that bad, as these things go. Saying that there are “many” U.S. parishes forming ties to traditional Anglicans in the Third World will raise some eyebrows on the left, since many newspapers are using words like “some,” “a few” or “dozens.” It would really help if the elves at one or more of the Anglican sites created a master U.S. Anglican parish list online to help reporters (hint, hint).

Then there is the issue of Clews’ claim that there is more to his parish’s stand than homophobia. This is, of course, a fact of history if anyone wants to study a timeline of the Anglican conflict.

However, this is what is really hard for reporters to capture in a mere paragraph or two.

The Anglican right is correct when it says that the doctrinal and creedal conflicts dividing this worldwide Communion are broader and deeper than sex. It is also true that this open warfare has been going on for a long, long, long time — for a quarter century or so. This is why I came up with the questions in the “tmatt trio” back in the mid-1980s and added the Anglican “bonus question” in 1993. (Follow those links if you need background or you are playing the GetReligion drinking game.)

However, the Episcopal left is absolutely correct when it notes that the conflict — for whatever reasons — truly exploded as the ordination of noncelibate gays and lesbians entered the mainstream of the church here in North America. The Robinson election threw the final switch, especially in terms of media coverage. It personalized the conflict, which creates a story that is easier to write than one centering on often foggy theological language.

The most interesting word, journalistically speaking, in Kay’s report is the word “perceived” in the statement that traditionalists are upset about the “perceived liberal direction of the Episcopal Church.” This interests me, because I think we have reached the point where leaders on the Episcopal left are openly and honestly saying that God wants their church to move in a liberal, or progressive, direction.

“Perceived”? Let’s turn that around. If the Anglican right was victorious tomorrow and somehow began to pass and enforce statements, well, that salvation can only be found through Jesus Christ, that clergy must preach that the resurrection literally happened and that sex outside of marriage is a sin, would The Sun write that mainstream Episcopal leaders were upset that their church was swinging in what they “perceived” was a conservative or even, heaven forbid, a “fundamentalist” direction? Would anyone doubt that the facts were clear?

Once again, I think we have reached the stage where newspapers can quote people saying what they believe and then let the readers figure out what is going on. At least that is my perception.

File art: Back by popular demand

LA Times mangles the Anglican timeline

9780060775377No wonder so many reporters get confused about the whole Anglican timeline issue.

Click here and take a look at a conservative website’s version of how the Episcopal Church reached its current crisis. This is the kind of info that is all over the place.

Now this is a useful timeline in many ways. It has all kinds of information about all kinds of events over a long period of time and, for reporters, saving this URL would put them one click away from basic documents in the middle and on one side of this global debate. Let me repeat that this is a conservative timeline and folks on the left would say that it omits many important facts and events.

That’s my point, too. Take a look at this section of the timeline:

1989 – Bishop John Spong, Diocese of Newark, publicly ordains first non-celibate, openly-partnered, homosexual.

1991 – Bishop Walter Righter, Diocese of Washington, D.C., ordaines a non-celibate homosexual.

1994 – General Convention of ECUSA approved Resolution C042 calling for preparation of a report considering rites for blessings of same-sex unions.

1994 – Bishop Spong drafted the “Koinonia Statement” defining homosexuality as morally neutral and affirming support for the ordination of homosexuals in faithful sexual relationships (signed by 90 bishops and 144 deputies). See also Spong’s 12 Theses.

1996 – The American Anglican Council is incorporated.

1996 –- Both counts of heresy against Bishop Righter dismissed in an ecclesiastical court, which declared there was “no clear doctrine” involved regarding the ordination a non-celibate gay man.

1997 – The Kuala Lumpur Statement, is released by the Second Anglican Encounter in the South, upholding traditional theology on human sexuality. At General Convention, Resolution B032 to endorse the Kuala Lumpur Statement was defeated in the House of Bishops 94 to 42.

1998 – Lambeth Conference upholds Scriptural and traditional teaching on marriage and human sexuality in resolution 1.10. Showing their dissent for resolution 1.10, 65 ECUSA bishops sign a pastoral statement in support of lesbian and gay Anglicans.

Now, this shows that the fighting has been going on a long, long time — certainly before the ordination of a certain noncelibate gay bishop in a tiny diocese in true blue New England.

That’s good. That’s factual.

But read this timeline — a conservative one, remember — and you would think that this is all about sex or, at best, sex and the Bible. In a way, this bias in the timeline helps the Episcopal left make its case that this is all about sex and biblical literalism.

I bring this up because of a recent Los Angeles Times article by Louis Sahagun that has been nagging me all week. Something in it bugged me and I have had trouble pinning it down. The article focuses on the conservative Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin and its controversial leader, the Rt. Rev. John-David Schofield. Here is how it opens:

FRESNO – For Bishop John-David Schofield, the question is central to the future of the church he loves: Does the American Episcopal Church believe the Scriptures are the revealed word of God?

In a recent vote, a majority of his flock answered with a resounding “no,” and that is why Schofield is leading his San Joaquin Diocese in an unprecedented effort to pull away from the Episcopal Church.

And later in the same article we read this summary:

Schofield’s diocese, which had been largely ignored for decades by top Episcopal leaders, is sharpening the national debate over church identity and mission. Although the Fresno-based diocese has focused on its differences with the national church, Episcopal leaders have stressed their commonalities, such as core beliefs about the salvation promised by Jesus Christ.

… Schofield’s goal is to place the diocese under the jurisdiction of a conservative prelate, possibly one in South America or Africa.

Now, this is truly strange — especially that phrase that the U.S. Episcopal Church is stressing that it remains united to conservatives because of “core beliefs about the salvation promised by Jesus Christ.” This is strange, because the national church has tabled or rejected attempts to affirm a simple statement affirming (tmatt trio question No. 2) that salvation is found through Jesus Christ, alone. There is no way that salvation theology is a source of unity in modern Anglicanism — at least not in the First World.

But as I pondered the Los Angeles Times article, something else hit me. Schofield is known as a leader among the conservative camp known as “Anglo-Catholicism.” His emphasis has been on the Catholic — large “C” — nature of the church and its doctrines. This is a man who would, with his first breath, defend the creeds and sacraments. I cannot find, anywhere in this article, a clear reference to this fact. He is not an Evangelical or Reformed Anglican. He is an Anglo-Catholic.

And there is another problem in the story. In that timeline at the start of this post, note the little phrase: “See also Spong’s 12 Theses.”

Now what is that all about?

Consider this section of the Times article:

In a message to his congregations in December, Schofield said the Episcopal Church’s departure from doctrine began in 2003 when for the first time it consented to allow an openly gay man to be elected bishop.

Later, church leaders failed to challenge a retired Episcopal bishop who published a book denying the virgin birth and questioning the divinity of Jesus. Then in November, Jefferts Schori, a supporter of same-sex unions, became the first woman to lead a national church in the Anglican Communion’s roughly 500-year history.

spong coverThe word “later” makes it seem that this “retired Episcopal bishop” published his radical views after 2003.

This has to be a reference to retired Bishop Jack Spong of Newark and his 12 theses to modernize Christianity. When did that firestorm take place? Well, I wrote about it in 1998 — well before the events of 2003. The key is that Spong — click here for the details — rejected the very heart of theism as well as Christianity. Thus, I wrote:

Anglicanism begins and ends with The Book of Common Prayer.

Obviously, this volume is full of prayers — morning prayers, evening prayers and prayers for all the times in between. There are hundreds of pages of prayers for Holy Communion, baptisms, ordinations, funerals and other events and most begin with “O God,” “Heavenly Father,” “Eternal Lord God” or similar phrases. The working assumption is that the God of the Bible hears these prayers and can answer them.

Wrong, argues America’s most famous Episcopal bishop.

The Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong believes the time has come for intelligent Christians to grow up and admit there isn’t a personal God of any kind on the receiving end of these prayers and petitions. The bishop of Newark fired this shot over the bow in a recent missive containing 12 theses, starting with: “Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead.” The logical implication appears as his 10th thesis: “Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.”

There’s more. What about Jesus? What about the cross? Heaven? Hell?

After ditching theism, the bishop says it’s “nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity.” He rejects miracles in general, humanity’s fall into sin and any belief that the Bible contains revealed, transcendent moral laws. He rejects the virgin birth, resurrection and ascension of Jesus as historical events.

In some of his most sweeping language, Spong writes: “The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.” Later he adds: “The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment.”

Spong has never hidden his beliefs and he remains a bishop in good standing in the Episcopal Church. Here is an interesting question for reporters covering the church at this point in its history. Ask Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori which points in Spong’s revolutionary post-theistic creed she would reject and which she would affirm. Read her the list.

This 1998 Spong firestorm belongs on any timeline of the current Episcopal controversy. And it certainly did not take place after 2003 — no matter what the Los Angeles Times says.


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