Warming the chair? WSJ laments the loss of the pew

It’s five minutes past the hour, and you’re late for services. The cat insisted on one last pass around your leg, and you had to extricate the lint brush from the back of the junk drawer, and in the process you found that key to the shed you’d been looking for forever. But you couldn’t be sure it was the key until you tried it.

Anyway … you’re late. You park farther from the building than you’d like, hustle in, smile at the eyebrows-raised usher and slip surreptitiously into the back … chair? If you’re a Wall Street Journal reader, that’s where you sit. Not the pew, mind you, but the chair.

From the top:

WINDHAM, Maine — At first, it just didn’t sit well with Nancy Shane when her church decided to switch from pews to chairs.

“My generation grew up in pews,” the grandmother of three says. She worried the sanctuary of the Windham First Church of the Nazarene would resemble a movie theater.

Yet, when the pews were removed in September and replaced with burgundy-cushioned chairs, she says she decided God didn’t care whether she prayed from a pew, a chair or even the floor. “I walked in Wednesday night for a prayer meeting and the chairs were there, and they were beautiful,” she says. “I thought, ‘Nancy Shane, even at 68 years old, young woman, you can change.’ “

She isn’t the only churchgoer being asked to take a stand on new Sunday seating arrangements. Pews have been part of the Western world’s religious landscape for centuries, but now a growing number of churches in the U.S. and U.K. are opting for chairs, sometimes chairs equipped with kneelers.

The  Journal’s emphasis, in spite of its award-winning news coverage and compelling features, has always been and likely will always be economics and business. That’s its bread and butter, the Pulitzer-winning coverage it provides so well. The bottom line, to borrow a business phrase. So I’ll skip to the bottom line here and say this particular “worship wars” story seems stale and a bit forced.

Worshipers have been sitting in chairs instead of pews in some parts of the U.S. and the U.K. and around the globe for years. Decades even, in some regions. Evangelical church plants of the 1990s sprung up with chairs because leaders wanted to attract a younger demographic, and chairs shout change. Pews don’t shout much. They sort of whisper. The sound is a good one, granted, but it has to be listened for and appreciated.

Pews are traditional. They’re beautiful, and they tell stories of centuries of heritage, of intergenerational families all lined up in their polished best. Chairs are flexible. They can be reconfigured to give worship space a different feel or stacked aside if the area is needed for a different purpose. And these chairs tell the story of the last few years, young seekers and non-traditionalists melding with time-tested, gray-haired faith.

Therein lies the rub, the WSJ says:

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God, guns but not gays from The Independent

Hypocrisy pays. Reading about the foibles of the great and good, the rich and famous sells newspapers. When you have a story that combines religion and hypocrisy you can count on a nice bump in circulation.

Market forces determine newspaper content. It is difficult to sell church stories to an editor. A story on the dodgy theology of the head of the Episcopal Church may generate 125,000 views on a religion news website (earning it the church newspaper equivalent of double platinum status) but most secular papers will not touch it. However, if a church leader has been caught in a bad act (think sex or money) or if religious hypocrisy is involved, the newspaper that turned down a serious story will snap up the latest Jim and Tammy Faye escapade. Yes, I know I sound like a cynic, but I plead experience in my defense.

The Independent thought it had a winner last week with its story entitled “Church of England has up to £10m invested in arms firm”, as it combined the Church of England (always a soft target) with money and hypocrisy. But I am afraid the story will not pay. The Independent‘s hypocrisy charge does not jell because the complaint is weak and it does not distinguish between the different strands of Christian moral teaching on war and ethical investing.

The headline states the CoE has invested its money in an “arms firm”, and the accompanying photo shows a man inspecting a display of automatic weapons. Who is it? The lede does not tell us:

The Church of England has invested up to £10m in one of the world’s major arms firms, which supplies systems and technology for unmanned drones and jets to conflicts around the world. The discovery, on the eve of what is set to be the biggest day of protests against DSEi – the UK’s leading arms fair — in Docklands, London, tomorrow, has led worshippers to accuse church leaders of profiting from conflict.

Strong stuff. The Independent has made the “discovery” that the Church of England has enriched itself by financing the merchants of death. From the photo accompanying we might think it was Kalashnikov. Are they now in the drone business? Maybe — the Russian government last week sold a 50 per cent share of the rifle manufacturer to private investors. Could these investors be the C.o.E.? Are we seeing a modern twist on the church militant?

The identity of the modern day Krupp is given in the story’s second paragraph.

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The Independent rings for the Church Police

YouTube Preview ImageSon: (Graham Chapman, coming in the door) ‘Ello Mum. ‘Ello Dad.

Klaus: (Eric Idle) ‘Ello son.

S: There’s a dead bishop on the landing, dad!

K: Really?

Mother: (Terry Jones) Where’s it from?

S: Waddya mean?

M: What’s its diocese?

S: Well, it looked a bit Bath and Wells-ish to me.

K: (getting up and going out the door) I’ll go and have a look.

M: I don’t know who keeps bringin’ ‘em in here.

S: It’s not me!

M: I’ve got three of ‘em down by the bin, and the dustmen won’t touch ‘em!

K: (coming back in) Leicester.

M: ‘Ow d’you know?

K: Tattooed on the back o’ the neck. I’ll call the police.

M: Shouldn’t you call the church?

S: Call the church police!

K: All right. (shouting) The Church Police! ….

And now for something completely different — a news report from The Independent on this week’s meeting of General Synod of the Church of England.

But, that is not exactly true. Not the news report from York on the meeting of the Church of England’s legislature — that is correct. Rather the suggestion that the story entitled “Disruption at General Synod as man arrested on suspicion of assaulting steward” is not a farce akin to the Monty Python Church Police skit.

I sympathize with generalist reporters who are assigned to cover religion news stories. It presents a golden opportunity to make an ass of oneself. Alas, this story is an example. I do not mean the mangling of titles … The Archbishop of Canterbury is called on second and third reference “Mr. Welby” and “the Most Rev Welby”. Need I say that this is an error.

It is not this naming error that prompted me to push this piece out in the Get Religion public eye. Rather it is the author’s assumption that churches in England are  prisons or military installations. Let me take you through this story to show you what I mean.

The lede gives the basic details:

A meeting of the General Synod was disrupted when a man, described by the Church of England as having “personal health issues”, was arrested for allegedly assaulting two stewards.

A spokesman for the Church said a man was asked to wait as the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and the Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu moved in procession to the front of York Minster. He reportedly then lashed out, leaving a member of Dr Sentamu’s staff Dave Smith requiring treatment from ambulance staff.

The story adds further details, insinuating the man a the heart of the fray was a loon. The story then shifts to a discussion of the issues before synod using this bridge.

 

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The New York Times’ Conservative love affair

The New York Times may not love American conservatives, but they are certainly enamored with a British one, David Cameron. His push to introduce gay marriage in England, over the objections of the rank and file members of his party, has the paper swooning.

There does not seem to be a way to keep gay issues or advocacy out of the New York Times. The Gray Lady finds this angle in just about any story. Today’s example comes in an article that combines the news of the confirmation of election of the new Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby with the first vote in Parliament on the government’s gay marriage bill.

Unfortunately the article tries a little too hard to link these stories. Combining the two events may have seemed a good idea to an editor not familiar with the issues, but it does not work as a single piece. “New Archbishop of Canterbury Takes Office” has some factual errors, faulty assumptions, insufficient context and a lack of balance.

The article begins:

On the eve of a divisive vote in Parliament on the legalization of same-sex marriage, Justin Welby, the former bishop of Durham, on Monday took over formally as the 105th archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual head of the world’s 77 million Anglicans, saying he shares the Church of England’s opposition to marriage among people of the same gender.

The lede is fairly straight forward, but I wondered why the author tortured the opening with such strained language — “marriage of people of the same gender”. Have I missed a new style directive to mimic “people of color” when describing gay issues?

And, how many Anglicans are there? The New York Times says 77 million. In the interview cited later in the story, the archbishop says 80 million — which includes 20 odd million Englishmen and women (when only a tenth of that number attend services). What is the source for this number? But I digress.

The article notes the new archbishop took office today replacing Dr. Rowan Williams, and then moves to a post-ceremony interview.

In an interview broadcast on the BBC after his inauguration, the new archbishop said he was not on a “collision course” with the government. But he endorsed the traditional view that while the church has no objection to civil partnerships between people of the same gender, it is, as a recent church statement put it, “committed to the traditional understanding of the institution of marriage as being between one man and one woman.”

This paragraph also struck me as odd. Not for what it reports about the new archbishop’s sentiments, but in its report of who reported what. The BBC story did not have the “collision course” phrase. That appears in an ITV story. The story broadcast by the BBC I saw cut the “collision course” phrase, while ITV ran the segment uncut. Perhaps there was a second BBC story that used the quote? I do not know. The Religion News Service printed at the Huffington Post account of the ceremony made this mistake as well, but it embedded both videos — BBC and ITV — with their story.

The article then moves to commentary.

His stance did not come as a surprise since he had made it clear at the time of his appointment in November, but the timing of his remarks was certain play into both the political and the ecclesiastical debate about the issue. The church has long been locked in debate over gender issues, including the consecration of female and gay bishops and same-sex marriage.

Now I understand the language of the lede — gender is the plat du jour for the Times allowing it to link the women bishops vote to the same-sex marriage vote in Parliament. (Wait, it is now same-sex marriage by paragraph six.) The article notes:

In December, the church voted narrowly to reject the notion of female bishops, despite support from senior clerics including Archbishop Welby. In January, the church followed up with a ruling admitting openly gay priests in civil partnerships to its ranks, provided that, unlike heterosexual bishops, they remained celibate.

Some more mistakes here. The women bishop’s vote took place in November, not December 2012. Clergy were permitted to register gay civil partnerships in 2005 not in January 2013. A condition of their being allowed to register these domestic partnerships was that they be celibate. Clergy may be “openly gay”, whatever that means, but may not engage in sexual relations outside of marriage (marriage being defined as being between a man and a woman). The question of how rigorously this is enforced is a separate matter.

In December 2012 the House of Bishops ended a ban imposed in 2011 that forbade clergy who had entered into a civil partnership from becoming a bishop. Heterosexuals may not contract civil partnerships in Britain, so the analogy offered by the Times is inexact. However all bishops — heterosexual and homosexual — who are unmarried must be celibate also. There have been homosexual bishops for quite some time — by homosexual I mean men whose dominant sexual attractions are to other men. However, these bishops do hold to the church’s teaching that to act upon these inclinations would be sinful, and are celibate.

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Channel 4 keeps it all in the Anglican family

January has been a wonderful month for lovers of Anglican ecclesiastical drama. The resignation of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury at year’s end should have led to a few month’s peace and quiet for the Church of England and the wider Anglican world. I had even thought of taking a vacation this month as little of substance appeared on the radar as of late December.

I could count on the penchant of Episcopalians in the United States to sue each other over church property disputes — 88 cases and counting. And there would certainly be some sort of gay story — thank you Washington National Cathedral for announcing you will host gay weddings! But I could write those stories in my sleep — and to tell the truth I would have had a hard time selling them. I could hear the editors say: “You want me to publish another gay Episcopal story? Tell me how is that news?”

But thank goodness for the Church of England. When life get’s me down. When I begin to think my mother in law is right and there is still time to go to law school and have a “respectable” career, the Church of England comes to my rescue. What a month it has been. Fights with the government over gay marriage, fights over gay bishops, and fights over women bishops. The CoE is at its most interesting when it is at war. Liberal and conservative wings in full war cry, possessed of the certainties of the Israelites who went out boldly to hew Agag in pieces and to smite the Amalekites hip and thigh.

Last week the fight over women bishops flared anew, illuminating the dreary skies of Westminster as the lay members of General Synod met at Church House in London to hear a motion calling for the impeachment of the chairman of the House of Laity.

Channel 4 News — which is the fourth British television network (BBC1, BBC2, ITV and Channel 4) — ran a story entitled “Women bishops: laity votes in no confidence motion,” previewing the meeting. It began:

The debate over women bishops in the Church of England is reignited today as one of the houses of the church’s governing body meets to consider calling for the resignation of its chair.

The House of Laity, part of the General Synod, is meeting in London for an extraordinary meeting to vote on a motion of no confidence in chair Dr Philip Giddings, who spoke against women bishops – directly after the Archbishop elect, Rev Justin Welby spoke in favour.

Canon Stephen Barney, who will propose the motion after setting up a petition, says Dr Giddings’ action “undermined” the speech of the archbishop-elect and were not representative of the house.

The story goes on to give the background to the meeting, noting it was the laity who blocked passage of a bill permitting the consecration of women clergy to the episcopate. The story then quotes the mover of the resolution, giving him space to summarize his views:

Speaking to Channel 4 News ahead of the meeting, Mr Barney, who has insisted the motion is not a personal attack, said the purpose of the meeting was not to debate women bishops in this particular incident, but whether Dr Giddings was representing the house which he chaired.

He said: “I hope that we will have a proper debate. It’s a question of whether this was appropriate given that he was not representing the view of the vast majority of the House of Bishops, the House of Clergy and indeed all but 74 of the House of Laity.”

Three more paragraphs of quotes from Mr. Barney are provided, followed by the line:

Dr. Giddings has not yet commented on the issue and said that “the time for debate is when we have the debate.”

Oh, and at the bottom of the page is this announcement:

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Not all ‘nones’ are atheists

In England and Wales, there were 37.3 million Christians in 2001, representing 72 percent of the population. In the most recent census (2011), that had dropped to 33.2 million or 59 percent of the population.

Religion News Service had a brief story about this that included these graphs:

Figures from the 2011 Census show the number of people declaring themselves to be atheists rose by more than 6 million, to 14.1 million.

“It should serve as a warning to the churches that their increasingly conservative attitudes are not playing well with the public at large,” said Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society. “It also calls into question the continued establishment of the Church of England, whose claims to speak for the whole nation are now very hard to take seriously.”

However, those statistics are not right.

As reported in The Telegraph:

The number of people specifically identifying as Atheists was 29,267, while over 13.8 million refused to identify with a faith at all, ticking the “No religion” box on the census form.

While reporting no religion might sound similar to atheism, there is no way for journalists to know if respondents are atheists, agnostics, unaffiliated or otherwise.

But there is a big difference between 29,267 reporting atheism and 14.1 million. For more on the rise of the nones, check out The Friendly Atheist’s blog post here.

On women bishops: Who voted ‘no’ and why?

YouTube Preview Image

To the shock of legions of mainstream reporters, the Church of England fell just short of approving the long-debated step of raising women to the Anglican episcopate.

The issue that seems to have some reporters stumped, a bit, is why the laypeople who cast these votes didn’t go along with this latest evolution in Anglican orders. Take, for example, the pretty solid report from Reuters, as offered by The Huffington Post. Here are two summary passages that contain the key material:

After hours of debate, the General Synod, the Church legislature made up of separate houses for bishops, clergy and laity, fell just short of the two-thirds majority required in all three houses to pass the measure. … The vote among lay members fell short by just four votes.

“It’s crushing for morale, senior women clergy must feel despondent and most bishops and most clergy male or female feel hugely sad and worse than sad, embarrassed and angry,” said Christina Rees, a Synod member and former chairman of the advocacy group Women and the Church. “Women bishops will come, but this is an unnecessary and an unholy delay,” she told Reuters.

The second passage is the key. Yes, careful readers will, of course, note that the progressives are once again called “reformers,” which means that, by definition, they are attempting to right a wrong. Nice neutral language, there. Not.

Women already serve as Anglican bishops in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, but the Church of England, mother church for the world’s 80 million Anglicans, has struggled to reconcile the dispute between reformers and traditionalists on whether to allow them in England.

The Church had already agreed to allow women bishops in theory but Tuesday’s vote, on provisions to be made for conservatives theologically opposed to senior women clergy, needed to be approved before female Anglican priests could be promoted to episcopal rank in England. …

More than 100 members spoke during six hours of discussion in a vast circular chamber in Church House, the Church’s central London headquarters, airing their views under a domed ceiling inscribed with a prayer to “them that endured in the heat of conflict.” The dispute centred on ways to designate alternative male bishops to work with traditionalist parishes that might reject the authority of a woman bishop named to head their diocese.

So what’s the problem here?

It is good that the story notes that the opponents of female bishops are “conservative evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics,” because there are plenty of evangelicals who are willing to back the ordination of women to all orders.

It is not helpful that, at the end of the piece, the divisions inside the global Anglican Communion are described, in effect, as being between Anglicans in modern lands and many “Anglicans in developing countries.” That radically oversimplifies matters, especially in Africa. One could just as easily have described this as a conflict between the Communion’s rapidly shrinking liberal churches and its rapidly growing conservative ones.

The story also fails to note that taking this step would have created even more tensions between Anglicans and the ancient Christian churches of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, which do not ordain women to the priesthood and the episcopate.

Careful readers will note that the story does not, in fact, quote any person — ordained or laity — who opposed this crucial “reform,” which would lead to female bishops who would then ordain priests, male or female, that traditional Anglicans would argue have not been truly ordained. If the conservative evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics won, where are their happy voices? Why leave them out of the story?

But here is the key question: Did the vote fail, in fact, because there were liberal Anglicans who voted against this measure because they believed it offered too much protection for conservatives? Did they oppose this measure because it did not go far enough to please the “reformers”? Meanwhile, did others who support the ordination of women vote against the measure because they did not believe it did enough to protect the traditionalists? Watch the video at the top of this post.

In other words, did the left split? Again, note that this Reuters report did say that the key “dispute centred on ways to designate alternative male bishops to work with traditionalist parishes that might reject the authority of a woman bishop named to head their diocese.”

If that was the dispute that led to the defeat of the measure, then the single most important thing this story needed to do was to explain that conflict, while quoting representative, authoritative voices on both sides of that dispute.

The bottom line: Why voted “no” and why? Was this measure defeated by a coalition of people who opposed it for very different reasons? If so, where are these crucial voices in this report?


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