Inspiring, uplifting stories have been hard to find in recent decades in the world of Episcopal vs. Anglican infighting, especially when it comes to in-the-trenches doctrinal warfare at the local and regional levels.
However, the religion-beat team at The New York Times thought it had one the other day. The headline: “Two Ministers Forge Friendship Across a Church Divide.”
This news feature worked, kind of, on the macro level. However, many of the micro details were out of focus and Anglican-fluent readers were left, methinks, wondering what was really going on.
This is the story of the unlikely friendship between the Rev. Tory Baucum, a doctrinal conservative, and the Rev. Shannon Johnston, a doctrinal progressive who, among other things, strongly supports same-sex marriage.
This is how the story identified each man — “the Rev.” The problem is that the liberal priest is, in fact, Bishop Shannon Johnston. Don’t get me wrong: Johnston is quickly identified as a bishop, but I still wondered who he was not granted that title when he was first mentioned. Strange. Another key point of confusion slips in print in this key fact paragraph:
Mr. Johnston is the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia — the most populous Episcopal diocese in the United States — and a supporter of same-sex marriage who has blessed same-sex couples. Mr. Baucum is the rector of an unusually vibrant parish, Truro Church in Fairfax, which left the Episcopal Church over the election of the gay bishop, Gene Robinson, the final straw in a long-running dispute over theological orthodoxy. By the time the two men arrived in Virginia, in 2007, their flocks were suing each other over who owned the Truro property, worshipers had been forced to choose sides, and sharp-fingered bloggers were trading medieval-sounding epithets like “heretic” and “schismatic.”
The story notes that this parish “left the Episcopal Church” but, for some strange reason, never calls this congregation by its new name — Truro Anglican Church.
This is picky stuff, but there are crucial facts related to that name that readers need to know to grasp some of the subject material covered in this story. Truro is now part of the conservative Anglican Church in North America and is located in the Diocese of the Mid-Atlantic.
To cut to the chase: Baucum serves under the authority of another bishop.
It’s nice to know that the priest gets together from time to time for a beer and fellowship with the liberal Episcopal bishop, but it’s especially important for readers to know that these two men are, literally, not in Communion with one another at the level of shared views of Sacraments, ordination vows and ministries. They cannot share the same altar and, I am sure, Baucum’s own bishop would have wished that these facts were clearly presented in the story.
So who is Baucum’s actual bishop? At the very end of the story, readers are finally told the following, concerning the atmosphere surrounding this right-left friendship:
The backlash intensified when Bishop Johnston allowed a prominent author, John Dominic Crossan, who has questioned the literal truth of key elements of the New Testament, to address his diocesan clergy. In response, the leader of breakaway Anglicans in Virginia, Bishop John A. M. Guernsey, asked Mr. Baucum not to appear in public with the Episcopal bishop. Bishop Guernsey explained in an email interview that “the Episcopal Church’s embrace of false teachers and false teaching made it impossible for the relationship to continue.” (The relationship has, in fact, continued, but more privately and with less frequent get-togethers.)
Well, which is it? What did Bishop Guernsey tell his priest? Is Father Baucum currently ignoring the expressed wishes of his bishop or not?
These are rather important facts to pin down, in light of the fact that the friendship is the news hook for the story. I would assume that this is the precise angle of this story that Anglicans, as opposed to Episcopalians, are talking about at the moment.
The point of the Times story, however, is that this friendship is a positive vision of where things could go if these people could, you know, just get along and be civil. As the report notes early on:
… (In) its own way, the friendship is paying striking dividends. Even as the Episcopal Church nationally has waged blowout legal battles against parishes and dioceses that have broken away, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and Truro Church have settled their litigation and forged an amicable truce. The diocese was declared the owner of the Truro property, but is allowing the breakaway congregation to continue to occupy it, rent-free, in exchange for maintaining it. …
Merely the fact of a friendship between two church leaders on opposite sides of a theological debate, a property dispute and a schism has been so promising that it has attracted the attention of the archbishop of Canterbury, who knows both men, and who last month installed Mr. Baucum as one of the Six Preachers — an honorary guest lectureship established in the 16th century.
And then there is this interesting info related to this era of conflict:
Truro is a storied and large suburban church, which attracts about 1,200 people to worship each weekend. It traces its roots to the mid-19th century, and, in one of its current buildings, a Confederate officer captured a Union official during the Civil War. But its numbers had been dwindling since the late 1980s, and its current leaders, who supported the split with the Episcopal Church, believe an ongoing focus on that split consumed so much energy and time that it made the church unattractive to newcomers. …
When Mr. Baucum announced that he was forming a friendship with Bishop Johnston, a few of his parishioners left, feeling betrayed by the outreach. But the parish also began to grow more rapidly, in part because of its intensified focus on an introduction-to-Christianity program called Alpha, which helped introduce outsiders to the parish.
All of this may in fact be true and there are some clear statements attributed to current Truro members. Good.
But note the interesting lack of actual statistics and facts in this section of the story. The church is now rapidly growing, due to the healing balm of the Baucum-Johnston friendship? It would be nice to see some on-the-record facts to back that up, don’t you think?
Also, note the lack of information about the current health of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. With several of its largest parishes exiting to this new Anglican body, what has happened to its membership totals? If Truro declined a bit in the combat years, what about the diocese? It might be nice to see both sides of this equation. Don’t you think?
So this is an interesting story and I suspect there is more news underneath this rather smokey fire. Stay tuned.