Calvin the Fundamentalist and other General Synod myths

Calvin the Fundamentalist and other General Synod myths July 19, 2014

Monday’s vote by the General Synod to allow women bishops has put the Church of England onto the front pages of the world’s press. News reports and commentary from around the globe have weighed on this development giving voice to a variety of opinions. Some of this reporting has been quite good, most of it average, while a few pieces have fallen short.

The Huffington Post‘s piece contained two errors of note. At the end of the piece the article confused the numbers for the Church of England for the wider Anglican Communion. A correction subsequently noted:

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said incorrectly that the Church of England has 80 million members in more than 160 countries. Those are the figures for the worldwide Anglican Communion.

A minor slip, but the second raised questions as to whether the Huffington Post followed the debate, or recycled information it had gleaned from second hand sources. The article stated:

Like the vote that year, more traditional Anglicans, including evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics, argued in front of the synod that having women as bishops would go against the teachings of Jesus. If Jesus intended women to be among the top church leaders, he would have had a woman among the Twelve Apostles, some of the traditionalists said.

By my reckoning, of the almost 100 speakers in the day, only one (lay delegate Jane Bisson from the Diocese of Winchester) raised the issue: “If Jesus intended women to be among the top church leaders, he would have had a woman among the Twelve Apostles.” The overwhelming majority of voices opposed to the change in church teaching couched their arguments around the Apostle Paul’s teachings on “headship” and the role of women in church assemblies — with arguments from tradition running second. Check for yourself.

Summarizing the arguments against women bishops along the “Jesus intended” line does a disservice to the debate in Synod and across the church. Painting the opponents of women bishops as Biblical-literalists is lazy reporting.

An otherwise excellent news analysis piece in The Guardian also makes this error — but this time John Calvin is the “fundamentalist” in question.

Calvin was not a fundamentalist. The Guardian Style Guide does not contain an entry for “fundamentalist.” However, as noted many times here at GetReligion, the Associated Press Stylebook makes this observation:

 “fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

And the bottom line from this journalistic bible:

“In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.”

From a purely historical perspective, John Calvin was not a fundamentalist. A note from reader Daniel Stoddart (who alerted me to the controversy) stated:

Essentially, the argument is that labeling Calvin as a “fundamentalist” won’t do for a church-related piece since in this context fundamentalism is associated with an uncritical and generally uneducated mode of Biblical literalism and parochialism. While Calvin would certainly conform to the classic five Fundamentals formulated in the 1920s, he was a scholar, jurist, and maintained doctrines that we would not associate with the pejorative use of modern fundamentalism: for instance, infant baptism or the perpetual virginity of the [Blessed Virgin Mary].

In defense of the author of The Guardian article, I have no doubt that some members of the progressive camp within the Church of England dismiss their opponents as “fundamentalists” and apply this term to those figures in church history like Calvin or Augustine from whom they draw their doctrines.

Perhaps an explanatory word might have redeemed this paragraph. A note to the effect that some believe that Calvin was a “fundamentalist.” Describing him as such, however, is unhistorical.

Yet, this slip does illustrate the mindset of some progressive activists and far too many journalists. Whether the issue is diversity, multiculturalism, inclusive language, gay marriage, abortion or women bishops — if you oppose the establishment you are either evil or stupid. Thus, the common, but inaccurate, use of this f-word in violation of Associated Press style.

The Guardian‘s report on this point gets the story right — if in-artfully phrased.

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