Wrestling with that old Anglican timeline, in South Carolina

Wrestling with that old Anglican timeline, in South Carolina July 10, 2014

Anyone who follows news on the religion beat knows the drill when it comes to reporters framing the global, national, regional and local conflicts between Anglicans: The battles are about homosexuality, period, and all heck broke loose in 2003 when the tiny Diocese of New Hampshire elected an openly gay and non-celibate bishop.

The problem with that news template is that it’s simplistic. Debates over sexuality have driven the headlines, but the doctrinal debates are much broader than that. Also, crucial cracks began forming in the Anglican Communion long before 2003.

Thus, it is good to celebrate even the most humble of journalistic victories in the fight against what your GetReligionistas have long called “Anglican timeline disease.” Note this lede in an Associated Press report about developments down South:

ST. GEORGE, S.C. — About 50 conservative Episcopal churches in South Carolina are in court this week, trying to keep their name, seal and $500 million in land and buildings after they broke away from the national denomination in a wide-ranging theological dispute.

The breakaway group, the Diocese of South Carolina, said it had to leave the national church not just because of the ordination of gays, but a series of decisions it says show national Episcopalians have lost their way in the teachings of Jesus and salvation.

Bravo. Later in the story, however, there is a close encounter with the “everything began in 2003” myth.

The Episcopal Church, along with other Protestant denominations, had been losing members for decades before gay rights came dramatically to the forefront when Episcopalians elected their first openly gay bishop in 2003.

So “dramatically to the forefront” isn’t a bad way to word this, I guess, but what about the earlier theological adventures of New York Bishop Paul Moore Jr. and Newark Bishop Jack Spong? What about the 1998 global Lambeth gathering of Anglican bishops and its crucial affirmation of ancient Christian doctrines on marriage and sex?

As a public service — especially for scribes covering the battle in South Carolina — here are one or two other landmarks to consider adding to the timeline, just in case editors grant room for one or two more strategic facts.

Let’s start with this 1979 resolution at the Episcopal General Convention in Denver:

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;

We re-affirm the traditional teaching of the Church on marriage, marital fidelity and sexual chastity as the standard of Christian sexual morality. Candidates for ordination are expected to conform to this standard. Therefore, we believe it is not appropriate for this Church to ordain a practicing homosexual, or any person who is engaged in heterosexual relations outside of marriage.

This event was crucial for two reasons. First, note the separation between orientation and sexual conduct. That was already crucial this early in the debate. Also, while the orthodox won this early vote, progressives in the church — including a future presiding bishop — openly signed and published a letter of protest against the church’s teachings on sexuality. The battle was on.

Once again, sex made headlines.

Behind the scenes, other issues were emerging that were harder to explain in short, sexy headlines. I think it’s crucial that a South Carolina bishop was at the heart of the deeper debates. Here is a chunk or two of a 1999 “On Religion” column I wrote about all of this:

It’s been seven years since Bishop C. FitzSimons Allison faced the fact that some of his fellow bishops worship a different god than he does.

The symbolic moment came during an Episcopal House of Bishops meeting in Kanuga, N.C., as members met in small groups to discuss graceful ways to settle their differences on the Bible, worship and sex. The question for the day was: “Why are we dysfunctional?”

“I said the answer was simple — apostasy,” said Allison, a dignified South Carolinian who has a doctorate in Anglican history from Oxford University. “Some of the other bishops looked at me and said, ‘What are you talking about?’”

A different god or goddess? What was he talking about?

Many Episcopalians, he explained at the time, have embraced the work of theologians such as Carter Heyward, a lesbian priest, seminary professor and author of books such as “Touching Our Strength: The Erotic as Power and the Love of God.” Allison asked the bishops how they would deal with those who say they serve a god that is “older and greater” than the God of the Bible.

Some of the bishops said they either shared this belief or could not condemn it.

When the time came to celebrate the Eucharist, Allison knew what he had to do in this particular circle of bishops. He declined to share the bread and the wine, but didn’t publicized his act of conscience.

That was in 1992. Seven years later, the fault lines — literally broken Communion — were becoming open in the United States and around the world. Allison and others went public.

So how does this fit with the following language in a recent story published by The Post And Courier in Charleston, S.C.?

Like many divorces, this one began with small tiffs that escalated.

After years of arguing over theology and administrative control, disputes among Episcopalians boiled over in 2012 when the local bishop and a majority of parishes left the national church.

Very good. That’s a concrete reference to an event at the local level. However, why not change “after years” to “after decades” and give readers a bigger picture?

Later in the story, there is this:

South Carolina is one of five dioceses nationwide that have separated from The Episcopal Church at least partly over scriptural interpretations. … In recent years The Episcopal Church has ordained gay bishops and voted to allow the blessing of same-sex unions, among a host of comments and actions that have generated tremendous theological debate.

The dioceses that left are seeking other ways to align with the global Anglican Communion and are tied up in similar ongoing lawsuits.

Once again, that’s pretty good. But, “in recent years?”

Why not note that an earlier bishop of South Carolina — the very diocese at the heart of this local, regional and national (with global links, too) story — had taken the radical act of breaking liturgical Communion with the national church in 1992, at that time privately, and then publicly in 1999? And what was the issue then? The worship of other gods, literally, at some Episcopal altars.

In other words, the timeline is long and complicated. There are stories in there, especially for a newspaper in Charleston, S.C.

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