Monday, October 22, 2007

Media Misunderstandings

Media Frame Distorts Anglican-Episcopal Dispute
by Lezley McDouall

There's a delicious irony in the historically hide-bound, elite Episcopalians suddenly becoming known for taking a radical stance on any issue whatsoever. How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb? The answer is, and always has been, a blank look and a wary question, "Change?" And yet, every time I see Episcopalians in the news these days, we are being cast as wild-eyed liberals.

How did America's painstakingly unadventurous Church of the Gentry suddenly become a free-for-all GLBT haven? When did this miraculous transformation occur? To be quite honest, it didn't. Episcopalians haven’t actually changed any more than donkeys have flown. I might personally long for the day that my parish is known throughout the land for its integration and inclusiveness, but that day is still a shining speck on the horizon. However the news media may spin it, changes in the Episcopal Church take place more slowly than glaciers advance.

Still, the general misconception of what's going on with the Anglicans is perfectly understandable. Heaven knows, if I were a journalist reporting on this brouhaha, it would be easy to make the same category errors as every article I've read. Because, let's face it, phrases like "imminent schism" and "practicing homosexual" will always sell more papers than lead balloons like "church polity" and "canon law."

So, an ambitious reporter coveting a by-line naturally frames the story as a pitched battle between "conservative Bible-adherent traditionalists" and "left-leaning gay-friendly liberals." That frame allows one to use a dichotomy that is already familiar to American readers, and it spares everyone the tedium of explanations that can make even Episcopalian eyes glaze over. The problem is that, while this is the easy, sexy, profitable way, it is not the accurate, fair, or truthful way.

The breathless coverage doesn't make clear that the Episcopal Church has been deliberating about issues of sexuality at diocesan, provincial, and national levels for well over twenty years now. When I say the pace of change is glacial, I'm not joking. It requires true grit, persistence, a super-majority, and the Holy Ghost to pass any change whatsoever.

The changes being portrayed as sudden are actually the end result of a dreadfully deliberate process undertaken by the least wild-eyed members of any parish. By the time the Right Reverend V. Gene Robinson was consecrated as bishop of the diocese of New Hampshire, the mind of the national church had been mulling over the idea of such an event for decades.

Potentially dry digression into Episcopal Church structure and tradition overcome, an accurate article on the brouhaha could quickly regain effervescence, highlighting the delicious irony of supposedly "radical" Episcopalians standing firmly on the bedrock of canon law and traditional Anglican ecclesiastical structure. Irony might be piled upon irony by examining the novelties being promulgated by those who cast themselves as "orthodox traditionalists."

Far from inventive, the so-called "liberals" are digging in their heels to defend the historical prerogative of every Episcopal diocese to elect its own bishops without coercive interference from other quarters. Many of these parishioners, to be honest, aren't as gay-friendly as our GLBT brethren and sistren would wish, but they know in their hearts that once the bishops of other dioceses begin meddling in their prayerful deliberations concerning leadership, a vital aspect of Episcopalian identity has been corrupted.

Such meddling goes against what, for your truly traditional Episcopalian, is as foundational as the U.S. Constitution. Perhaps it is even more foundational, for the Church is a "Body" in a way a nation is not and constitutionally cannot be. The seemly separation of Church and State rightly prevents legislators from making theological statements about the nature of what "Unum" the "Pluribus" become in America, but the Body of Christ is an identity that goes deeper, for many, than nationality. Meddling with denominational ecclesiology is meddling with our understanding of our very selves.

The "orthodox" innovators only get away with calling themselves "traditionalists" because most folks don't know what makes Anglicans Anglican. Church polity discussions may cure insomnia, but there is as much reason that Anglicans are not Baptists as vice versa. Different denominations have different enough theologies of sacrament, salvation, and church to create different denominations. Reporters thus far have pretended these important differences don't exist, rather than making them clear. This insults both the reader and those misrepresented.

It's truly galling to watch the innovators call themselves the orthodox and get away with it because reporters can't be bothered to learn what makes Episcopalians different from Lutherans or Roman Catholics. If the differences were trivial, or easily ignored, the Body of Christ would be a unitary behemoth (for better or for worse).

Three glaring novelties might be discussed in a well-researched article. First, neo-fundamentalists make a mockery of the "three-legged stool" every Episcopalian learns about in Sunday School, insisting that their interpretation of Scripture takes primacy over both ecclesial Tradition and Reason. In Anglicanism, these three fundamental resources are meant to balance one another; we have not, historically, been the sola scriptura crowd.

Secondly, the ostensibly "orthodox" schismatics discard the cherished independence of national churches in the Anglican Communion and assert that a gathering of bishops from across the Communion may dictate church policy to one church within the Communion. If the "orthodox" folks want a foreign bishop to have sovereignty over their spiritual lives, they might easily join another, older church I could name.

Instead, the so-called "traditionalists" threw a third tradition out the window when they ordained history's first bishops without any geographical boundaries. These go traipsing about, ministering to the inclusion-challenged wherever they find them, and preaching a gospel of Biblically-mandated intolerance.

I am a peace-loving person, cautioned by my rector to avoid inflaming an already tense situation, so I will say little about the slippery nature of biblical inerrancy. I will say this: even the Amish make some exceptions. The neo-fundamentalist Anglicans leaning so hard upon selected passages of the Epistles display no angst about the epidemic flouting of the letter of certain other passages of Scripture.

Where is their sustained outrage and political pressure to end usury, concentrated wealth, or the exploitation and mistreatment of foreign workers? If they want to rely solely on scripture for an argument, I dare any rational adult, having read all four Gospels, to make a case that the Savior portrayed there ever takes the side of the proudly pure against a social outcast.

Episcopalians love tradition, and we can be pretty stubborn when someone messes with the way we've always done things. If keeping our Church traditions makes us gay-friendly, I say, so be it.

About the Author: Lezley McDouall is a graduate of Church Divinity School of the Pacific, with graduate degrees in Church History and Ministry from the Graduate Theological Union and Oxford University. She is a licensed lay preacher, Christian Formation teacher, and chorister at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Durham, North Carolina. Lezley’s husband, Ken, works at the Chapel Hill Public Library. Her step-son, Alex, is active in two choirs and in Habitat for Humanity. The McDoualls have three cats who patiently teach them the art of living well.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The breathless coverage doesn't make clear that the Episcopal Church has been deliberatinbg about issues of sexuality at diocesaan, provincial, and national levels for over 20 years now." That is possibly part of the problem at least in my Southern Diocese. Although it was encouraged by our Bishops and clergy, people didn't want to discuss the issues of sexuality, therefore I think there grew a great divide where our diocese is/are and where the rest of the Episcopal Church is on this issue. People even today don't want to open up discussions on the subject, they have their views and of course they are the Biblically correct ones.


10/22/2007 10:14 PM  
Anonymous John-Julian, OJN said...

A. J. Jacobs has recently written a book "The Year of Living Biblically" in which he - a Jew - set himself the task of following in his life every jot and tittle of Holy Scripture for one year. He consulted with rabbis, priests, and professors and then set out on his project. At the end of the year, his final conclusion is that it is literally IMPOSSIBLE for anyone to live completely "biblically". (I particularly enjoyed his account of carrying along a pad to place on any chair before he sat in it -- in case a menstruating woman may have sat there before him and he would be made unclean!)

If he had asked me about it, I could have saved him a year of trouble by assuring him that not only is it impossible, but that no one on earth (at least since Saint Francis) even TRIES!

The reality is that each of us takes his/her cultural biases, finds some scriptural support for those biases, and then gets along, feeling justified and oh-so-righteous -- but ALWAYS with the biblical stuff a posteriori and ex post facto! There is no such thing as living a religious life based on the principle of sola scriptura except as a purely abstract concept.

If one has an "ick factor" about gays (most frequently a result of repression and projection), one can find scripture to support that bias; if one enjoys and loves gay folk, there is scriptural support for that position. One can be pro-war or anti-war, pro- or anti-abortion, pro- or anti-capital punishment, etc. ad nauseum --- and every single moral position anyone holds on any subject whatsoever can find justification within Holy Scripture.

It i all so tiresome!

10/23/2007 11:29 AM  
Anonymous obadiahslope said...

the three legged stool might be popular, but it is not quitewhat Hooker taught. If he had a stool in mind, there was one main leg.
"“Be it of one matter of the one kind or of the other, what Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due, the next whereunto is whatsoever and man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeth. That which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must in congruity of reason overrule all other inferior judgments whatsoever.” Laws, V.8.2, Keble"

10/23/2007 5:29 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Thanks for offering Hooker's actual statement, Obadiahslope. He'll get no disagreement from me. [As if he'd care! ;-) ] He says: "what Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due." [Emphasis added.] The decalogue is absolutely plain to me. So is Jesus' summary of the law. I don't need to analyze them. I just need to work humbly and diligently to follow them.

Here is what Ms. McDouall wrote:
"neo-fundamentalists make a mockery of the "three-legged stool" every Episcopalian learns about in Sunday School, insisting that their interpretation of Scripture takes primacy over both ecclesial Tradition and Reason." [Emphasis added.]

And there's the rub. I think we all agree that Scripture is the primary, foundational base of our faith. What we need to lose, I think, is the arrogance in believing that our reading and interpretation of the Scriptures is authoritative. (And, yes, I would say there are folks on both sides of the aisle who need a bit more humility on that score.)

Brother John-Julian comments above, "every single moral position anyone holds on any subject whatsoever can find justification within Holy Scripture." I think he was being a bit hyperbolic; I'm not sure we can justify "every" moral position from Scripture. But I think it's a fact that the whole of Scripture offers a lot of room for interpretation.

Ms. McDouall's argument was about the neo-fundamentalists who insist that their interpretation of Scripture trumps all, and who are tossing aside a whole lot of reason and tradition in the process, while proclaiming themselves to be the "truly orthodox." It just ain't so.

10/23/2007 6:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It strikes me as ironic that the author, after decrying the media's use of a dichotomy based on generalizations (traditional biblical orthodox vs gay-friendly liberals), offers up her own, by which we should judge on whose side the Savior would be: the "proudly pure" vs the "social outcast". Now there's a dichotomy that's "accurate, fair and truthful"!

The author says the "so-called orthodox" make three important innovations. In the first one, about the three-legged stool, she claims they hold their interpretation of Scripture in higher regard than Tradition and Reason. I'm not sure if she is mixing the topics of disagreement here. If we are talking about declaring homosexual activities blessed (and therefore not an impediment to ordination/bishopric), I understand most "orthodox" think Scripture speaks pretty plainly about the topic, and they look to Scripture first, as Hooker explained. If you believe, however, that Scripture doth not plainly speak on these matters, then definitely you should look at the other two legs. Tradition is certainly on the side of the "orthodox" as regards to which unions should be blessed, i.e. those between a man and a woman in holy matrimony. Reason might look at the natural order of creation, which suggests couplings by opposite gender. It is , I suppose, in the Reason category that some argue that homosexual couples are just as loving and compassionate and full of the Spirit as heterosexual couples and that should give them the right to marry. It is an argument, but certainly it does not immediately compel to override Scripture and Tradition. I fail to see where the "orthodox" are making a mockery of the three-legged stool.

The second innovation listed is discarding the independence of national churches. This of course appeals to Americans, as we are so very independent... From what I understand, Anglicanism is one of the major denominations of Christianity in the world, after Catholicism (Roman) and Orthodoxy. Most people, myself included, assume that to be part of a certain denomination national churches have to hold certain beliefs in common, and probably some practices, sacraments, and the like. Anglicanism has worked up to now on a "gentleman's agreement", with everyone assuming that all were upholding basic doctrine, anyone being free to adapt liturgical elements like vestments, candles, music, use of incense, etc.
We have come to a time in history where Anglicans disagree about doctrine. So what should we do ? Let each national church vote on the doctrine they like ? Many, including the "orthodox", believe we need some sort of judge on doctrinal matters. We can debate whether that should be all the bishops at Lambeth conferences, or the Primates, or turning the Archbishop of Canterbury into a kind of pope, or creating a Covenant that someone will have to uphold, but there has to be a final authority on doctrinal questions, for Anglicanism to continue to exist as a worldwide denomination. Councils of the church have debated and adjudicated such questions since the first centuries of Christianity; this is hardly an innovation.

I will have to look at the third point later; I am off to our pre-convention deanery meeting...

Veronique (my Google identity wasn't working)

10/25/2007 5:38 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Thanks for stopping by, Veronique. Let me address some of your comments.

"If we are talking about declaring homosexual activities blessed …"
I sure wish folks could get this clear: No Episcopalian I know is declaring homosexual activities blessed, any more than we think heterosexual activity is blessed. We do see that God has blessed many faithful, Christian gay and lesbian relationships and covenants, and we see the fruits of that blessing in their lives.

Regarding your comments on the "three-legged stool": Indeed, many of us believe that Scripture does not speak plainly about the gay and lesbian relationships we witness among our brothers and sisters. Therefore, as Hooker suggested, we look second to Reason, and based on our discernment we then, as Hooker suggested, have challenged the Tradition of the Church. The Communion is seeing the Anglican Church in Canada go through precisely the same process.

"We have come to a time in history where Anglicans disagree about doctrine."
This claim is often made, but I fail to see any truth in it. I doubt you and I would have any disagreement about the core doctrine (as stated in the Apostles' and Nicene creeds). We would probably have some agreements and some disagreements when it comes to moral and ethical questions (the death penalty, abortion, "gay marriage," etc.). I just don't see a real disagreement on core doctrine, though the charge is often made.

Whatever diocese you're in, blessings in your deanery and convention.

10/25/2007 6:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lisa, thank you for your blessings. Our convention is only next month, this was just a preliminary presentation of things to be voted on at convention.

It is interesting that you have chosen not to address to substance of my comments but simply talk about the letter of a couple of cherry-picked lines. I thought it was the "orthodox" who cherry-picked... ;)

Granted, the word relationships probably should have been used rather than homosexual activities. I had the latter concept in mind simply because that is what traditionally has been declared sinful in Christianity: homosexual acts (to be distinguished of course from the persons), regardless of the context.

Assuming for now that Scripture does not speak plainly about same-sex relationships, Hooker's principle is that we then give credence to what man can necessarily conclude by force of reason. I'm sure somewhere else you explained how your discernment necessarily leads to your conclusion; unfortunately it is not the same conclusion that others have reached, also using their reasoning and discernment. We seem to be back to "Now what ?"

I have heard some priests say that the Holy Spirit has led them to a new understanding. That is possible, but how can we know for sure, when others claim the Holy Spirit is leading them to resist this new teaching and stand firm in their faith ? I would submit that this is precisely the kind of instance where a mechanism for adjudication would be useful, perhaps even necessary. In fact some people say we know it is right because General Convention agreed it is, i.e. there was discernment/adjudication by a majority of the bishops/delegates. The difference, really, is that the "orthodox" don't think the discernment/adjudication should stop at the national level on such a topic, because we are not our own branch of Christianity, our own denomination.
Do we agree that if it was a matter of core doctrine, then we should go for Communion-wide agreement ? And what if the rest of the Communion told us they think it is a matter important enough to be addressed by the Communion and the mind of the Communion was opposed to our discerned conclusion ?

As to what constitutes an "essential of the faith", or core doctrine, of course, there is debate also; some hope the Covenant will solidify that concept.

The third point of the author was about history not having bishops without geographical boundaries. I am not versed enough in history to address this, other than to say I thought there were some incursions by certain popes at some point, but maybe I am confused.

I also find fascinating the argument "where is their outrage at some other sinful behaviors that are going on in the world", on two levels. First, I don't think the fact that we're not doing enough to stop some immoral behaviors precludes us from denouncing any and all sins. No one would have need of any repentance ! The stronger opposition to same-sex relationships has come out simply because some are trying to remove them completely from the "sinful" realm, have them declared good an holy and blessed in church. I am fairly confident that if several bishops were creating a new liturgy for the blessing of greedy lives, there would also be an uproar.
Second, and perhaps more interestingly, the mere fact that one would compare the reaction to this to the reaction provoked by other sinful behaviors seems to acknowledge that indeed same-sex relationships are in the same category of sinful behaviors, from a strict logical point of view. If not, the argument doesn't make sense.

Peace be with you
Veronique (can't remember my password apparently)

10/26/2007 10:11 AM  
Anonymous Lezley McDouall said...

I am deeply flattered by the amount of time and intellectual energy being spent on rebuttals by those who disagree with my article. Thank you for considering my thoughts (or, at least, your interpretation of my thoughts) worthy of engagement.

I find myself worse than confused by people who evince no such active hatred of the usury, consolidated wealth, and unmitigated oppression that causes the homelessness and death of children daily, while spending great amounts of time and energy battling first to keep women, and now to keep gays, from being considered full, ordainable, members of the Church. As if there was too much love and acceptance in this world.

I do not consider this to be a 'lesser of two evils' question. I consider this to be a virulent and stubborn form of spiritual blindness, straining at gnats while allowing great evil free rein.

Lezley McDouall

10/26/2007 5:40 PM  
Blogger Craig Goodrich said...

I dare any rational adult, having read all four Gospels, to make a case that the Savior portrayed there ever takes the side of the proudly pure against a social outcast.

Quite right. And I dare any rational adult, having carefully read any of the "conservative" writings or blogs in this controversy, to make a case that they are ever taking the side of the proudly pure against any social outcast.

And as to "sustained outrage and political pressure to end usury, concentrated wealth, or the exploitation and mistreatment of foreign workers", it would seem to me that some substantial discussion is warranted of precisely what is meant by each of these vague but value-laden terms, and how precisely they relate to the reality of the phenomenon in reference, and what precise measures to ameliorate the situation are envisaged, and what the likely side effects of the proposed political actions are likely to be. Once that has been determined, we can discuss the moral worth and Christian duty to support such political pressure. As you are surely aware, well-intentioned political programs, by the time they are filtered through elected officialdom and its bureaucracy, rarely have the effect intended when they were first proposed.

11/11/2007 12:55 AM  

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