The Curate's Egg: Political Language in Religion Reporting

Bishop: "I'm afraid you've got a bad egg, Mr Jones."

Curate: "Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!"

"True Humility" by George du Maurier, from Punch, (1895).

Reporting on the Anglican Communion and its religious wars is a tricky business. The path of least resistance for most reporters is to secularize the fight, splitting the combatants into liberals and conservatives and placing the dispute within the context of America's culture wars.

Now this is not wrong, merely incomplete.  There are partisan political considerations at work in the fight within the Episcopal Church -- one faithful gauge of the theological temperature of an Episcopal congregation are the bumper stickers found on the cars in the parking lot on Sunday mornings.  In 2008 Obama or McCain stickers were good indications of the political and theological sentiments of the parish.

The Episcopal Church's statistical office has reported -- for years -- that in the aggregate the lay people (the folks in the pews) are evenly divided between self-identified liberals and conservatives. But congregations are for the most part monochrome. This lack of diversity at the roots is also represented in the bureaucracy at the national and diocesan church offices.  They are a mirror to their masters.

So on one level, the left/right split is a useful shorthand for reporters when covering the Episcopal Church. And when you go to the sources for information in an Episcopal or Anglican story you will likely speak to someone on a particular side.

But when things move to a deeper level this language doesn't fairly describe reality. There are political liberals who are theological conservatives and political conservatives are theological liberals. Nor is the language of politics useful when describing Anglicans outside of North America. A news story found on the Washington Post's website taken from ENI and the Religion News Service is a good example of the disconnect between language and reality -- and impartiality of sources.

The lede sentence to the story "Breakaway bishop who denounced gay bishop found murdered in Brazil" states:

A conservative Brazilian bishop who broke away from his church over the consecration of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire was found murdered with his wife in the northeastern town of Olinda, according to the diocese.

Like the curate's egg, this is good, but in parts. The facts as stated are true. Bishop Robinson Cavalcanti and his wife Miriam were murdered. But what about the adjectives?

(As an aside, I should say I have known Bishop Cavalcanti for about 14 years and considered him a friend. I last saw him over the summer when I was reporting on a bishops' meeting held in California and we pleasantly passed the time together in conversation between plenary sessions of the conference.)

Let's look at the word "conservative". Yes, it is fair to say that Bishop Cavalcanti was a theological conservative. To be precise he was a conservative Anglican evangelical of the English variety whose faith was formed and founded upon Scripture.

But he was also a socialist. Before he entered the ordained ministry he was a professor of political science and rector of a university.  He also stood for election as a deputy to Brazil's parliament under the banner of the Workers Party (PT – Partido dos Trabalhadores). Elected bishop of the Diocese of Recife in 1977, Bishop Cavalcanti remained active in secular politics serving as the Pernambuco State coordinator for the 1989 presidential election campaign of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (President Lula finally achieved electoral success and served as the 35th President of Brazil from 2003 to 2010.)

The bishop was also the author of the 1985 book Cristianismo & Política, which saw in the Gospels a warrant for the political transformation of Brazilian life -- from the left. Speaking at the 1990 meeting of the Latin American Theological Fraternity, Bishop Cavalcanti stated that while it was true that "Communism had failed in the East," it was also true that "capitalism had been a permanent failure for two thirds of the World."

So is Bishop Cavalcanti a conservative? He told me last summer that he believed Scripture to be "trustworthy and true" and should guide the church's teachings on human sexuality. So, on the gay issue, I guess he was.

On social and economic issues he was not. He was a man of the left. And here the reporter is faced with the issue of deciding which descriptor to use. It is equally true to say the "liberal Brazilian bishop" as the "conservative Brazilian bishop." Perhaps the second half of the sentence should guide us: "who broke away from his church over the consecration of an openly gay bishop."

The problem there is that it is half true. Yes, Bishop Cavalcanti opposed the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. But Bishop Cavalcanti did not break away from the Anglican Episcopal Church of Brazil. He was kicked out. This fact is hinted at in the WaPo article which notes he was "defrocked on the grounds that he broke communion with the official Anglican church in Brazil."

The story arc for the rest of the bishop's career is equally dubious and is informed only by reports from the press office of the Episcopal Church in New York. However, the issue I wish to raise is the use of political terms to identify religious questions.

I do it all the time -- classifying people and positions as liberal and conservative in the context of the various church scenes. But I am not happy about it. I have seen attempts to introduce other language to classify religio-political points of view but they are not as mellifluous as I would like -- and one spends more time explaining words that are to be used as shorthand than the actual positions under consideration.

Nor do I like reducing everything in church debates to the gay issue. Bishop Cavalcanti is my exemplar on this point. Should his views on human sexuality take precedence over his scholarly work and his social-economic teachings? Both were founded upon a reading of Scripture.

How then, GetReligion readers would you resolve this issue. More adjectives? A new vocabulary? Less descriptors and more quotes to allow individuals to self-identify? What say you?

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