The Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee is trying to find a successor to Bishop Bertram Herlong, and its 14-ballot roller coaster of an election, still unresolved, shows the profound divisions within the diocese. Jeannine F. Hunter of The Tennessean scratched the surface of those divisions in a story published the day before the election. She quoted people on both sides, but liberals within the diocese used more pointed language and, in practice, controlled who claimed what labels.
Consider these paragraphs:
The Rev. Ann Walling, assistant to the rector at St. David's in West Meade, said even before 2003, individuals who took moderate and progressive theological positions found themselves "marginalized in terms of inclusion in the life of the diocese."
She said evidence of division includes churches removing the word "Episcopal" from church signs; diminished support to long-standing mission congregations; refusal by some churches to accept female ordination or denial by some clergy to receive Holy Communion with "those of moderate points of view."
"All in all we are in a very distressing situation," she said, adding that many long for a return to a "mode of acceptance of a great diversity of perspectives."
Susan Huggins, spokesperson for Continuing Episcopalians of Tennessee, which opposes affiliation with ACN, said that tomorrow's election could "determine the direction of this diocese."
The Nashville-based organization believes ACN intends to disenfranchise ECUSA, Huggins said. Her group seeks to move the diocese back to the middle ground, she said.
Notice especially how the words moderate and progressive flow together so effortlessly, not just in direct quotations but in Hunter's paraphrases, leaving the impression that the only extremists in the diocese are mean conservatives.
This election is far more complex than Hunter's story suggests. All four nominees say they would have voted against confirming Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire, which in today's Episcopal Church makes them fairly conservative. But two of the candidates -- James Magness and Winston Charles -- have left open the possibility of changing their minds in the future about the wisdom of consecrating openly gay bishops or blessing gay couples.
The two other candidates, Neal Michell and Brian Cox, are affiliated with the Anglican Communion Network -- which, along with the American Anglican Council -- has become the bete noir of the Episcopal left. But neither Cox nor Michell has said he will try to affiliate the diocese with the Network, and both have criticized it in meet-the-candidate forums. Both Michell and Cox clearly say they have no intention of trying to withdraw the diocese from the Episcopal Church.
As the results from Saturday's voting demonstrate, moderates -- at least those who can find a compromise between two firm convictions -- are in short supply in the diocese these days. Instead, the diocese has passionate camps of conservatives and liberals who know what they believe and fight for it, even if that means a marathon of futile ballots. It makes for much more interesting and informative reporting than The Tennessean has managed.
(Disclosure: I've written admiringly about nominee Brian Cox's ministry of reconciliation before and consider him a friend. Clearly I have no vocation as an episcopal kingmaker: Cox consistently placed fourth.)