Gentle readers, I am going to have to ask your patience for a few minutes as the former copy editor in me rages a bit. However, I have no idea what is going on at the moment at The New York Times' copy desk when it comes to handling the tricky issue of formal titles for clergy. I totally understand that some newspapers have their own unique styles and have, in fact, worked at one or two that had some strange pages added in the local style sections.
That is well and good. What I am trying to figure out is why the Times has done what it has done with clergy titles in its coverage of the Anglican world wars. I also wonder whether the lords of the copy desk will be consistent in applying the rules.
What do I mean? Consider, first of all, a very recent Times story about a Connecticut law that will require all hospitals to provide rape victims with emergency contraception. The Roman Catholic hierarchy is not pleased.
Archbishop Henry J. Mansell of Hartford and other church leaders argued that the legislation would conflict with Catholic beliefs, which state that life begins at conception and prohibit abortion.
This is the normal way to identify a clergy person -- the title goes before the name on first reference, uppercase. It is very common to see this condensed further, as in "Hartford Archbishop Henry J. Mansell." If the story involves clergy of several different churches, you might see "Catholic Archbishop Henry J. Mansell of Hartford."
This is the normal style and the Times seems to be using it consistently -- except with Anglicans and Episcopalians. What do I mean? Consider the latest developments in Northern Virginia, as described by reporter Neela Banerjee. Here is the opening of the latest story:
WOODBRIDGE, Va. May 5 -- The Anglican archbishop of Nigeria, Peter J. Akinola, on Saturday installed Bishop Martyn Minns of Virginia as the new leader of a diocese that would take in congregations around the country that want to leave the Episcopal Church. In doing so, Archbishop Akinola rejected requests by leaders of the worldwide Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church to refrain from taking part in the ceremony.
This contains a traditional reference to "Bishop Martyn Minns" as well as a rather roundabout reference to the "Anglican archbishop of Nigeria, Peter J. Akinola," who becomes "Archbishop Akinola" on the second reference. A few lines later, we see this unorthodox use of titles used again -- three times.
A decision by the Episcopal Church in 2003 to ordain an openly gay man, V. Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire outraged traditionalists in the United States and abroad, who believe that the Bible condemns homosexuality.
Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the Anglican Communion, sent a letter to Archbishop Akinola late last week urging him to cancel his plans to visit the United States. His letter repeated requests made by Katharine Jefferts Schori, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the American branch of Anglicanism. Bishop Jefferts Schori said that by attending the ceremony, Archbishop Akinola would heighten tensions between the Episcopal Church and many in the 77-million-member Anglican Communion.
Normal style, for those keeping score, would be "Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire," "Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams" and "Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal Church." Also, shouldn't that be "Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori" on second reference instead of merely "Bishop Jefferts Schori"?
What is going on here? Did style-committee members at the Times debate this issue and, in the end, decide that it is impossible to decide who is an Anglican bishop or archbishop at the moment and who is not? Did this result in a compromise for the newspaper of record to, as a rule, soften the use of clergy titles -- period?
All of this is, I know, very confusing. So much so that I can understand that journalists are perplexed when they hear from liberal Episcopalians who are sure that Bishop Minns is not a real bishop and from traditionalists who are sure that Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori is not a real priest, bishop or archbishop. These issues are at the heart of the current liturgical warfare.
How? OK, if Minns ordains a man as a priest, is he an Episcopal priest or is he an Anglican priest? Can he serve at an altar in London? In New York? On the other side, if Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori ordains a man or a woman as a priest, is that person a priest in Lagos? At all altars in the United States? This division goes beyond issues of gender, but strikes at the heart of Anglican doctrines of apostolic succession. What happens when several female bishops are involved in the consecration of a bishop? Is that person a bishop in parts of the Anglican Communion and not others? Who is keeping careful records on who is and who is not valid?
So how does a newspaper handle this, when it comes time to apply formal titles to these clergy? There is, after all, no way to make both sides happy. However, unless I am missing something, it appears that the Times is using this innovation in style for Anglicans and Episcopalians, but not in coverage of other churches.
It is also possible to see the battle over the titles affecting other publications, such as The Washington Post and its "missionary bishop" status for Minns. Has the Post printed a clear reference to "Bishop Minns" yet? A search for that title on the newspaper's website gets zero hits.
Meanwhile, The Washington Times continues to follow the Associated Press Stylebook, with simple first references to "Bishop Martyn Minns," "Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola," "New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson" and "Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams."
Let me stress again: There is content in this journalistic confusion, content that is at the heart of this regional, national and global story. There is good reason to be picky here. The words matter.
Photos: U.S. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.