Anglican wars rage on in Virginia

AnglicanBomb1 01 01Here's a quick follow-up post on the conflict free Baltimore Sun piece on the election of the amazingly controversy free bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. You just knew that the local, regional, national and global Anglican wars couldn't stay out of the Washington-Baltimore headlines for long. Both Washington newspapers have newsy reports up about the latest round of the battle of Northern Virginia, which is a regional fight with national implications for a laws in a wide variety of mainline and liturgical churches. Both the Washington Post and the Washington Times jumped right on the heart of this story, which is that the Anglican wars here in the DC area are raising constitutional issues that, obviously, have national implications in all kinds of pews.

The central irony in all of this is, on this day, in the shadows: The leaders of mainline churches today are radically divided on what the ancient creeds mean, so they are left to seek unity in the tortured language of laws about property, pensions and endowments. This has, for several decades, been the larger story -- the forest -- among the trees of the local conflicts. Here's the lede from Michelle Boorstein and Jacqueline L. Salmon at the Post:

A Fairfax County judge has given an initial victory to conservatives from 11 Virginia churches in their battle to keep tens of millions of dollars in buildings and land after breaking away from the Episcopal Church.

The decision is a first step in a multi-trial case and does not settle who gets the properties. But it is a boost to the breakaway churches and to a national movement that is battling the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion, over what it believes to be an un-biblical liberal slant in the national church.

And for those keeping score on the "how many churches are leaving" games, the Post took the safe route and quoted the people who actually have good reason to be charting this statistic. Then, later in the story, another disputed statistic turns up in the actual court records:

About 200 congregations out of more than 7,000 in the Episcopal Church have broken away in the dispute, according to the Anglican Communion Network, a national umbrella group of conservative Episcopalians. Lawsuits also have been filed in California and Ohio over who gets to keep the properties there. ...

The ongoing battle has taken its toll on the Virginia diocese. Although only 7 percent of its congregations have left the diocese, those churches account for 18 percent of its average Sunday attendance, according to court documents.

Over at the Washington Times, veteran religion writer Julia Duin got the constitutional issue right in the lede (which, frankly, is a bit of a challenge in light of how complicated all of this language is).

The Episcopal Church yesterday denounced as an unconstitutional violation of religious freedom a Fairfax judge's decision favoring a group of 11 breakaway conservative churches based on a Civil War-era Virginia law on church divisions.

Circuit Judge Randy Bellows declared that a "division" had occurred in the Diocese of Virginia, the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion in the long-running dispute over biblical authority and sexuality. The judge ruled that Virginia's 1867 "division statute" therefore could, pending rulings on other issues, let the parishes leave with their property.

"We are obviously disappointed in yesterday's ruling," said a statement from Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori about the 83-page decision released late Thursday night. The decision "plainly deprives the Episcopal Church and the Diocese, as well as all hierarchical churches, of their historic constitutional rights to structure their polity free from governmental interference," she said, "and thus violates the First Amendment and cannot be enforced."

schori 01 01And here is the section of the story that will be read, with concern, in the headquarters of several mainline and liturgical churches. In particular, the United Methodists and oldline Presbyterians are now on high alert.

Doug Smith, executive director for the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy in Richmond, called the judge's decision "chilling," adding leaders of other mainline denominations represented by his center are "gravely concerned."

"It seems that government is attempting to take over governance of the Episcopal Church," he said. "This preliminary ruling puts every hierarchical denomination on notice that a group of persons who no longer wish to be part of the particular denomination can now split off, form a new group, self-declare they are a branch of the original group and assert rights under law regardless of the denomination's own rules."

The next step is a legal battle over the constitutionality of the Civil War-era law. Lawyers for the Anglican District of Virginia -- an umbrella group for the 11 churches -- the diocese and the Episcopal Church will argue the case May 28 at the Fairfax County courthouse.

So there is your update. Let me sign off with one additional comment about language.

Note the language that the Post used to describe the actual cause of all of this conflict. For the Post, this is all a matter of opinion on the Anglican right, which means that there is a national -- note, not global -- movement of churches upset about what "it believes to be an un-biblical liberal slant in the national church." This is merely a matter of opinion on the right, you see.

Over at the Times, the emphasis is different. The Anglican wars are rooted in a "long-running dispute over biblical authority and sexuality." In other words, this is not a problem being caused by an opinion, a mere matter of interpretation, on one side. There are facts here -- a doctrinal dispute that exists. There are facts that can be quoted, there is non-judgmental language that can be used.

It's a subtle thing, with the Post using language that suggests that the wars are being caused by a matter of opinion on the right. The Times, meanwhile, says that the conflict exists. Period.

Personally, I think it's a good thing when newspapers stick to facts and, whenever possible, avoid using opinion language. I mean, who can deny that there is a conflict here over matters of doctrine linked to biblical authority and sexuality? Would anyone on the left deny that? The dispute is over who is right and who is wrong. But this split is being caused by a real conflict over doctrine. That's a fact.

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