Something very interesting is going on in the mainstream media's coverage of the decision by the Diocese of Pittsburgh to leave the U.S. Episcopal church and align with conservative Anglicans in the Province of the Southern Cone in South America. As I mentioned before, journalists have finally grasped that there is more to this story than a fight over an openly noncelibate bishop in New Hampshire. So what is the fight really about? Reporters and editors are still stuggling to get that into words.
Consider this breaking news story about the Pittsburgh vote by the Associated Press. Here's the lede:
Clergy and lay members of the theologically conservative Pittsburgh diocese voted overwhelmingly Saturday to break from the liberal Episcopal Church, with which it differs on issues ranging from homosexuality to biblical teachings on salvation.
Now that's interesting. There certainly are doctrinal disputes among Episcopalians and Anglicans about salvation, especially the question of (tmatt trio alert) whether salvation is found in the name of Jesus Christ, alone. You may remember some very interesting quotes about that issue from Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. She bluntly said Jesus is the way to salvation for Christians. Period.
But what are these doctrinal wars actually about? How should reporters describe this wider dispute, in an age of fewer and fewer words and inches of type in newspapers? Later in this same AP report, we read:
Clergy and lay members on both sides of the aisle were impassioned before Saturday's vote. Several opposed to splitting from the national church acknowledged disagreeing with its more liberal teachings -- including a more "inclusive" salvation that doesn't rely on Christ's crucifixion alone. But many said staying in the church was the only way to remedy those teachings.
Say what? The word "inclusive" is helpful, I guess, but the rest of that statement makes it sound like the Episcopal left believes that salvation is found through the cross -- plus something else. What does that mean? Frankly, it sounds like the reporter is paraphrasing comments made by conservative Anglicans, but is not sure what the words mean.
For another glimpse into this struggle, let's take a second look at that New York Times story that I praised earlier. It included this passage that is causing some of the Episcopal Church's media pros to get upset at a newspaper that ordinarily is their bread and butter.
The dispute includes complaints that the national church allows open debate on whether Jesus is the Son of God, or that the only way to God is through Jesus -- tenets of faith that conservatives find indisputable.
Over at the conservative online fortress Stand Firm In Faith, people are discussing an objection to that paragraph that has been raised by the Episcopal powers that be on a listserv.
Here's the heart of the matter from former New York Times and Washington Post reporter James Naughton -- now the communications director for the powerful Diocese of Washington, D.C.
To my knowledge, there is no debate in our church over whether Jesus is the Son of God. I don't know whether everyone who finds his or her way into a church on Sunday believes it, but it isn't as though the issue is open to dispute in any serious way. We proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God in our Prayer Book. This understanding infuses our hymns. We profess it every Sunday as part of our Creed. We teach it in our seminaries. There is absolutely no movement to change this bedrock element of our faith.
To suggest that we do not believe that Jesus is the Son of God is to call the integrity of our faith into question.
I guess the key word in this debate is "debate." There are, of course, many different viewpoints in the modern and post-modern Episcopal Church about the nature of the divinity of Jesus -- from the traditional point of view to Newark-ian views that use traditional language, but who knows precisely what those words mean?
But note -- are these views openly debated? Not really. They're just out there, part of on ongoing effort to hold a church together with the words of worship, but with the precise definitions of the words left up to the local diocesan bishop to enforce or not enforce. At the heart of the dispute is this question: Are Anglicans supposed to have precise, common doctrines on these kinds of issues in the first place?
Meanwhile, it's interesting to note that Naughton does not argue that the liberals and conservatives are united in the belief that the "only way to God is through Jesus" (at least, he does not mention this in the listserv items Stand Firm has chosen to circulate). And if Jesus is not the way, the truth and the life -- instead of a way, a truth, etc. -- then this raises questions about the status of Jesus as the Son of God, as traditionally understood.
This is complicated material and hard to condense into crisp, short phrases. Reporters are going to have to ask lots of follow-up questions and be very careful when they paraphrase the results. May I make a suggestion? This is a perfect chance to offer back-up online materials, using verbatim question-and-answer transcripts to let people on both sides -- left and right -- explain their views in their own words. Just do it.
UPDATED: The New York Times story on the actual vote stuck to the wording that is being protested by the establishment Episcopal communicators:
The movement is driven by theologically conservative leaders who believe the church has turned away from traditional biblical teachings on issues like whether Jesus is the son of God and the only way to salvation.
So here's a question: What do you think that the conservatives said, that the reporter is trying to paraphrase in the statement about Christology?