Back in the 1980s, when I was at the Rocky Mountain News, I covered the long legal battle between St. Mary's Parish and the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado. That important church-property case focused on the ordination of women, the 1928 Book of Common Prayer and related issues, with a group of Anglo-Catholics colliding with an evangelical-charismatic bishop who was a conservative on moral and cultural issues. The parish lost, but the congregation is still in the building today because former Bishop William C. Frey was willing to work with them to reach a settlement. Ah, another era.
The key to that whole case was that, as church tradition has held for ages and ages, "Where the bishop is, there is the Church." The bishop and the diocese was the heart of the church and the crucial legal authority.
Obviously, the Anglican/Episcopal wars have become much more complex in recent years here in the United States. The Episcopal Church, for example, has taken legal action to make the national church the prevailing legal authority, over the diocese, although that shatters centuries of tradition. Meanwhile, the Church of England is trying to stay neutral (sort of) and the largest Anglican churches in the world -- think Africa -- are backing the doctrinal conservatives who, in the American context, are a small body of rebels.
The press is trying to cover a story in which there are legions (and I choose that word carefully) of different stances on the whole issue of who owns what and who controls what assets, financial and otherwise. But the key is that the national church recently changed the rules in a manner that is quite innovative.
So you have conservatives -- for a host of reasons -- trying to break ties with the tiny, but rich, U.S. Episcopal Church in order to identify with the overwhelming majority of worldwide Anglicans on moral and doctrinal issues. But who gets to keep the buildings? Lawyers are salivating.
There are at least three crucial types of cases.
First of all, you have a few conservatives -- very few solid cases -- who are trying to keep their sanctuaries because their parishes are actually older than their dioceses. That's an interesting and complex issue and I do not know how the U.S. Supreme Court will handle that.
Second, you have conservatives who are trying to jump out of their local Episcopal dioeses, and keep their properties, even though their parishes were created after the legal formation of their local dioceses. Under the old Colorado case, their odds are slim and none. It's time to move on.
Third, you have a few cases in which an entire diocese is trying to leave the national church. Now, in terms of ancient church traditions and older laws, that is truly fascinating. One of these cases is unfolding in Fort Worth, Texas.
As I keep saying, I do not envy journalists who are having to cover these cases in accurate, fair language. The goal is to avoid framing the issues -- the language itself -- in ways that settle the legal and doctrinal issues before they are settled.
Take, for example this short Dallas Morning News report. This could have been drafted by the legal department of the U.S. Episcopal Church. Here's some of the crucial language:
Former Episcopalians and other conservative Anglicans who are holding a big organizing meeting in Tarrant County this June have snagged a high-profile speaker -- the Rev. Rick Warren. ...
He'll speak June 23 to the organizing assembly of the Anglican Church in North America at St. Vincent's Cathedral in the Tarrant County community of Bedford.
"We have gotten confirmation on that. We're expecting it," said Suzanne Gill, spokeswoman for Bishop Jack Iker, who leads a group of Fort Worth-area churches that left the Episcopal Church late last year.
The breakaway churches under Iker are joining several hundred others in creating the Anglican Church in North America. Iker and other leaders hope the new organization will become a conservative alternative to the Episcopal Church within the Anglican Communion. Whether the Anglican Communion will ever welcome into its ranks the Anglican Church in North America is unclear. Some Episcopal Church stalwarts say there's no precedent for dual provinces in the same area.
The key? Who is Iker?
In the newspaper, he is a cleric who "leads a group of Fort Worth-area churches."
You might also say that, for many years now, he has been the leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Forth Worth and he says that he still is, backed by the vast majority of his parishes and priests. For the majority of the world's Anglicans, but not for the U.S. Episcopal leadership, he still is the bishop of Fort Worth.
Note that the Dallas Morning News does not even mention this. The newspaper's editors have already settled an issue that has not been decided in the courts or in the global Anglican world.
The case has been settled by the progressive U.S. leadership and, apparently, that settles it for the News. There is no attempt to use language that describes the two clashing camps and their claims. There is no attempt to note the previous legal precedents -- backing centuries of church tradition -- that actually support the diocese.
What language could the newspaper have used if it wanted to be accurate, yet fair to the beliefs and traditions on both sides? That would have taken another paragraph or so, me thinks. But if you want to know how NOT to frame this local, regional, national and global issue -- look no further. You have your template.
First photo: Back by popular demand. Second photo: Bishop Iker on a parish visit.