Church splits, as anyone who's ever been unlucky enough to endure one can tell you, are difficult. Writing about them is difficult, too. The point of disagreement leading to a break might not be the same for everyone. Different causes get lumped together. Personalities are wounded. It can be a mess. The Oregonian attempted to write about a recent congregational split at St. Matthew's Episcopal Parish. The story isn't bad, but it does have some errors:
For the second week, two dozen people gathered in the wood and brick building on Northeast Prescott Street that has been their home for 55 years. An hour later, almost 100 of their former brothers and sisters in Christ, who recently declared themselves Anglicans, worshiped in rented space at Mt.Tabor Seventh-day Adventist Church. The storm that has battered the Episcopal Church in the United States has touched down in Portland.
"Brother and sister in Christ" is not a term that Christians use just for members of a given congregation. Typically, that term is used to describe anyone else who is a baptized member of the church. So unless both parishes have written off the other group as heathens, that's not quite the best phrase to use.
And about the Anglican business. This is tricky, sure, but both groups would consider themselves Anglican. The Anglican Communion includes the Episcopal Church in the United States. If you're an Episcopalian, you're an Anglican. But as the other group shows, being Anglican doesn't necessarily mean you're a member of the Episcopal Church in the United States -- even if you're geographically located in the United States.
Since the Episcopal Church in the United States decided in 2003 to accept the election of its first openly gay bishop, the denomination has been rocked with disagreements over biblical authority. With a reputation as a conservative congregation, St. Matthew's had for 66 years included people who read the Bible almost literally and others who interpreted it from more liberal points of view. But over time, that range grew problematic. On March 21, a majority of St. Matthew's members voted to leave the church.
Well, not just since 2003, of course -- but for decades prior to that. The denomination has been dealing with disagreements over biblical authority for at least 30 years, if not longer than that. The identification of the 2003 consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson is important, but the story goes back further than that. And what does "almost literally" mean? That phrase is meaningless enough to warrant a better description.
Still, the story is nice. It shows how different groups are reaching out to the congregation. It gives glimpses of the different worship services last Sunday. It puts the split in larger context, both for Oregon and North America. I didn't realize, for instance, that the Anglican Church in North America (founded last year) already had 805 congregations as members. And it gives members and clergy from both sides ample space to put forth their side of the story. In all cases, the quotes seemed well chosen and thoughtful:
[The Rev. David] Humphrey's words hinted at the division within St. Matthew's Episcopal Parish, where he had been rector since 2004 before resigning last month.
"We are a historic, orthodox, traditional church with a biblical understanding of the faith," Humphrey said in an interview last week. "We believe we are expressing our faith as it has always been expressed. But it seems that the national church is reassessing its understanding, redefining it in some ways." The "bonds of affection" that have held the Episcopal communion together have been stretched to the breaking point, he said.
And even though the Episcopal bishop declined to be interviewed for the story, the reporter worked to include his perspective as well. And that from a member of the continuing congregation:
Before the Episcopalian service, Toodie Butts, a member of St. Matthew's for more than 40 years, said the separation has been heart-wrenching. She said she didn't attend the year's worth of Bible studies and small group meetings that Humphrey said led to the March vote.
"I didn't want to leave," she said. "This is my church. They just decided to go, and I've never known exactly why. I was here last week, and I'm afraid I blubbered through the whole service. Hopefully, some of them will come back."
It's a sad story, as all stories about splits are bound to be. And yet the reporter handled the story delicately and fairly, allowing people to speak about their motivations and hopes and balancing those perspectives with other helpful information.