The latest Vatican spy thriller?

View along the river Tiber towards The Vatican

The Associated Press has a story about three Church of England bishops who traveled to Rome last week to discuss the possibility of joining with the Catholic Church:

Rev. Keith Newton, the bishop of Richborough, said the trip consisted of "nothing more than exploratory talks" and denied a report in The Sunday Telegraph that he and his colleagues had secretly promised the Vatican they were ready to defect to Rome.

And, before we discuss that excerpt, let's look at the headline: "British bishops in defection talks with Vatican."

Defection? Really?

I know it's a dramatic word, but it's really best used in John Le Carre spy thrillers or when the Cuban baseball team comes to town. It's a political word and one with negative connotations when it's used to describe what, in reality, are religious conversions -- from one church to another.

It's also just imprecise. The dictionary says it can mean to disown allegiance to one's country and take up residence in another or to abandon a position to join an opposing group. That's a great way to describe a change of political parties. But we use different language -- or should -- to talk about religious changes.

I'm actually surprised that the story ran far and wide with that same headline.

The reader who submitted the story made me laugh with these comments:

I would like to buy someone a dictionary after reading the title of the article. "Defection"? What about conversion or something else? (I won't suggest "reunification" though a Catholic would consider it such.) We aren't talking about getting a high level agent in Canterbury to switch allegiance and working for the albino assassins in Rome. Life is not a Dan Brown novel, praise God.

This reminds me of how the Knights of Columbus were described as the "Political arm" of the Church, like a sort of Sinn Fein operation.

Indeed. This is a dramatic enough issue as it is. It's sensitive for all sides. But we in the press need to treat any such decisions -- to stay or to leave the Church of England -- with a bit more respect and humility.

Just refer to the change as a conversion. That's the best word to refer to the adoption of a different church, of a different approach to the faith, a different tradition.

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