African simony assertions from Religion News Service

As a good Protestant (in an Anglican context, of course), I reject the doctrine of purgatory -- that intermediate state after death where those destined for paradise "undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven." I am not as courageous, however, as the author of a recent piece in The Federalist. Denoucing the cult of saints as un-Scriptural and un-Christian on the day before Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII were celebrated as saints by the Vatican was a turn worthy of Ian Paisley in his prime. But I digress.

I am, nevertheless, tempted by the doctrine of purgatory for I have just spent 24 hours at the Atlanta airport -- the intermediate state for all travelers destined for the paradise of Florida.

Sanity was preserved, however, through application to my writing coupled with meditations on the devotional book I had packed for the journey: P.G. Wodehouse's Leave it to Psmith (1924). Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby joined the Earl of Emsworth, Psmith and the dastardly Rupert Baxter as companions on my journey.

The close of Leave it to Psmith -- a summary of its plot can be found here, but plots matter little in a Wodehouse piece -- finds Psmith unmasked as an impostor by the efficient Baxter. He is not the modern poet Ralston McTodd whom Lord Emsworth was sent to fetch from London. Yet Psmith can explain. When the peer mistook him for the poet at the Senior Conservative Club in London, Psmith decided to step into the breach and save him from the “inconvenience of having to return here without a McTodd of any description.”

His lordship digested this explanation in silence. Then he seized on a magnificent point. “Are you a member of the Senior Conservative Club?”

“Most certainly.”

“Why, then, dash it,” cried his lordship, paying to that august stronghold of respectability as striking a tribute as it had ever received, “if you’re a member of the Senior Conservative, you can’t be a criminal. Baxter’s an ass!”


We may laugh with Wodehouse and applaud his verbal dexterity -- but we should not laugh at the logic of the Earl of Emsworth. Whether it is called class, tribe or our crowd, most reporters face the temptation to write for a particular audience with whom they have shared assumptions, experiences and prejudices.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Modern newspaper readers -- and it is worse on the Internet -- are unlikely to stay with a story after the first few sentences unless it strikes their fancy. (I expect I have lost a good chunk of those who have clicked through to this article already.) To keep the reader’s interest a good reporter needs to find a hook that keeps them coming for more.

The trick for a reporter is not to let the hook overcome the story. A recent story released by the Religion News Service makes this error -- basing its reporting on assumptions rather than taking on the journalistic task of accurately reporting voices on both sides of a very hot topic.

The article entitled “Conservative Anglican leaders back Uganda anti-gay law” recounts a meeting last week in London of leaders of the conservative or traditional wing of the Anglican Communion. Eleven archbishops whose churches account for roughly two-thirds to three-quarters of the active members of the worldwide Anglican Communion released a statement at the close of their gathering.

The London-based Daily Mail interpreted the statement as a challenge to the Archbishop of Canterbury for the Church of England to clarify its stance on gay marriage. The lede of its article “Church of England split fear as African bishops speak out over clergy flouting a ban on same-sex weddings” stated:

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby was last night facing mounting pressure to crack down on clergy who marry their gay partners -- as the threat of a split in the Anglican Church grew.

A powerful group of conservative African Archbishops said they were ‘deeply troubled’ by liberal Western attitudes towards homosexuality and that Church of England clerics were flouting a ban on same-sex weddings.

From the statement, which enumerated local concerns held by the various archbishops, the Daily Mail highlighted the closing two paragraphs, which focused on the traditionalists’ displeasure with Archbishop Welby for waffling on gay marriage.  The church press in England and the United States also read the statement in this way. (That is how these Anglican documents are written, by the way, their hook comes just before the close.)

This RNS piece took a radically different approach to the story. It said nothing about the threat to the primacy of the Archbishop of Canterbury, but opened as follows:

WASHINGTON (RNS) Leaders of the conservative wing of the worldwide Anglican Communion equate the experiences of Ugandans who support a new anti-gay law with those of victims of an earthquake or a terror attack.

The Global Anglican Future Conference -- made up chiefly of Anglican archbishops in Africa, Asia and Latin America -- concluded a two-day meeting in London on Saturday (April 26) with a statement that expressed concern for violence in South Sudan and Northern Nigeria. It then said:

“We are equally concerned for the affected communities in Chile from the recent earthquake, terrorist attacks in Kenya, and the backlash from the international community in Uganda from their new legislation.”

In an odd interpretation of the document, RNS then moved to the recent contretemps over Uganda’s anti-homosexuality laws, even bringing on board President Barack Obama’s views on that legislation. The RNS piece then took a giant editorial leap.

But despite the GAFCON statement’s equation with catastrophes, the archbishops’ response seems more concerned with finances than outright support for the Ugandan law. The “backlash” line could be a reference to the loss of $140 million in financial aid and project support from the World Bank, the U.S. and other countries. According to IRIN, which covers humanitarian issues, this included $6.4 million intended for the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda, which backed the legislation.

Yes, you read that right. The key word was "seems."

This is a curious interpretation of the document at best. The phrase the “response seems more concerned with finances than outright support for the Uganda law” is speculation -- period. The two may seem to be connected in the mind of RNS and if this was a news analysis piece or an opinion article there is nothing untoward about RNS proffering this argument. Yet this article is billed as a news story.

Let me digress (again). I have a degree of knowledge about the individuals and institutions under discussion after covering the overseas Anglican world since 1998. I have interviewed the last three archbishops of Uganda and discussed the issues facing the church in private chats as well as in formal interviews. In my opinion the opinion expressed by RNS about the connection is specious nonsense.

Not that there is anything wrong with that, as George and Jerry tell us. But to make their argument RNS should have done some reporting with real Ugandans.

Rather than ask the Church of Uganda, whose press office is quick to respond to queries from overseas reporters, RNS makes a further assumption that is not supported by facts linked to sources. The key statement -- the “ 'backlash’ line could be a reference to the loss of $140 million” -- could easily have been checked. Or RNS could have read the myriad reports in the church press as well as in the Ugandan press about the anger felt by Ugandans over what they see as the racist and patronizing attitude of the West.

In other words, there are multiple points of view on these complex issues. Find them. Quote them.

The RNS article then lurches off in a contrary direction, noting that the Church of Uganda has refused to accept funds from the Episcopal Church in the USA following the 2003 consecration of the “gay bishop” of New Hampshire. Let’s think this through.

The Ugandan Anglican Church has refused to accept what it believes to be tainted money -- money with American strings attached -- yet the Ugandan Anglican Church would now be perturbed over funds being withheld by Western aid agencies?

So which is it? The archbishops, RNS believes, are guilty of simony. Are Ugandans for sale or are they not for sale? Or are they just haggling over the price? What price their scruples?

As an aside, the spigot of American Episcopal money began to close following the 1998 Lambeth Conference. I shared a taxi with the Bishop of Washington, whose diocese at that time underwrote a number of Uganda projects, at the close of the once every 10-year meeting of Anglican bishops. He was livid with the Church of Uganda for refusing to support pro-gay statements supported by some liberal bishops and told me that he would do his best to cut off the flow of funds. (Which he did.)

After noting that American conservative Anglicans had no comment on the Ugandan legislation in relation to the statement, RNS then sought opinion from the hard left of the Episcopal Church and a liberal white South African, who gives an extraordinary statement. A man described as a “South African professor with friends in Uganda” (what an odd way to establish credentials for speaking about events in Uganda) is quoted as saying:

“You just don’t physically threaten and punish people with whom you have theological differences,” said Gerald West, a professor in the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. South Africa has laws that protect people regardless of sexual orientation, and also allows same-sex marriages.

“What this Uganda law does is make it extremely difficult for the church to work with any integrity in any area,” said West. “I speak as an African and a South African when I say as a church, we have to fight such laws.”

Does West truly believe that anyone north of the Zambezi hears his voice as that of an African? Do we hear from someone from the majority camp responding to West's claims about a lack of theological toleration? Is discussion of doctrine under threat in Uganda or is it that certain acts that were criminal in the United States until Bowers v. Hardwick remain criminal in Uganda?

After playing to its American base, the RNS piece finally reports on what the Daily Mail and other outlets see as the main story.

The statement said that guidance from Church of England bishops that “those in same sex marriages should be admitted to the full sacramental life of the church is an abandonment of pastoral discipline.” It was unclear if the statement was referring to the ordination of gay priests or access for gay and lesbian Anglicans to receive the sacrament of Communion.

Perhaps RNS could have asked? The traditionalists have a press officer based in Sydney who is pretty good about responding to emails. Or, it could have written to any of the overseas primates. Their emails and telephone numbers are not secret -- one can pull them up on the internet quite easily.

And, what is meant by the use of the verb "allege" in this next paragraph?

Indeed, they alleged that British clergy are openly disregarding a ban on same-sex marriage for priests in the Church of England. Earlier this month, a Church of England chaplain defied the ban and wed his partner in a civil ceremony.

The first sentence questions the veracity of their claim that gay weddings are happening amongst Church of England clergy. Then the second sentence notes that their alleged claim just happens to be true. The article closes with a throwaway line about a recent contretemps involving the Archbishop of Canterbury:

However, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has “suggested that Christians in Africa could be killed if the church accepted gay marriage,” according to The Guardian.

This story too has been the subject of numerous articles in the press, and Welby has been repeatedly quoted clarifying and explaining what he meant by the statement. And it was not “could” be killed, but “would." Here is what Archbishop Welby said in a radio call in show:

In the last question of the show, the interviewer asked Welby

“A gay Christian listening to you though may have heard the message that he or she can’t marry their partner in their church because of the conniptions it would give to some African, dare we say less enlightened people, in Africa.”

To which the archbishop replied:

"Well I don’t think we dare say less enlightened actually. I think that’s a sort of neo-colonial approach and it’s one I really object to. I think it’s not about them having conniptions, getting irate, that’s nothing to do with it."

"It’s about the fact that I’ve stood by a graveside in Africa of a group of Christians who’d been attacked because of something that had happened far, far away in America, and they were attacked by other people -- because of that a lot of them had been killed. I was in the South Sudan a few weeks ago and the church leaders there were saying please don’t change what you’re doing, because then we couldn’t accept your help and we need your help desperately."

The bottom line is that this story falls short of the journalistic standards RNS has set for itself as a professional reporting outlet. Note, once again, that this article was not labeled as a commentary or a work of analysis, yet it "seems" to me that this is what we are dealing with in this case.

Now let me state the obvious. I am a conservative Anglican and I have covered many events, especially for the church press, linked to GAFCON, Anglicans in the Global South and other topics linked to the subject material in this RNS article. I also know that this GetReligion post is, naturally, a work of advocacy writing reflecting my point of view. Thus, I am openly advocating for news coverage that quotes key leaders representing a variety of stances linked to this controversy. I am openly advocating for journalistic coverage that lets key Anglican players speak for themselves, rather than having their beliefs and motives warped by speculation.

Let's be clear. What we have here is an article that is unbalanced, logically and linguistically challenged, and unaware of the many different points of view found in the Anglican world. I find the characterizations of the conservative archbishops and the Ugandans unfair at best -- there is a strong hint of American navel gazing here. While the Ugandan angle was a clever one to interest a particular reader demographic, this editorial gimmick stepped on the real story.

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