Winter 2005, Vol. 7, No. 3

Table of Contents
Winter 2005

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Our New Religious Politics

Religion Gap Swings New Ways

A Certain Presidency

Schiavo Interminable

Iraq's Sunni Clergy Enter the Fray

Windsor Knot

Protestants in Decline

The Televangelical Scandal That Wasn't

Channeling Bleep

Cut-Rate Religion Coverage



Windsor Knot
by Michael McGough

On October 18, 2004, Archbishop Robin Eames, the Anglican primate of all Ireland, appeared at a news conference in London to unveil the voluminous report of the Lambeth Commission he chaired on three developments that threatened to fracture the Anglican Communion: the elevation of V. Gene Robinson, “a priest in a committed same sex relationship,” to the bishopric of New Hampshire; the decision of the Canadian diocese of New Westminster to authorize a blessing service for same-sex marriages; and the activities of conservative bishops who had been functioning as “reverse missionaries” in the United States, treading on the turf of local liberal bishops.

As a milestone in the Anglican Communion’s handling of what British tabloids called the “gay bishop row,” Eames’ presentation of what came to be known as the Windsor Report was good copy for popular and highbrow journalism alike.

How did the press do? The short answer is that newspapers around the English-speaking world gave predictably short shrift to the report’s ruminations about the theory, practice, and scriptural foundations of “communion” between independent churches that trace their lineage to the Church of England. They did a much better job—within a conventional journalistic groove—of covering the commission’s practical recommendations and reactions to them from partisans on both sides of the “row.” Even here, however, there were some lapses.

At his press conference, Archbishop Eames said, “I am glad to be able to commend this Report to the members of our Communion and to the wider world this morning.” But the notion that most reporters would be parsing the Windsor Report for its ecclesiology, invocations of Christian charity, or nuanced approach to the interpretation of Scripture was a pious hope.

Reporters may have dutifully read the report’s theological and scriptural arguments for preserving communion among the far-flung provinces of the Anglican tradition, but they weren’t about to lead off their stories this way: “A commission formed by the archbishop of Canterbury to examine dissension in the Anglican communion over issues related to homosexuality yesterday said that church unity is rooted in the Trinitarian life and purposes of the one God, ‘the specific practical embodiment and fruit of the gospel itself, the good news of God’s action in Jesus Christ to deal once and for all with evil and to inaugurate the new creation.’” Get me rewrite!

To be fair, reporters who skimmed over this sort of theological analysis can argue that it was boring, the ecclesiastical equivalent of committee-speak, and banal. Indeed, stripped of its scriptural and historical citations, the message of the report could be reduced to the Gospel According to Rodney King: “Why can’t we all just get along?” Still, some greater attention to both the text and the context of the report would have helped readers to understand that the dispute in the Anglican controversy was more than the Culture War at Prayer.

Instead, even before Eames’ news conference, most journalists characteristically had cut to the chase. Like Supreme Court correspondents whose editors want to know who won and what happens now—rather than to be treated to a deconstruction of the legal theory of the majority opinion—reporters covering the release of the Windsor Report composed “nut grafs” that focused more on what happened than why.

And what happened was that the commission had rebuked the North American dioceses for their unilateral inclusiveness, told them to declare a moratorium on such divisive actions, and even asked them to express “regret” for scandalizing their fellow Anglicans by ignoring a 1998 reaffirmation by the world’s Anglican bishops that homosexual practice was incompatible with Scripture. Then, in a conspicuous attempt at balance, the commission also issued a cease-and-desist order to conservative bishops for their poaching in other prelates’ patches, which the report called a violation of “traditional and often-repeated Anglican practice.”

Before the beginning of the next news cycle, journalists in Britain, North America, and Africa were honoring another  journalistic convention by seeking “reax”—from liberals (like Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold of the  Episcopal Church of the USA, who offered a grudging expression of regret that fell short of an apology); from conservatives (like Bishop Robert Duncan of  Pittsburgh, who told the Washington Post that the Windsor Commission was “more concerned about keeping the family together than it is about the truth of the Gospel”); and from the African bishops whose antipathy to homosexuality was an important factor in the crisis that prompted creation of the Lambeth Commission.

The leading African critic of what the Nigerian press calls “homosexualism,” Archbishop Peter Akinola, the primate of all Nigeria, made it easy for reporters by promptly issuing a statement faulting the commission for failing “to confront the reality that a small, economically privileged group of people has sought to subvert the Christian faith and impose their new and false doctrine on the wider community of faithful believers.”

Many newspapers, particularly in the United States, aggressively localized the story, some in their first dispatches and others in detailed follow-ups that suggested that Archbishop Eames might have entertained at least two pious hopes. If the first was that the press would read the actual language of the report; the second was that partisans in parsonages and pews alike would be inspired by the report to subordinate their strong views to the greater good of peace in the Communion.

In general, the English language press did a creditable job of summarizing the Windsor Report’s “action agenda” (as a business consultant might call it) and tracking the reaction to it. But even within this familiar frame a few of the brushstrokes were blurry.

For example, several reporters—for Newsday, Cox Newspapers, UPI, the Associated Press and the Norfolk Virginian Pilot—reported that the commission had asked the American bishops to “apologize” for consecrating Gene Robinson as a bishop. But the actual (if arguably hairsplitting) language of the recommendation was as follows: “The Episcopal Church (USA) [is] invited to express its regret that the proper constraints of the bonds of affection were breached in the events surrounding the election and consecration of a bishop for the See of New Hampshire, and for the consequences which followed, and that such an expression of regret would represent the desire of the Episcopal Church (USA) to remain within the Communion.”

The difference is important, because as long as an “apology” was not on demand, Griswold can be said to have heeded the commission’s plea when he allowed as how “we regret how difficult and painful actions of our church have been in many provinces of our Communion”—a comment he coupled with an affirmation of the presence and positive contribution of gay and lesbian persons “to every aspect of the life of our church and in all orders of ministry.”

Some papers, including USA Today and the Providence Journal-Bulletin, stuck to the language of the report and referred only to “expression of regret.” Laurie Goodstein’s October 19 article in the New York Times had it both ways, saying that the U.S. church was being asked to apologize but also quoting Griswold as saying the report itself didn’t use that word.

The second problem with coverage of the “action agenda” is that some papers did not highlight the fact that the Windsor Report criticized the right as well as the left by urging conservative bishops not to interfere in the dioceses of liberal ones. Yet the language and tone of that recommendation was every bit as judgmental as that in the section dealing with Robinson’s consecration: “We call upon those bishops who believe it is their conscientious duty to intervene in provinces, dioceses and parishes other than their own: to express regret for the consequences of their actions, to affirm their desire to remain in the Communion, and to effect a moratorium on any further interventions.”

An otherwise comprehensive report in the October 19 Washington Times buried that recommendation and devoted more space to criticism of it offered by Diane Knippers of the Institute of Religion and Democracy, who said the report equated “the arsonist who started the fire and the fireman who must take an ax to the door in order the save the innocents caught in the burning building.”

Finally, perhaps because ecclesiology isn’t as sexy as sexuality, several papers provided spotty coverage or none at all of the Windsor Report’s intriguing suggestion that the archbishop of Canterbury be given new authority such that, while it wouldn’t  make him an Anglican pope, would lead to more centralization than has been the custom in Anglicanism. Specifically, the report says that “the historic position of the Archbishopric of Canterbury must not be regarded as a figurehead, but as the central focus of both unity and mission within the Communion.”

Granted, the report undermines its own recommendation by advocating a “Council of Advice to the Archbishop to assist him in discerning when and how it might be appropriate for him to exercise a ministry of unity on behalf of the whole Communion.” The proposal was still significant, yet generally not given its due. Nor was a related proposal for a “common Anglican Covenant which would make explicit and forceful the loyalty and bonds of affection which govern the relationships between the churches of the Communion.”

If these recommendations were to be enacted, Canterbury would acquire the capacity to impose some measure of discipline on the far-flung members of its Communion—a sea change in the history of Anglicanism.

No less an expert than the current archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has observed that the Communion is “wary of a central executive power.” But Williams also asked, before his elevation: “How far can the Anglican Communion survive without some mechanism of authority more robust than currently exists?”

Although the release of the Windsor Report is now yesterday’s news, what the Lambeth Commission calls its “reception”—the ecclesiastical equivalent of journalistic “reax”— continues with a meeting of Anglican primates scheduled for February and the decennial Lambeth Conference set for 2008. In short, the beat goes on, and for those who cover it there is cause for pride and room for improvement.



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