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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Post-Scriptum Post

In the last post, about Canadian Mormons, we noted in passing that Daphne Branham refers to the Warren Jeffs crowd and so forth as "breakaway Mormon sects." She uses that word "breakaway" six times, by our count. And we chuckle grimly.

Long ago, there was an exchange on GetReligion in which somebody -- Terry, we think, but maybe we're wrong -- complained about reporters who identified the bishops, priests, parishes and dioceses that left the Episcopal Church to form the Anglican Church in North America as "breakaway" bishops et cetera.

Father Anonymous wrote in to suggest that this was a theological objection, to which reporters for the secular press had no reason to be answerable. As a legal fact, the bishops, parishes and dioceses had left their parent church -- broken away, by any reasonable description.

Your correspondent was roundly shouted down, by commenters who tried to explain -- as though it hadn't been the entire point all along -- their shared belief that it was the PECUSA which had "broken away" from Anglican doctrine regarding sex and marriage, and that therefore the new organization was in effect actually the old one, and vice-versa. (All of which draws on the trope first adopted by Reagan and since cribbed by every dissatisfied neo- or theocon, "I didn't leave [my old home]; [my old home] left me.")

This may very well be an accurate theological statement, in a very narrow sense. (Narrow, since it ignores matters of church order and mutual tolerance which are also an integral part of Anglican theology.) But it misses the entire and not insignificant point that just as reporters ought not to indulge their partisan biases when reporting on politics, neither should they indulge their theological convictions when reporting on religion.

In other words, unless an article is really going to explore the theological issues to a depth that is nearly unheard-of (and far beyond the ability of most reporters), the prudent course of journalistic action is to stick with the conventional language of the secular world. And, as secular courts have held time and again, it is the ACNA which has broken away from the PECUSA, often attempting to carry off some PECUSA property while doing so.

So what about the Mormons? Basically, there are two kinds of Mormon schismatic: those whose ancestors squabbled over leadership after Joseph Smith's death in 1844, and those who continue to disagree with the "official" 1890 LDS teaching that polygamy is no longer acceptable. It is quite reasonable to argue that the first groups have not broken away from anything; they emerge from the same dispute which created the LDS properly so called. The second category, however -- the ones about whom Branham is writing -- have clearly and deliberately taken their leave of an organization which they consider corrupt. That is, broken away.

Our question, then, is whether any ACNA people will rush to defend Warren Jeffs from a hostile press, and demand that reporters no longer write of the convicted rapist and child molester as a "breakaway Mormon." After all, he didn't leave the LDS -- the LDS left him.


Mark Christianson said...

The "I didn't leave them, they left me" line certainly is designed to give comfort and justification to those who are leaving. But it is repugnant, to avoid putting it mildly. It is also theologically suspect. It assumes that the user of the line is a rock of stability, one whose views have not altered and who has not changed themselves. That is a possible but suspicious claim, especially since there seem to be many who have actually moved in the opposite direction in their opposition to whatever decisions their church had made.

But what makes it repugnant and theologically suspect is not the veracity of the claim that the church has moved around them, but the center of the claim itself. It is an inherently self-centered claim. It is the speaker who becomes the standard of measure. Even if it is true that they have had truly stable opinions on the matter at hand, it still fundamentally places their own judgement above that of others, including the duly constituted governance of the church body in question. It also places the emotional or ideological satisfaction of the speakers own needs and preferences over the needs and health of others or the whole. I'm reminded of Luther's description of sin as in curvatus se.

Father Anonymous said...

Yup. Or as we say in New York, "eggs-frickin'-zackly."