A long Anglican road to Rome

In the fall of 1979, a cluster of Episcopalians made another trip to Rome seeking a haven for Anglo-Catholic believers anxious to exit their increasingly divided church. Vatican officials agreed that it was time to petition their new leader, the young Pope John Paul II. The document was prepared and then signed on the altar of the North American Martyrs at Rome's North American College. In it, members of the Society of St. Augustine of Canterbury and other like-minded clergy made a blunt request.

"We pray and beseech your Holiness to receive and accept us into the Roman Catholic Church," they wrote, "for we are sheep not having a shepherd and would return to the care of that Holy Apostle singularly commissioned by the Divine Lord to feed his sheep."

The pope soon said "yes." But that simply opened another chapter in a long, long, story, one that continues decades later.

There is certainly more to this story than headlines about a sudden decision by Pope Benedict XVI to commence sheep stealing in the wake of his "Anglicanorum Coetibus ("groups of Anglicans") pronouncement in 2009. This document allowed Anglican priests and congregations to join new "personal ordinariates," the equivalent of national dioceses, while retaining key elements of their liturgy, music and other traditions. The plan allows for married men to become priests, but not bishops -- as in Eastern Rite Catholicism.

In England, The Times knocked this 2009 plan, saying, "Rome has parked its tanks on the Archbishop of Canterbury's lawn." Today, tensions remain high on both sides of the Atlantic after a Jan. 1 announcement that the ordinariates are set to open.

It's almost laughable to call these developments "sudden" or the result of unilateral actions by the pope, said Father Allan Hawkins of St. Mary the Virgin Catholic Church in Arlington, Texas, a priest in the Church of England before coming to America. The roots of these events even predate the Episcopal Church's 1976 vote to ordain women as priests and later to the episcopate.

"The end of the '70s was important, but this really goes back to the Oxford Movement," said the 77-year-old priest, referring to a mid-1800s surge toward Anglo-Catholicism. While the ordination of women "made headlines, it was just a symptom of what was happening deep down. ...

"So many of us had yearned all our lives to be part of a church with a clear sense of authority. That yearning is what pulled us to Catholicism."

Converts had been "trickling into Rome" for decades, he noted. Still, more Anglicans made the move under the "Pastoral Provision" announced in 1980, which stopped short of creating a separate, Anglican-friendly "personal ordinariate."

Another pivotal moment came in the early 1990s, when the Church of England voted to ordain women. At that point, it appeared a sweeping "Roman Option" might become a reality, and the late Cardinal George Hume said the time was right for the "conversion of England for which we have prayed all these years. ... It could be happening -- a realignment of English Christianity."

But some in the British hierarchy stalled, including liberal Catholic who feared waves of traditionalist converts committed to conservative approaches to liturgy and doctrine. The key Vatican official in these talks, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, finally exclaimed: "What are the English bishops afraid of?"

Ratzinger, of course, is now Pope Benedict XVI. His years of personal contact with Anglicans seeking shelter eventually led to "Anglicanorum Coetibus."

Thus, on Jan. 22, Mount Calvary Church in Baltimore will enter the U.S. ordinariate -- the first Episcopal congregation that voted to take that step. Father Jason Catania, it's priest, expects to complete his own journey sometime this coming summer.

At that point, he will do something that once seemed unthinkable. Catania will kneel at his parish altar, as a Catholic priest, and recite one of Anglicanism's most famous texts -- the Prayer of Humble Access from the 1662 edition of The Book of Common Prayer.

"That's the prayer just before Holy Communion, the one that begins, 'We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table,' " said Catania, quoting from memory.

"That's when I will know that this has really happened, that we are finally home."

Why journalists (heart) the Episcopal Church

On a typical Sunday, 4,281 Episcopalians attend services in the world-famous Diocese of New Hampshire, according to official church reports. This isn't a large number of worshippers in the pews of 47 parishes -- roughly the same number that would attend weekend Masses in two or three healthy Catholic parishes in a typical American city.

Episcopal attendance in New Hampshire fell sharply between 2003 and 2007, which is the most recent statistical year available (pdf). Meanwhile, this diocese had 15,621 members in 2003 and 14,160 in 2007 -- a loss of 9.4 percent. The entire Diocese of New Hampshire is about the same size as many individual Protestant megachurches.

However, the influential bishop of this little diocese recently told the New York Times that things have been fine since 2003, when he was consecrated in a rite that rocked the global Anglican Communion.

"There are 15,000 people in the diocese of New Hampshire," claimed the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, in what he stressed was an exclusive interview during the national General Convention. This convention made more headlines by approving the selection of gays and lesbians for "any ordained ministry," which means Robinson may soon lose his status as the Episcopal Church's only openly gay, non-celibate bishop.

"We have received so many Roman Catholics and young families," he said, "particularly families who are saying, 'We don't want to raise our daughters in a church that doesn't value young people.' " In fact, the bishop insisted that his diocese "grew by 3 percent last year."

If this early 2008 report is true, then Robinson and his diocese will be in the news again -- offering proof that a liberalized Christianity can lead to growth, rather than decline. If that happens, many reporters will receive a smattering of calls and emails from amazed readers asking: "Why do the Episcopalians get so much news coverage?"

That's a good question, since the Episcopal Church -- with a mere 2 million members -- often draws more attention than the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God and several other major denominations combined.

What's going on? After 30 years on the religion beat, I have decided that several factors are at work.

* Many of the Episcopal Church's most vocal leaders -- such as Robinson -- work in the Northeast near elite media institutions. The church's national offices are in New York City. Meanwhile, Episcopal cathedrals elsewhere are usually in urban centers that dominate regional media. For journalists, the Episcopalians are nearby.

* Conservatives have, for decades, been on the outside looking in when the Episcopal establishment made crucial decisions, in part because many conservative dioceses are in the Sunbelt far from the action. But in the Internet age, even conservatives are seeking, and getting, more media attention.

* Colorful photographs and video clips are crucial and it's hard to offer compelling coverage of convention centers and churches full of clergy in dull business suits. Episcopalians, however, know how to dress up. In fact, their bishops even look like the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church -- the biggest religion-news game in town.

* The true religion of journalism is politics and Episcopalians love to talk politics -- from global warming to feminism, from multiculturalism to military spending, from national health care to gay rights. And in recent decades the denomination's stands on controversial social issues have meshed nicely with the editorial stands taken by America's most powerful media corporations.

The bottom line: Episcopalians wear religious garb, work in convenient urban sanctuaries and speak the lingo of progressive politics. Their leaders look like Catholics and think like journalists.

It also helps to remember that the Episcopal Church's roots connect to Church of England, which gives it a unique role in American history, noted Bishop William Frey of the Diocese of the Rio Grande, who was a media professional before seeking ordination. This small, well-established denomination has helped shape the lives of 11 presidents, 35 U.S. Supreme Court justices and legions of journalists.

Like it our not, the Episcopal Church occupies its own corner in the public square -- which leads to news coverage.

Is that a good thing? Sometimes Frey isn't sure.

"I can't understand why some people want the kind of media attention that we get year after year," he said, during one media storm in the 1980s. "I mean, that's like coveting another man's root canal."

Chopping that Anglican timeline

The resolution from the 1979 Episcopal General Convention in Denver inspired a small wave of headlines, even though it simply restated centuries of doctrine about marriage. "We reaffirm the traditional teaching of the Church on marriage, marital fidelity and sexual chastity as the standard of Christian sexual morality," it said. "Candidates for ordination are expected to conform to this standard."

However, 21 bishops disagreed, publicly stating that gay sexual relationships were "no less a sign to the world of God's love" as traditional marriages. These bishops -- including the Rt. Rev. Edmund Browning, who was chosen as America's presiding bishop six years later -- warned that since "we are answerable before almighty God ... we cannot accept these recommendations or implement them in our dioceses."

It was the start of an ecclesiastical war that has dominated the 70-million-member Anglican Communion for decades.

Then again, this conflict may have started in the 1960s, when Bishop James Pike was censured for his "offensive" and "irresponsible" views questioning the Virgin Birth, the divinity of Jesus, the Trinity and other ancient doctrines. And in 1977 a high-profile leader -- Bishop Paul Moore of New York -- created a firestorm when he ordained a priest who identified herself as a lesbian.

It's hard to understand this story without some grasp of this complicated timeline. However, news reports regularly chop off several decades, thus making it appear that these doctrinal clashes began with the 2003 consecration of V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire as the first openly gay, non-celibate Episcopal bishop.

"This whole conflict is actually about the Bible and how you interpret it," said the Rev. George Conger, a correspondent for The Church of England Newspaper. "The polite warfare has been going on for 30 or 40 years. The open warfare truly began in 1997, when the archbishops from Africa and the rest of the Global South met in Jerusalem and decided to let their voices be heard."

In addition to events in the late 1970s, other crucial dates on this timeline include:

* 1989 -- Bishop John Spong of the Diocese of Newark ordains the first homosexual priest who is openly living in a same-sex relationship.

* 1994 -- Spong drafts his Koinonia Statement affirming the ordination of gays and lesbians living in faithful, monogamous relationships -- with the support of 90 bishops. He also publishes his 12 theses for a liberal Reformation, rejecting belief in the transcendent, personal God of the Bible.

* 1996 -- An ecclesiastical court dismisses heresy charges against Bishop Walter Righter, after another controversial ordination. The court says Episcopalians have "no clear doctrine" clearly forbidding the ordination of persons who are sexually active outside of marriage.

* 1998 -- In a stunning defeat for the left, bishops at the global Lambeth Conference in Canterbury declare that sex outside of marriage, including gay sex, is "incompatible with scripture" and call for a ban on same-sex-union rites and the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals.

* 2000 -- Archbishops from Rwanda and Southeast Asia consecrate two American conservatives as missionary bishops, escalating global efforts to form an alternative structure for Anglican traditionalists in North America.

Since the consecration of Robinson, the Episcopal Church has made several attempts to appease the large, overwhelmingly conservative Anglican churches of Africa, Asia and other regions overseas. Meanwhile, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has attempted to calm nerves, while starting the process of creating a doctrinal covenant that he hopes will provide unity on issues of faith and practice.

However, early this week the U.S. House of Bishops voted -- by a 99-45 margin -- to allow dioceses to proceed with the selection of gays and lesbians for "any ordained ministry." This effectively overturned a resolution passed at the 2006 General Convention that urged dioceses to refrain from consecrating bishops whose "manner of life" would offend other churches in the Anglican Communion.

"The key question is whether this is a national story or a global story," said the Rev. Kendall Harmon, canon theologian for the conservative Diocese of South Carolina. "The way most people tell this story, America initiates things and then the rest of the world responds. Then America responds and you repeat this process over and over.

"You see, America is at the center of everything. It's the American church and its concerns that count the most. Meanwhile, Anglicans around the world are trying to tell a different story."

Walking in St. Tikhon's footsteps

It didn't take long for controversy to spread about the photograph taken after the consecration rites in 1900 for a new bishop in Wisconsin. Low-church Episcopalians called it the "Fond du Lac Circus" because of all the ornate vestments. Not only was Bishop Charles Chapman Grafton, who presided, wearing a cope and mitre, but so were the other bishops. Then there were was the exotic visitor on the edge of the photograph -- Bishop Tikhon of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Imagine the outrage if Tikhon had, as discussed beforehand, decided to take part in the laying on of hands at the moment of consecration. After years of service in America, the missionary later hailed as St. Tikhon of Moscow returned home and became patriarch, dying in 1925 after years of tensions with the new Communist regime.

St. Tikhon had "a vision, a vision of unity," said Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America, during recent events marking the birth of an alternative, conservative Anglican province in America. Early in the 20th century, some Orthodox leaders were willing to accept the "validity of Anglican orders," meaning they believed that Anglican clergy were truly priests and bishops in the ancient, traditional meanings of those words.

"It fell apart. It fell apart on the Anglican side, with the affirmation more of a Protestant identity than a Catholic identity," said Jonah, at the inaugural assembly of the Anglican Church in North America, held in Bedford, Texas.

"We need to pick up where they left off. The question has been: Does that Anglican church, which came so close to being declared by the other Orthodox churches a fellow Orthodox church, does that still exist?"

A voice in the crowd shouted, "It does!"

"Here, it does," agreed Metropolitan Jonah, stressing the word "here."

Thus, the Orthodox leader announced that he is willing to walk in St. Tikhon's footsteps by opening an ecumenical dialogue with this new body of conservative Anglicans, years after similar talks collapsed after the decision by Episcopalians to ordain women as priests and then as bishops.

The Orthodox and modern Episcopalians disagree on many other issues, from the authority of scripture to the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals as priests and bishops. These are the same issues that caused the creation of the conservative Anglican Church in North America, which has been recognized by many Anglican traditionalists in the Third World, but not by the hierarchy of the Church of England.

However, Jonah also focused attention on doctrinal issues that continue to cause tensions among the very conservatives he faced in Texas.

"I'm afraid my talk will have something to offend just about everybody," said the former Episcopalian, who was raised in an Anglo-Catholic parish before converting to Orthodoxy.

For example, "Calvinism is a condemned heresy," he said, and there are "other heresies that came in through the Reformation which have to be rejected" -- words that strike at the heart of the vital, growing Protestant wing of global Anglicanism. Jonah also stressed that, "For a full restoration and intercommunion of the Anglican Church with the Orthodox Church, the issue of ordination of women has to be resolved." The Anglican Church in North America has agreed to allow its dioceses to reach their own conclusions on this issue.

The tension in the room was real, but so was the appreciation for this gesture by the man who, literally, is the successor of St. Tikhon, said the Rev. George Conger, a Calvinist Anglican and correspondent for The Church of England Newspaper.

"What made much of what Metropolitan Jonah said palatable to the ACNA convocation was his transparent good will, and wry sense of humor," said Conger. "The phrase 'hard words said in love' is often trite, but Jonah's remarks ... were given and heard in this vein."

One the other side of this dialogue, Orthodox leaders are more than aware of the obstacles created by decades of tumultuous change in the Anglican Communion, said Father Alexander Golubov, academic dean of St. Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Seminary in South Canaan, Pa.

"Metropolitan Jonah will be trying to walk a thin line, but it is the same line that St. Tikhon tried to walk long ago," said Golubov. "Some of the issues he will face are the same. But there are issues he will face today that I do not believe anyone could have ever anticipated. We live in strange times."

Politics dominate 2008 religion

After waves of headlines about faith and politics, President-elect Barack Obama was the clear choice as the top Religion Newsmaker of 2008. The odds were also good that the Religion Newswriters Association would pick the White House race as its top news story. But there was a problem. There were so many faith-based issues in play during this election year that America's religion-beat specialists had trouble deciding which of these hot stories was No. 1.

In the end, this was the winning item: "Controversial sermons delivered in recent years by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright surface, resulting in pressure on Barack Obama, who eventually withdraws his membership in his church, Trinity United Church of Christ, Chicago. Meanwhile, John McCain rejects the endorsements of evangelists John Hagee, a critic of Catholicism, and Rod Parsley."

However, it's important to note that this RNA poll was held before two other stories broke, each demonstrating why it will be hard for the Obama administration to find middle ground in America's wars over religion and public life.

The first was the resignation of the National Association of Evangelicals official Richard Cizik, who drew fire when he endorsed civil unions for gays and lesbians and hinted that he was willing to compromise on gay marriage, as well. In an interview with National Public Radio, the veteran lobbyist said: "I'm shifting, I have to admit. I would willingly say I believe in civil unions. I don't officially support redefining traditional marriage, I don't think."

In the end, it was impossible for the association's leaders to ignore those crucial words, "I don't think."

Then, soon after that controversy, Obama was criticized by leaders on the secular and religious left for selecting another high-profile evangelical to give the invocation at his inauguration.

The Rev. Rick Warren of Saddleback Community Church had also made cautious statements suggesting a willingness to compromise on civil unions. However, Warren drew fierce attacks from gay-rights supporters due to his strong support for California's Proposition 8 ballot initiative, which defined marriage as the union of husband and wife.

The rest of the RNA top 10 looked like this:

(2) Led by Obama's example, Democrats reach out to religious voters. At a crucial stage of the campaign, Obama participates in a debate with John McCain moderated by Warren and held in his megachurch sanctuary. Conservative Christians are given a few moments in the Democratic National Convention spotlight.

(3) The selection of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as the GOP vice presidential nominee energizes evangelical activists, who are excited by her defense of unborn children -- both in her personal life and in public policies. Many religious conservatives reluctantly back McCain.

(4) The California Supreme Court legalizes gay marriage, but voters in November -- including a large majority of African-Americans -- approve a constitutional amendment enforcing a traditional definition of marriage. Gay marriage also fails at the polls in Arizona and Florida.

(5) Pope Benedict XVI makes his first U.S. visit, drawing massive crowds in Washington and New York. The pope also meets with a few Catholics who had been sexually abused by clergy and openly addresses their concerns from the pulpit.

(6) Backed by Anglican traditionalists in Africa, Asia and Latin America, conservatives alienated from the U.S. Episcopal Church appeal to the Anglican Communion to create a parallel jurisdiction -- the Anglican Church in North America. This open split follows decades of doctrinal fighting in the Episcopal Church, including the consecration of a noncelibate gay priest as a bishop five years ago.

(7) India is rocked by terrorist attacks, including a three-day siege in Mumbai that results in the deaths of almost 200, including an American rabbi and his wife at an Orthodox Jewish center. Authorities pursue links to radical Islamists in Pakistan. Meanwhile, fatal attacks on Christians in the eastern state of Orissa continue during 2008.

(8) The Chinese government makes strategic moves to suppress Buddhists seeking Tibetan independence in an attempt to stage peaceful Olympics games. Still, some demonstrations mar rites to pass the Olympic torch.

(9) Religious groups are hit by effects of a struggling economy and begin to face declines in offerings, forcing many to cut staff and expenses while the need for social services increases nationwide.

(10) Chaledean Archbishop Paulos Rahho is kidnapped and murdered in Mosul, Iraq. Meanwhile, Sunni and Shiite Muslim groups continue to trade attacks. Reports of stability increase toward the end the year, including the return of some persecuted Christians to their homes.

Gently fighting for Christmas

Merry Christmas. No, honest, as in "the 12 days of" you know what between Dec. 25 and Jan. 5.

If you doubt the accuracy of this statement, you can head over to the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. There you will find an interactive calendar that bravely documents the fact that, according to centuries of Christian tradition, the quiet season called Advent has just ended and the 12-day Christmas season has just begun.

So cease stripping the decorations off your tree and postpone its premature trip to the curb. There is still time to prepare for a Twelfth Night party and then the grand finale on Jan. 6, when the feast of the Epiphany marks the arrival in Bethlehem of the magi.

"You would be amazed how hard it was to find information on the World Wide Web about all of this," lamented Joe Larson, the USCCB's director of digital media. "We wanted to link to sites that would help tell Catholics what we believe about these seasons and why we do what we do -- or what we are supposed to do -- during Advent and Christmas. ...

"What we ended up with is definitely not a finished product, but we'll expand it in the future. We got the ball rolling this year."

The materials gathered at do not, at first glance, appear to be all that rebellious.

The website contains pull-down menus providing scriptures, prayers, meditations and biographies of the saints whose feasts are celebrated during these seasons. Note that the feast of St. Nicholas of Myra -- yes, that St. Nicholas -- was back on Dec. 6. Another page suggests family movies for the seasons, some obvious (think "The Nativity Story") and some not so obvious (think "Ernest Saves Christmas").

The Christmas season has always been complicated. Many early Christians celebrated the birthday of Jesus on May 20, while others used dates in April and March. Most early believers, however, emphasized the Jan. 6 feast of the Epiphany.

Then, sometime before 354, Christians in Rome began celebrating the Feast of the Nativity on Dec. 25, which created tension with the Eastern churches that were using different dates. Then, in 567, the Second Council of Tours established Dec. 25 as the nativity date, Jan. 6 as Epiphany and the 12 days in between as the Christmas season -- the liturgical calendar's biggest party.

The problem, of course, is that Advent now clashes with the 30-something or 40-something days of the secular season -- called "The Holidays" -- that begins with the shopping mall rituals of Thanksgiving weekend. For most Americans, Christmas Day is the end of "The Holidays," even though it is the beginning of the real Christmas season.

While many Christians still observe Advent -- especially Anglicans, Lutherans and other mainline Protestants -- some older Roman Catholics may remember when the guidelines for the season were stricter. In Eastern Orthodoxy, the season is still observed by many as "Nativity Lent."

"In a pre-Vatican II context, Advent looked a lot like Lent," noted Father Rick Hilgartner, associate director of the USCCB's Secretariat of Divine Worship. "It was the season you used to prepare for Christmas, the way Lent helps you prepare for Easter."

Today, it's even hard for priests to follow the rhythms of the church's prayers, hymns and rites, he said. Hilgartner said he tries to stay away from Christmas tree lots and shopping malls until at least halfway through Advent. He accepts invitations to some Christmas parties, even though they are held in Advent.

Now that it's finally Christmas, he feels a pang of frustration when he turns on a radio or television and finds that -- after being bombarded with "holiday" stuff for weeks -- the true season is missing in action.

"It would be different, of course, if we all lived in a monastic community and the liturgical calendar totally dominated our lives," said Hilgartner. "Then we could get away with celebrating the true seasons and we wouldn't even whisper the word 'Christmas' until the start of the Christmas Mass. But the church doesn't exist in a vacuum and we can't live in a cultural bubble. ...

"But it's good to try to be reasonable. It's good to slow down and it's good to celebrate Christmas, at least a little, during Christmas. It's good to try."

'No go' zones in UK -- again

The alleged crime took place at the corner of Alum Rock and Ellesmere roads in Birmingham, England, where an officer spotted two missionaries distributing "God's Bridge to Eternal Life" tracts.

The controversial pamphlets contained comments such as, "Throughout history individuals have tried many ways to gain or earn eternal life, but every attempt has been unsuccessful." There were Bible verses, such as, "Not by works of righteousness, which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us. Titus 3:5a."

What happened next has reopened a painful debate about so-called "no go zones," areas that may as well be off limits to British citizens who do not heed Islamic laws.

According to a statement by the Rev. Arthur Cunningham, the "police community support officer" told him "you're not allowed to preach ... here. This is a Muslim area. He said, 'You know, you guys are committing a hate crime here with what you're doing. I'm going to have to call you in and take you in.' Then he took his radio and he said something like, 'There's a hate crime in progress here. I need assistance.' "

This occurred three months ago, but legal actions by Cunningham and the Rev. Joseph Abraham have created a wave of new coverage. Both men carry American passports, although Abraham was born a Muslim in Egypt and then converted to Christianity.

While declining to discuss details, West Midlands Police officials have released statements saying their investigation found that the officer acted "with the best of intentions" and that "the PCSO has been offered guidance about what constitutes a hate crime and advice on communication style."

Another statement: "We would like to assure all communities that there are not any 'no go' areas in the West Midlands Police area and we will defend the rights of the individual to freedom of expression and religious faiths."

The "no go zone" debate began in earnest when Anglican Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester, who was raised in Pakistan in a family with Christian and Muslim roots, expressed fears that England is splintering into segregated communities of citizens living "parallel lives."

"It is critically important to all that the freedom to discuss freely and perhaps to have our views changed, whether in politics, religion or science, be encouraged and not diminished," wrote Nazir-Ali, in a newspaper essay that led to death threats against him.

Christianity and Islam are both evangelistic faiths, which creates sparks when their traditional, growing forms collide. However, Christian evangelism is banned in many Muslim lands and some Christian converts have faced death sentences as apostates.

In the Alum Rock case, the missionaries freely admit they were seeking converts. Abraham and Cunningham insist that they were told they would be physically attacked if they dared to return.

"The actions and words used by the officers were intimidating and were calculated to warn and-or frighten our clients and to have the effect of deterring our clients from lawfully expressing their opinions and manifesting their beliefs and to have a chilling effect on the exercise by them of their right to manifest their beliefs," according to a document prepared for police by activists at the Christian Institute. "Our clients were left with the understanding that they could not express their religious beliefs in Alum Rock Road without committing a hate crime."

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail has reported that the officer involved in this incident is active in the local branch of the National Association of Muslim Police. The West Midlands police force also made recent headlines when it accused a BBC Dispatches program -- entitled "Undercover Mosques" -- of distorting Muslim statements about terrorism.

All of this has led to heightened tensions about how to balance Muslim concerns with British laws.

"Freedom is not, of course, absolute. It is only possible in the context of the Common Good, where the freedom of each has to be exercised with respect for the freedom of all," according to a new essay by Nazir-Ali, in Standpoint magazine.

"Freedom of belief, of expression, and the freedom to change one's belief are, however, vitally important for a free society, and the onus must be on those who wish to restrict these in any way to show why this is necessary. Nor can we say that such freedoms apply in some parts of the country and of the world and not in others."

Dueling Anglican pulpits

There is nothing new about Anglicans worrying about the environment.

One of the Church of England's most famous hymns, after all, offers this somber vision of industrialization from poet William Blake: "And did the countenance divine shine forth upon our clouded hills? And was Jerusalem builded here among those dark satanic mills?"

Nevertheless, a recent sermon by the U.S. Episcopal Church's outspoken leader raised eyebrows as it circulated in cyberspace. Some traditionalists were not amused by a bookish discussion of bovine flatulence on the holiest day in the Christian year.

In her Easter message, Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori stressed that all Christians should let their faith shape their actions in real life and, thus, affect the world around them.

"How can you be the sacrament, the outward and visible sign, of the grace that you know in the resurrected Christ? How can your living let others live more abundantly?" she asked, before turning to environmental concerns.

"We are beginning to be aware of the ways in which our lack of concern for the rest of creation results in death and destruction for our neighbors," added Jefferts Schori, who has a doctorate in oceanography. "We cannot love our neighbors unless we care for the creation that supports all our earthly lives. ...

"When atmospheric warming, due in part to the methane output of the millions of cows we raise each year to produce hamburger, begins to slowly drown the island homes of our neighbors in the South Pacific, are we truly sharing good news?"

This short sermon seemed to focus more on affirming the doctrines of Al Gore than on proclaiming the reality of the Resurrection, said Father Kendall Harmon, canon theologian of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina and editor of The Anglican Digest. This is regrettable, since it's crucial for the modern church to do more to help protect the environment. This concern is, in fact, linked to Easter and to the ultimate hope for the renewing of God's creation, he said.

"The problem isn't so much what the presiding bishop said in this sermon, but what she all but left out of it," said Harmon. "The emphasis is totally on this one ethical dimension of our faith. ... That's important, but she didn't really connect it to what is the most important reality of all for Christians, which is that Jesus truly is risen from the dead and that really happened in time and in history and that changes everything -- literally everything."

On the other side of the Anglican aisle, the Easter message offered by the leader of a controversial missionary movement also addressed social issues, but did so after a strong affirmation of a literal resurrection.

Then, Bishop Martyn Minns linked the doctrine of the empty tomb to the church's belief that miracles continue today.

"I have seen it. I have seen men and women who were dead to the things of God come alive -- I have seen blind people be given their sight and I have seen sick people made well," said Minns, who leads the Convocation of Anglicans in North America. This is a network of conservative churches that have fled the Episcopal Church and are now linked to the Anglican Church of Nigeria.

"I have known people who were locked into patterns of abuse and addiction set free. ... I have witnessed broken marriages made whole and children who were lost brought back home."

It's crucial to note that these very different bishops begin with references to the Resurrection -- expressed in different ways -- and then build on that doctrine to talk about issues in modern life, noted Phyllis Tickle, an Episcopalian best known for writing "God Talk in America" and other books on spirituality and culture.

The bishops do have different reference points, she said.

Jefferts Schori seems to be "starting inside the church" and then saying, "Look out there. Look at the world and see what we need to go and do." Meanwhile, Minns is "starting inside the church" and then saying, "Come in here. This is what happens when the church is really alive."

The sad reality in Anglicanism today, she said, "Is that both of these leaders are talking to their people, to the people that they lead, but they are no longer part of the same body."

Blasphemy in the U.K.

The last successful prosecution under Britain?s blasphemy law was in 1977, when the publisher of the Gay News was fined for printing a love poem from a Roman centurion to Jesus.

In the most recent clash the nation's high court waved off an attempt by evangelicals to attack "Jerry Springer -- The Opera."

To no one's surprise, a coalition of powerful Brits has issued yet another call to kill the blasphemy law. It's a sign of the times.

"The ancient common law of blasphemous libel purports to protect beliefs rather than people or communities," said a statement backed by activists ranging from the creator of the BBC comedy "The Office" to the retired Archbishop of Canterbury. "Most religious commentators are of the view that the Almighty does not need the 'protection' of such a law. Far from protecting public order ... it actually damages social cohesion."

The conviction behind blasphemy laws is that cultures need some kind of religious order to maintain social cohesion, said Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester, a key voice in Britain's ongoing debates about faith and culture.

Defenders of Britain's law would insist, he noted, that "it provides some sort of basis to the British constitution, which is, of course, the queen and parliament, under God. So if you protect the queen and protect the parliament, then you also need to protect ... the honor of God."

But the question now is whether Britain can find a common set of values or laws, said Nazir-Ali, in a dialogue with journalists from around the world.

The timing of that 2006 seminar -- organized by my Oxford Centre for Religion & Public Life colleagues -- was crucial. Blasphemy was in the news because of Danish cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad. Then there would be more tension when Sudanese officials arrested a teacher for allowing her young class to name its teddy bear "Muhammad."

Nazir-Ali recently made headlines of his own when he claimed that radical forms of Islam have turned parts of England into "no-go zones" in which it is dangerous for non-Muslims to live, work and minister. The nation, he lamented, is breaking into "self-contained," segregated communities in which people live "parallel lives." The bishop and his family are living under police protection after receiving death threats.

"Converts to Christian faith also find it difficult or impossible to live in certain areas," noted Nazir-Ali, who was raised in Pakistan in a family with Christian and Muslim roots. "It is critically important to all that the freedom to discuss freely and perhaps to have our views changed, whether in politics, religion or science, be encouraged and not diminished."

Soon after this controversy, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams threw more fuel on the multicultural fire by saying that it "seems inevitable" that elements of Muslim Sharia law will be included in the British legal system.

In a complicated lecture, Williams said it might be possible to develop a "scheme in which individuals retain the liberty to choose the jurisdiction under which they will seek to resolve certain carefully specified matters." Sharia courts might be involved in some "aspects of marital law, the regulation of financial transactions and authorized structures of mediation and conflict resolution."

News reports about the archbishop's views created a firestorm. Critics stopped just short of accusing Williams of committing a secular brand of blasphemy, if that is possible in modern Britain.

As the headlines raged on, Nazir-Ali stressed that all of these conflicts point to one reality.

Sooner or later, he said, British leaders will have to decide whether to affirm or deny centuries of English law that is "rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition." The various schools of Islamic law that exist today, he stressed, bring with them their own traditions and assumptions and compromise will be next to impossible.

"The Sharia is not a generalized collection of dispositions. It is articulated in highly concrete codes," he wrote, at his diocesan website. "It would have to be one or the other, or all, of these which would have to be recognized. All of these schools would be in tension with the English legal tradition on questions like monogamy, provisions of divorce, the rights of women, custody of children, laws of inheritance and of evidence.

"This is not to mention the relation of freedom of belief and expression to provisions for blasphemy and apostasy."