May 26, 2007


If truth is the first casualty of war, perhaps language is the second. I am thinking about “troop,” a veteran English word that is daily misused by the media. As I write this, for example, the USA Today Web site carries a headline “Military: Eight American troops killed in Iraq.” The story begins: “Iraq's prime minister and two top American officials flew to the blistering western desert hours before the military reported the deaths of eight U.S. troops.”

According to The American Heritage Dictionary, the noun “troop” indicates either a great many or a group of people, animals, or things. More specifically, it may designate a group of soldiers, a fighting unit (such as a cavalry troop), or a unit of the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts under an adult leader. In the plural, it refers to soldiers or military units. In strict usage, if eight American troops were killed, then a very substantial massacre occurred, perhaps involving 100 or more individuals.

Whatever a “troop” is, it is not an individual. One would certainly not say that a cavalry troop consisted of twenty troops or that Boy Scout Troop 16 has 25 troops. We do not see wives on television fretting over their husbands deployed to Iraq and saying, “I pray that my troop comes home safely.” And I have never heard a soldier refer to “my fellow troops.”

Why, then, is “troop” regularly, if erroneously, used in news reports to refer to individuals? Certainly, in times past, we would hear of our “soldiers,” “men,” or “boys” being casualties of war. In Iraq, however, the casualties may not all be male, and they may come from different services. An infantryman and a marine cannot really be described as “soldiers.” If speaking of similar individuals, one can imagine reporters using “soldiers,” “sailors,” “marines,” “airmen,” or even “men.” “Boys” is more problematic these days, and, if African-Americans are being referred to, is completely unacceptable. “Girls” would offend women, and it must be said that reporting the death of “two of our women” carries some emotional baggage not entailed by “two of our men.”

The obvious general words that could be used all starkly emphasize what our troops—I use the word properly here—are really about: “warriors,” “fighters,” or “combatants.” Other possibilities abandon objectivity or indulge in irony: “aggressors,” “occupiers,” “referees,“ “peacekeepers,” “nation-builders,” or “hapless victims of President Bush’s obsession.”

One can see why reporters continue to misuse “troops.”

May 22, 2007

Reflecting on Responding to the Study Guide

I’ve spent a good deal of time the last couple of days answering the questions asked by The Episcopal Church in “A Short Study Guide to Aid The Episcopal Church in Responding to the Draft Anglican Covenant as Prepared by the Covenant Design Group.” This was not an easy task. Even after having invested much energy in the project, I have not produced definitive essays on the proposed covenant, though I trust that others’ work will complement my own efforts.

Answering the 14 questions posed by the Executive Council was something of a double obligation for me. As an active combatant in the ongoing church wars—I know that some people don’t like such metaphors—I would have seemed derelict had I not addressed the questions about the covenant. Along with other members of Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh (PEP)—and, in particular, President Joan Gundersen—I had produced both a worksheet for people to use to record their answers, as well as a collection of materials to provide context for the task. How could I not see how these resources worked in practice?

You can read my answers and find links to relevant material by going to “Responding to the Study Guide” on my Web site. What I want to do here is to offer some observations about my experience.

The Study Guide. I quickly learned that the Study Guide is pretty lean in the easy question department. Its questions are quite specific and are not always the ones you most want to answer. No doubt, this is intended to elicit feedback on particular issues and to discourage shallow, rambling, or irrational responses. It is difficult to see any overt bias in the questions, and those on both the left and right may find them maddeningly “objective.” The questions are certainly comprehensive, however, and, since essay answers are expected, no one should feel that his or her thought on the covenant cannot fully be expressed. The Study Guide questions proceed from the specific to the general, which may not be to everyone’s taste. I will have more to say about this below.

If the details of the questions do not discourage you from sharing your opinions with The Episcopal Church, seeing someone else’s answers might. I have been encouraging several fellow parishioners to answer the Study Guide questions, but, when I showed them my answers, their reaction was that they were insufficiently prepared for the task. That may be true, or I may simply be obsessive.

Preparation. Having been following Anglican conflicts for many years now, I was reasonably well prepared to address the questions at hand. I must admit, though, that I felt more like I was taking a final exam than like I was responding to a questionnaire. The term “Study Guide”—it is actually called “A Short Study Guide”— is not so much an aid to study as a prod to study. If you expect to answer its 14 questions, plan to read the obviously relevant documents several times over, and expect to need reference material close at hand as you work. It is difficult to evaluate the covenant without already having a good understanding of the events that brought the Anglican Communion to its present state. That background is difficult to obtain in a hurry, so anyone who looks at the Study Guide or the report from the Covenant Design Group (CDG) and says, “What is this?” should probably just forget the whole thing.

Tools. PEP’s “Evaluating the Draft Covenant,” which collects many pertinent documents into a single PDF file with search capabilities and a digital table of contents, proved invaluable. I kept the document open all the time I was working on my answers. Although I did not consult Joan Gundersen’s annotations of the CDG report on a question-by-question basis, I did read all her notes and fond them quite helpful in framing an overall view of the proposed covenant. I did go back to Joan’s annotations to clarify particular points.

I also used the PEP Microsoft Word worksheet to record my answers. This was very helpful for organizing and presenting my thoughts, though I discovered that Word text form fields, which are used in the worksheet, have some peculiar properties that I cannot find documented anywhere. Text was easy to enter, but it was sometimes difficult to edit. (Hint: If you are having trouble positioning the cursor within your text, try using the arrow keys.) Were I to do everything over again, I think I would keep the PEP worksheet open in one Word window, but type and edit my text in another. When I was satisfied with an answer, I would copy and paste it into the PEP document. (PEP may try making a PDF form with Acrobat next time it perceives a need for such a mechanism.)

Getting It Down. I would recommend developing a good overall view of what you want to say before you start answering specific questions or even studying the questions in detail. This will help assure that you get to say all the things you believe are important. You might even jot down indications of the points you want to make. There will still likely be issues you have not considered that will be raised by the Study Guide, but this approach will minimize the problem of what to say and focus your attention on where to say it. That the PEP worksheet extracts the questions from the full Study Guide text is helpful at this point, and it might be useful to assign your points to make to specific questions. I did find myself making similar statements in more than one place, but this is probably inevitable and possibly even desirable (see below).

One’s psychological makeup or intellectual preferences may have a bearing on how comfortably you are using the Study Guide. I found myself wanting first to write a summary of my reaction to the draft covenant, whose conclusions I could then support with specifics, but the Study Guide focuses on the particular before it treats the general. Episcopalians with my inclinations may want to answer the last few questions before returning to the first ones. I was concerned about procrastinating, so I forced myself to begin at the beginning and skip no questions. No one will know if you do otherwise, however.

Aggregating the Answers. Some people have suggested that the difficulty of the questions asked in the Study Guide and the short time allowed for responses (less than two months) will mean that few responses from Episcopalians will be forthcoming, and most of those will be from institutional respondents. (I see that the General Convention deputation from the Diocese of New York has posted its answers to the questions on the Web.) Some cynics have suggested that the Executive Council actually wanted to discourage responses and wasn’t planning to pay much attention to those it did receive. I’m not that cynical, but I do wonder if the Study Guide authors considered carefully how data was to be handled. Whereas multiple-choice and true-false questions can be reduced to easily assimilated statistics, complex essays cannot be. Moreover, answers will likely be long. Although I cannot know if the length of mine will prove typical, the answers from the New York deputation certainly cannot be described as terse.

Will those responsible for presenting the responses of Episcopalians to the Executive Council analyze data by question or by whole response? Will they try to reduce answers to statistical summaries, or will they try to identify responses from particular people or groups that are somehow representative of distinct positions? Who know? That there is only a week between the deadline for responses and the beginning of the June Executive Council meeting makes me thankful that I personally don’t have to figure out what to do.

The data-analysis problem actually has consequences for respondents. One should not worry about making a point more than once, particularly if it is especially pertinent to more than one question. The redundancy makes it more likely that your voice will be heard. Since all one’s answers may not be kept together, it is a good idea to avoid cross-referencing your answers; repeat a point if it needs to be made in more than one place. On the other hand, it would be wise to be sure that you actually do answer every question directly and in the form it is asked. This will help assure that the points you make are noticed and not misunderstood.

Good Luck.
If you’re planning to submit your responses to the Study Guide, be aware that you have less than two weeks in which to do so. (Answers are due by June 4.) Time to get to work if you have not already begun. Good luck!

May 14, 2007

Helping Episcopalians Put in Their Two Cents’ Worth

A bit less than a month ago, the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church issued “A Short Study Guide to Aid The Episcopal Church in Responding to the Draft Anglican Covenant As Prepared by the Covenant Design Group.” This six-page document with the catchy title asks 14 detailed, non-leading questions about the Anglican covenant as proposed by the Covenant Design Group (CDG) in January. Episcopalians have been asked to answer the questions and to send their answers to the secretary of the General Convention to help the church formulate its response to the covenant draft.

Whatever one thinks of the covenant, it is clear that it has the potential to change The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion in profound ways. (I doubt that anyone, liberal, conservative, or otherwise, believes the claim of the CDG that there is nothing new in the draft.) The Study Guide provides a mechanism for all Episcopalians to have some influence on how our church deals with the covenant proposal. Answering the questions is not a simple matter, however, as they call for a close analysis of the draft. Nonetheless, Episcopalians of every stripe should welcome this opportunity to influence what our church does at this critical time in its history. Episcopalians will have only themselves to blame if they fail to offer their opinions and the church’s response turns out not to be to their liking.

I don’t know that the church has a good plan for how it will handle the answers it receives. It could be dealing with over 2 million responses, handwritten, faxed, printed, and e-mailed. Realistically, of course, that number will be much smaller, perhaps very small indeed. Making sense of them will still be a problem, however, as the Study Guide did not offer a uniform submission mechanism.

Into this breach comes Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh with a Microsoft Word form to help people organize and record their thoughts. The form is a Word document containing fields to enter one’s personal information (name, parish, etc.—the Study Guide did not explicitly ask for this), followed by the 14 questions, interspersed with fields for one’s answers. The form is both convenient to use and, I hope, helpful to the hapless folks who have to tabulate all the answers received by the church. The worksheet and its instructions can be downloaded from PEP’s Web site here. The Lead (a blog of the new Episcopal Café) already has a story on the Worksheet.

I hope that people will not be intimidated by the worksheet, which looks more complicated than it is. It is accompanied by a set of instructions to put the task at hand into context—links are provided to the Study Guide and to the CDG report—and to explain how to use a Microsoft Word form, a process that is fairly intuitive, but which can can also be frustrating until one gets the hang of it. The instruction sheet is as long as it is in order to be as helpful as possible to all Word users, including those with the latest version of the software (Word 2007), and to accommodate both PC and Mac users.

Just for the record, the idea for the form came from Joan Gundersen, PEP’s president. I developed the form and its instructions. Several people acted as testers for the project, and they deserve special thanks—Jane Little, Jack Harmon, Mary Jane Amick, and Ben Mudd. Any mistakes, however, are my responsibility, and I hope people will report them to me, so that I can correct them.

Responses to the Study Guide are due by June 4. Download the worksheet and get to work.

May 2, 2007

Reading the Signs

I drove to a client’s house this morning and encountered an unusual number of curious signs.

A major intersection is just over a mile from my house. Invariably, I encounter a line of cars there awaiting a change of the traffic signal. (Protected left turns from four directions lengthen the signal cycle time.) Today, I saw a new sign as I approached the inevitable stopped vehicles. The large, diamond-shaped orange sign said, simply, “BUMP.” A question immediately came to mind: Was the legend on the sign a noun or a verb? As it happens, the road I was about to cross is being resurfaced and recently had been milled, making it lower than the road I was driving on.

A bit farther along, I came to another intersection, just before which I saw signage that said “END SPEED LIMIT 35.” As the car passed that signpost, I noticed similar signage on the other side of the intersection announcing “BEGIN SPEED LIMIT 35.” What, I wondered, was the speed limit on the 500 or so feet of roadway between the two signs.

The next odd sign I encountered was one I have been seeing with increasing frequency. It is a tall, narrow sign placed in the center of the roadway at pedestrian crosswalks. “Reading” from top to bottom, the sign says “STATE LAW,” followed by a triangular yield sign, the word “TO,” a stylized figure of a pedestrian, and the words “WITHIN CROSSWALK.” By now, I know what the sign means, but, on encountering it for the first time, it seems more like a puzzle to be solved quickly as one is driving past, a kind of traffic rebus dreamed up by a Chinese engineer who does not have a full grasp of idiomatic English. Crosswalks seem to inspire this sort of thing, or am I the only person who finds the sequence of street markings "“PED,” “X,” “ING” just before crosswalks annoying?

Finally, I want to mention a sign I did not actually see on my car trip today, but which I did see while taking a walk this afternoon. In the window of a barber shop near my house—yes, it really is an old-fashioned barber shop, as indicated by the big “BARBER SHOP” sign overhead—there is a sign indicating when the establishment is open. The sign reads as follows:

Shop Hours
Wed., Fri., Sat.
9:00 AM ’til Closing
4:00 PM ’til Closing

If a customer arrives at 4 o’clock on a Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, or Saturday, what is the probability of being able to get a haircut? I have no idea what the answer is.

Following the Rules

The April 8 issue of The Living Church carried a story about Mark Lawrence’s failure to receive adequate consents to be consecrated as South Carolina’s next bishop. The same issue contained an editorial calling the failure “a tragedy for the entire church.” The May 6 issue offers two letters in response to the magazine’s coverage of the Lawrence affair.

In the first letter, the Rev. John Rawlinson of St. James Episcopal Church in Oakland, California, takes the magazine to task over its editorial, focusing on the assertion that “Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori decided to follow canon law to the letter in ruling the process invalid” [emphasis added]. Rawlinson pointed out that Jefferts Schori was obliged to follow canon law. (She was also obliged to allow only 120, not 123 days for consents to be submitted, but that point is moot, I suppose, at least as far as Lawrence is concerned.)

The second letter is mine, which is reproduced below as it appears in The Living Church:
The article, “Presiding Bishop Invalidates South Carolina Election,” and the editorial, “Failure to Consent Leaves Everyone a Loser,” misinterpret events.

Any balloting procedure must ensure the validity of votes cast. Because South Carolina’s choice of bishop was controversial, particular care was needed to ensure that the legitimacy of the consent process, whatever its result, would be unquestioned. That process did not generate sufficient consents by the date required, and it did not generate enough valid consents, even after the extra three days allowed by the Presiding Bishop. Assuming that the standing committee read the canons and examined the consents it received, its members must have known that some consents were invalid.

Bishop-elect Mark Lawrence received insufficient consents not because of his theology, but because of what he said he would do to the church. He has not been denied consecration because of “things he was reported or reputed to have said or written,” but because of statements he unquestionably made—some of them in TLC—that suggested his unwillingness to be bound by the canons of The Episcopal Church.

The church’s consent process for episcopal elections is not a mere formality, but an important, substantive check on dioceses that may have made questionable choices. The message in this sorry affair is not that “there is no longer room in The Episcopal Church for bishops who uphold traditional Anglican teaching.” It is that the church is growing impatient with bishops who cannot respect its polity and will not abide its law.
Lionel Deimel
Pittsburgh, Pa.
Both letters, then, emphasize the obligation of those in ordained orders to abide by Episcopal Church canons. It is annoying that Episcopalians have to point out this obligation over and over, and yet the church’s militant traditionalists cannot seem to bring themselves to acknowledge it, calling those who raise the issue “canonical fundamentalists.” To this, I propose a question: Why should we defer to the opinions of these people on matters of scriptural interpretation—firm opinions based on ambiguous, if not contradictory texts that cannot be verified as definitive—when they seem incapable of finding the “plain meaning” in straightforward instructions written in the modern era?