Standing on ceremony Bias: 'Low-church' Protestant Navy chaplains losing faith in a hierarchy that excludes them in favor of more ritual-based men of the cloth.

August 18, 1998|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Navy Capt. George W. Linzey, a second-generation evangelical Protestant chaplain, says his father told him long before his career began what he should expect.

"George, there are three chaplain corps: Catholic, high-church Protestant and the rest of us -- the low-church Protestants," said the elder Linzey, describing an informal caste system. "That is the pecking order."

Three decades later, 46-year-old Linzey, an ordained minister with the Pentecostal Church of God and a 23-year veteran of the Navy chaplain corps, and his fellow evangelicals say they are still treated as "second-class citizens."

Most of the high-profile jobs in the chaplain corps go to so-called "high-church" Christians, which include Catholics and main-line liberal Protestant denominations like Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans and Presbyterians -- all united by their emphasis on sacrament and ritual.

But the highest percentage of Navy personnel -- nearly half -- consider themselves evangelical or "low-church" Protestants, such as Baptists and fundamentalists, who tend to be more conservative in their reading of the Bible and put more stress on preaching in their worship.

Linzey and his colleagues say they believe the high- church Christians look down on evangelicals as less formally educated and more working class. Also there are historical and doctrinal differences between the two groups, with evangelicals placing a higher premium on the individual's relationship to God.

Long-simmering resentments over alleged "denominational discrimination" spilled forth this summer during Senate consideration of the nomination of Rear Adm. A. Byron Holderby, a Lutheran minister nominated by President Clinton to be chief of chaplains. After his nomination, Holderby was accused of discrimination by a chaplain from a competing Lutheran sect. He has since been cleared by the Pentagon inspector general and two weeks ago won Senate confirmation.

The low-church fundamentalists took advantage of the case to speak broadly about their own troubles within the 900-member chaplain corps, which addresses the spiritual needs of the 549,000 men and women in the Navy and Marine Corps.

Officials of the chaplains corps insist there has never been any bias, but evangelical chaplains point to troubling statistics: Of the 17 most influential jobs in the chaplain corps, eight are held by members of high-church Protestant sects, whose members include 15 percent of Navy personnel, and five Catholics, who account for 24 percent of the Navy. The remaining four are held by low-church Protestants, who account for 41 percent -- by far the largest religious group of Navy personnel, according to Pentagon statistics. Most of the remaining 20 percent listed no religious affiliation.

During the past 30 years, only one low-church Protestant has been chief of chaplains. Six of the last eight have been either Catholic or Lutheran, who account for about 2 percent of Navy personnel.

This fiscal year, five Navy captains have been told to retire: Four are low-church Protestant chaplains and one is Catholic. No high-church Protestants have been given a push toward retirement, though each group accounts for a third of the 85 Navy captains in the chaplain corps.

Holderby declined to comment, but several senior officers with the chaplain corps headquarters insist that there is no basis for the discrimination complaints.

"I can speak from personal experience. In my 22 years I haven't been discriminated against," said Rear Adm. Barry C. Black, deputy chief of chaplains and a Seventh Day Adventist. "I'm as nonliturgical as you can get."

But Black and two other low-church Protestants on the staff -- Capts. Jim Harwood and Charles Carter, both Baptists -- haven't been in top jobs long. They were brought in within the past year.

Chosen to retire

Evangelicals say few of them ever get into other top posts, such as Naval Academy chaplain, chairman of the Pacific and Atlantic fleets and director of the Navy chaplain school. Chaplain corps officials counter that those are mostly administrative jobs and that the more important functions are performed by chaplains aboard ship and on Marine bases.

As for the retirements, Navy officials say a board of five admirals -- including Black -- selected by the Navy Department decided which chaplains should be retired based on their records and age. Among the 35 captains considered for retirement were 11 Catholics, eight high-church Protestants and 16 low-church Protestants.

Evangelical chaplains note, however, that most of the chaplains selected for retirement came from among the younger members of the corps, even though the regulations refer to the need to "address significant overages."

Black disputed that the lop-sided statistics reflect any bias against evangelicals.

"Why couldn't it be that the best people happen to come from these [other] religious denominations?" he said. "You try to put the best qualified in a limited number of key positions."

Positions of power

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