As Canterbury Turns: Yelling in Virginia

chichester(Musical cue: Another swell of English cathedral pipe organ)

Yes, the lead of this story was wrong, but what DID the reporter hear that made her write what she did about what the bishop was told? I find it astounding, and a bit unbelievable, to think that the reporter (Julia) heard, in effect, “We’ve told the bishop we’re leaving” when the message was “We’re going to have a ‘discernment’ process in the fall” (which she did include in the story). …

Unlike the Rather memo, the reporter apparently gained a truthful insight into this church that it (or at least some within it) is preparing for departure. Again, the reaction of the church to the story tells me they are simply embarassed that these plans were revealed too early.

Posted by Stephen A. at 10:50 am on June 30, 2006

It’s time for another episide of As Canterbury Turns: The Virginia Story. The following thoughts are my own, based on my experiences as a reporter and editor.

Julia Duin’s controversial story in The Washington Times is back online with this correction added at the top. Click here to read my original post on this affair.

CORRECTION: The Washington Times mischaracterized a meeting Wednesday between the Rev. Martyn Minns and Virginia Episcopal Bishop Peter J. Lee. Representatives of the Falls Church Episcopal and Truro Episcopal churches now say no final decision on leaving the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia has been made.

This is one of the strangest corrections that I have ever seen. Let’s cut in in half, because there are two different issues here.

Here is the lead:

Two of Northern Virginia’s largest and most historic Episcopal churches — Truro and the Falls Church — informed Virginia Bishop Peter J. Lee yesterday that they plan to leave the diocese and that as many as two dozen other parishes may follow suit.

The hot word in this lead, the source of the whole controversy, is “plan.”

Note that the correction stresses that the leaders of Truro and the Falls Church denied that they have decided to leave the Diocese of Virginia. This is a fascinating statement, since the original story never says that they have made this decision. The story says they are preparing — along with a large circle of other parishes — to start a 40-day spiritual process that will lead to a decision.

Is that the same thing as “planning” to leave?

OK, here is my guess on what happened here. For at least a decade, traditional Episcopal parishes have known that, at some point in the future, they might — note the word “might” — need to find an exit door to escape The Episcopal Church. In almost all of these parishes this is a move that would have majority support in the vestry and the congregation, which is why they have been exploring a wide variety of options in the first place. But there are debates and divisions in these congregations, due to the legal risks involved linked to buildings, pensions, endowments and whatnot.

Most of these meetings, of course, take place behind closed doors and reporters find out about them after they have taken place. The most accurate way to describe these sessions is to say they involve church leaders who are discussing “contingency plans” that may or may not be used in the future. They are making plans, but they have not made the final decision to put them into effect.

Thus, the original Duin story says:

Truro and the Falls Church have a combined $27 million in assets. Situated on some of Northern Virginia’s most valuable real estate, both churches are having 40-day “discernment” periods of prayer, fasting and debate, starting in September and ending just before Thanksgiving, before announcing a final decision. …

The Falls Church and Truro Church presented their plan in Fairfax on Saturday to a meeting of officials representing 20 to 30 Episcopal churches around Virginia. Thirteen to 14 churches already have agreed to have their own 40-day period, he said.

Rectors of two other large Northern Virginia parishes also told The Washington Times yesterday, on condition of anonymity, that they, too, may be leaving. One is involved in secret negotiations with the diocese over property issues; another says his vestry, or governing board, approved the 40-day idea Tuesday night, but his parish needs to vote on it Sunday.

The official disclaimer from the Falls Church says the following:

The Washington Times reported that our church informed our Bishop that we are leaving the Diocese of Virginia and leaving the Episcopal Church. This certainly is not true and misrepresents where we are as a congregation.

Does the original Duin story say that the parish has decided to leave the diocese? It does not. So why did the Times correct a statement that its own story did not make?

This brings us back to the word “plan” in the lead.

There is a big difference between “they plan to leave” and “they are making plans that may lead to their departure.”

My guess is that this lead was, in the editing process, strengthened. The phrase editors use is “pump it up.” Reporters can resist this process and almost always do so. But it happens. Editors do not like words like “may” or “might” in leads on page one.

In this case, the qualifier was needed and you can see that in the actual text of Duin’s story. As I said earlier this week, the heart of the story is the meeting in which parish leaders from Truro and the Falls Church formally presented their plans for the 40-day discernment process. That’s the story.

Plans are being made. However, the decision to put them into effect is in the future, even as steps are taken that show which way things are going. There are dozens and dozens of stories ahead.

Stay tuned, and prepare for lots of yelling by people in mitres.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Stephen A.

    Well put, and a good analysis.

    I suppose if the editors wanted to “pump it up” a bit and still be accurate, they could have accurately noted in the lead that the churches are “starting a process this fall that COULD LEAD to their departure.” The rest of the article was entirely accurate about that process, after all.

    As said before, if read a certain way, the lead as it was before correcting could be interpreted as noting that one or more of the participants shared their belief with the bishop (and later with the reporter) that the churches would indeed leave, after the process was complete. Surely, that’s not a stretch. Though that subtlety was obviously left out of the story, if that’s what occured.

    The faux pas here (in the story’s original form) seems a bit like a political reporter noting, having read exit polls, that a candidate “has won” an election, when in fact all the results aren’t in yet, but the data seems to show that is the near certain result.

  • jim

    Regarding Stephen A’s comment above, I like the comparison. But as we’ve seen in many of these election pieces in many years, the OTHER candidate has gone on to win the election to spite the exit polling data. Think the nightmare of 2000. These VA congregations may decide not to leave. Or they may decide some, dare I say it, “middle way.” When you open a process up to a congregation, it is impossible to say that the fix is in. This assuming is Julia’s mistake. May turn out that way, may not. But nobody really knows.

  • Deborah

    To me, “planning to leave” means the decision “to leave” has been made and the method of effecting that departure is being decided upon. One may have decided to obtain a divorce but not have worked out splitting the assets and timing the final move out of the house. It was unfortunate wording on Duin’s part, but perhaps understandable, given the climate in ECUSA/TEC. “Considering whether to leave” or something along those lines would have been more in line with what Truro and Falls Church contend their current status is.

  • Kevin P. Edgecomb

    I think Ms Duin (and anyone else!) may be entirely excused on this point. One need only ask oneself, “How likely is it that a large, conservative, evangelical Episcopal congregation entering a ‘period of discernment’ regarding whether to remain in the Episcopal Church will truly decide to remain there now?” Maybe she jumped the gun, or maybe it was impolite of her to point it out, but is there really any doubt in anyone’s mind that she’s described the most likely, indeed almost entirely inevitable, outcome? I would’ve written exactly the same thing, thinking, “Period of discernment”=”We’re so outta here, but we’ll leave in a traditionally well-mannered Episcopal way.”

  • Deborah

    “How likely is it that a large, conservative, evangelical Episcopal congregation entering a ‘period of discernment’ regarding whether to remain in the Episcopal Church will truly decide to remain there now?”

    Given that Primates elsewhere have publicly pledged their support for orthodox churches in the wake of GV ’06, and given that some bishops have (apparently) been promised more decisive action will be taken by the AC this fall, I think the answer to this question is “as likely as not.” I don’t agree with Kevin that “period of discernment” is a code phrase for “we’re outtahere.” I think, rather, it’s a way of publicly putting pressure on +Lee and the rest of the AC to come up with a practical solution to the various legal and financial questions that will inevitably arise from the ecclesiastical ones. It’s also a way to convince those parishioners who’ve hung on since GC ’03 to stay the course – it makes waiting seem more like action.

  • Raider51

    I’m writing as a Truro parishioner — not an insider at all — someone who sits in the pews and occasionally voluteers here and there (but not enough). Listening to Martyn Minns exhortations to the congregation and talking to members of the vestry, I really believe there has been no decision or plan to leave. Or even a plan to plan to leave.
    We’ve just gone through Rick Warren’s 40 days of purpose, so 40 days of discernment seems like a natural follow-up. I can not stress this enough — there does not seem to be any plan to leave or even to plan to plan to leave. In fact, I submit that if you really knew what was happening in the lives of our clergy and lay vestry, you would see how far off this seems. Canon Minns, Truro’s rector, is flying with his wife and youngest daughter today back to the country of his birth, England, to care for his dying sister. He will be gone from Truro for an indefinite period of time. The next two senior members of the clergy each have a wedding to plan for August — the son of one is marrying the daughter of the other. I could go on with stories like this — in short, it’s not a great time to be making a radical change.

    In any event, my own perspective is that ECUSA has decided to walk away from historic Anglicanism and from historic orthodox Christianity. Nevertheless, we have been hoping and praying for a miracle — there are precedents. What took place at General Convention in Columbus was not as radical a departure as what happened in MN. Bishop Peter Lee — while I personally have been severely hurt by him — has not been seeking to actively interfere or intervene in Truro’s mission. Therefore, I see no need to take any action at this time. I, personally, am willing to wait and see what happens in the broader Anglican Communion. But, as I said, I am just one member and others may have different perspectives — I will listen and I know I will be listened to.
    In any event, I really appreciate the coverage here and in particular TMatt’s experience informed best guess with respect to the editing process — that does seem the most plausible to me as well.

  • The Green Door

    One of the most serious mis-reporting in this article by Duin is that she erroneously reported that Bishop Lee had been informed that the churches planned to leave. That was grossly untrue and Bishop Lee has also issued a statement that this was untrue. There is a much better front page story in the Washington Post today that does a far better job of balanced reporting than the sensationalism of the Washington Times. You can see that article here:

  • Stephen A.

    Well, actually the Post article *also* seems to imply there’s a move afoot in the two churches to break away:

    “Virginia Bishop Peter J. Lee said he hopes to persuade both congregations to stay. He declined to say whether he would fight to keep control of their buildings and property if they left the denomination — one of the main disincentives for congregations to break away.”

    And this is in the context of previous paragraphs talking about other churches and dioceses breaking away, the section above itself started off:

    “Her election may also hasten the departure of individual congregations. Two large congregations in Northern Virginia, the Falls Church and Truro Church, announced last week that they will go through “40 days of discernment” this fall to consider their status.”

    So this reporter, too, got the idea, somehow, that the result of this may very well be a break-away congregation, or two. He didn’t, however, say it was a done deal, and I guess that’s an improvement.