Failing the objective

AnglicanBomb1Both The Washington Post and The Washington Times covered a Virginia state court ruling Friday regarding the constitutionality of a longstanding state law that could allow the 11 congregations who have left the Episcopal Church over the last couple of years to keep their multi-million dollar properties. The tone and perspective of the two stories are rather stark. Just look look at the headlines.

Here is the Post‘s:

Episcopal Church Loses In Court

And now the headline in the Times:

Virginia judge affirms parish property rights

I guess the upholding of one group’s “property rights” is another group’s lost legal battle.

The Times article, written by friend-of-the-blog Julia Duin, focuses heavily on the legal consequences of the judge’s ruling, inter-mixing the history of the conflict, while the Post article primarily focuses on the background of the rather complicated story.

A reader noted to us that the Post‘s reporting unprofessionally uses the word “spat” to describe the conflict and repeatedly refers to the 11 churches as “the breakaway congregations.” Duin on the other hand, refers to the group of 11 churches as “11 former Episcopal churches that left the Diocese of Virginia 18 months ago over issues of theology and the 2003 consecration of the denomination’s first openly gay bishop” and subsequently as simply “the churches.” I know the story is complicated but why can’t neutral terms be used to describe the two groups?

The Post goes an extra step further in quoting a seemingly objective “expert” who actually turns out to be taking sides in this legal battle:

It was not immediately clear what happens next in the complex, two-track legal dispute. The conservatives brought the issue into court first, filing a petition activating the Virginia law, called 57-9. The diocese then filed a separate request for summary judgment, asking Bellows to demand that the conservatives leave the property. A trial is slated for the fall to determine who gets the property, and Bellows yesterday asked each side to file a brief in the next few weeks laying out how his ruling affects that proceeding.

Robert Tuttle, an expert on church-state law, said the “only way” for the Episcopal Church to win now is for 57-9 to be overturned by a higher court. Tuttle also serves as legal counsel for the regional branch of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which filed a brief in the case supporting the Diocese of Virginia.

Oh, snap! Not such an objective expert after all.

In addition, The Post does not seem to have the contact information of anyone associated with those “breakaway,” “conservative,” churches, while Duin quoted sources on both sides of the battle.

I don’t envy the reporters covering this highly charged, significant, convoluted religious and legal battle. Efforts at objectivity may seem futile, but thoughtful, consistent choice of language and terms is a good place to start. The Post seems to have particular difficulty in talking to representatives of both sides and avoiding pejorative shorthand terms.

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  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    Ah, church property rights. What a tangled web is weaved therein!

    I found it interesting that someone from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is interviewed. Why not interview a property rights expert from the Anglican/Episcopalian Communion?

    In Lutheran circles there is difference in property rights. In Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) and Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS) most congregational constitutions spell out which Lutheran synod the congregation is affiliated with (with a caveat “as long as said body remains true to the Scriptures and the Book of COncord”) and that the group remaining with the orthodox viewpoint retains the property. Of course, this begs the question in a schism of which is the rightful group. In ELS history opposing factions would change locks and other mischief. I know of one group that, though larger, allowed the breakaway faction to retain the property and they purchased new. But that’s a rare occurence.

    As I understand ELCA policy, a congregation must remain with the national body UNLESS it joins another body. Groups of congregations, disagreeing with ELCA policy, but not really liking the positions of WELS and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, have banded togther to create their own new synods.

    So I was surprised, knowing that policies of property rights differed among Lutheran bodies, that a Lutheran would be quoted on a matter of property rights in the Anglican Communion.

    Is it possible that property among Anglicans is controlled by the Archbishop of Canterbury? Is property held more locally, such as the diocese? Or do congregations truly own the property?

    This is one of those issues thathave both religious and legal overtones.

  • Michael

    Boorstein has a neutral quote from a legal expert, then acknowledges his conflict. She then quotes a pro-Episcopal source.

    Duin uses a quote available to every journalist in the world from a Diocese statement, and then a pro-Anglican source.

    It’s hard to argue that Boorstein was any more biased then Duin when it comes to who they quoted. They both used people in their Rolodex. If Boorstein’s sources show a bias, don’t Duin’s? As for the headlines, arguably both groups were fighting over property rights. So who side said who lost and one side showed who won. I’m not sure either headline is more biased than the other.

  • FW Ken

    I would not accuse either writer of a particular bias, although it was a bit odd to mention the 170 members of Falls Church who remained with the Episcopal Church without mentioning that the Anglican Falls Church may be 10 times, or more, that size. If memory serves, average Sunday attendance at the pre-split Falls Church was around 2500. Now, you might leave relative sizes out of the story altogether (as Ms. Duin did), but if you are going to put in one, then put in the other.

    The critical aspect of the story is the judge’s comment that if the Episcopal Church were serious about this, they have had many years to get the titles in order. Both writer’s got that. Points that might have added interest are:

    1.) the fact that the “Dennis Canon” of the Episcopal Church is only about 30 30 years old, it claims that all by parish and diocesan property is held in trust for the national church.
    2.) that the diocese and the parishes were negotiating a separation agreement when something happened and the diocese pulled out.
    3.) this ruling is unlikely to apply in other states, which don’t have a separation statute like this one. Commentary I’ve read (from liberal and conservative sources) suggests that no general principle or precedent will emerge from this process, since property laws vary greatly from state to state. This is going to be a long and bitter process.

  • Michael

    I’m not a pastor, not a journalist, so perhaps I’m missing something. That said, while “breakaway” is certainly shorthand, I’m not sure it’s pejorative. The parishes in question have in fact broken away from their diocese. Granted, they have done so because they felt that the diocese, and the denomination, have broken away from traditional Anglican teaching — but that doesn’t make the legal situation any less of a breaking-away.

    To call them “schismatic” would certainly be pejorative. Even though the word has nearly identical meaning, its use in church circles is loaded with history and emotion. Its use would pretty clearly reflect a theological judgment which is not appropriate for a newspaper (as would “orthodox,” a name that many parishes in this situation claim for themselves). But do you really think that “breakaway” carries the same connotations?

  • Adam Morton


    Tuttle really is an expert on church-state law in general, not just Lutheran stuff. I’ve read articles by him before. He might be biased, but he would know the issue pretty well.

  • Thomas


    “While there are some issues that remain to be resolved and we will continue to defend ourselves in court, we are hopeful that [the Episcopal Church] and the Diocese will put aside this expensive distraction,” said a statement from the breakaway congregations .”While we disagree with their decision to walk apart from the worldwide Anglican Communion, we acknowledge their right to do so. We would hope that they would acknowledge our right to remain faithful to the tenants of faith that have given comfort to our forbearers. . . .”

    “Tenants” of faith? What the heck is that? Pretty subliterate, if you ask me.

    Further, there is precedent on the side of the Episcopal church that was not mentioned in either story. The Diocese of San Joaquin in California voted to split, and the property was taken back by the church. The diocese is now fully reopened.

  • Michael

    faithful to the tenants of faith

    Well, it is a property dispute. :)

  • Dave

    the “Dennis Canon” of the Episcopal Church is only about 30 30 years old

    How old?

  • meverest

    Michael (#4), “breakaway” appears to the traditionalists to be taking a side because they contend that they are maintaining the historical position. They claim to be staying put while the diocese is moving off to new territory.

    Who is doing the “breaking” in a situation like this is the big question—especially when one considers the national and global levels.

  • Michael

    Meverest, yes, I understand the theological position of the parishes which have withdrawn. What I’m trying to suggest is that by withdrawing they have taken a legal step which, regardless of anybody’s theological beliefs, can legitimately (if too briefly) be described as breaking away — not doctrinally, but institutionally. For a reporter, or in this case press critic, to argue that “breakaway” is pejorative sounds like tacitly taking sides in the issue.

    If a reporter is trying to describe a doctrinal conflict, yes, there is a real question over who is doing the breaking. But in describing legal and real-estate issue, I don’t see that there can be. I realize that this is a murky combination of the two (and I share the original post’s questions about the objectivity of the expert source), but if I were a reporter trying to describe one group voting to separate itself from another, using few and simple words, I would write ‘breakaway” and consider it a good choice.

  • Steven in Falls Church

    I thought both the Post and the Times articles were pretty even in their coverage, if only because the court’s opinion was so resoundingly in favor of the disaffiliating parishes that there was no other way to report it. My one quibble with the Post article is this sentence: “The conservatives brought the issue into court first, filing a petition activating the Virginia law, called 57-9.” While this is technically true, the parishes filed their petitions as part of a litigation “Standstill Agreement” with TEC and the Diocese wherein TEC and the Diocese specifically consented to such filings. TEC and the Diocese opted not to renew the Standstill Agreement and, upon the Agreement’s expiry, promptly filed their declaratory judgment actions against the departing parishes. In subsequent statements to the press, the Diocese has used the parishes’ filing of their 57-9 petitions as a PR claim that the disaffiliating parishes sued first, but it is hard to claim you are victimized by a legal filing to which you explicitly consented. Moreover, the Standstill Agreement curiously does not appear on the Diocese’s otherwise extensive catalog of litigation-related documents. See here for more details.

  • FW Ken

    Dave, I wrote that sentence about 3 different ways and failed to use the excellent real-time preview function when I edited it. :-)

    The Episcopal Church has certainly not regained the properties of the Diocese of San Joaquin. The Anglican bishop allowed parishes wishing to remain with TEC to keep their property. The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church constituted a diocese of those wishing to remain Episcopalian (some 400, I think), installed a retired bishop to run the show, and promptly sued the Anglicans for the remaining property. That’s the current status.

  • Thomas

    @FW Ken – actually, that’s not quite right. Former Bishop Schofield was releived of his duties and formally barred from saying mass. The new bishop, Jerry Lamb, had the locks changed at St. Andrew’s. To me, that means the TEC has seized control of the properties.

    Or at least, that’s how the inaptly named “Virtue Online” crowd is spinning it.

  • FW Ken

    Thomas –

    Oh! you’re reading David Virtue! No wonder you have the facts wrong. I thought you were making it up. David’s a good guy, but addicted to purple prose and not so much to facts.

    Well, unlawful trespass can certainly be construed as “seizing control”, but it’s only one property and, if memory serves, the Cathedral may have been one of the parishes remaining with TEC, which means it wouldn’t even be unlawful trespass. Maybe.

  • rw

    the “Dennis Canon” of the Episcopal Church is only about 30 30

    …That’s more like a carbine than a canon.

  • Belden

    David’s a good guy

    Good guys don’t lie. Good guys don’t demonize minorities. David Virtue is NOT a good guy.