Mollie and the spin doctors

No, the title of this post does not refer to a now forgotten second tier ’80s band. Mollie and the Spin Doctors will not join Souxsie and the Banshees, Hootie and the Blowfish, Adam and the Ants, and Echo and the Bunnymen in the remainder aisle at Wal-Mart. I chose this title to tell a cautionary tale about religious journalism concerning one of my colleagues at GetReligion, Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, and the Communications Office at the Episcopal Church.

The moral of the story if you want to skip to the end of the piece can be found in Numbers 32:23. “But if ye will not do so, behold, ye have sinned against the LORD: and be sure your sin will find you out.”

Now I am not equating journalism or journalists with the godhead (though the New York Times does tend towards an omniscient, holier than though attitude towards creation). What I am drawing from this passage from Scripture is the lesson not to exaggerate, lie or spin an unpalatable truth. For in the end you will be found out.

Our parable begins with an article written by Ms Hemingway for the Wall Street Journal entitled “Twenty-First Century Excommunication”. She reports:

In 2009, breakaway Episcopalians in the U.S. and Canada formed the Anglican Church in North America, which now reports 100,000 members in nearly 1,000 congregations. This group has been formally recognized by some Anglican primates outside of the United States.

[Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine] Jefferts Schori says this new Anglican group is encroaching on her church’s jurisdiction, and she has authorized dozens of lawsuits “to protect the assets of the Episcopal Church for the mission of the Episcopal Church.” The Episcopal Church has dedicated $22 million to legal actions against departing clergy, congregations and dioceses, according to Allan Haley, a canon lawyer who has represented a diocese in one such case.

Now the Episcopal Church has upped the ante: It has declared that if congregations break away and buy their sanctuaries, they must disaffiliate from any group that professes to be Anglican.

The article has turned out to be a great success. As of the date of my writing, it has generated 119 comments, 944 Facebook likes, and been tweeted 105 times. Not all of the comments have been favorable though. For an article that touches upon church property law to generate this sort of response, both positive and negative, is extraordinary. I’m rather envious of Mollie’s success.

The Episcopal Church has responded to the piece by publishing a Talking Points page on its website disputing the accuracy and tone of the story. The page entitled “Perspectives” has been picked up by the Anglican/Episcopal blogosphere with some defenders of the Episcopal Church denouncing the story. Kevin Kallsen of Anglican TV interviewed Mollie about the story and she discusses the responses she has received so far. Her segment begins at the 28 minute 15 second mark.

A disclosure. I am a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida. Mollie Ziegler Hemingway is talking about my church. I am also a religion reporter and have published a little over 3500 stories about the Episcopal Church and the wider Anglican Communion over the years.

The Episcopal Church laid out 12 talking points to refute the WSJ story. Ten offer contrary opinions, pointers to web sites, or summarize legal arguments. Two allege errors of fact.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori did not make any of the statements that the author claims she made in the article.

The author of the article stated that, “Of the 38 provinces in the global Anglican Communion, 22 have declared themselves in “broken” or “impaired” fellowship with the more liberal American church.”   As recently as Monday, October 10, Lambeth Palace confirmed that there is no basis for this claim by the author.

Talking point two states the Presiding Bishop did not make the statements cited in the story. In the WSJ story Bishop Jefferts Schori is quoted as saying:

“We can’t sell to an organization that wants to put us out of business,” said Bishop Jefferts Schori, who added that her job is to ensure that “no competing branch of the Anglican Communion impose on the mission strategy” of the Episcopal Church.

But she did say this according to those present on 19 April 2011 at a Q&A session at Trinity Cathedral in Pittsburgh. The sentiment that the Episcopal Church would not sell properties to rival Anglican bodies was also expressed forcefully in a deposition given by her in a Virginia lawsuit.

On its face point three  was the strongest argument. If the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office said Mollie was wrong, she must be wrong.

Following the consecration of the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003, I reported on the phenomena of Anglican provinces breaking with the Episcopal Church over the appointment of a gay bishop. At the time I reported on each of these announcements for the church press in the US and the UK, and I have long used the “22 of 38″ figure as cited in the WSJ. Was I wrong too? I went through my story archive, tallied the figures and came up with the 22 of 38 number. In 2004 the Deputy General Secretary of the Anglican Consultative Council, Canon Gregory Cameron, also cited these numbers in a speech to the Anglican Church of Canada. He stated:

Within our own Communion, the leaders of twenty-two of the thirty-eight provinces of the Anglican Communion, representing about forty-four million Anglicans, have pronounced that they reject the moves in New Hampshire and in New Westminster as incompatible with the Gospel and with the Christian fellowship of which they are part. They have said that developments tear the fabric of the Communion at its deepest level, and a state of broken Communion now exists between ECUSA and some twelve to eighteen provinces of the Communion.

If the Episcopal Church Talking Point was true, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office was repudiating the speech of a senior communion official. Or, had there been developments of which I was unaware. I sought to find out.

I emailed the Episcopal Church’s Communications office and asked who, when and how had Lambeth Palace told them there was no basis for the 22 of 38 claim. Episcopal Church spokesman Neva Rae Fox responded:

The conversation you reference was a private conversation, as was the mode of discussion, and both shall remain private.

I also telephoned and emailed the Lambeth Palace and was told by press secretary Marie Papworth:

Sorry for the delay, but I don’t know where this comes from and the reality is that there are Provinces which don’t agree on certain issues, but relationships continue between all Provinces at a host of levels – from the individual level through to the parish, diocesan and also provincial level.

Let’s sum things up. The claim the Presiding Bishop did not say what she was quoted as having said is challenged by third party reports of remarks she made in Pittsburgh. And the claim that Lambeth Palace supported the statement there was no basis for the claim that 22 of 38 provinces were on the outs with the Episcopal Church was false, or perhaps it is better to say cannot be verified as being true by Lambeth Palace.

What is the moral of this tale? Have your facts straight. Otherwise there is every chance you will look foolish.

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About geoconger
  • Matt

    No, the title of this post does not refer to a now forgotten second tier ’80s band.

    Certainly not. The Spin Doctors were a ’90s band, of course. :)

    Great post.

  • http://allogenes.wordpress.com Peter Banos

    I am a Unitarian Universalist; I have sympathies both with the liberal wing of Anglicanism on the substantive issues of gender and sexuality, and with the conservative wing on its claims of improper use of authority by the Episcopal Church hierarchy. My point here is not to argue either issue but simply to point out a small possible ambiguity in the evidence cited above.

    They have said that developments tear the fabric of the Communion at its deepest level, and a state of broken Communion now exists between ECUSA and some twelve to eighteen provinces of the Communion.

    can be read the way you take it, as flatly contradicting the claim made by TEC, but it may instead have been intended as something like “They have said that developments tear the fabric of the Communion at its deepest level; thus, I maintain that a state of broken Communion now exists,” in which case it might be technically correct that the 22 Provinces in question did not actually use the “broken Communion” language.

  • http://www.gracetc.org The Rev. Daniel P. Richards

    The frustrating thing about living and working in the Episcopal Church is that this issue has made so much moral mud out of the very water and soil of church life. Conservatives have done and said things that were morally suspect, and so have liberals. It is hard to point anyone toward a source that is consistent and truly honorable, acknowledging facts for and against their own bias.

    Molly’s story was fair, though I don’t necessarily agree with its implications about the rightness of the Anglican Mission actions entirely. This line

    “Jefferts Schori says this new Anglican group is encroaching on her church’s jurisdiction . . . ” strikes me as less than straightforward, only because no presiding bishop would refer to the church as ˆher church.

    But, as I read the article, it seemed to point to one of my own frustrations in this political reality: you should never take a fellow brother or sister to court to solve in house disputes. So what should the leadership do? They are also responsible for insuring the stewardship of the church’s resources.

    The details in her article were frustrating to me, but not because she had the facts wrong. I would dispute the implications of her writing, but not her integrity as a journalist.

    The national church has to be careful when it responds to good journalism. Admit when you are muddy, and it is a whole lot easier to get clean. This situation really gets on your clothes.

  • Martha

    Echo and the Bunnymen a second-tier band? Second-tier????

    Them’s fightin’ words ;-)

    As to the story, it’s both sad and amusing from an outsider’s viewpoint.

    Amusing, in that there were perfervid denunciations of the Archbishop of Canterbury as some kind of “Anglican Pope” trying to set up a “Curia” from what I suppose is the Episcopalian Left (though I hate using those kinds of political labels in a religious context) with regard to the proposed Anglican Covenant. We’re not that kind of Communion, they said. Diversity of opinion on theology is welcomed here, they said. We in The Episcopalian Church have a democratic polity; we vote on matters and don’t impose decisions from the top-down. The laity have an equal voice with the clergy and the bishops, and there is no worse sin than border-crossing (one bishop trespassing in the diocese of another). Our Presiding Bishop is not like an archbishop or a primate, she is primus inter pares. The diocese is the constituent unit of the local church.

    And now we get The Episcopalian Church, in its various lawsuits, maintaining that it is a hierarchical church, the Presiding Bishop does have primatial powers, and decision-making is from the top down (i.e. if it’s passed at General Convention, it applies to the dioceses with no ifs, ands or buts).

  • Jeffrey

    There’s a lot of spinning going on here, and not just by the ECUSA. The dissidents are spinning, Mollie is spinning, the WSJ is spinning, George is spinning and GR is spinning. No wonder everyone is dizzy. With no objectve voices and everyone having skIn in the game, it’s impossible to tell up from down. I wonder whether anyone is served by the advocacy journalism.

    Or maybe we should be honest that advocacy/opinion writing s the future and media consumers need to realize everyone has an agenda and it is our responsibility to identify those agendas if the particupants are unfamiliar.

  • http://www.americananglican.org +David Anderson

    I believe the original term was impaired or broken communion and of the 22 Provinces that fell into this broad category not all were broken, some only impaired. With this noted, the 22/38 number is historically accurate, whatever Lambeth Palace says, which may vary depending upon the convenience thereof.

    Asking Lambeth Palace or the Archbishop of Canterbury for a straight accurate answer is much like asking a politician for a straight accurate answer, and Dr. Rowan Williams himself has been a significant part of this entire problem.

    It may be that some of what was attributed to Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori should not have been in direct quotes, but they are fairly accurate summations of what she has said in various venues. Taking the quotes away and treating the statements as the journalist’s summation still leaves you with the same facts. She doesn’t think Muslims are competing with her for an Anglican franchise in the USA, and she does believe that the ACNA is such a threat.

  • Dale

    While I can’t say I’m a fan of either, you’ve illustrated your reference to the Spin Doctors with a picture of Adam and the Ants; although an argument could be made that the Presiding Bishop’s sartorial tastes put her firmly in the New Romantic camp, in both senses of the term.

  • http://sarahboylewebber.blogspot.com/ Sarah Webber

    Jeffrey,

    First, there is no such thing as objectivity when people are involved. Like you said, everyone has an agenda. It’s part of being human. And if you’ve ever read anything Mollie’s ever written, you’d know she’s an orthodox believer. And, well, KJS isn’t. If Mollie has an agenda or sides with anyone, it’s likely to be with those who share her understanding of Christianity. And aren’t bullies.

  • Steven in Falls Church

    I am surprised George+ was able to squeeze out of Lambeth even that much cold water to dribble onto TEC. The ++ABC sees his role as keeping everyone in the same room at all cost, and thus descriptions of relations within the Communion will invariably come with an “all is well” panglossian tint. The undeniable fact is that provinces representing a majority of Anglican churchgoers worldwide (especially after discounting for the 25 million British atheists that CofE continues to claim as members) have broken communion with TEC and recognized ACNA as the representative Anglican entity in the United States.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JEFFREY:

    So what are the factual errors in MZ’s piece that upset you?

  • Jeffrey

    Let’s start with the direct quotes of Schori that she denies saying. Where did the quotes come from? Did Mollie check with Schori or her office to verify or is she relying on the reports of partisans? The quote is confusing because clearly it is second hand, but she failed to tell readers the source of the second hand quote.

  • Jerry

    This group has been formally recognized by some Anglican primates outside of the United States.

    My problem with Mollie’s article is lies in this sentence. The word some is too vague. Which primates from which countries? What does Rowan Williams have to say about this situation, if anything, should also be mentioned. And are there Anglican primates which do not recognize this group? If so, what are their reasons for not recognizing this group?

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com bob smietana

    Jeffrey raises a good point– there’s no sourcing for the quote from Bishop Jefferts Schori. The piece reads as if Mollie spoke to her.
    Otherwise it’s one more reason why getting religion is complicated — religious groups often have an official story and don’t like when someone strays from it.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Well, the quote people are discussing here isn’t really the one in question. Both Jefferts Schori supporters and opponents recorded it at the time and it’s completely consistent with what she’s said for years. I included it because I wanted to make sure her argument was represented. I could have left it out but I personally find the argument a compelling explanation of why the national church has expended so much in its fight against departing members, clergy and dioceses.

    Anyway the real beef was my summary of her deposition where she was asked by opposing attorneys if she had problems with or if there were any rules against selling sanctuaries to become saloons or Baptist churches (before asking if there were problems with sanctuaries going to departing members). I used the examples of “saloons” and “Baptist” churches because those were the examples from the deposition to which she specifically responded. They said it wasn’t a direct quote. I agree it wasn’t a direct quote. Which is why I didn’t put quotation marks around it.

    And yes, Jerry, “some” is too vague. The point was supposed to be that while the ACNA has not been officially recognized by Lambeth, it has received formal recognition elsewhere in the Communion.

    Not that it matters (I’m not Anglican or anything) but I personally tend to think that Lambeth’s approval is key. Still, this is an important point for the Americans who left the ECUSA and the many Anglicans who are in broken or impaired fellowship with the ECUSA.

    Fact is (and again, not that it matters) that I have problems with elements of both sides in terms of theology and also how things have been handled. I was thankful that my job was to write on the more narrow “disaffiliation” clause as opposed to the larger dispute.

  • http://www.conciliaranglican.wordpress.com Fr. Jonathan

    Something that I was not totally clear about in reading the story online – was this an opinion piece? Was it news? Was it something else? I thought the article was very good and very fair, but I find that it’s always a struggle when reading papers online to figure out what kind of an article I’m looking at.

  • geoconger

    For those who would like the Presiding Bishop’s formal position on this issue … here is an excerpt of a letter she wrote to all of the Episcopal Church’s bishops in 2009.

    Our participation in God’s mission as leaders and stewards of The Episcopal Church means that we expect a reasonable and fair financial arrangement in any property settlement, and that we do not make settlements that encourage religious bodies who seek to replace The Episcopal Church.

    Pragmatically, the latter means property settlements need to include a clause that forbids, for a period of at least five years, the presence of bishops on the property who are not members of this House, unless they are invited by the diocesan bishop for purposes which do not subvert mission and ministry in the name of this Church.”

    http://www.anglican-mainstream.net/2009/08/01/new-york-a-message-from-the-presiding-bishop-on-property-issues/

  • Julia

    Was the dissolution of the monasteries in England a precedent for the presiding bishop’s position? I know that was a long time ago across the ocean, but is there an official Anglican Communion position on situations like this?

  • Passing By

    The business about ”tearing the fabric of the Communion” is important to understanding the presiding bishop’s positions. It’s a direct quote from the primates of the Communion, in response to the consecration of Bp. Robinson. The document, by the way, was signed by the primates, including Bp. Frank Griswold, then the presiding bishop of TheEpiscopal Church, who promptly came home and made Gene Robinson a bishop. The subsequent events, including a Global South group that includes the ACNA Archbisop Duncan as a seated primates, can best be described as a ”tearing”.

    FWIW, when I was Episcopalian (that would be 23+ years ago), they told me that you were an Anglican if the Archbishop of Canterbury says you

  • Passing By

    says you are. Two of those guys have declined to recognize more than one Anglican prsece in the United States.

  • Betsy Hetzler

    This reminds me of an Ethics in Journalism class I took in the 70s in graduate school at Penn State. Rolling Stone had published a supposed interview with Queen Elizabeth that it turned out never took place. In the debate as to whether or not the writer should have been punished, one student in defense declared, “Well, it’s what she would have said if she had said it.” Lord have mercy for such arrogant manipulation of the readership.

  • Will

    Er, how could Griswold “make” someone a bishop AFTER a document issued “in response to the consecration” of said individual? Did he “make” bishops by some other means than consecration?

  • Daniel

    One of the points is: Did Presiding Bishop Katharine] Jefferts Schori say it or not. When it is pointed out, both by third parties, and in the deposition, that she did, she is willing to resort to a lie to cover it up. If this point is disputed, you have to give me an alternate explanation, not just pretend the whole thing at Trinity Cathedral in Pittsburgh never happened! Besides this, the paraphrase being appealed to is consistent with the excerpt of a letter she wrote to all of the Episcopal Church’s bishops in 2009.

    Our participation in God’s mission as leaders and stewards of The Episcopal Church means that we expect a reasonable and fair financial arrangement in any property settlement, and that we do not make settlements that encourage religious bodies who seek to replace The Episcopal Church.

    Pragmatically, the latter means property settlements need to include a clause that forbids, for a period of at least five years, the presence of bishops on the property who are not members of this House, unless they are invited by the diocesan bishop for purposes which do not subvert mission and ministry in the name of this Church.”

    http://www.anglican-mainstream.net/2009/08/01/new-york-a-message-from-the-presiding-bishop-on-property-issues/

  • Chip

    From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, an example of how a star reporter handles this story.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Ok, Will, it should have been “in response to the planned consecration”.

    Mollie’s piece was on the WSJ opinion pages, while Ann Rodgers is writing hard news. To be fair, the WSJ article does read like Bp. Jefferts Shori was being interviewed, but I’ve been following this story for awhile now and it’s so familiar, I didn’t notice it. Of course, the presiding bishop said the things Mollie attributes to her, and more than that, she’s acted them out.


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