Reporting on South Carolina Episcopal wars

Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.

Vice-President Joseph Biden

I have a soft spot for the vice-president. I speak not of politics, but of the man when I say I like him. I find him entertaining and always quotable. He was down here in Florida recently speaking to a gathering of the party-faithful, encouraging the troops before they enter what looks to be a hard fought political battle for Florida in 2012. One line in the Gannett newspapers account of his speech caught my eye:

Biden quoted former Boston Mayor Kevin White, who liked to tell critics, “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.” He said Obama will be re-elected when voters focus on policies voiced by the current crop of GOP presidential contenders, and compare them to Obama’s.

The vice-president has used this line before and President Obama has added it to his repertoire. I’ve not seen much commentary on this quip — MSNBC’s “Last Word” with Larry O’Donnell showed an excerpt of the speech, including the Almighty quote, but none of the panel participants found it worthy of remark.

Speaking before Democrat party activists, the vice-president’s words had a certain meaning. For the Democrat faithful the line meant voters should not compare the Obama Administration to an idealized government — “We’re not God, but we’re better than the Republicans.” Were Mr. Biden to say this before a different crowd — say religious conservatives — the audience would come away with a different meaning. “Don’t compare the Obama Administration to God, compare it to Satan.”

Now I would dearly love to write a story whose opening line read: “The Obama Administration is an agent of the Devil, Vice-President Joe Biden told Democrat leaders in Florida yesterday, resolving lingering questions about the president’s religious views by coming out as a Satanist.” Alas, integrity prevents interpreting the vice-president’s quip along those lines. The Gannett report places the quote in context and identifies the audience and historical meaning of the trope. There was no need to find a contrary voice to address the Almighty line, as its meaning was made clear.

When crafting a news report, a journalist must address the question of balance — giving both sides of an argument. This can be taken too far at times, but a good reporter knows when and when not to provide opposing views and provide the amount of background necessary to place the story in context. A report in Monday’s Post and Courier, the Charleston, South Carolina daily provides an example of how not to do this.

Before I dive in to the story, let me offer a disclaimer. I have knowledge and an interest in these issues but am not personally involved.

The article entitled “S.C. Episcopal Diocese releases property claim” fails on several levels. It manages to be credulous and one-sided. It does not examine the veracity of claims put forward by one party in the dispute, and neglects to mention the opposing arguments. It lacks context while the narrative arc of the story is so slanted as to make it appear to be a press release. Let me be clear that I am not commenting on the issue being reported in this story. I am writing about the failure of the Post and Courier to do this story justice. The article opens with:

The distance between The Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina widened last week when the diocese relinquished its legal oversight of all church property, sending what’s called a quitclaim deed to each parish.

The move merely formalizes an arrangement already in place, according to Bishop Mark Lawrence. “A quitclaim deed isn’t giving someone something they don’t have if they already own the deed,” he said.

Some observers say the move could heighten the risk of litigation or other challenges by national church authorities and provide additional evidence to a disciplinary committee now evaluating allegations that Lawrence has abandoned his responsibilities.

The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina sent quitclaim deeds to each of its congregations — that is the fact being reported. The meaning of this action is contrasted by placing a statement made by the Bishop of South Carolina against that of a lawyer associated with a dissident faction in the diocese. And it is here we have the breakdown. What follows is the privileging of one view over another.

“This kind of action, along with participating in the conventions that severed legal ties to the national church, I think those are real problems,” said Melinda Lucka, an attorney critical of recent diocese actions. “On a diocesan level, this further opens the door to parishes that are considering leaving the Episcopal Church.”

But it is the duty of parish and diocese leaders to uphold the canons of the national church, she said. When those laws are cast aside or ignored, it can trigger a response from the church. “Though the church might not want to, it sort of has to,” Lucka said.

The quitclaim deed effectively ends any obligation of the diocese to hold property in trust for The Episcopal Church, as required by a controversial church law.

The Dennis Canon was introduced in 1979 to codify the authority of the national church body over property and has mostly been upheld as valid by civil courts in California, Texas, Virginia, Connecticut and other states in recent years. In 1987, the diocese amended its governing documents to include the Dennis Canon, then removed the law in 2010.

Who is Melinda Lucka? A little context here would be helpful as would the information that Ms. Lucka has been working with officials from the national church office in New York in their fight with the diocese. (It would be nice to have had some background to explain why there is a fight also.) By treating her as an observer and not as an antagonist, the Post and Courier distorts the picture. It may well be true, as Ms. Lucka suggests, that this move by the diocese may provoke a response from the national church offices in New York. But not to mention that Ms. Lucka and her associates might be the ones bringing the response is unfortunate.

The story then moves to a summary of the Episcopal Church canon, or rule, that is in dispute. I do not find the Post and Courier’s characterization of the Dennis Canon to be accurate nor its review of the litigation complete. If these words had been left in Ms. Lucka’s mouth then what the Post and Courier wrote would pass muster as it would be presented as her opinion — but the article presents it as a fact. The history of the disputes in South Carolina follows as does an analysis of the law, but they too are offered from a particular perspective — that of Ms. Lucka’s camp.

Bishop Mark Lawrence speaks, but his words are interspersed with the reporter’s opinion as to the meaning of the facts and law so as to leave the impression the bishop is a bit of a crank and that he and the diocese are the aggressors. This may be the view of one party, but it is far from being settled as fact.

Take a look at this:

This summer, the national church nullified the resolutions that obligated the diocese to follow church laws only when they are consistent with local rules (though, by virtue of those same resolutions, the diocese does not recognize the church’s nullification). Since the diocese is a sovereign body, “the executive council has no canonical or constitution authority to speak on behalf of the church about that,” Lawrence said.

Again we have the diocese painted as the aggressor and opinions offered as facts. This is followed by:

Though a majority of the diocese’s 75 parishes and missions appear to support the bishop, at least five parishes and hundreds of individuals have declared their intention to remain part of The Episcopal Church.

The quitclaim deeds could heighten scrutiny of Lawrence by the Disciplinary Board for Bishops, whose president is the Rt. Rev. Dorsey Henderson, retired bishop of Upper South Carolina. The board currently is considering allegations of abandonment filed by local parishioners.

Barbara Mann, chairwoman of the Episcopal Forum of South Carolina, a group loyal to the national church, said this latest move could influence the board’s evaluation.

“I think this is going to be perhaps the deciding point,” Mann said. “If (Lawrence) says The Episcopal Church doesn’t belong in South Carolina at all, then he is abandoning The Episcopal Church.”

Has Bishop Lawrence said he wants to leave the Episcopal Church? No, he has adamantly denied that he wants to leave. That is not being reported by the Post and Courier. Nor has the newspaper appeared to have been able to find the diocese’s lawyers to ask their opinion of the assertions made by Lucka and Mann. Nor have we heard from any of the recognized canon law experts in this field. It is the belief of some members of the Diocese of South Carolina that the national church wants to kick Bishop Lawrence and 70 of the 75 congregations and 28,000 of the 29,000 Episcopalians in the diocese out of the Episcopal Church. Am I saying this is a fact? No, it is a view and has been the experience of some (and rather more than the Lucka/Mann camp) in the diocese.

So what has this to do with Joe Biden? The Post and Courier article under review has the same degree of professionalism and journalistic integrity as would an article about Joe Biden being a Satanist in light of his Almighty line. One could make the argument that the alternative to the Almighty is the Devil, and that is the standard to which the vice-president aspires. But to do that would be a partisan rant — not journalism. One could construe the words of Bishop Lawrence and the actions of the Diocese of South Carolina to make them out to be cantankerous schismatics who have brought this upon themselves. But such a construction would not be journalism either.

One test of balance is whether both sides can see their point of view described. Can they recognize the reality the article paints as being true to their experiences? A conflict entails differing truths, but a good story provides space for the issues to be heard. This story fails that test.

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About geoconger
  • Lola John

    What did Joseph Biden major in in college?

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    I’m going to have to disagree on this one, much as I don’t like what the national church is doing. If one side says, “this doesn’t mean anything,” and the other side say, “to the contrary, it means all this,” the sheer length of the latter explanation is going to prevail in the press. The only way to get “balance” back is for the press to accept the “no significance” side and deny space to the other.

    The incorrect affiliation identification for Lucka is a problem, but the more problematic phrase is buried a bit deeper: it’s the identification of Episcopal Forum of South Carolina as “a group loyal to the national church”. It implies disloyalty on the part of others.

  • Bob Smietana

    George:

    What’s wrong with the story’s reporting on the Dennis Canon? It seems pretty straightforward- leave the Episcopal Church and lose your building.
    But we’ve gotten complaints at the Tennesseean for reporting that fact – which is seen as taking sides in the dispute between the denomination and parishes who claim to own their own buildings.
    The problem seems be that the two sides fundamentally disagree about the nature of the dispute. Courts for the most part and the denomination say it is an internal religious dispute and therefore the denomination’s rules are in force. The parishes, and in this case a bishop, see this as purely a property dispute and downplay or discount the religion angle.

  • geoconger

    Bob,

    Sorry to say I have a ‘yes – but’ answer to your question.

    Yes, some courts have held that if you leave the Episcopal Church you loose your building under the theory that the Dennis Canon created an implied trust on the property. This is how some state courts have ruled. Other state courts have come to the opposite conclusion on the implied trust issue (and this doctrine applies to the Presbyterian church as well). Without looking at my notes I recall that in addition to South Carolina rejecting the implied trust theory–and making the Dennis Canon irrelevant to the SC situation — Louisiana, Missouri and Indiana have followed this line.

    The situation in South Carolina is different however, as Bishop Lawrence and the diocese do not want to leave the Episcopal Church. The Dennis Canon has no bearing then on this situation.

    As to the characterization of the Dennis Canon, it speaks to the national church and the diocese, not the national church alone. One of the issues that is being litigated in Texas and California is the question of whether a diocese can secede from the general convention of the Episcopal Church and take its property with it. This question has yet to be decided.

    Nor did the Dennis Canon codify existing practices when it was passed in 1979 — and questions remain as to whether it was properly enacted. The records are missing. What it did do is create a de novo construction of property relationships in the Episcopal Church. This is being disentangled by the various state courts and will likely wind up in the federal system before the US Supreme Court. As Ken Starr argued in a brief filed in one of the Los Angeles cases, it violates the constitutional separation of church and state by placing the power of the state behind the enforcement of some ecclesiastical laws (Episcopal, Presbyterian et al) and not to others (Baptists, independents and so forth).

    While some may argue the Dennis Canon has a certain meaning and is the trump card in all property arguments — it is far from settled and is an active issue before the courts. This article’s treatment of the issue was so egregious that it cried out for correction.

  • http://www.ststephenslondon.com keith nethery

    Let me first identify that I’m writing from Canada and that before nearly 20 years in ordained ministry, I had a 15 year career as a broadcast journalist. While I would agree with the premise of this blog, that the media doesn’t get religion, I would submit that isn’t about to change.
    I view the situation in South Carolina from a great distance and have no knowledge of those involved, save extensive blog reading on the subject as part of a keen interest in what is happening throughout the Anglican Communion.
    To say that the article in question fails to tell all sides of the story, is absolutely accurate. But also fails to mention that, given the state of journalism, it is exactly what we should expect. Reporters have neither the time, nor the inclination to seek out all sides of a story, and due to staffing restrictions are usually juggling many stories at that same time.
    The more appropriate question would be to ask if there was an intention to skew the story in one direction or another. If, in fact, there is an intention to withhold the facts to support a particular position, then we have an argument.
    I’m a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada, so it won’t surprise you that I had some concerns when the National Post chose a faux journalist (yep the faux shows a personal opinion), who is a member of an ANiC congregation to provide coverage of our most recent Synod, or the Calgary Herald running an opinion column from a writer who, based admittedly (when called on it) only on information from a contact in the ANiC, supporting the “break away” position.
    I could in fact question George Congers comment above in which he mentions four state courts that would appear to reject the “leave the National Church lose your building argument.” Yet, he fails to mention that the list (provided in the recent Georgia court decision) of those accepting the argument is somewhat longer. For reference, every court decision in Canada that I know of involving an Anglican Church, has ruled people can leave, but they can’t take the buildings.
    Now, I would expect that George will counter that I carry bias, which I have already outlined and admitted too.
    What I’m trying to suggest here is that media coverage gets skewed intentionally and accidentally.
    The difficulty is telling the accidental from the intentional. But at least part of understanding this comes from recognizing who is involved. When it’s a “general reporter” for a daily newspaper, they mess up for a variety of unintentional reasons. Not much we can do about that.

  • http://johnmeunier.wordpress.com John Meunier

    I cannot accept Keith Nethery’s argument that failing to report fairly the positions of various sides of a long-established dispute is simply a “mess up.”

    Journalists always have a choice about how they report and what they publish. To report something that they know does not fairly represent the arguments of both sides is not merely an accident. It is malpractice. Excusing it by overwork or shabby standards does not pass muster.

    If you do not have time to do do a full story, report the facts and leave the analysis for another day when you have time to do it right.

  • http://www.ststephenslondon.com keith nethery

    John
    You need only to read the premise of this blog to see that what you ask of secular media is impossible. They don’t get it. What is near and dear and central to us, is foreign to them, so they don’t put the passion into it we might like. Step away from religion and ask people in politics, entertainment, sports etc, who are more in the public spotlight that we are as church; how accurately they are portrayed in the media. Two quick examples. I was interviewed once by a young reporter and in one of my responses I mentioned the Apostle Paul. Her response, “who’s he?” A national television network sent a reporter to cover an NHL (I’m a Canadian – you’ve got to expect a hockey story) game and they sat down beside me and their first question, “why did they blow the whistle? “Icing I said.” Wait for it – “What’s that?” I know nothing of the reporter or the newspaper in South Carolina, but I do know that the quality of secular journalism is shrinking for a variety of reasons, chief amongst them, finances. Less experience means lower pay but also means less skill. Add in the tendancy in media to “want to make a name for yourself” and skewed facts and shabby stories are inevitable.

  • Bob Smietana

    Hi George:

    Thanks for the details. The courts in TN has ruled the opposite of the Ken Starr argument you quoted. They’ve refused to get involved in internal religious disputes because of the First Amendment. Most of the court rulings have been along those lines as courts don’t want to decide matters of denominational polity and doctrine.
    Comparing the mainline disputes to Baptists is really interesting–it seems that Bishop Lawrence’s actions seem to show that he thinks when it comes to property, Episcopalians have congregational polity.

  • Dale

    George:

    I’ll pass on the canon law issues, other than to say that the interaction between canon law and state law gets complicated–thus, there are differing legal opinions as to how far the state must follow canon law.

    However, as a real estate lawyer, I’ve got to comment on this little nugget:

    The quitclaim deed effectively ends any obligation of the diocese to hold property in trust for The Episcopal Church, as required by a controversial church law.

    Umm, no, it does not, unless the law of conveyances in South Carolina is out of step with the rest of American law. A quitclaim conveys from a grantor to a grantee all of the grantor’s title to a piece of property, if the grantor has any, and the quitclaim contains no warranty of title. In laypersons terms, person A gives whatever rights, if he has any, in Property 1 to person B, without affecting the rights of any other person in Property 1. That’s ALL a quitclaim deed does.

    If, as the Episcopal Church maintains, the South Carolina diocese has a fiduciary (or “trust”) duty to hold property for the benefit of the national church, that means the national church is a beneficial owner of that property. A “beneficial owner” has “beneficial title”. A fiduciary can not convey beneficial title with a quitclaim deed, because the fiduciary has
    “legal title” but not “beneficial title”. Anyone who takes legal title from a fiduciary by a quitclaim deed takes the property subject to the rights of the beneficial owner, or the beneficial title.

    In short, if the Episcopal Church holds beneficial title to these church properties, a quitclaim deed from the diocese to the local congregation does not change the Episcopal Church’s title.

    Plus, if the diocese has a fiduciary obligation to the Episcopal Church to protect the Episcopal Church’s title to the property against the local congregation, that obligation continues regardless of the execution of a quitclaim deed by the diocese. The obligation springs from the canon law, not from the diocese’s title to the property.

    If the national Episcopal Church has beneficial title to local properties in South Carolina, the only way the South Carolina diocese could extinguish the Episcopal Church’s interest in the property would be by a trustee’s deed– a deed executed by the diocese acting as trustee of the Episcopal Church, with a warranty certifying that the diocese was in fact the trustee, and the diocese was authorized to execute the trustee’s deed by whatever documents created the trust, in this case, the applicable canon law of the Episcopal Church.

    So the quitclaim deeds, in fact, mean nothing to the Episcopal Church’s title to local parish property. Which raises the question: why is the lawyer playing this up as legally significant?

  • Passing By

    Another article, more from Bp. Lawrence’s point of view.


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