Unforced Episcopal errors from the Wall Street Journal

Even the best newspapers will drop a brick now and again. And today’s piece in the Wall Street Journal about the Episcopal wars in South Carolina is a real stinker.

I’ve been reading the Journal since the early 1980s when I went to New York to work as a floor clerk at the Commodities Exchange for Drexel Burnham Lambert. In those far off misty days of my misspent youth (the lark’s on the wing, the snail’s on the thorn, Reagan’s in the White House, God’s in His heaven, all was right with the world) I would start at the back of the paper every morning and work forward after I had finished with the futures prices.

As my life and interests took a different path (no more filthy lucre for me) I began to enjoy the paper’s forays into religion, art, literature and other highbrow genres. The Wall Street Journal has consistently done a fine job in covering these topics bringing a depth of knowledge and balance to its reporting — and is one of the best written, best edited English language newspapers in the business.

Hence my disappointment with today’s article entitled “Church Fight Heads to Court: South Carolina Episcopalian Factions Each File Suit After Split Over Social Issues”. The story gets just about everything of importance wrong. The lede misrepresents the underlying issue. It begins:

Episcopalians along the South Carolina coast are battling in court to determine which of two factions owns an estimated $500 million in church buildings, grounds and cemeteries, following an acrimonious split last year over social issues.

The leadership and about two-thirds of the members of the Diocese of South Carolina, based in Charleston, broke away from the national Episcopal Church last November over its blessing of same-sex unions, ordination of gay clergy and its liberal approach to other social and theological issues.

No, that is not what happened. In South Carolina the diocesan convention voted to withdraw from the General Convention of the Episcopal Church after the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church suspended the Bishop of South Carolina with the intent to depose him (remove him from the ministry). Yes, South Carolina has opposed the innovations of doctrine and discipline introduced over the past two generations — and I guess you could say, taking the long view, that social issues were subsidiary issues — but last year’s split was in response to specific actions taken by the leadership of the national church.

Farther down the article some of the details about the South Carolina fight are presented and the story gets the facts back on track.

In South Carolina, bad blood between the diocese and the national church has been building for about 15 years. It reached a breaking point last summer, when the bishop and other leaders of the diocese walked out of the triennial General Convention in Indianapolis, following the national church’s approval of policies on blessing same-sex unions. The walkout triggered a series of events, including the national church’s removal of the Rt. Rev. Lawrence as bishop, and subsequent lawsuits.

(A hint that the writer is not au courant with religion reporting is the “Rt. Rev. Lawrence” — proper style is to use the first name after the Rt Rev and then Bishop or Dr if you want an honorific before the last name.)

The story also collapses the time line of the Episcopal wars and is written as if the South Carolina lawsuit is new news when the latest lawsuit was filed about six weeks ago.

The schism in South Carolina is one of many that have erupted over the past decade between local Episcopal parishes and dioceses and their national church—particularly since the election of a gay bishop in 2003. Thousands of conservative members left their churches over such issues around the middle of last decade, a time some Southern churchgoers call “the Great Unpleasantness,” the same euphemism once used for the Civil War. Other mainline Protestant denominations also have struggled with issues related to homosexuality, with many congregations moving to leave the Presbyterian Church USA after its leadership voted to allow openly gay clergy.

The split between liberal and conservative Episcopalians has been around for almost 40 years and has witnessed dozens of lawsuits between congregations and diocese. Beginning in 2006 the national church headquarters entered the fray spending upwards of $24 million (this in addition to the fees paid out by the dioceses and parishes). Nor did the fight begin in 2003  — GetReligion‘s tmatt has written extensively on this point and I need not restate the accurate Anglican timeline here.

The reporting on the lawsuits — the purpose of the article — is dodgy as well. The article reports the diocese filed a lawsuit in December in state court, with the explanation “The group says it shouldn’t have to turn property over to a church that it believes has drifted from Biblical principles.” Well that was one of the issues — but the bulk of the pleadings and the central issue before the state court was who was the true Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina?

This is followed in the article by the response of the national church affiliated faction:

A group representing the one-third of diocesan congregants still aligned with the national Episcopal Church have joined it in filing suit in federal court, arguing the property must remain with the national church. The national church, which says it is the one upholding Biblical teachings by wrestling with difficult questions as a community, believes the suit should be heard in federal court because it argues the dispute involves the First Amendment; a hearing is expected later this spring on whether the matter will go to federal or state court.

No. This is not true either. On 31 January lawyers representing the national church faction agreed to the entry of a preliminary injunction against their client (called a temporary injunction in South Carolina) promising not to use the name, marks and insignia of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina pending the outcome of the state court proceedings.

On 6 March the national church faction brought a complaint based on the federal trademark law known as the Lanham Act (15 U.S.C. Sections 1051 et seq.) against Bishop Lawrence claiming it, not Bishop Lawrence and his faction were the true diocese. It asked the federal court to block the January state court order  in favor of Bishop Lawrence and his group. Bishop Lawrence, they argued, was infringing on their trademarks. And last week, back in state court, the attorneys for the national church filed their answer to the original lawsuit.

Religious freedom and the First Amendment are all well and good, but it would have behooved the Journal to read the pleadings rather than the press hand outs.

The choice of legal commentary is one-sided — and also manages to pawn off further frauds onto the reader while managing to omit one of the crucial elements in the story.

How the fight will be resolved is difficult to tell. The national church has prevailed in 12 similar disputes in state supreme or appellate courts since 1980, said Martin Nussbaum, a Colorado specialist in church property law who isn’t involved in the South Carolina matter.

Some religious scholars say such schisms are hurting the church’s image and distracting attention that could be devoted to reversing a decline in church membership. “Once we’re through the issue of property and gay people, the real issue is how can this church change its way of being?” said Frank Kirkpatrick, the author of “The Episcopal Church in Crisis: How Sex, the Bible, and Authority are Dividing the Faithful.”

This is untrue also. While a number of lawsuits between dioceses and parishes have gone to state supreme courts, with the diocese prevailing in many of them, in South Carolina the state supreme court ruled the other way and held the church’s national property rules, called the Dennis Canon, were of no legal effect in South Carolina. In other words, if a parish has clear title to its property in South Carolina, it can take it with it if it leaves its diocese or denomination. Omitting this crucial legal precedent in the story was most unfortunate.

It should also be added that the appellate courts have not adjudicated the issue of whether a diocese may withdraw from the national church. Attorneys for the national church have argued the legal precedents from outside South Carolina governing the relationship of the parish to the diocese should govern the relationship of the diocese to the national church. The diocese’s lawyers in South Carolina have argued this relationship is not comparable.

One might also add, contrary to the assertion in the article about declining membership, that until these lawsuits erupted the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina was one of the few Episcopal diocese to see a growth in membership over the past decade.

So far I’ve pointed out mistakes of fact, significant omissions, and unbalanced commentary — let’s look at tone. The deafness of this article — its cluelessness — can be illustrated by this line;

The breakaway group, which still calls itself the Diocese of South Carolina, continues to operate from the diocesan headquarters and retains control of many of its most recognizable parishes, including St. Michael’s, in Charleston, established in the 1750s.

The breakaway group still calls itself the “Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina” — not merely the “Diocese of South Carolina”. The “Episcopal” name, and from it the control of assets, is the question before the courts.

Not a good outing I’m afraid from the Journal.

Update: I neglected to mention a further flaw. The photo of the church used with the article is captioned as St Michael’s Church in Charleston — the photo is actually of St Helena’s in Beaufort. Hardly a fatal flaw, but I suppose it does help to pack all your errors into one story.

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  • Tim H

    I hate to pile on the poor reporter, who I suspect is a yankee, but the euphemism referenced in the article should read “The Late Unpleasantness,” not “The Great Unpleasantness.”

  • Jerry

    If there’s a contest for worst story it seems this article would be in the running.

  • http://blog.chasclifton.com Chas

    “The split between liberal and conservative Episcopalians has been around for almost 40 years and has witnessed dozens of lawsuits between congregations and diocese. ”

    Even longer than that. In the late 1960s, I think it was, An uncle of mine represented the diocese of Colorado in a lawsuit over building ownership with an Anglo-Catholic-leaning parish, St. Mary’s (Denver). As I recall (I was small at the time, so this is what people told me later), the diocese won but later gave the dissident parish the church building anyway. Maybe someone else knows the whole story.

    • Fr Theodore

      The Diocese of Colorado won, then sold the building back to the parish. They did not give it back.

      • http://blog.chasclifton.com Chas

        Fr. Theodore: thanks for the additional information. I knew better than to trust my memory of something that happened when I was quite young!


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