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. [Read more...]


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