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Assad’s Easter and mysterious attacks on Syrian Christians: GetReligion, April 24, 2014 May 9, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Antiochian Orthodox, Get Religion, Greek Orthodox, Islam, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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Why are Syrian Christians being targeted by Islamist rebels?

The Western press cannot agree on a reason, a review of recent reports from Syria reveals.

Can we credit the explanation given by the Wall Street Journal — that the rebels do not trust Christians — as a sufficient explanation? And if so, what does that mean? Are the reports of murders, kidnappings, rapes and overt persecution of Christians in Syria by Islamist rebels motivated by religion, politics, ethnicity, nationalism or is it a lack of trust?

Is the narrative put forward byITAR-TASS, the Russian wire service and successor to the Soviet TASS News Agency — that the rebels are fanatics bent on turning Syria into a Sunni Muslim state governed by Sharia law — the truth?

On this past Monday, The Wall Street Journal ran a story on its front page under this headline:

Christians of Homs Grieve as Battle for City Intensifies

That story examined the plight of Syria’s Christians. The Journal entered into the report by looking at the death of Dutch Jesuit Father Frans van der Lugt, who had been murdered by members of an Islamist militia in the town of Homs.

The well-written article offers extensive quotes from a second Syrian Roman Catholic priest on this tragedy and notes the late priest’s attempt to bridge the divide between Christians and Muslims. In the 10th paragraph, the story opens up into a wider discussion of the plight of Syria’s Christians and recounts Assad’s Easter visit to a monastery — whether Catholic or some variety of Orthodox, that detail is left out.

While the fighting raged in Homs, President Bashar al-Assad showed up unexpectedly on Sunday in the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, about 30 miles northeast of the capital Damascus. The town was overrun by Islamist rebels in September and reclaimed by the Syrian army a week ago.

State media released video footage of Mr. Assad surveying smashed icons at the town’s damaged monasteries and quoted him as saying that “no amount of terror can ever erase our history and civilization.”

The fight over Maaloula, like the killing of Father Frans, both reflect the quandary of Syria’s Christians. Many feel an affinity for Mr. Assad. His Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, dominates the regime while the majority of Syrians—and opposition supporters—are Sunni Muslims.

Most Christians have become all the more convinced that only the regime can protect them after some rebels came under the sway of Islamic extremists who have attacked and pillaged their communities and churches and targeted priests and nuns.

Some Christians still seek to build bridges with both sides of the civil war, as Father Frans did. But in a landscape where religious and sectarian affiliations often define and shape the struggle, they find themselves under fire from both sides.

Many rebels say they don’t fully trust Christians, while regime supporters see those who reach out to the opposition as naive or traitors. Father Frans found himself in that position, say some close to him

What are we to make of these assertions — “some rebels” are Islamists, or that “many rebels say they don’t fully trust Christians?” Is that a fair, suffient or accurate statement of affairs?

A look at the Financial Times report on President al-Assad’s visit to Maaloula on Easter Sunday makes the argument that the Assad regime is playing up the Islamist angle for his political benefit. But it assumes the persecution is real.

President Bashar al-Assad made an Easter visit on Sunday to a historic Christian town recaptured by the army, in a rare appearance outside the capital that shows his growing confidence in state control around Damascus.

The visit also aims to portray him as the protector of Syrian minorities against a rebel movement led by Islamist forces.

The wire service stories also connect Christian fear of the rebels with support for Assad. AFP’s account closes with the explanation:

Syria’s large Christian minority has sought neutrality throughout the three-year war, and has viewed the Sunni-led rebels with growing concern as jihadists have flocked to their ranks.

The Los Angeles Times opens its story on the Maaloula visit noting that both Assad and the rebel leadership are courting Syria’s Christians.

But Assad appears to be winning.

DAMASCUS, Syria — President Bashar  Assad made a symbolic Easter visit Sunday to the heavily damaged town of Maaloula, a Christian landmark  enclave recaptured from Islamist rebels last week by government forces. The president’s visit, broadcast on state television, underscored his efforts  to portray himself as a defender of Christians and other minorities as he  prepares for an expected reelection bid in the midst of a devastating war now in  its fourth year.

Maaloula and several of its historic churches sustained significant damage  during heavy fighting and bombardment. Church leaders say priceless icons were  looted or destroyed during the rebel occupation of Maaloula, famous for its  preservation of Aramaic, a version of the language spoken by Jesus Christ.

“No one, no matter the extent of their terrorism, is able to erase our human  and cultural history,” Assad declared in Maaloula while in the company of senior  Christian clerics. “Maaloula will remain steadfast … in the face of the  barbarity and darkness of all who target the homeland.”

Opposition groups seeking Assad’s ouster generally dismissed the trip as a  stunt or faked. The exile-based Syrian National Coalition sent Easter greetings  to Syria’s Christians “at a time when Assad destroyed the country because of a  people who are demanding freedom.”

Comparing the reporting by Peter Oborne of the Daily Telegraph on the plight of Syria’s Christians to the the Wall Street Journal reveals the shallowness of the WSJ’spiece. Reporting on his visit to Maaloula shortly after it was recapture by government forces, Oborne writes:

Below, the village itself appeared practically deserted; most of its 5,000-strong, mainly Christian, population have fled since it first came under rebel attack, on Sept 4 last year.

According to Samir, a soldier who said he had been born in Maaloula, and joined up to defend his village, the ancient religious centre “will not change hands again because most of the young men in the village have joined the military”.

His friend, Imad, said there had been 32 churches in Maaloula and claimed that “all of them have been destroyed” – although it was clear from the vantage point near the monastery that in fact churches were still standing, albeit with signs of damage and some burning.

Anger among regime supporters at what they claim are the excesses of the rebels – who include radical Islamist insurgent groups – was palpable. “I can’t describe my feelings because the terrorists are destroying the Christian religion,” said Imad, who said he had been an electrician in Maaloula before he joined the military and the rest of his family moved to Damsacus two years ago. Samir claimed that the rebels had behaved brutally to young men of the town when they first arrived, killing many.

However, there have been no documented massacres of Christian inhabitants under the rebels’ rule of Maaloula and a group of nuns who were released last month after being kidnapped by the Islamist group, Jabhat al-Nusra, said they had been treated well.

Oborne’s article allows both sides to speak, while offering facts that put the claims in context. The complexity of the war in Syria is better served by the balanced but nuanced approach taken by the Daily Telegraph, I believe, than the shy style adopted by the WSJ. While I have no firsthand knowledge of the events unfolding in Syria, Oborne’s story just feels right — it is a first-class example of the craft of reporting.

Where does the truth lay in all of this? The WSJ piece doesn’t feel right to me. I am not saying it is incorrect, but it is incomplete.

As a stand-alone piece on the murder of Father van der Lugt, the WSJ article is great. It seems to get into trouble, however, when it moves into a wider discussion of the causes and political-religious currents of Syria’s civil war. Frankly, I am not convinced it is telling the full story. It leaves me wonder why the WSJ is being shy in examining the persecution of Christians by Muslims?

What’s God got to do with it — in Maidan square?: GetReligion, February 21, 2014 April 11, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Russian Orthodox, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Ukrainian Orthodox (Kiev Patriarchate), Ukrainian Orthodox (Moscow Patriarchate).
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I’ve said it oncetwice, and I’ll say it again — there is more than one Orthodox Church in the Ukraine.

Does this matter? Is this pettifogging carping — dull minded pedantry? Am I just showing off a store of useless knowledge, or Is it important to distinguish between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) (KP) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriachate) (MP) when reporting on the demonstrations in Kiev?

If you want to understand what is going on and break free from the narrative being peddled that this is a conflict over “fundamental European values” (Guardian) with the protestors “defying the post-Soviet order imposed by Russia” (Economist) in order to build what British Foreign Secretary William Hague believes will be a “free, sovereign, democratic” Ukraine — then it is important to understand the local issues driving this conflict. Contrary to what the Western European politicians want to believe, this is not a rerun of the Cold War with Angela Merkel and David Cameron replacing Ronald Reagan as the hero. What then is going on?

On page A8 this morning the Wall Street Journal ran a story entitled “CathedralTurns Into Hospital as Ukraine Protests Worsen.” Casualties from the fighting in Independence Square, or Maidan Square as it is know to the locals, have been brought to the cathedral for treatment by volunteer doctors.

The lede states:

KIEV, Ukraine – In St. Michael’s Cathedral, Orthodox priests chanting prayers have been replaced by doctors calling for medicine.

The golden-domed church has been transformed into a field hospital of sorts for protesters injured or worse in days of deadly clashes with police.

And then the story shifts to interviews and man in the street accounts from doctors, volunteers and patients being treated at the cathedral. The article is strongly written and crisply presents the sights and sounds observed by the Wall Street Journal’s man in Kiev.

 

“We’ve had four or five corpses here already today,” says Taras Semushchak, a 47-year-old surgeon from Lviv in western Ukraine. “Most had gunshot wounds from snipers and Kalashnikovs.”

Yet for all the color reporting, the article does not ask the question why are the wounded being treated at St. Michael’s? Why not at St. Sophia’s Orthodox Cathedral on Volodymyrs’ka Street? Why a cathedral in the first place?

Is this a Kievan counterpart to the Occupy Wall Street crowd seeking to use Trinity Wall Street in lower Manhattan as a base of operations? With the difference being the Episcopal Church said no while the KP said yes?

Is a better analogy St. Paul’s Cathedral in London permitting protestors to use their precincts?

In our past posts on this subject, tmatt and I have explored the religious dimensions of this story noting there are three principal churches in the Ukraine: the Moscow Patriarchate, the  Kiev Patriarchate, and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church).

The leaders of the three churches have taken differing stands on the protests, with the Kiev Patriarchate and the Greek Catholics backing the country’s realignment towards Europe, while the Moscow Patriarchate backs the president’s alignment with Vladimir Putin’s regime in Moscow. In late December the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church, including its Ukrainian bishops, released a statement condemning proposals for the Ukraine to move closer to the EU at the expense of its relations with Russia.

Speaking at the Heritage Foundation in Washington last November Patriarch Filaret of the Kiev Patriarchate urged the Ukraine to break free from Moscow and secure its political, economic and religious independence. He was reported to have said:

[T]he Ukrainian Churches would benefit from an Association Agreement. For one thing, it would place the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) in a new situation. With Ukraine committed to Europe and continued independence, that Church would have to decide which side it was on – that of Russia, or that of the Ukrainian people. By siding with Russia, the UOC-MP would assume the role of a fifth column for a hostile state. If, on the other hand, it sided with the Ukrainians, it would be obligated to unite with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate (UOC-KP) into a single Ukrainian Orthodox Church, independent of Moscow.

The Kiev Patriarchate and the Greek Catholic Church have lent their support to the demonstrations — and as the Wall Street Journal story reports, the KP has opened its churches as sanctuaries for the wounded. The Moscow Patriarchate in Kiev has backed President Yanukovich — and its calls for calm echoes the president’s public statements to date.

Leaving out the affiliation of the cathedral to the KP blurs the ethnic-religious elements of this conflict. And it makes the setting of this story meaningless. It could just as well have been a school, museum or other large civic structure.

But aside from the spiritual resonance of a cathedral serving as a hospital for the souls of the sick and a cathedral serving as a shelter for the wounded — there is a practical link between St. Michael’s, its clergy, the KP and the unfolding demonstrations in Kiev. That’s a fact. It matters.

First printed at GetReligion.

Unforced Episcopal errors from the Wall Street Journal; Get Religion, April 15, 2013 April 16, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, Property Litigation, South Carolina, The Episcopal Church.
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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.

First printed in Get Religion.

Rum, sodomy and the cash – The Episcopal Church: Get Religion, July 13, 2012 July 14, 2012

Posted by geoconger in 77th General Convention, Get Religion, The Episcopal Church.
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The Wall Street Journal’s “Houses of Worship” column has printed a spirited review of the recent General Convention of the Episcopal Church held 5-12 July 2012 in Indianapolis. The reporter’s style in “What Ails the Episcopalians” is engaging as is the ebullient energy found in his report on the church’s follies.

Yet, there is a problem — the author’s insights are largely superficial and the reader cannot rely on him as a guide to the deeper meaning of the things he describes. Silly things take place at Episcopal Church General Conventions — I have covered the last six — yet, the Episcopal Church and its presiding bishop are not guilty of the crimes leveled against them in this article.

Let me concede up front that this article is written as a commentary or news analysis piece, and as such, normally not subject to critique by Get Religion. However, the narrative offered to substantiate the opinions presented here “ain’t necessarily so.” This is an egregiously bad article, and that is unfortunate as the leaders of the Episcopal Church, along with those of many other mainline denominations, need to be shaken out of their complacency.

Follow me through this article and I will show you were the problems lie.

The author begins his report stating the church had just concluded the triennial meeting of its General Convention, notes the large number of participants in the gathering and then states:

General Convention is also notable for its sheer ostentation and carnival atmosphere. For seven straight nights, lavish cocktail parties spilled into pricey steakhouses, where bishops could use their diocesan funds to order bottles of the finest wines.

Alas if this were only true — I was present at the General Convention from start to finish and somehow missed the bacchanalia he describes. Among the nearly 5000 deputies, bishops, guests, exhibitors and members of the press corps some may have had the wherewithal to host “lavish” cocktail parties that moved on to “pricey steakhouses” – but they were not bishops. The era of privately monied bishops ended some time ago.

It continues:

During the day, legislators in the lower chamber, the House of Deputies, and the upper chamber, the House of Bishops, discussed such weighty topics as whether to develop funeral rites for dogs and cats, and whether to ratify resolutions condemning genetically modified foods. Both were approved by a vote, along with a resolution to “dismantle the effects of the doctrine of discovery,” in effect an apology to Native Americans for exposing them to Christianity.

Yes, among the 600 resolutions brought to the convention there were some odd items that were fatuous politically correct drivel — no question about that. However, the church did decline to endorse requiem masses for pets. But his next argument about the polity of the church — the way it orders its life — is false.

But the party may be over for the Episcopal Church, and so, probably, its experiment with democratic governance. Among the pieces of legislation that came before their convention was a resolution calling for a task force to study transforming the event into a unicameral—that is, a one-house—body. On Wednesday, a resolution to “re-imagine” the church’s governing body passed unanimously.

Formally changing the structure of General Convention will most likely formalize the reality that many Episcopalians already know: a church in the grip of executive committees under the direct supervision of the church’s secretive and authoritarian presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori. They now set the agenda and decide well in advance what kind of legislation comes before the two houses.

The first assertion, that the church’s tradition of democratic governance is in jeopardy, and the second, that a cabal controlled by the “secretive and authoritarian presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori” controls the convention are incorrect. While she has enormous influence, the presiding bishop and her staff at the national church offices in New York City have no control over “what kind of legislation” comes before the two houses (as an aside it is the House of Deputies, what the WSJ calls the “lower house” that is the senior of the two, not the House of Bishops.)

Legislation in the form of resolutions can be proposed by the church’s national committees, bishops, any one of its 111 dioceses grouped in nine geographic provinces or by deputies to the convention. To say the presiding bishop controls “what kind of legislation comes before the two houses” speaks to a lack of knowledge about the church’s legislative process.

There is also a “dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t” tone in this article — the church is ridiculed for some of the silly things that are brought to the convention and  Bishop Jefferts Schori is accused of controlling the legislative process which brings forth these silly things. Which is it? Is she responsible for packing the legislative calendar to achieve her nefarious ends, or is she responsible for the froth and frippery that takes up so much of the convention’s time?

The article takes a turn away from the convention to pursue Bishop Jefferts Schori.

Bishop Schori is known for brazenly carrying a metropolitan cross during church processions. With its double horizontal bars, the metropolitan cross is a liturgical accouterment that’s typically reserved for Old World bishops. And her reign as presiding bishop has been characterized by actions more akin to a potentate than a clergywoman watching over a flock.

I’ve witnessed two of her predecessors as presiding bishop carry a metropolitan cross, and the one she is carrying in the photo appended to the article was given to her by former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold at her installation — bit of an unfair dig. The article also takes up the church’s property battles and money woes — pressing the conservative line with some vigor, and then takes a bizarre turn — one that is a dead giveaway that this author does not know what he is talking about.

And yet there are important issues at stake if laymen are further squeezed out of what was once a transparent legislative process. A long-standing quest by laymen to celebrate the Eucharist—even taking on functions of ordained ministers to consecrate bread and wine for Holy Communion, which is a favorite cause of the church’s left wing—would likely be snuffed out in a unicameral convention in which senior clergy held sway.

The assertion that lay celebration of the Eucharist is a “favorite cause of the church’s left wing” is preposterous. It is not the left but the right who has pushed for lay presidency. The chief proponents of this change to the church’s teachings are found in the Diocese of Sydney, Australia and among low churchmen — the most vocal opponents of Bishop Jefferts Schori  within the wider Anglican world.

The article moves from mistake to misstatement to mistake.  The “entire delegation” from the Diocese of South Carolina did not “storm out” — six of the eight members quietly withdrew. South Carolina Bishop Mark Lawrence explained to his colleagues why he felt called to leave early — his sadness at the adoption of rites for the blessing of same-sex couples — but made it clear that he, and the diocese, had not left the Episcopal Church.

And it is here that I have my greatest difficulty with this article. There were a number of highly contentious issues before the General Convention — the authorization of local rites for the blessing of same-sex unions, changing the requirement that a person be baptised before they receive Holy Communion, opening the ordination process to trans-gendered persons. Yet the controversy over gay blessings and the compromise reached within the church — a local option whereby it is lawful in those parts of the church that support the idea and unlawful in those areas that do not, and no priest may be compelled to perform such a ceremony — is not mentioned at all.

The first mistake the author makes in this story is in not defining his terms. What is a General Convention? What are its powers? This question currently is the subject of litigation before the Texas Supreme Court and lower courts in California and Illinois. Grounding the article by stating the powers exercised by this gathering are in dispute amongst Episcopalians would have been a better start.

However, the problem with the Episcopal Church is not cocktail swilling bishops or a power-mad gargoyles peering down at the church from a penthouse in Manhattan. Problems with alcohol and homosexuality, money and power are derivative issues that arise from the divide over the interpretation of Scripture and an understanding of the person of Jesus Christ. The fight may take the form over secondary issues such as morality of homosexual behavior or the role of women in the leadership of the church, but it is based upon a division over who Jesus Christ is and how Christians read, interpret and live out the teachings of the Bible.

While I am sympathetic to much that has been said, the article was a wasted opportunity to explain what really is going on. Reading “What Ails the Episcopalians” will not leave you any the wiser — and that is a shame. Just think what could have been done with this story, and was not.

First printed in GetReligion.

Mollie and the Spin Doctors: Get Religion Oct 25, 2011 October 25, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Archbishop of Canterbury, Church of England Newspaper, The Episcopal Church.
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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 2 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 3  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 like a fool.

First published by GetReligion.