As Canterbury Turns: Yelling in Virginia

chichester(Musical cue: Another swell of English cathedral pipe organ) Yes, the lead of this story was wrong, but what DID the reporter hear that made her write what she did about what the bishop was told? I find it astounding, and a bit unbelievable, to think that the reporter (Julia) heard, in effect, "We've told the bishop we're leaving" when the message was "We're going to have a 'discernment' process in the fall" (which she did include in the story). ...

Unlike the Rather memo, the reporter apparently gained a truthful insight into this church that it (or at least some within it) is preparing for departure. Again, the reaction of the church to the story tells me they are simply embarassed that these plans were revealed too early.

Posted by Stephen A. at 10:50 am on June 30, 2006

It's time for another episide of As Canterbury Turns: The Virginia Story. The following thoughts are my own, based on my experiences as a reporter and editor.

Julia Duin's controversial story in The Washington Times is back online with this correction added at the top. Click here to read my original post on this affair.

CORRECTION: The Washington Times mischaracterized a meeting Wednesday between the Rev. Martyn Minns and Virginia Episcopal Bishop Peter J. Lee. Representatives of the Falls Church Episcopal and Truro Episcopal churches now say no final decision on leaving the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia has been made.

This is one of the strangest corrections that I have ever seen. Let's cut in in half, because there are two different issues here.

Here is the lead:

Two of Northern Virginia's largest and most historic Episcopal churches -- Truro and the Falls Church -- informed Virginia Bishop Peter J. Lee yesterday that they plan to leave the diocese and that as many as two dozen other parishes may follow suit.

The hot word in this lead, the source of the whole controversy, is "plan."

Note that the correction stresses that the leaders of Truro and the Falls Church denied that they have decided to leave the Diocese of Virginia. This is a fascinating statement, since the original story never says that they have made this decision. The story says they are preparing -- along with a large circle of other parishes -- to start a 40-day spiritual process that will lead to a decision.

Is that the same thing as "planning" to leave?

OK, here is my guess on what happened here. For at least a decade, traditional Episcopal parishes have known that, at some point in the future, they might -- note the word "might" -- need to find an exit door to escape The Episcopal Church. In almost all of these parishes this is a move that would have majority support in the vestry and the congregation, which is why they have been exploring a wide variety of options in the first place. But there are debates and divisions in these congregations, due to the legal risks involved linked to buildings, pensions, endowments and whatnot.

Most of these meetings, of course, take place behind closed doors and reporters find out about them after they have taken place. The most accurate way to describe these sessions is to say they involve church leaders who are discussing "contingency plans" that may or may not be used in the future. They are making plans, but they have not made the final decision to put them into effect.

Thus, the original Duin story says:

Truro and the Falls Church have a combined $27 million in assets. Situated on some of Northern Virginia's most valuable real estate, both churches are having 40-day "discernment" periods of prayer, fasting and debate, starting in September and ending just before Thanksgiving, before announcing a final decision. ...

The Falls Church and Truro Church presented their plan in Fairfax on Saturday to a meeting of officials representing 20 to 30 Episcopal churches around Virginia. Thirteen to 14 churches already have agreed to have their own 40-day period, he said.

Rectors of two other large Northern Virginia parishes also told The Washington Times yesterday, on condition of anonymity, that they, too, may be leaving. One is involved in secret negotiations with the diocese over property issues; another says his vestry, or governing board, approved the 40-day idea Tuesday night, but his parish needs to vote on it Sunday.

The official disclaimer from the Falls Church says the following:

The Washington Times reported that our church informed our Bishop that we are leaving the Diocese of Virginia and leaving the Episcopal Church. This certainly is not true and misrepresents where we are as a congregation.

Does the original Duin story say that the parish has decided to leave the diocese? It does not. So why did the Times correct a statement that its own story did not make?

This brings us back to the word "plan" in the lead.

There is a big difference between "they plan to leave" and "they are making plans that may lead to their departure."

My guess is that this lead was, in the editing process, strengthened. The phrase editors use is "pump it up." Reporters can resist this process and almost always do so. But it happens. Editors do not like words like "may" or "might" in leads on page one.

In this case, the qualifier was needed and you can see that in the actual text of Duin's story. As I said earlier this week, the heart of the story is the meeting in which parish leaders from Truro and the Falls Church formally presented their plans for the 40-day discernment process. That's the story.

Plans are being made. However, the decision to put them into effect is in the future, even as steps are taken that show which way things are going. There are dozens and dozens of stories ahead.

Stay tuned, and prepare for lots of yelling by people in mitres.

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