Mollie and the spin doctors

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 two 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 three  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 foolish.

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