Excommunication of Truth

By James R. Mathes

In an online story published by The Wall Street Journal, titled “Twenty-first Century Excommunication,” and accompanied by a video interview of the reporter, Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, the recent property disputes of The Episcopal Church were grossly mischaracterized. I have served as the Episcopal bishop of San Diego for almost seven years, and in that capacity dealt with three congregations in which the ordained leaders and their followers attempted to leave the Episcopal Church with parish property. In these dealings, I was threatened with death and told I will go to hell by those who claim to love Jesus more than I do. Other colleagues have had similar experiences, from death threats to being spit at during church services. Ms. Hemingway would have you believe that the animus we have received is about scriptural interpretation, but make no mistake: this is about power.

To fully understand this situation, it is important to grasp the canonical (i.e. legal) structure of The Episcopal Church. Parishes are creations of the diocese in which they are situated, in some cases deriving their tax exempt status because they are an irrevocable part of the diocese. As a condition of ordination, clergy vow obedience to their bishop. Congregations begin as mission churches under the direct supervision and financial support of the bishop with property held by the diocese. When such a church becomes a parish, by vote of diocesan legislature, the congregation pledges to be subordinate to the constitution and canons of the Episcopal Church as well as the constitution and canons of the diocese. After becoming a parish, they may incorporate under the religious incorporation statutes of the state in which the congregation is situated. The diocese will usually transfer title to real property to the parish at that time to be held in trust for The Episcopal Church.

When individuals purported to alienate property which had be given to The Episcopal Church, I was bound by my fiduciary role as a bishop to prevent that from happening. Because The Episcopal Church, like so many others, follows state laws of incorporation, I had no alternative but to file suit in civil court to remedy the matter. This is analogous to a landlord finally going to civil court to gain relief from a non-paying renter or an owner using legal means to deal with a squatter. Thus, those leaving The Episcopal Church were catalysts of these law suits by breaking their solemn vows and by attempting to seize property they had no right to possess.

What is particularly regrettable about Ms. Hemingway’s piece is confusion about the relationship between The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, which is easily remedied with a simple visit to the Anglican Communion’s official website. There you will find every diocese of The Episcopal Church in their cycle of prayer; you will not find The Anglican Church in North American on that list. This is not to say they do not need our prayers. It is simply an indicator of who is an Anglican and who has merely appropriated the label. You will not find Missouri Synod Lutherans there either. Thus, The Episcopal Church remains a constituent member of the Anglican Communion. Despite Ms. Hemingway’s interpretations, our leader (called a primate), the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, is a participant in the Meeting of Primates of the Anglican Communion; Robert Duncan, the leader of the breakaway Anglican Church in North America, is not. At our last House of Bishops meeting, a gathering of all bishops of The Episcopal Church, we were visited by the primates of Japan and Central Africa. Like an eclectic extended family, we have our differences, but we regularly gather together.

Ms. Hemingway suggests that The Episcopal Church is depriving these departing Episcopalians of a relationship to Anglican bishops and foreign dioceses. Oddly, these individuals claim to desire a relationship with a bishop of their own choosing. But bishops are those who by definition maintain order and oversight over the church. To put it in historical terms, this is rather like choosing to secede from the nation when the current leadership is not to your liking. Thus, when the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church urges her colleagues not to provide aid and comfort to those who would undermine our church, she has history on her side.

In the final analysis, no one has been excommunicated; rather some individuals have left our church. On their way out, they have tried to take what does not belong to them and, in an unimaginative attempt to cover their unseemly behavior, they have pointed the finger at their victim, The Episcopal Church. The Wall Street Journal and Ms. Hemingway have either been duped or shown a stunning lack of care in reporting. The only thing in this story that has been excommunicated is the truth.

The Rt. Rev. James R. Mathes is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego.

ed. note

Who is in full communion? from Anglicans Online

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  1. Paul Lebens-Englund


  2. Robert P Morrison

    Good article.! Thank you!

  3. What a muddled conglomeration of misinformation from the WSJ! Shame on them. Thanks to Bp. Mathes for pointing out the ‘mistakes’ in the report. I wonder where Ms Hemingway got her misinformation.

    June Butler

  4. Bishop Mathes objectively and reasonably rebutts the WSJ article which was definitely not objective journalism but by it’s very nature bespeaks a purpose well beyond just reporting the “facts”.

  5. revsusan

    Great concise overview of how “we work” and well worth printing out or bookmarking for future ref as the property wars continue to wage in our various contexts. [insert here request for continued prayers for the bishops and people of the Diocese of Los Angeles as we await final decisions on our long-standing court cases]

    Susan Russell

  6. Rob Huttmeyer

    If you are shocked that News Corp (the owners of the Wall Street journal and Fox) has bad reporting, then I will give you another shocking fact- the Sun is hot.

  7. I am so glad to see someone set the record more nearly straight. Of course, the problem remains, the utterly false information in the WSJ article did not just happen, it is “spin” a fancy word for lying, from ACNA, the Chapman Memo groups and the like.

    Still, Bp. Jim did a great job.


    jim Beyer

  8. H. Lee Angus

    I’m obviously in the minority here, but I don’t see how Bp. Mathes rebutted anything. He explained the background for the Episcopal Church’s legal actions, so legally, the EC is probably going to win this battle. But he didn’t rebut the charges in the article that “When the Church of the Good Shepherd in Binghamton, N.Y., left the Episcopal Church over disagreements about what the Bible says about sexuality, the congregation offered to pay for the building in which it worshiped. In return the Episcopal Church sued to seize the building, then sold it for a fraction of the price to someone who turned it into a mosque.” Is that true? Bp. Mathes didn’t say.

    The article in the WSJ said, “Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said she’d rather have these properties become Baptist churches or even saloons than continue as sanctuaries for fellow Anglicans.” Is this true? Bp. Mathes didn’t say.

    The WSJ says, “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.” Is this true?

    The article says, “The Episcopal Church has dedicated $22 million to legal actions against departing clergy, congregations and dioceses.” Is this true?

    Bp. Mathes touches on none of these statements, which IMO show the EC in a very dim light. The bishop says only, “We get to do all this because that’s the law.”

    It honestly doesn’t seem very Christian to me. I know the WSJ is owned by Murdoch the Bad, but if the facts reported in the WSJ are correct, then who reported them doesn’t matter. I wish I could get to some source that would actually *refute* the statements in the WSJ article. Is there any such source? As it is, since Bp. Mathes avoided any mention of them, I must for now assume they are correct — and that makes me sad indeed.

  9. C. Wingate

    There was a time where I could express a great deal of respect for the bishop, but considering the degree of his involvement in the matter, he is incapable of objectivity. He is simply writing in his own defense. I, on the other hand, have found growing in me an increasing repugnance for both sides of the property struggle. I don’t care for the exaggeration of the secessionist rhetoric, and I personally, for now, am committed to remaining in my parish, at least as long as I can in good conscience worship there.

    But I repeat, as I seem to every time, that Anglicanism’s origins in exactly this sort of “take the property and run” schism completely vacates the moral authority of the “you can’t take it with you” faction; also, the “fiduciary role” position seems to me to be the pretense of a lack of discretion without the reality. The bishop is surely able to dispose of the property as he sees hit as benefits the body of Christ, and it seems to me in many if not most cases the expense of litigation is likely to exceed the market value of the parish property.

    Indeed, that is one of the accusations against Lawrence: that he was insufficiently harsh in prosecution against one of his departing parishes. Really, I can’t see it; if he judges it better to proceed in that manner, well, that’s his power. And really, it seems to me to be something on the order of a command from Jesus to simply let them go.

  10. Ann Fontaine

    C. Wingate- since TEC is incorporated in NY state – those laws of fiduciary responsibility apply to the Presiding Bishop and the staff of the church. They are very strict about this subject. Besides it has ever been since the early days of the Episcopal Church that all properties are held for that body and not by individual dioceses.

    Article II of the 1789 constitution of the Episcopal Church includes this statement:

    “And if, through the neglect of the Convention of any of the churches which shall have adopted, or may hereafter adopt, this constitution, no deputies,

    either lay or clerical, should attend at any General Convention; the church in such state shall nevertheless be bound by the acts of such Convention.”

  11. C. Wingate

    So what you’re telling me, Ann, is that every time a diocese sells a property– say, a church in Binghamton, to the Muslims– it has to be explicitly OKed by someone at 815? I don’t think that’s true. It is not too hard for me to believe in a double standard, and is not an act of belief at all to understand that the PB intends malice to those who leave– for why otherwise would she state that the church’s policy is to refuse to deal with them? Again, I say: we are not a bank. We do not turn a monetary profit; our only trusteeship is to our Head, not to the Presiding Bishop, and if the constitutions and canons say otherwise, well, that’s a problem. None of this is going to get us past Matthew Chapter 5: if the C&C dictate that if someone demands my shirt, take them to court in return, well, I’ll take Jesus, thank you.

    Besides, hanging over all of this is the very real threat that the courts in South Carolina will not uphold 815’s position. It is not implausible, it seems to me, that this the real intent of trying to get rid of Lawrence, presumably so that the progressives can force the diocese to seat someone more acceptable to their tastes.

    Finally, really the side effect of success in dethroning Lawrence is surely that the diocese will leave. Why should anyone think otherwise? If one were to actually care about keeping the diocese in the church, one would put the kibosh on this political inquisition, because after all it is possible that Lawrence might actually be telling the truth about intending to stay.

  12. Ann Fontaine

    No I am not telling you anything of the sort. Property decisions are made by the Standing Committees and Bishops of Dioceses. When a bishop abandons the communion of the church then the Canons about that kick in. In Lawrence’s case – it is not the PB nor anyone on her staff that is making a complaint. It is people in his diocese. When complaint is made against a bishop – the Disciplinary Board investigates. (see the information on The Lead from Bp Henderson). Complaints against clergy are handled in a Diocese. Regardless of the hysteria about the PB and her possible views – she is not out to “get” Bp Lawrence. She is the most non-anxious person you will meet. She is only doing her job.

  13. C. Wingate

    Ann, first of all you’re changing the subject, and second, the claims made by the accusers do not add up to abandonment. If property decisions are made by the diocese and the bishop, then he cannot be justly criticized for, at his discretion, letting parishes take their property with them. If people in his diocese don’t like it, well, so what?

    As for the PB’s attitude towards diocese and its bishop, that she opposes letting parishes even buy ECUSA properties is a matter of record. She said it. I do not know if she is “out to get” the bishop, but getting Lawrence out would, I think short-sightedly, be consistent with the viewpoints she has expressed as policy. I insist on remaining agnostic as to her degree of participation in the current affair, given that really I don’t trust either side as either reporters or analysts.

  14. Aafreen Shah

    It’s very impressing. Thanks for sharing such a nice things.

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