[Episcopal News Service] James E. Solheim – the Episcopal Church’s news director in an era bookended by the election of Anglicanism’s first female bishop and the ordination of its first openly gay bishop – died August 8 after several weeks’ hospitalization. A resident of Trenton, New Jersey, Solheim was 73 and suffered respiratory failure, said his nephew, Kurt Kaisler.
Of his career, Solheim said he “followed an ecumenical path, working first for the Lutherans, then the Presbyterians and the United Church of Christ.” Later, “when the Lutherans went off to Chicago to form a new church in 1988, I accepted the position as director of communications in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts,” he recalled in November 2003, shortly before his retirement.
“Of course I had no idea that, a few weeks after I moved to Boston, the diocese would elect Barbara Harris as the Anglican Communion’s first female bishop. The next year was a blur but it provided a dramatic introduction to the Episcopal Church.”
Solheim deftly fielded the unprecedented media response to Harris’s election and ordination as bishop, the late Sonia Francis, the Episcopal Church’s executive for communication, said at the time. “He became a familiar figure to many… and played a major role in disseminating and interpreting the news generated by this international event.”
Francis joined Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning in announcing Solheim’s appointment on April 27, 1989 as the Episcopal Church’s director of news and information. He began work in June of that year, succeeding the Rev. William Dearnaley, and soon rebranded the former Diocesan Press Service as the Episcopal News Service, assisted by then-deputy Jeffrey Penn.
Solheim served “as the principal church spokesperson and acting as a key figure in the dissemination of news to the secular and religious media — and to the communication network of the Episcopal Church,” the news service reported at the time of his appointment.
Solheim supervised media relations surrounding Bishop of New Hampshire Gene Robinson’s 2003 election, confirmed by the General Convention meeting later that year in Minneapolis. By this time, Solheim’s byline had appeared on hundreds of ENS articles, many with companion photo credits, dozens of which won leading awards in national competitions. His 1999 book Diversity or Disunity: Reflections on Lambeth 1998 captured the tone and highlights of that summer’s Lambeth Conference.
“Jim was a consummate professional, a journalist who was widely trusted across the church to interpret the events of the Episcopal Church in a fair and comprehensive way,” said the Rev. Canon Brian Grieves, whose tenure as the Episcopal Church’s director of peace and justice ministries closely paralleled Solheim’s own.
“He made the Episcopal News Service ‘the’ source to go to for accurate information,” said Grieves. “He was also a great colleague, and I was so fortunate to travel with him on several occasions when we accompanied the presiding bishop on overseas jaunts."
Read the rest of the ENS story by Bob Williams