The Wall Street Journal gives WCG-PCG Mystery of the Ages story wide front-page play

By Bill Stough

LONEDELL, Mo.--A major national daily newspaper focused on a legal dispute between two Churches of God in its Feb. 21 issue.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) spotlighted the Worldwide Church of God's lawsuit against the Philadelphia Church of God for the latter church's unauthorized publication and distribution of Mystery of the Ages, the book WCG founder Herbert W. Armstrong published in 1985, the year before he died.

The WSJ also noted that the judges in the recent Napster ruling cited the WCG-PCG court victory in their decision to order the Napster Web site and software to disallow unrestricted copying of computer files of copyrighted music recordings.

The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals had voted Nov. 9, 2000, to deny a petition by the PCG for a rehearing after its earlier loss in its battle to continue publishing and distributing (for free) copies of the book.

A court in September 2000 had denied the PCG the right to publish the book, ruling that the WCG is the copyright holder and the PCG would violate the copyright if it continued to publish and distribute the book without the WCG's approval. (See The Journal, Nov. 30, 2000.)

Besides dealing with copyright issues, the WSJ article paints a picture of the part of the Church of God movement with roots in the WCG as seen by WSJ staff reporter Jess Bravin.

(See Mr. Bravin's article reprinted beginning on this page. See The Journal's interview with Mr. Bravin, also beginning on this page.)

Visited two headquarters

Mr. Bravin told The Journal he wrote his article after extensive research into the background of the two churches and the legalities of the copyright dispute. He had read many booklets and articles by Mr. Armstrong and others as well as the two-volume Autobiography of Herbert W. Armstrong, now out of print but still available in libraries and used-book stores and on the eBay Internet auction site.

As part of his research Mr. Bravin visited WCG headquarters in Pasadena, Calif., and PCG headquarters in Edmond, Okla. He attended church services in each city and talked with members of the two groups, including Pastor General Joseph Tkach Jr. of the WCG and Pastor General Gerald Flurry of the PCG.

A Journal writer had learned that the WSJ was planning the article and contacted Mr. Bravin several weeks before its publication. During that contact Mr. Bravin requested and received a set of back issues and the current issue of The Journal: News of the Churches of God. He said he was specifically interested in articles The Journal had published touching on the dispute between the WCG and PCG.

Mr. Bravin's specialty is reporting on legal matters for the WSJ, which prints and circulates nationally almost two million copies of the paper every day, along with 150,000 outside of the country.

"We also have over 500,000 customers and counting who subscribe to The Wall Street Journal via the Internet," said Holly Pelioquin, who works in the WSJ's circulation department.

The PCG's nonreaction

Immediately after the WSJ article appeared, The Journal contacted PCG headquarters for that church's reaction or response, but the telephone operator would not connect the Journal writer with any church official.

After The Journal attempted for several days to make contact, the PCG's operator informed this writer that he would not be allowed to speak to any church official but that Stephen Flurry, a PCG employee and son of the church's founder, would receive questions via E-mail.

So The Journal transmitted these questions to the younger Mr. Flurry:

  • What do you and the PCG think about the WSJ article? Do you believe the paper dealt fairly with you?
  • At issue in the Mystery of the Ages lawsuit is the PCG's contention that the book is "inspired." What does "being inspired by God" mean? Does the PCG place the book on the same level as the Bible?
  • If the WCG offered to negotiate with the PCG to allow you to continue publishing the book, would you be willing to to so?

Two days later The Journal again telephoned the PCG. During that contact the PCG operator informed the Journal writer that no PCG official would speak to this newspaper, but The Journal would be welcome to leave a message on church employee Dennis Leap's telephone answering machine.

As of press time The Journal had received no response of any kind to its inquiries.

Mr. Tkach and Mr. Helge

In February, before the WSJ article appeared, The Journal had asked Mr. Tkach for an interview. The interview with the WCG leader would have included questions on the Mystery of the Ages dispute, his rumored retirement as pastor general, the continuing transformation of the WCG from a Sabbath-observing to a Sunday-keeping church and the church's planned retirement program for elders and other employees.

Even though this Journal writer had interviewed Mr. Tkach several times in the past, he declined to be interviewed this time. Here is his reply in a Feb. 20 E-mail message:

"I appreciate Bill [Stough] and his efforts to write articles for The Journal. Nevertheless, Worldwide Church of God members can always have their questions answered by their own church publications. We really have no reason to seek an avenue of communication via The Journal . . . While I like Bill, I am not inclined to be interviewed for an article for The Journal."

However, Mr. Tkach did comment on the WSJ article in a newsletter to WCG elders.

He told the ministers he views the WSJ article as "neutral toward our church fellowship," although he found the article "provocative."

Reporter Bravin, said Mr. Tkach, "interviewed [WCG official] Greg Albrecht and I for nine hours and only quoted me twice in his article. Only one of the quotes was actually correct."

Mr. Tkach said Mr. Bravin was in danger of misleading his readers when he wrote that "Worldwide claims it is entitled to all the tithes and other contributions given to the splinter group's church by people inspired by copies of the book that the group printed."

Mr. Tkach explained this is only narrowly and technically correct, because the appellate court ruled in the WCG's favor, meaning that eventually Mr. Flurry's group will have to pay "'damages' for the wrong they committed."

Since the PCG did not sell copies of the book, any monetary damages must have accrued from tithes and offerings to the PCG inspired by PCG supporters' exposure to the book.

"Obviously, this becomes a calculation of a dollar amount," said Mr. Tkach, "not the actual checks of the donors somehow signed over to us."

If Mr. Flurry ends up having to pay damages, said Mr. Tkach, he can pay it any way he likes, whether out of offerings or other income. Mr. Tkach suggested Mr. Flurry might want to sell some real estate if he has to pay damages.

So, when Mr. Bravin wrote of turning over PCG tithes and offerings to the WCG, he was using a "metaphor," said Mr. Tkach, not making "a literal statement."

The view from legal

WCG attorney Ralph Helge did speak to The Journal by telephone from his office at the church's headquarters.

The WSJ's article on the Mystery of the Ages lawsuit was "fair," he said. "There are some errors, but they were minor. An example is [Jess Bravin's statement] that the church's real estate in Pasadena has been sold. That sale is still in progress. Jess tried to be candid and fair. He did okay."

What Mr. Tkach meant

The Journal asked Mr. Helge about Mr. Tkach's statement in his book Transformed by Truth to the effect that the WCG has a Christian duty to keep Mystery of the Ages out of circulation.

Mr. Helge said he has asked Mr. Tkach what he meant by that statement and learned that the pastor general did not mean to imply that no one else would ever be allowed to distribute the book.

Also, said Mr. Helge, legally printed copies of the book are still readily available to any determined reader.

"Mystery of the Ages was once sold in bookstores and was advertised [while Mr. Armstrong was alive]," said Mr. Helge. "Mystery of the Ages was also placed in libraries, and many libraries still have those copies."

The church has never attempted to take out of circulation the copies in libraries and those owned by individuals, he said, and the WCG has never tried to prevent the PCG from advertising and mailing out copies of the book as long as they were existing copies the WCG had produced or were those produced by the original publisher, Dodd Mead & Co. of New York.

The Journal asked Mr. Helge if he could envision the WCG ever allowing other individuals or groups to reproduce Mystery of the Ages.

"The WCG made the offer to consider negotiations once in Judge [J. Spencer] Letts' chambers," he said, "but the PCG never got back to us." (See The Journal, Sept. 30, 2000, "WCG Says PCG Would Not Negotiate.")

Mr. Helge commented that, even at this late date, the WCG would consider negotiating with the PCG over the book's publication.

"We have these assets [the book] and would consider his [Mr. Flurry's] offer. It would be a business decision. But the WCG would still have its name on the copyright page."

Mr. Helge said he wonders whether any other Church of God groups might be interested in an arrangement to publish copies of the book.

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