Reporting on gays, women and the PCUSA splits

Thou shakest thy head and hold'st it fear or sin To speak a truth. If he be slain, say so; The tongue offends not that reports his death: And he doth sin that doth belie the dead, Not he which says the dead is not alive. Yet the first bringer of unwelcome news Hath but a losing office, and his tongue Sounds ever after as a sullen bell, Remember'd tolling a departing friend.

The Earl of Northumberland in Henry IV part II Act I, scene 1, lines 95-103 William Shakespeare

Blaming the teller of bad news for the bad news is as old as time. Reporters who break stories about malfeasance in churches are often attacked for airing dirty linen. I've been reproached by those perturbed by what they read in my stories about bad behavior in churches. My critics argue that as a Christian (which I am) and a priest (which I am) I should suppress discomforting or embarrassing news. I should take as my guide Matthew 18:15-17.

15 If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

I am not persuaded  by their Biblical exegesis nor by the merits of the argument, believing that truth telling is a higher virtue than face saving. The phrase, "shooting the messenger" is a valid rejoinder to these criticisms,

The same retort can be applied to media criticism. Complaining about what something is not, rather than addressing what it is, is a form of shooting the messenger. When there is a hole in a story a reader should not assume the reporter is responsible. Some things are unknowable -- try as we like, reporters are not omniscient.

A recent story in The Colorado Springs Gazette on the disaffiliation of one of the state's largest churches from its parent denomination -- the Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A. (PCUSA) -- brought this problem to mind.

Let me say up front there is nothing wrong with the article on the First Presbyterian Church of Colorado Springs' vote to leave its presbytery -- it is a workman-like story that relates crisply the facts. But The Gazette story entitled "Sparked by acceptance of gay ministers, First Presbyterian bolts denomination" seemed to be missing something. This something was not the rather dumb headline. The  story makes it clear that it was not only about gay ministers and the church didn't bolt -- but reporters do not write headlines and this brick forms no part of my critique.

The lede is clean and lays out the facts well:

In an historic vote Sunday morning, the largest Presbyterian church in Colorado voted overwhelmingly to leave its governing body and join a new, more conservative denomination.

An estimated 95.5 percent of the 1,769 congregants who cast ballots at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Colorado Springs voted to leave the mainstream Presbyterian Church USA in favor of the newly-created Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians.

The new denomination was created with the help of First Presbyterian’s senior pastor Jim Singleton.

The reporter's editorial voice comes into play at this stage through her selection of quotes -- and to her credit she does not play favorites. After relating the news of the vote, the author addressed the question of the minority who opposed the vote -- identified as 80 out of almost 1780 members who voted. The first quote comes from a church spokesman who acknowledges that "some members may leave."

This is followed by a quote from a church spokesman stating the vote was historic. Background on the church and its decision to leave the PCUSA follows with The Gazette avoiding the mistake of portraying this as being solely a gay issue.

Sunday’s vote was the culmination of almost a year’s worth of work by church leaders who wanted to distance themselves from the Presbyterian Church USA. That organization voted in 2011 to allow openly gay ministers to be ordained, but First Presbyterian leaders say the divide is greater than just that issue -- going back to a basic way that scriptures are read and interpreted.

“God has called us to respond to his call, step into something new and hold firm to our understanding of scripture,” Cindy Sparks, chair of the church’s Board of Trustees said Sunday morning.

Further detail on the vote and what happens next follow, as does a quote from a member of the minority opposed to the split, and  closing quote from a member of the majority. All in all this was a very clean story.

But it was also incomplete. The pastor is quoted as saying this was historic. Well why was it historic? The story is not clear on this point. Was it historic for First Pres, for Presbyterians in Colorado, for all Presbyterians?

I was struck by the weakness of the pastor's comments reported in the article as to why it was historic. Did the reporter not do her job? Did she not understand what was said? I think she did. The problem was that she was not given much to work with.

When I checked the church's website and read the statement  issued after the vote, I found that all the reporter had to work with were some rather anodyne comments. If you want to know why this was a "historic day," you won't find an answer from the church.

As an aside -- What is it about Colorado Springs and conservative churches? First Presbyterian of Colorado Springs was the largest PCUSA congregation in Colorado and it quit is denomination. In 2007 Colorado's largest Episcopal Church, Grace and St Stephen's in Colorado Springs, quit its denomination over the same basic issues as First Presbyterian. That split ended badly for the parish and the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado -- the Presbyterians appear to have avoided the path of litigation. Is there something in the air, or unique to the culture of that community that would see schisms in two mainline congregations -- as well as produce inordinately large Episcopal and Presbyterian churches?

To find out why this was historic -- and why this story has wider significance you need to do some research in the congregation's website. What is the significance of the choice of First Pres's new denomination? The article mentions that the pastor, Jim Singleton, helped form the ECO -- Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians -- but why did the church not join one of the existing conservative Presbyterian groups?

A letter to the congregation on the church website states that it was the issue of women ministers that led First Pres to the ECO, as the existing conservative groups were not as accepting of women clergy as was First Pres.

One of the subtexts often unreported in the stories about the mainline splits is the question of women clergy. Conservatives leaving the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church may be at odds with their denomination's teachings on human sexuality, and they may express this as being a division over the interpretation of Scripture, but amongst themselves they are divided over women clergy.

And this division over women clergy is driven by the interpretation of Scripture. What criteria is First Presbyterian using to say that the PCUSA has broken with Scripture over homosexual clergy, but not over women clergy? In asking this question, I am not assuming an answer -- rather seeking development of an issue. One, for example, that may well divide the nascent Anglican conservative church, the Anglican Church in North America, and is dividing First Presbyterian and the ECO from the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

I also liked this article from The Gazette because it did not make the mistake so often made by newspapers in distilling the mainline splits into a story about opposition to gay ministers or gay marriage. That is part, but is far from the whole story. It is the back half of the story -- the question of where these breakaway churches are going and why -- that was missing. And, if the church can't explain why -- a reporter can't tell her readers why.

The first bringer of unwelcome news, as Shakespeare observes, hath but a losing office. Beating up on the press for omitting part of a story is easy. But when the actors in the drama don't say their lines -- the reporter is unable to say it for them.

What say you GetReligion readers? Is this a case of the subject, not the journalist, dropping the ball? Who should be telling this story?

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