RNS focuses on concerns of African Methodists (minus the voices of their critics on left)

RNS focuses on concerns of African Methodists (minus the voices of their critics on left)

While doctrinal fights over sexuality keep grabbing the headlines, anyone who follows United Methodist affairs knows that the real news in this denomination, like so many others, centers on issues of demographics and geography.

While the number of baptisms and conversions sink in America, accompanied by a rapid graying of the surviving people in the pews, the ranks of new Methodists are growing in the lands of the Global South. Since the denomination's General Conferences are global in nature, this means that United Methodists around the world are gaining power, while the Americans slowly fade.

As a rule, journalists covering conflicts inside the United Methodist Church have explained the basic facts of this mechanism. At the 2016 gatherings, most of the weight was carried by Religion News Service, the rare mainstream newsroom that -- in these hard times for journalists -- had a reporter on site.

As things came to a close in Portland, RNS offered a long, interesting news feature that looked at recent events through a global lens, with this headline: "African Methodists worry about the church that brought them Christianity."

I am sure that conservative United Methodists, here in America and abroad, found much to applaud in this piece. However, this was the rare case in which a mainstream newsroom produced a story that had large hole in its content -- on the doctrinal left. While the Africans were allowed to speak, RNS did little to let readers hear the voices of their First World critics.

Does this matter? Yes, it does, because that is where the action is right now.

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Think piece: Has anyone at an Orthodox parish near you heard of St. Moses the Black?

Think piece: Has anyone at an Orthodox parish near you heard of St. Moses the Black?

Every liturgical year, hours after the great feast of Pascha, Eastern Orthodox Christians gather for a unique service called the Agape Vespers -- during which passages from St. John's Gospel are read in as many languages as possible (based on the membership of the parish).

In this highly multi-ethnic Communion, it is common for churches to have readings in six or seven languages. At my family's parish in the Baltimore-D.C. area -- Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Linthicum, MD. -- we used to hit 16 or more on a rather regular basis.

What's the point? Theologically speaking, The Big Idea is that the church must always remember to proclaim the Gospel to as many people and cultures as possible. In the Orthodox context here in America, it's a regular reminder that the borders of Orthodoxy are not defined by the language and culture of the Old Country (think Greece or Russia), or by the language and culture of the new (think converts here in North America).

Truth is (attention reporters and editors) many, many seeker-friendly Orthodox parishes are becoming quite diverse, when it comes to ethnicity and even languages.

This brings me to an interesting, and quite straightforward, "Have Faith" feature at The Daily Beast that ran the other day. Here was the info-driven, sprawling headline:

The Brotherhood of Moses the Black
It may come as a shock to some, but one surprising religion is making serious inroads into the African-American community.

And here is the feature's overture:

When Karl Berry walked into an Orthodox Church for the first time in 1983, he saw icons of black saints.

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Atheism studies: New York Times scores scoop on a planned program at University of Miami

Atheism studies: New York Times scores scoop on a planned program at University of Miami

If there is a God, he must be smiling on the New York Times.

The newspaper beat everyone else in announcing a planned chair for the study of atheism at the University of Miami -- said to be the first in the nation.

The 1,000-word article suffers, however, from a lack of secular-style skepticism. But let's look at the good stuff first:

With an increasing number of Americans leaving religion behind, the University of Miami received a donation in late April from a wealthy atheist to endow what it says is the nation’s first academic chair "for the study of atheism, humanism and secular ethics."
The chair has been established after years of discussion with a $2.2 million donation from Louis J. Appignani, a retired businessman and former president and chairman of the modeling school Barbizon International, who has given grants to many humanist and secular causes -- though this is his largest so far. The university, which has not yet publicly announced the new chair, will appoint a committee of faculty members to conduct a search for a scholar to fill the position.
"I’m trying to eliminate discrimination against atheists," said Mr. Appignani, who is 83 and lives in Florida. "So this is a step in that direction, to make atheism legitimate."

The article notes a rise of interest in atheism, including conferences, courses and even a journal -- and names names, like the American Humanist Association and Pitzer College's "Secularism and Skepticism" class. Another coup is a phone talk with uber-atheist Richard Dawkins in Britain.

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Sexual assault debates: Journalists weigh in on 'licked cupcakes' at Brigham Young

Sexual assault debates: Journalists weigh in on 'licked cupcakes' at Brigham Young

No college is more averse to bad publicity than a religious school because of its heavy dependence of like-minded donors and the pressure to keep up the appearance of defending the faith. Which is why the recent contretemps about Brigham Young University’s honor code policy and campus rape victims is making the rounds in the mainstream news media.

An honor code -- or lifestyle/doctrinal covenant -- is a set of behaviors a student agrees to before enrolling. At BYU, they include everything from extramarital sex to wearing sleeveless blouses.

Let’s start with how the latest article on the controversy –- from the Los Angeles Times -- handled it:

Madeline MacDonald was a freshman at Brigham Young University when a casual date turned into what she said was a sexual assault.
The Seattle 19-year-old had met a man through the online dating site Tinder. He said he was Mormon, which put MacDonald at ease, and she agreed to meet him for hot chocolate.
They never made it to a cafe, though. Instead, the man drove her up into the mountains, and there, she says, he molested her.
Campus officials opened a sexual assault investigation. But they also opened an inquiry to determine whether MacDonald had violated the private Mormon university’s honor code, which requires that students adhere to the school’s strict rules for proper behavior -- no swearing, coffee, tea, tobacco, alcohol or premarital sex.

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And in the end, the #hatecake hoax failed to go viral (So what about the pastor's church?)

And in the end, the #hatecake hoax failed to go viral (So what about the pastor's church?)

So, for those of you who keep sending me links: Yes, I heard that the Rev. Jordan Brown of Austin recently announced that his #hatecake lawsuit against Whole Foods was a hoax.

Well, that wasn't exactly what he said. Hold that thought.

Now, I will admit that I didn't see that hoax story when it went viral on social media -- because it didn't go viral on social media (like the earlier story in which Brown made his accusations). This lack of social-media activity is one of two angles in the story that still interest me.

Wait, maybe this story didn't trend on Facebook the second time around because. ... Oh well, nevermind.

Looking at the small amount of coverage this story received, the Austin American-Statesman report was rather interesting because of what it didn't come right out and say. Take that headline for example: "Pastor to drop lawsuit against Whole Foods over anti-gay slur on cake."

So why is he dropping his lawsuit?

The man who accused Whole Foods Market of writing a homophobic slur on a cake will drop a lawsuit against the grocery chain.

“The company did nothing wrong,” Jordan Brown, a pastor of a small Austin church, said in a statement. “I was wrong to pursue this matter and use the media to perpetuate this story.”

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That getting religion thing: 'Religion and the Media' group launched in British parliament

That getting religion thing: 'Religion and the Media' group launched in British parliament

If you have followed GetReligion very long then you are probably aware that questions are also be asked on the other side of the Atlantic about the fact that a high percentage of mainstream journalists just don't understand the basic facts about many religious news events and trends.

In England, a group called Lapido Media is at the heart of most of these "getting religion" discussions. It's work in the field of media literacy has been mentioned quite a bit here at GetReligion in the past.

Now the discussion has moved a notch or two higher, according to a recent notice posted online. To make a long story short, we're talking about the launch of a new "All Party Parliamentary Group on Religion and the Media."

Brainchild of Yasmine Qureshi, Pakistan-born MP for Bolton South East, and moderated by Bishop of Leeds, Rt Revd Nick Baines, it is part of a range of responses to the Living with Difference Report (.pdf here) published earlier this year by the Woolf Institute’s Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life in Britain.

The theme of an initial round-table discussion was "Is there a perceived lack of religious literacy in the media?" The speaker was a friend of this blog, Lapido Media founder Dr Jenny Taylor.

You can click here to get a .pdf document of her remarks. Please do so. But here is a short taste:

I speak as a journalist who trained with the Yorkshire Post and has worked in news all her life except for the five years of my doctorate which was completed in 2001, before 9/11.
For sure the media has a problem with religion. After all, as Bernard Levin famously quipped: "Vicars rhymes with knickers.’ It’s difficult to take seriously."
It was not until my own eyes became religiously attuned that I realized the West had become a menace to the whole world because of its secularist blinkers.

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Theodicy in the White House race? Believers facing a choice that is more than political

Theodicy in the White House race? Believers facing a choice that is more than political

The first time someone sent me the link to this obituary from The Richmond Times-Dispatch, I was sure that it had to be a fraud, perhaps something produced by those talented tricksters at The Onion.

Ah, but the URL did, indeed, take readers to the proper news website in Richmond.

Now, when you think something is a fraud one of the first things you do is head over to Snopes.com to see if that crew had rendered a verdict. Indeed, the Snopes team is flying a "True" flag. This citizen wanted to send a message to the world.

Thus, I mentioned this instantly viral obituary during this week's "Crossroads" podcast discussing the whole "lesser of two evils" conflict that many cultural and religious conservatives are experiencing during this election year. Click here to tune that in and we'll come back to my Universal "On Religion" column on that topic.

But here is the top of the obituary in question. When host Todd Wilken and I were discussing this on the air, I just couldn't get my self to use the woman's name. Why? Well, because the first couple of people I discussed this with -- face to face -- kind of turned pale and asked if suicide was involved. The answer is "no."

NOLAND, Mary Anne Alfriend. Faced with the prospect of voting for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, Mary Anne Noland of Richmond chose, instead, to pass into the eternal love of God on Sunday, May 15, 2016, at the age of 68.

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Beam me up, Church of Scotland: Some details missing in mini-feature about online baptism

Beam me up, Church of Scotland: Some details missing in mini-feature about online baptism

Religion News service had me at the headline on this report from the other side of the pond: "Church of Scotland to consider online baptisms, Communion."

I think that's part of my problem with this very, very short news story.

Now, when you hear the phrase "online Communion," what image do you get in your mind's eye? At the very least, is has to be a rather Protestant image in that it involves worship taking place in a digital, online, visual environment -- with the person on the other side of this liturgical encounter actually consuming analog bread and wine (or something).

Where do the Communion elements come from? Are they shipped to the online flock members, perhaps through a liturgical variation on Amazon Prime? Do the worshippers provide their own elements (raising the previously "or something" issue).

These are questions that any journalist would ask, right? I mean, don't we need to define our terms?

This brings me to the totally new sacramental concept -- at least for me, as an Eastern Orthodox Christian -- that is included in this report. What, precisely, is a rite of "online baptism"? Here is the context:

CANTERBURY, England (RNS) -- The Church of Scotland will launch a two-year investigation into the possibility of introducing online baptisms, Communion and other Christian sacraments.
The church, known as The Kirk, has seen its rolls fall by almost one-third between 2004 and 2015, to just under 364,000 members. 

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United Methodists punt on sexuality; some journalists try to cover from their newsrooms

United Methodists punt on sexuality; some journalists try to cover from their newsrooms

The United Methodist bishops punted.

This tense flock committee-fied. Kicked the can down the road.

All those clichés were coined for news events like the United Methodist Church conference this week. The Methodists faced a choice: to allow gays to be ordained and married in the church, as other old-line Protestant denominations have done; or to keep the belief that both are "incompatible with Christian teaching," as the denomination has said for more than four decades.

Either option might have split the denomination, especially in an era in which the denomination is in decline in America and growing in the more conservative Global South. So the conference voted instead to have a committee study the matter further.

Let's see how mainstream media covered the decision, starting with the Religion News Service -- which, again, distinguishes itself with onsite coverage in Portland, Ore., rather than just phones, emails and bits of other articles.

This 1,100-word article interweaves updates, background and balanced sourcing. It points out, for one, that the delegates did more than simply delay the day of reckoning. Instead, they allowed bishops to have a commission re-examine all references to sexuality in the Book of Discipline, their basic rulebook.

The ambivalent wording reflects denominational worries:

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