What about the Presbyterians?

PC USA Logo2The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has 2.3 million members. By way of comparison, the Episcopal Church has 2.15 million members. I've remarked before at how odd it is that the Episcopal Church gets so much more coverage than the other American church bodies with more members. It's not completely surprising, perhaps, that they get more coverage, given the large Anglican communion, the pomp and circumstance of liturgical worship and the dramatic way in which the church is imploding. But still, it seems out of balance. Back in early May I marveled at the general lack of coverage of the United Methodist Church convention in Ft. Worth. When the Southern Baptists met in Indianapolis in early June, there was a fair amount of coverage. But the Presbyterians' General Assembly, the big biennial meeting of the denomination's highest governing body, was held in San Jose and the coverage was again paltry. What's odd about that is that the assembly had plenty of reporter-friendly drama. One reader mentioned a few of the highlights:

The GA voted on a number of controversial statements about Israel and the Palestinians; approved a $2 million war chest to sue congregations seeking to leave; approved a change to one of the PCUSA's confessions that would remove mention of homosexuality from the church's confessional documents; voted to rescind thirty years' worth of church policy on the incompatibility of homosexual behavior and Christian life; and voted to remove language from the church's constitution requiring ordained ministers, elders and deacons to live in faithfulness in marriage or chastity in singleness.

And yet all that was produced in the mainstream media was a single AP story -- which incidentally was really pretty well done - a decent LA Times story and an abysmal report from UPI. And in my neck of the woods (Pittsburgh), an area with one of the biggest concentrations of Presbyterians in the country, the major daily has ignored the story completely. Where's Ann Rodgers on this? Oh, yes -- she's covering the buildup to Lambeth.

It is somewhat odd that Rodgers hasn't weighed in on the news coming out of San Jose. She does a great job of covering denominational politics in general and PC(USA) drama in particular. She's done more to explain the property battles embroiling Presbyterians than anyone else.

Far and away the best reporting on the assembly came from Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal. The PC(USA) is headquartered there. For the paper, he wrote a couple of stories about the PC(USA) membership losses, the denomination's backtracking on acknowledging that anti-Jewish rhetoric had gotten into discussions over Israel and Palestine, debating the ordination of gays and lesbians, a vote to repeal the church's constitutional ban on ordaining non-celibate gays and lesbians and removing the explicit condemnation of homosexuality from the church's constitution.

For the blog, he looked at the membership losses, the church's new moderator, a vote to alter a reference to homosexuality in the Heidelberg Catechism, a vote to delete a constitutional ban on ordaining non-celibate gays and lesbians, modification of an interfaith statement, approval of executives and stated clerk, including the Belhar Confession into the church's Book of Confessions, the approval of a $2 million fund for legal battles with departing congregations, and debate over Mideast issues, among others.

Compared to Smith's coverage, other media outlets dropped the ball. Kim Lawton had a good, but brief, piece for PBS' Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.

The major story coming out of the convention seems to be the vote on ordination standards. The vote to drop the ban on homosexual clergy requires presbytery approval, something reporters seemed to obscure somewhat. Eric Gorski with the Associated Press handled it quite well:

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), bitterly divided over sexuality and the Bible, set up another confrontation Friday over its ban on ordaining non-celibate gays and lesbians.

The denomination's General Assembly, meeting in San Jose, Calif., voted 54 percent to 46 percent Friday to drop the requirement that would-be ministers, deacons and elders live in "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between and a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness."

The proposed change to the church constitution requires approval from a majority the nation's 173 presbyteries, or regional church bodies -- a yearlong process that has proven to be a barrier to similar efforts in the past.

Compare that to UPI:

Some U.S. Presbyterian Church members say a move to allow the ordination of openly gay and lesbian clergy will trigger a backlash by denomination members.

The Presbyterian Church (USA), the biggest group under the U.S. Presbyterian umbrella with 2.3 million members, voted Friday to amend its constitution to allow the ordination of gay clergy, just as the church's national governing body was deciding in San Jose, Calif., to not tamper with its own definition of marriage as being a "covenant between a woman and a man," The Los Angeles Times reported Saturday.

The reporter failed to mention that the vote must be approved by presbyteries or any other context. To that end, the Los angeles Times piece was markedly better. And it's by Duke Helfand, so that's good:

Leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA) overturned a long-standing ban on the ordination of gays and lesbians Friday, providing yet the latest example of a religious denomination struggling with how, and whether, to incorporate homosexuality into church life.

At the same time, the church's national governing body, meeting in San Jose, refused to alter its definition of marriage, calling it a "covenant between a woman and a man." The actions by the General Assembly came the week after same-sex marriage became legal in California. They also follow the decision of a gathering of Methodists from Southern California and Hawaii, who went against their national church by voting to support same-sex couples who marry and the pastors who welcome them.

Helfand's piece actually went into some good detail on various votes and what they mean. It does mention later on in the piece about the requirement that presbyteries approve the vote. Helfand also gave some history on the battle as well.

It's not that I think that conventions and assemblies are the be all and end all of religion reporting, but they seem like a bare minimum requirement. It's like writing about politics without mentioning the electoral season -- it just doesn't make sense.

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