A 'startling' statement in NYTimes United Methodist report

The religion beat is just so, so, so complicated. There are all those historical facts and picky doctrines and stuff. You know?

Thus, the following correction in The New York Times was probably amusing to readers who had, at some point in their past, survived a church-history course (or maybe a young-adult Sunday school class in a half dozen or more Protestant denominations).

An earlier version of this article misstated when John Wesley started the religious movement that became the United Methodist Church. It was the 18th century, not the early 19th century.

Well, actually, the Rev. John Wesley was an Anglican priest until the day he died and he started a renewal movement within that body that, after his death, turned into a denomination. The birth of the United Methodist Church was many twists and turns down the road. Oh well, whatever, nevermind.

Actually, I just kind of shook my head when I read that correction. But I laughed out loud when I hit one HILARIOUS word in the lede on the early Times piece on the latest sex-wars win for the United Methodist establishment.

Experienced Godbeat scribes and consumers, and activists on both sides of the oldline Protestant sex wars, will have no trouble spotting the howler. Here goes.

A onetime Methodist pastor who was stripped of his clerical credentials because he presided at the wedding of his gay son is being reinstated, a startling reversal for a large Protestant denomination that, like many, is riven by divisions over same-sex relationships.

So where was the laugh? It's the word "startling."

Why is that so funny? Let's read on.

A United Methodist Church appeals committee -- a nine-member panel made up of laypeople and clergy -- said Tuesday that it had decided to overturn the punishment of Frank Schaefer, who with three gay children and a determination to celebrate their relationships has become an unexpected champion of gays and lesbians in church life. The panel deemed the punishment too harsh.

Mr. Schaefer, who had been the pastor of Zion United Methodist Church of Iona in Lebanon, Pa., was defrocked last year, six years after officiating at the same-sex wedding of his son. An all-clergy church court found him guilty of disobeying the denomination’s order and discipline. His case has become a test of the denomination’s willingness to enforce its own rules.

Now, anyone who knows anything about United Methodist polity knows that it is dominated by what has -- literally for decades -- been a functional "local option" policy. There is no one United Methodist Church; there are several radically different bodies, with the content of the faith depending on where in the United States (and the world) one happens to live.

Thus, the question savvy readers had to ask -- after reading that passage -- was this: What was the location of this particular "nine-member panel" that overturned his punishment?

Later on, readers were told this:

Mr. Schaefer, 52, appealed his defrocking, and last Friday a panel called the Committee on Appeals for the Northeastern Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church held a nearly three-hour-long hearing on the case, and then deliberated behind closed doors, at a hotel in Linthicum, Md., near Baltimore-Washington International Airport. At the hearing, an advocate for the church’s Eastern Pennsylvania conference, which had ruled against Mr. Schaefer, argued that church courts had an obligation to uphold church law. ...

The appeals panel did not question Mr. Schaefer’s guilt but significantly altered his punishment. It changed his penalty to a 30-day suspension, which it deemed to have already taken place.

So, United Methodist readers and veteran religion-news scribes, raise your hands high if you think it is "startling" that United Methodist officials in the NORTHEAST issued this ruling.

Startling? This is like saying that it's startling that people in Boston cheer for the Red Sox or that Texans prefer beef brisket over tofu.

Like I said earlier, using a phrase from a famous 1980s report on the state of this denomination, the "Seven Churches of United Methodism" have been a reality for a long, long time. Doctrine is all about location, location, location.

So, how long has this been a reality? Can you say, "Bishop Roy Sano" and "the Rev. Julian Rush"?

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