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New York Times weighs in, offering one side of bitter disputes inside United Methodist Church

New York Times weighs in, offering one side of bitter disputes inside United Methodist Church

If you’ve been following United Methodist Twitter, you know that this bitterly divided denomination has been in a behind-the-scenes uproar about a New York Times gotcha story that ran the other day. The headline: “Improper Voting Discovered at Methodist Vote on Gay Clergy.”

This is the rare case in which news consumers can find more information, and even a hint of balanced coverage, by reading official press releases from United Methodist News. Take this story, for example: “Denials, charges fly in GC2019 voting credentials review.” In this story — from the denominational press — there are actual interviews with people on the conservative side of this battle.

But back to the world’s most powerful newspaper.

Here’s a crucial question, a question that the Times story did ask and, to some degree, did answer: Did voting issues affect the crucial outcomes in the recent general conference in St. Louis? We are talking about the votes that defeated the One Church Plan favored by the United Methodist Church’s American establishment and the vote that passed some elements of the Traditionalist Plan favored by a coalition of American evangelicals and delegates from the Global South.

The Times piece played down, and avoided specifics, on another crucial issue: The fact that 30 overseas delegates were not able to attend, and thus were unable to vote, because of issues obtaining U.S. visas. In other words, the Global South coalition was stronger than it appeared in the final votes. The issue with visas also points to another issue in the Times report: Squabbles (and, potentially, translation issues) over the status of “reserve” delegates at the conference. Thus, the overture for the story:

It was a momentous vote for the United Methodist Church, as the future of the country’s second-largest Protestant church hung in the balance. In a former football stadium in St. Louis last month, church officials and lay leaders from around the world voted to strengthen their ban on same-sex marriage and gay clergy, a decision that could now split the church.

But at least four ballots were cast by individuals who were not authorized to vote, according to interviews and a review of the church’s records. The individuals were from African delegations whose votes were critical to restricting the church’s rules on homosexuality.

The final 54-vote margin against gay clergy and same-sex marriage exceeds the number of unauthorized votes discovered so far. But the voting irregularities raised questions about the process behind the divisive decision, which devastated progressive members. Some have discussed leaving the denomination and possibly creating a new alliance for gay-friendly churches.

The bottom line, of course, is whether American church officials can find a way to challenge the validity of the St. Louis votes and fight on, continuing decades of work to change the denomination’s teachings on sexuality, marriage and the ordination of clergy.

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Looking at this story internationally, what’s the status of modern church doctrines on gays?

Looking at this story internationally, what’s the status of modern church doctrines on gays?

THE QUESTION: 

Looked at internationally, what’s the status of churches’ policies on the same-sex issue in the wake of the United Methodists’ important decision on this February 26?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

You may have read that in late February the 12.6-million-member United Methodist Church held a special General Conference in St. Louis, seeking to settle its painful conflict over the gay-and-lesbian issue and avert a split. The delegates decided by 53 percent to support and strengthen the denomination’s longstanding ban against same-sex marriages and clergy living in such relationships.

Though U.S. bishops, officials, and academics had advocated leeway on gays, the vote was not a shock. A 2015 poll by the denomination found 54 percent of U.S. pastors and 54 percent of lay leaders (though only 41 percent of lay members over-all)  favored keeping the traditional policy. Another poll of U.S. members, released just before the St. Louis conference, showed 44 percent identify as conservative or traditional in belief, 28 percent as moderate or centrist, and only 20 percent as progressive or liberal.

Moreover, United Methodism is a multinational denomination whose U.S. component has declined and now claims only 55 percent of the global membership. The congregations in Africa and Asia are growing, and that buttresses the traditionalist side. Unlike the Methodists, most “mainline” Protestant groups in North America and western Europe that recently liberalized on the same-sex issue had no foreigners casting ballots.

International bonds have always been central in Christianity. Currently, conservative and evangelical Protestants in North America, including a faction within liberalizing “mainline” groups, are united in sexual traditionalism with most of the Protestant and indigenous churches in Africa, Asia, the Mideast, eastern Europe and Latin America. Add in Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and the vast majority of the world’s Christians belong to churches that have always opposed gay and lesbian relationships.

This broad Christian consensus results from thousands of years of scriptures, interpretations, and traditions. This is the context for the West’s serious clash of conscience — between believers in that heritage versus religious and secular gay-rights advocates — that confronts government, politicians, educators, judges, journalists, and ordinary citizens.

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Thinking about the United Methodist future and (parts of) the Southern Baptist past

Thinking about the United Methodist future and (parts of) the Southern Baptist past

GetReligion readers who have been around a while may recall that I grew up as a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid in Texas. Then I did two degrees at Baylor University in Waco, long known as Jerusalem on the Brazos.

This was all before the great Southern Baptist Convention civil war broke out in the late 1970s. That all went down as I was breaking into journalism and then into religion-beat work.

Looking back, I would say that I was raised on the conservative side of “moderate” SBC life and then went way over to the liturgical “moderate” left — but only on a few political issues (I was very pro-abortion rights, for example). I never was a “moderate” in terms of doctrine. That’s what pushed me over into Anglo-Catholicism and then on to Orthodoxy. You can see signs of that in this 1983 magazine piece I wrote entitled, “Why I Can No Longer Be A Baptist: Giving the Saints the Right to Vote.”

While at The Charlotte Observer, I wrote one of the first stories about the formation of the “moderate” alliance against the more conservative SBC establishment.

Now, if you lived through all of that the way I did, you know this name — Nancy T. Ammerman. Writing as a sociologist of religion, she became one of the go-to scholars who interpreted the SBC civil war and, thus, a popular source for reporters in elite newsrooms (see her “Baptist Battles” book).

If you spoke fluent Southern Baptist, it was easy to see that she was totally sympathetic to the moderates on the losing side of this fight. Still, her views were interesting and often quite perceptive.

That brings us to this weekend’s “think piece,” an Ammerman op-ed for Religion News Service entitled: “How denominations split: Lessons for Methodists from Baptist battles of the ’80s.” Here is a very typical Ammerman summary of the thesis:

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Demographics and destiny: Big story brewing if many religious colleges are destined to die

Demographics and destiny: Big story brewing if many religious colleges are destined to die

Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School predicts that half of America’s colleges will die during the coming decade, due especially to competition from online coursework.

Many will pooh-pooh this dire forecast for institutions that have been so cherished a part of the nation’s culture. But Gettysburg College historian Allen Guelzo contended that the danger is palpable, and increasing, in a recent Wall Street Journal piece (behind a pay wall).

Guelzo said America’s 1,800 private colleges are especially at risk, and the smaller they are the bigger their problem. Though elite private schools boast fat endowments, offer ample scholarship aid and lure plenty of applicants, hundreds of private campuses lack these advantages.

Schools in the Northeast are especially vulnerable. In the past six years, 17 small colleges died in Massachusetts alone, and in recent months three more in New England announced closures. The ghost of Vermont’s debt-ridden Burlington College, which went under in 2016, remains in the news because financial moves by its former head, Jane Sanders, got the blame and she’s married to a would-be U.S. president.

Parents and students may protest tuition increases that exceed inflation year by year, conservatives may bemoan faculties dominated by politically correct liberals and some pundits may question the value of a college degree.

But Guelzo said the big threat is simple demographics. He projects that sagging birth rates will reduce potential college applicants by 450,000 during the 2020s. Private colleges must charge much higher tuitions than tax-supported competitors and will be hammered further if Democrats achieve “free college for all” plans that subsidize public campuses.

Obviously a big story is brewing, and religion writers will want to focus on the 247 Catholic colleges listed by the U.S. bishops’ office and the 143 conservative Protestant campuses linked to the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. Most are four-year liberal arts institutions, but the counts include some seminaries and other specialized programs. Myriad other schools founded by “mainline” Protestants have only vestigial faith commitments and are of less religious interest.

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When covering the United Methodist split, remember that there's two sides -- not one

When covering the United Methodist split, remember that there's two sides -- not one

I’ve been only peripherally observing the United Methodist meltdown of this past week where, unlike any other U.S. denomination that’s debated doctrinal issues related to homosexuality over the past two decades, the conservatives won this round. The key: Church growth in the Global South and declining numbers of key parts of the United States.

So what’s the story? The impact on the winners after this historic St. Louis conference, the views of the losers or both? Under normal circumstances, journalists would say “both.”

Since St. Louis, a flood of articles have, voilà, been published bemoaning the crucial votes and concentrating on the angry, grieving liberals who must decide whether to stick with the denomination or leave to form their own. And it is a tough decision to make.

I know, because I covered a lot of conservative Episcopalians –- and some Lutherans -– who had to exit their denominations, starting with my column about the tornado that hit the Minneapolis Convention Center on the day in August 2009 of a crucial vote by members of Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and how some folks wondered if God was sending a message.

But where were these same articles oozing sympathy when theological conservatives were forced to leave? For instance, look at a recent piece in the New York Times:

WASHINGTON — Chet Jechura was 12 years old when he first felt called to preach, but for years he put off ordination. He knew himself, and he knew the official rules of the United Methodist Church: Homosexuality was “incompatible with Christian teaching.” And so he left the denomination.

Then four years ago, he discovered Foundry United Methodist, a church that has carved a different path. He could sing the hymns of his childhood, be fully supported as a gay man, and finally become a candidate for ordination.

This week, a decision at a global conference for Methodists threatened to upend a lifetime of dreams, with the church voting to strengthen its ban on same-sex marriage and gay and lesbian clergy.

At an impromptu prayer service on Wednesday, as Mr. Jechura helped serve communion, he broke out in sobs, his body convulsing, barely able to stand. The emptiness grew louder with every wail. Friends held him up, wrapping him in their arms…

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Question as reporters look ahead: How many United Methodists are there? Are all created equal?

Question as reporters look ahead: How many United Methodists are there? Are all created equal?

Anyone who has worked on the religion beat a year or two knows that it is wise for journalists to read church membership totals with one eyebrow raised high. The professionals who work in religious institutions certainly know that membership statistics are estimates, at best.

As we always used to say when I was growing up Southern Baptist; There are towns in Texas where there are more Baptists than there are people.

But there’s no way around it — estimated membership and attendance figures really do matter. This is especially true when they directly affect the polity and governance of a specific religious body.

This brings us — #DUH — to that dramatic United Methodist battle that took place the other day in St. Louis. This was the topic of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in).

The follow-up coverage, with few exceptions, has focused on the rainbow-draped reactions of United Methodist leaders on the losing side of this special conference — which was charged with finding a way forward after four decades of doctrinal disagreements about marriage, sexuality (LGBTQ grab headlines) and the Bible. Could the UMC as a whole require that its clergy keep the vows they took, in ordination rites, to follow the denomination’s Book of Discipline?

But let’s look at an even more basic and crucial question, one linked to membership statistics. Ready? How many United Methodists are there in the United Methodist Church?

One would think that the official United Methodist News Service would be a solid place to look for that information. A year ago, it published a report online that stated:

The United Methodist Church’s global membership now exceeds 12.5 million.

These membership figures come from the most recent annual conference journals sent to the General Council on Finance and Administration. The vast majority of the journals are from 2016 with some from 2017 or earlier years including one from 2013.

The Rev. Gary Graves, secretary of the General Conference, used these totals in calculating how many delegates each conference sends to the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly in 2020. 

Yes, the word “global” is crucial. The United Methodist Church is a global institution and that reality shapes the structures that govern it.

That brings us to a post-war story in the Washington Post that contains some very interesting — I would say strange — language about church statistics.

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Next big news story: After 40 years of war, is United Methodist establishment ready to bargain?

Next big news story: After 40 years of war, is United Methodist establishment ready to bargain?

The late Lyle E. Schaller was always popular with journalists because he had the rare ability to dig deep into statistics and demographics, while speaking in direct-quote friendly language. But it was always hard to know what to call him. He was an expert on church-growth trends. But he was also a United Methodist. Wait for it.

Schaller used to laugh whenever he was called a “United Methodist church-growth expert,” in part because of that flock’s serious decline in membership over the past quarter-century or more. If he was a church-growth pro, why didn’t his own denomination listen to him? It was something like being an expert on Baptist liturgy, Episcopal evangelism or Eastern Orthodox praise bands.

But when Schaller talked about the future, lots of people listened. Check out this material from a column I wrote about him entitled, “United Methodists: Breaking up is hard to do.

One side is convinced the United Methodist Church has cancer. The other disagrees and rejects calls for surgery. It's hard to find a safe, happy compromise when the issue is a cancer diagnosis. …

So it raised eyebrows when United Methodism's best-known expert on church growth and decay called for open discussions of strategies to split or radically restructure the national church. Research indicates that United Methodists are increasingly polarized around issues of scripture, salvation, sexuality, money, politics, multiculturalism, church government, worship and even the identity of God, said the Rev. Lyle E. Schaller of Naperville, Ill.

Many people are in denial, while their … church continues to age and decline, he said, in the Circuit Rider magazine for United Methodist clergy. Others know what's happening, yet remain passive.

Sports fans, That. Was. In. 1998.

Schaller told me that he was basing his diagnosis on the open doctrinal warfare that began two decades earlier, in the late 1970s. He was very familiar with a prophetic study that emerged from Duke Divinity School in the mid-1980s, entitled “The Seven Churches of Methodism."

Do I need to say that Schaller’s words are highly relevant in light of the acid-bath drama in yesterday’s final hours at that special United Methodist conference in St. Louis (GetReligion posts here and then here)?

But this is old news, really. Activists on both sides of this struggle have been doing the math (see my 2004 column on that topic) for four decades.

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Big United Methodist questions: Has left embraced 'exit' plans? Do 'coexist' clauses work? (updated)

Big United Methodist questions: Has left embraced 'exit' plans? Do 'coexist' clauses work? (updated)

Reporters who have followed decades of fighting inside mainline Protestant churches over marriage and sex will remember that doctrinal conservatives have always been promised that they will be able to continue to believe and practice their church’s old doctrines at their own altars.

In practice, that can be summed up as two beliefs that go back to the early church and scripture: Marriage is the union of a man and a women and sex outside of marriage is sin. Both doctrines affect who can be ordained as clergy.

These promises usually took the form of "conscience clauses,” such as those given long ago to reassure Episcopalians who opposed the ordination of women to the priesthood.

Over time, these clauses have a way of being erased — a trend that is highly relevant to debates currently taking place among United Methodists at a special national conference in St. Louis. (Click here for the Bobby Ross, Jr., post on coverage of yesterday’s actions.)

Two of the plans to shape the future of America’s second-largest Protestant flock promised, to one degree or another, to allow believers on both sides of the marriage and sex divide to be able to coexist — protected by structures to protect their doctrinal convictions. A crucial aspect of these debates is that the doctrinal conservatives (who want to retain current United Methodist doctrines) are arguing:

(a) That these “conscience clause” structures will not work over the long haul, in part because the church’s bishops have already endorsed allowing doctrinal progressives to carry on with same-sex marriages and other LGBTQ changes, such as the ordination of women and men who are sexually active in same-sex relationships or other unions short of traditional marriage.

(b) Passing “agree to disagree” doctrinal plans of this kind can be linked to the demographic disasters that are shrinking liberal Protestantism, in general. (The left, of course, argues that doctrinal innovations are required to reach out to young people in a changing America.)

Reporters who are not covering these two themes in the debates are not, well, covering the debates.

This leads me to the top of the current Associated Press report — “United Methodist Church on edge of breakup over LGBT stand” — about the St. Louis meetings. Here is the overture.

ST. LOUIS (AP) — The United Methodist Church teetered on the brink of breakup Monday after more than half the delegates at an international conference voted to maintain bans on same-sex weddings and ordination of gay clergy.

Their favored plan, if formally approved, could drive supporters of LGBT inclusion to leave America’s second-largest Protestant denomination.

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Massive New York Times story on Trinity Church raises good questions, but contains a big ghost

Massive New York Times story on Trinity Church raises good questions, but contains a big ghost

Every working day when I am teaching in New York, I walk past the historic Trinity Episcopal Church. I don’t go in that direction on Sundays, because I head over to Brooklyn for a rather different, clearly Orthodox liturgical experience.

But back to the dramatic sanctuary at Broadway and Wall Street. We are talking about some prime real estate. And if you are interested in the dollars and cents of all that, then The New York Times recently ran a long, long story that you will need to read.

Actually, this sprawling epic is three or four stories in one. You can kind of see that in the massive second line of this double-decker headline. So sit down and dig in.

The Church With the $6 Billion Portfolio

While many houses of worship are warding off developers as they struggle to hold on to their buildings, Trinity Church has become a big-time developer itself.

Frankly, I think this story should have been a series of some kind — to allow several of the valid religion-news angles to receive the news hole that they deserve. In a way, saying that is a compliment. Maybe.

For starters, you have that whole “$6 Billion Portfolio” thing, which deserves (and gets) a rather business-page approach. Then you have a perfectly valid church-state story about the tax questions circling around that vast bundle of secular and sacred real estate and development. Then you have a separate, but related, issue — New York City’s many other historic churches in which people are, often literally, struggling to keep a roof over their heads.

Oh, and Trinity Wall Street is still an actual congregation that is linked to a historic, but now rapidly declining, old-line denomination.

Want to guess which of these stories received the least among of ink in this epic? #DUH

If you guessed the “church” story, you guessed right. Yes, there is an important religion “ghost” in this big religion story.

Let’s start with the overture, then I will note one or two passages that point to what could have been. To no one’s surprise, a certain Broadway musical made it into the lede:

Since the blockbuster musical “Hamilton,” tourists have been swarming Trinity Church, part of an Episcopal parish in Lower Manhattan that dates to the 17th century. Alexander Hamilton and his wife, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, are buried in the cemetery there.

Recent years have been good to the church and the rest of its campus.

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