Methodists

Will United Methodist Church be ripped apart? Ahead of big meeting, here's a fair analysis

Will United Methodist Church be ripped apart? Ahead of big meeting, here's a fair analysis

The United Methodist Church’s much-anticipated meeting on same-sex marriage rites and whether homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” is just a few weeks away.

It’ll be Feb. 23-26 in St. Louis.

In advance of the church’s historic General Conference, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram did a deep dive on the subject — and it’s a generally fair, informative read, as one observer noted on Twitter.

As far as I know, the Star-Telegram doesn’t have a religion writer per se. But the Fort Worth paper has done some excellent work on the Godbeat in recent times, including a must-read investigation on sex crimes in independent fundamental Baptist churches late last year. That project was produced by investigative reporter Sarah Smith, who left the Star-Telegram soon thereafter to join the Houston Chronicle.

The in-depth story on the United Methodist Church was written by Hanaa’ Tameez, who covers diversity for the Star-Telegram.

Tameez open her piece with an anecdote from a Methodist congregation grappling at the local level with the questions facing the entire denomination:

COLLEYVILLE — On a Tuesday in January, pastor Katie Lewis was surprised to have even 26 members of the United Methodist Church of Colleyville attend her study group on human sexuality and same-sex marriage.

In a group of mostly middle-aged white congregants, opinions ranged widely. One man said he felt pressure to accept LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage from “more liberal” members from the East and West Coasts. Others quickly disputed that idea, saying the issue is a concern in Colleyville as well.

“Whether you know it or not, someone in your life is struggling to be accepted for who they are,” one woman told the group.

Lewis said she felt the conversation was necessary ahead of the United Methodist General Conference this month in St. Louis. The conference meets every four years, but a special session was called to vote on a plan regarding same-sex marriage and the acceptance of LGBTQ clergy in the church.

The United Methodist Church faces the possibility of a schism because of the vote. It’s inevitable that people will leave the church because of how polarizing the issue is, according to congregants, clergy and experts. It’s also possible entire congregations could leave the denomination.

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Frederick Douglass is the ideal topic for this year’s Black History Month features

Frederick Douglass is the ideal topic for this year’s Black History Month features

In the 200th year of American independence, President Gerald Ford officially established February as national Black History Month. The idea grew out of African-Americans’ longstanding heritage week timed with the February birth dates of the white emancipator Abraham Lincoln and the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Douglass, the most powerful black orator and agitator during the campaign to end slavery, is the ideal topic for a religion feature this February. That’s due to a magisterial new biography that enjoys universal acclaim from critics, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” (Simon & Schuster).

The Guy recommends the book itself — 888 pages! — and interviews with author David W. Blight, a Yale University history professor who specializes in slavery, abolitionism and the Reconstruction period (Contacts: david.blight@yale.edu or 203-432-8521 or 203-432-3339). Notably, Blight portrays this heroic American with warts-and-all exposure of problematic aspects in public and private life. One example was Douglass’s typically Protestant assertion that Catholic belief in the papacy was a “stupendous and most arrogant lie.”

The touring Douglass moved audiences with addresses, often in churches, that were de facto sermons and made continual use of the Bible. Favorite themes were the Exodus of God’s children from Egypt and the moral denunciations from the Hebrew prophets. This was not a matter of tactical artifice, Blight observes, but an authentic expression of profound spiritual devotion.

In 1831, as a 13-year-old household slave in Baltimore, Douglass experienced a thoroughgoing conversion to — in his own words — “faith in Jesus Christ as the Redeemer, Friend, and Savior of those who diligently seek him.” He was chiefly influenced by sermons of two white Methodists and especially black lay preacher Charles Johnson. Blight says Douglass quickly developed a hunger for Bible reading, saw the world around him “in a new light,” and gained “new hopes and desire” that laid the foundation of his career.

As is frequently the case for Protestants, his faith was further deepened by a fellow layman, Charles Lawson, a semi-literate black laborer. The two would spend endless hours “singing, praying, and glorifying God,” Blight says.

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Yet more forecasting on what to expect in religion news and trends during 2019

Yet more forecasting on what to expect in religion news and trends during 2019

Those who read GetReligion on Dec. 20 (thereby postponing their holiday chores) may recall The Religion Guy’s list of the big three religion news themes for the new year:

(1) Ongoing debate over using the CRISPR technique to create human “designer babies” and manipulate genes that will be passed along to future generations. (The Guy – uniquely -- also proclaimed this the #1 religion story of 2018.)

(2) How Catholic leaders cope with multiplying cases of priests molesting minors, both at Pope Francis’ February summit and afterward. And don’t neglect those Protestant sexual abuse scandals.

(3) Reverberations from the United Methodist Church’s special February General Conference that decides whether and how to either hold together or to split over same-sex issues.

On the same theme, Religion News Service posted a longish item New Year’s Eve headlined “What’s coming for religion in 2019? Here’s what the experts predict.” This was a collection of brief articles commissioned from a multi-faith lineup. It turned out to be one of those ideas that seemed better in the story conference than in the resulting copy.

Understandably, no panelist expected an end to the persistent Catholic scandals.

Otherwise, the pieces predicted things like this:

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Washington Post editors still don't understand that private schools -- left and right -- have doctrines

Washington Post editors still don't understand that private schools -- left and right -- have doctrines

United Methodists are, of course, getting ready for their extraordinary global conference next month in which they will try to decide if the Bible and 2,000 years of Christian doctrine have anything definitive to say about marriage and sex.

One powerful pack of lobbyists on the doctrinal left — the National Association of Schools and Colleges of the United Methodist Church — have come out swinging, urging the conference to allow “full inclusion” for all in the denomination’s life and work, no matter what their “gender identity” or “sexual orientation.”

It’s safe to say that leaders of these 93 schools — including universities such as Emory, American, Duke, Syracuse and SMU — have created campus policies that encourage or require students, faculty and staff to embrace this modernized approach to moral theology.

That’s fine, as long as these schools are very up-front about the doctrines that define life in their private associations. Private schools on the left and right are allowed to do that. (Click here for a column that I wrote several years ago about efforts at Vanderbilt University to require on-campus ministries to toe the evolving LGBTQ line: “The new campus orthodoxy that forbids most old orthodoxies.”)

Once again let me stress: Private schools on the left and right have a First Amendment right (think freedom of association) to defend the doctrines that define campus life.

Some journalists continue to struggle with this First Amendment concept, leading to lots of GetReligion posts trying to explain the law and history behind “lifestyle” and doctrinal covenants at private schools.

For a perfect example of this problem, see the new Washington Post report with this headline: “The school that hired Karen Pence requires applicants to disavow gay marriage, trans identity.” Here is the lengthy, but essential, overture to this story.

The school where Vice President Pence’s wife, Karen, has accepted a part-time job teaching art requires potential employees to affirm certain religious beliefs that seek to exclude homosexual and transgender applicants, including that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.

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Attention all newsroom managers: There will also be non-political news in 2019  

Attention all newsroom managers: There will also be non-political news in 2019  

We already know that in 2019 the news biz will be as consumed by All Things Trump as during the prior three and a half years. The media must also monitor countless maneuvers by countless Democratic presidential hopefuls. And there will be those ongoing eruptions in global politics.

If any column inches and air time are left over for our beat, the temptation will be to do those “religion and” stories, oh you know like predictable Donald Trump accolades from the media’s favorite evangelicals. On the big 2019 theme of whether the President can win a second term, The Guy reminds pundits for the umpteenth time that white Catholics outside the  Bible Belt will decide that.  

Most important, The Guy advises editors that audiences will welcome a bit of a break from political news. How about covering the more religious aspects of the religion beat like these three major 2019 stories?  

First, the top story of 2018, as the Dec. 5 Guy Memo proposed, is reports that the “CRISR” technique in November successfully produced the first newborns with engineered genes that  will be inherited by future generations. Biologists “playing God” to create human “designer babies” is an ethical quagmire that demands 2019 folo-ups.

Then, two vital and nearly simultaneous church events, one dealing with moral performance and the other with moral doctrine, will reverberate throughout the year.

Ready to mark those calendars?

Feb. 21-24 — Pope Francis has summoned the 135 heads of national  bishops’ conferences and comparable officers for a Vatican summit to cope with the disgusting and ceaseless cascade of priests who sexually molested underaged boys and girls (and the bishops and cardinals who hid them). The stakes could not be higher for the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics.

This brings fierce memories of Pope John Paul II’s 2002 Vatican abuse confab with U.S. Catholic leaders (which The Guy covered for The AP alongside Rome Bureau legend Victor Simpson). Shortly thereafter, several hundred reporters (including The Guy alongside award-winning AP virtuoso Rachel Zoll) swamped the U.S. bishops’ meeting in Dallas that devised a cleanup plan.  

U.S. scandals then dominated the news. Since, it’s become obvious this is no “American crisis” but a worldwide one. The fact that victims’ suffering, scandals, cover-ups, malfeasance, investigations, lawsuits and bankruptcies persist 16 years later shows how intractable the moral rot has proven to be, with Cardinal Pell’s conviction the latest instance. 

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Why is a church shrinking or closing? Reporters: Brace for complex and heated debates

Why is a church shrinking or closing? Reporters: Brace for complex and heated debates

If you are into taking notes, then here is a challenge for folks listening to this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in, or head over to iTunes and subscribe).

The topic, this time, is why so many churches are shrinking and dying these days — in urban areas, as well as small towns and other at-risk locations (think the Rust Belt in general). The hook for this podcast was my recent post about a Religion News Service feature that ran with this headline: “As one historically black Episcopal church closes, others face strong headwinds.”

As host Todd Wilken and I discuss this subject, try to keep track of the number of factors that can affect whether congregations, and in the not-so-distant future entire denominations, shrink and even die.

Is evangelism a priority for this flock?

What about location, location, location — in terms of population growth.

How about the state of the economy in that zip code?

There are demographic issues linked to birth rate and family size.

Is this congregation part of a denomination that is in statistical free fall (is the brand wounded)?

Has the national church taken controversial stands that have caused schisms or departures?

Are the seminaries for this denomination producing pastors that people will trust and follow? Does this particular church body have enough pastors or priests?

Is the church too liberal, or too conservative, for its community?

Does the church have more retirees than young families?

I think there are several others that I’m leaving out, at the moment.

The RNS story focuses on historically black Episcopal parishes closing in North Carolina. That is certainly a poignant topic. My post noted:

These stories are valid, of course. The question is whether reporters will keep asking questions about the trends behind all the “For Sale” signs.

Obviously, this is a complex story that involves urban demographics, real estate, birth rates, worship trends, rising statistics about the “religiously unaffiliated (nones)” and other realities. However, ever since a National Council of Churches executive named Dean M. Kelley wrote That Book (“Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion”) in 1972, journalists and church-growth activists have been arguing about the role of theology in this drama.

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Episcopalians closing more African-American churches: Other big trends in this story?

Episcopalians closing more African-American churches: Other big trends in this story?

No doubt about it, get ready to see more and more stories about church closings.

You know a topic is big news when Pope Francis starts talking about it.

These stories are valid, of course. The question is whether reporters will keep asking questions about the trends behind all the “For Sale” signs.

Obviously, this is a complex story that involves urban demographics, real estate, birth rates, worship trends, rising statistics about the “religiously unaffiliated (nones)” and other realities. However, ever since a National Council of Churches executive named Dean M. Kelley wrote That Book (“Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion”) in 1972, journalists and church-growth activists have been arguing about the role of theology in this drama. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

First, here is the context for this discussion — a Religion News Service feature that ran with this headline: “As one historically black Episcopal church closes, others face strong headwinds.” Here’s the poignant overture:

WARRENTON, N.C. (RNS) — On a chilly December morning, 100 years and one week after its sanctuary opened, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, an African-American congregation with a proud history, was formally closed.

Bishop Samuel Rodman presided over the Eucharistic service in an elementary school a block away from the church, where weekly services ended more than three years ago. Several longtime members returned to read Scriptures and sing hymns. Afterward, the group of 100, including history buffs and well-wishers from North Carolina and Virginia, shared a meal of fried chicken and baked beans.

All Saints is hardly alone among mainline Protestant and Catholic congregations. Faced with dwindling members, crumbling infrastructure and costly maintenance, some 6,000 to 10,000 churches shutter each year, according to one estimate. More closures may be in the offing as surveys point to a decline in church attendance across the country.

But All Saints is an example of an even sharper decline. Historically African-American churches across the South are fast disappearing.

What do the numbers look like? The story notes that the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina “once boasted 60 such churches. Today, a mere dozen are left and, of those, only three have full-time clergy.” This long, deep, story has few, if any, signs of hope for the future.

Note that this feature is focusing on trends in “mainline Protestant and Catholic” churches.

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Have most Protestants in the United States gone soft on drinking alcohol?

Have most Protestants in the United States gone soft on drinking alcohol?

THE QUESTION:

What do today’s U.S. Protestants believe about the use of alcoholic beverages? Have attitudes softened?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Yes, without question. And there’s been a bit of soul-searching about this in America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Its press service reports ongoing concern especially about teen alcohol abuse has increased somewhat since recent Senate testimony about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Catholic prep school experience.

Further, just afterward USA Today reported a study showing from 2007 to 2017 U.S. deaths attributed to alcohol increased 35 percent, and 67 percent among women (while teen deaths declined 16 percent). These fatalities well outnumber those from opioid overdoses that have roused such public concern.

Not so long ago, total abstinence predominated among many or most Protestants, who effectively mandated this for clergy and expected the same from lay members. (Other faith groups such as Muslims and Mormons elevate abstinence into a divine commandment.)

In a 2007 survey of Southern Baptists, only 3 percent of pastors and 29 percent of lay members said they drink alcoholic beverages. This survey showed that across other U.S. Protestant denominations 25 percent of pastors and 42 percent of lay members said they drink.

A 2016 Barna Group poll showed 60 percent of adults who are active churchgoers (both Protestants and Catholics) said they drink, compared with 67 percent for the over-all U.S. population. Among evangelicals there was a nearly even split with 46 percent who drink. (Barna defines “evangelicals” by conservative beliefs, not the loose self-identification political polls use.) Only 2 percent of evangelicals admitted they sometimes over-indulge.

Otherwise, Barna found, regular churchgoers consume smaller amounts on average than others. Asked why they don’t drink, 10 percent of abstainers acknowledged it’s because they are addicts in recovery. Notably, 41 percent of the population said alcohol causes trouble for their families.

The Bible does not teach total abstinence, and says wine can be a blessing (Psalm 104:15) and helpful medicine (Proverbs 31:6 or 1 Timothy 5:23).

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Monday Mix: Church vs. football, religion in schools, scandalized bishops, His (Islamic) Holiness

Monday Mix: Church vs. football, religion in schools, scandalized bishops, His (Islamic) Holiness

Welcome to another edition of the Monday Mix, where we focus on headlines and insights you might have missed from the weekend and late in the week.

The fine print: Just because we include a headline here doesn't mean we won't offer additional analysis in a different post, particularly if it's a major story. In fact, if you read a piece linked here and have questions or concerns that we might address, please don't hesitate to comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion. The goal here is to point at important news and say, "Hey, look at this."

Three weekend reads

1. "I think we can all thank the Lord for Saturday night services and TiVo." The Tennessee Titans played the Los Angeles Chargers at 8:30 a.m. CDT Sunday in London (they lost a heartbreaker).

In advance of the odd kickoff time, religion writer Holly Meyer of The Tennessean had a timely, interesting feature on the clash between Sunday morning church and football:

While the extra-early Titans game is atypical, it is not uncommon for late Sunday morning worship services to run past the usual noon-or-later kickoffs in the 17-week regular season.

Die-hard, church-going Titans fans devise game-day routines that ensure they can watch their team and worship their God.

2. "(T)here is more student religious expression today in public schools than probably anytime in the last hundred years." For two decades, Charles Haynes has been a go-to source for journalists (including myself) reporting on the intersection of religion and public schools.

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