Scriptures

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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Sort of Friday Five: Of course the terrorist attack in New Zealand is a religion-beat story

Sort of Friday Five: Of course the terrorist attack in New Zealand is a religion-beat story

The terrorist set out to massacre Muslim believers as they gathered for Friday prayers in their mosques.

He covered his weapons with names of others who committed similar mass murders and military leaders that he claimed fought for the same cause.

The terrorist left behind a hellish manifesto built on themes common among radicals who hate immigrants, especially Muslims, and weave in virulent anti-Semitism themes, as well (BBC explainer here). He claimed to have “been in contact” with sympathizers of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist who killed 77 people — most of them children — in 2011.

1. Religion story of the week. The gunman’s motives may have been pure hatred, with no twisted links to any world religion, but it’s clear that the New Zealand massacre is the religion story of the week — because of the faith of the 49 victims and the faith statements of millions of people that are offering prayers and help in the wake of the attack.

The gunman labeled his own motives, as seen in this New York Times report:

Before the shooting, someone appearing to be the gunman posted links to a white-nationalist manifesto on Twitter and 8chan, an online forum known for extremist right-wing discussions. …

In his manifesto, he identified himself as a 28-year-old man born in Australia and listed his white nationalist heroes. Writing that he had purposely used guns to stir discord in the United States over the Second Amendment’s provision on the right to bear arms, he also declared himself a fascist. “For once, the person that will be called a fascist, is an actual fascist,” he wrote.

The Washington Post noted:

The 74-page manifesto left behind after the attack was littered with conspiracy theories about white birthrates and “white genocide.” It is the latest sign that a lethal vision of white nationalism has spread internationally. Its title, “The Great Replacement,” echoes the rallying cry of, among others, the torch-bearing protesters who marched in Charlottesville in 2017.

Also this:

Video on social media of the attack’s aftermath showed a state of disbelief, as mosque-goers huddled around the injured and dead. Amid anguished cries, a person could be heard saying, “There is no God but God,” the beginning of the Muslim profession of faith.

Please help us spot major religion themes in the waves of coverage that this story will receive in the hours and days ahead. Meanwhile, with Bobby Ross Jr., still in the Middle East, here is a tmatt attempt to fill the rest of the familiar Friday Five format.

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'Cry out for a king': Maybe there's some religious content in this congressman's tweet?

'Cry out for a king': Maybe there's some religious content in this congressman's tweet?

It was a real short news story.

It was based — as so much political news seems to be these days — on a tweet.

But there seemed to be a holy ghost in the reporting: You think?

I’m pulling this one out of my guilt folder because the item ran in The Hill more than a week ago. Still, I think the question — first raised by my friend Alan Cochrum, a former Fort Worth Star-Telegram copy editor — is relevant.

See if you can spot the religion ghost:

Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), the only known GOP lawmaker to co-sponsor a resolution to block President Trump's emergency declaration, accused fellow Republicans on Saturday of "cry[ing] out for a king" to go around Congress.

The libertarian-leaning congressman urged members of his own party on Twitter to be "faithful" to the Constitution and reject Trump's plan to "usurp legislative powers" with a declaration aimed at reallocating funding for construction of a barrier at the U.S.-Mexico border.

"The same congressional Republicans who joined me in blasting Pres. Obama’s executive overreach now cry out for a king to usurp legislative powers. If your faithfulness to the Constitution depends on which party controls the White House, then you are not faithful to it," Amash tweeted.

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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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This is not a trick question: Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

This is not a trick question: Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

THE QUESTION:

Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

This topic hit the news February 4 when Pope Francis and Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayebb of Egypt’s influential Al-Azhar University issued a joint declaration “in the name of God who has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity.” Did Francis, who was making history’s first papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula, thereby mean to say that the Christian God is the Muslim God?

Yes, he did, if properly understood, and this was no innovation on his part.

In 1965, Pope Paul VI and the world’s Catholic bishops at the Second Vatican Council approved Nostra Aetate, the declaration on relations with non-Christian religions. The decree’s denunciation of calumny against Jews gets most of the attention, but it also proclaimed this:

“The church also regards with esteem the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in himself, merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth,” although “they do not acknowledge Jesus as God” and regard him as only a prophet. The subsequent Catechism of the Catholic Church likewise defines the belief that “together with us [Muslims] adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”

Such interfaith concord is disputed by some conservative Protestants in the U.S. For example, the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry believes the Catholic Church has “a faulty understanding of the God of Islam,” and Muslims “are not capable of adoring the true God.” Hank Hanegraaff of the “Bible Answer Man” broadcast — now a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy — has asserted that “the Allah of Islam” is “definitely not the God of the Bible.” [Note that “Allah” is simply the Arabic word meaning “God.”]

Back in the century after Islam first arose, such thinking was expressed in “The Fount of Knowledge” by John of Damascus, a revered theologian for Eastern Orthodoxy. John spelled out reasons why Islam’s belief about God is a “heresy” and Muhammad is “a false prophet.”

Islam’s fundamental profession of faith declares that “there is no god but God; Muhammad is the messenger of God.”

How are we to understand this one true God?

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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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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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No 'proof texts': Wheaton College scholar seeks to shelve Old Testament moral rules (updated)  

No 'proof texts': Wheaton College scholar seeks to shelve Old Testament moral rules (updated)  

The unending debate over the Bible and same-sex relationships is the most troublesome one for U.S. Protestantism since the Civil War.

It first broke into the news agenda big-time 47 years ago at a conference of the large United Methodist Church.  As religion specialists well know, an emergency Methodist conference that opens Saturday in St. Louis is to weigh whether the UMC will split over this.   

Simultaneously, a book on sale next week has potentially explosive relevance: “The Lost World of the Torah: Law as Covenant and Wisdom in Ancient Context.” Of course, “Torah” in the title refers to the Old Testament’s first five books and also the material therein normally called biblical law.   

The book – nota bene -- does not emanate from liberal “mainline” Protestantism. The publisher, InterVarsity Press, is evangelical, and the authors are veteran Wheaton College (Illinois) Old Testament professor John H. Walton along with son J. Harvey, a University of St. Andrews doctoral student. 

“We cannot reconstruct a moral system from the Torah or any part of it,” they contend. “That is not what it [the Torah] is designed to do.” Rather, “order in society was the goal, and it was achieved through wisdom,” not biblical  “legislation” or “rules.”  The Old Testament God was simply not “imposing morality or social ideals on Israel through the stipulations of the Torah.” 

Writers should, of course, read the complete book to fairly grasp the argument, but chapter titles well summarize the key points.

“We cannot gain moral knowledge or build a system of ethics based on reading the Torah in context and deriving principles from it.”

“The ancient Israelites would not have understood the Torah as providing divine moral instruction.”

“Torah cannot provide proof texts for solving issues today.”

The Waltons specify that this holds for the venerated Ten Commandments, and for Leviticus 18, where God’s “statutes” abominate homosexual acts as well as adultery, incest and bestiality. Regarding same-sex activity and gender identity, the authors warn against extracting “biblical principles” to “substantiate a particular position today as if that position is thereby built on moral absolutes.”

That should provoke hot responses from traditionalists, Jews included. The book follows the shelving of Old Testament dictates proposed last year by another prominent evangelical, megachurch preacher Andy Stanley.

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