Forgive me if I seem a bit prejudiced, but I'm a strong believer in the position that an editor should never send a general assignment reporter to do a religion reporter's job. Much of GetReligion's prime fodder comes from Godbeat daytrippers. The trouble often is that even when a story is otherwise well reported and contains the appropriate voices, it ends up lacking significant context.
Such was the case with a Los Angeles Times story from last week about a Presbyterian minister being censured for wedding gays. Except this one was for a less-common reason.
Instead of sending to Napa the paper's religion reporter -- though he too has struggled to grasp the nuances of the Godbeat -- the LAT sent a reporter from his San Francisco office who has some experience covering gay marriage stories. The result was a decent story, but one that was lacking some important details, leaving the article feeling one-sided.
Following an introductory paragraph, the story unfolds:
After a four-day church trial that was equal parts Scripture lesson and celebration of marriage, a panel of leaders from the Presbytery of the Redwoods voted 4 to 2 that the Rev. Jane Adams Spahr should be censured because she "persisted in a pattern or practice of disobedience."
But the six-member panel voted unanimously that the 68-year-old lesbian's actions did not disrupt the "peace, unity and purity of the church" and praised her "faithful compassion" and her 35-year ministry to gays and lesbians throughout the country.
"In addition, we call upon the church to reexamine our own fear and ignorance that continues to reject the inclusiveness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ," the panel said in its ruling. "We say this believing that we have in our own Book of Order conflicting and even contradictory rules and regulations that are against the Gospel."
Which is all fine. And some of the details that follow set a descriptive scene of the doctrinal trial. But too many of the basics are missing.
For instance, the PCUSA is never defined. How different is the denomination's stance on homosexuality than, say, Methodists and Lutherans? And what kind of Presbyterians are we talking about? I know because I attend a PCUSA church, but I doubt most LAT readers know the different between PCUSA, PCA and the Reformed church? Not to mention all these guys.
In case you were wondering, the PCUSA is the largest Presbyterian denomination and, like most mainline denominations, gay marriage has been a front-and-center issues for years.
More significantly missing, nowhere in this story is there any explanation of where this church doctrine comes from and why church leaders at some point felt this was the correct understanding of the Bible.
Instead this story, like a breaking-news court story, sticks too strictly to the scene set in court and the details mentioned therein.
What would have sufficed? Something like this:
In 1978, the church's General Assembly issued an "authorized interpretation that said being gay and Christian was incompatible," said Patrick Evans, an assistant professor at Yale Divinity School.
Then in 1996, the Presbyterian constitution was amended to require that ministers, deacons or elders in the church "live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness."
In July, the General Assembly, which meets every two years, voted to repeal that requirement. Now the denomination's 173 regions, or presbyteries, will have until June to vote on whether to ratify that change. The amendment is not believed to have been used against a straight minister and it effectively blocks the ordination of gay ministers who are in committed relationships.
Actually, that's exactly what I was looking for. Where did I find it? In an article that the same LAT reporter wrote only a few days earlier.
So here it appears the lack of context wasn't a problem of skill or diligence, but maybe just a lack of newsink and/or an oversight by an editor who forgot that when so many readers now are catching stories like this online they are missing the boilerplate that appeared only a few days before.