This time, the guilty party is not The Associated Press. Rather, it's USA Today, which as you might recall used to employ an actual religion writer. It could use one right about now.
This story, which originated with Gannett sister paper The Tennessean, is a long, winding ode to same-sex marriage disguised (not extremely well) as a news story.
Let's start at the breathless top:
The couple buys a marriage license, a recognized officiant signs it and it's refiled with the local government. That's a legal marriage, and in 14 states — with Illinois just the governor's signature away from becoming the 15th — that's a process open to both straight and gay couples.
Getting the church on board is a little more complicated. The issue of whether clergy should officiate same-sex marriages is dividing an increasing number of denominations.
Now, a retired Nashville bishop has become the latest to draw headlines on the issue — reversing course from a path that, four decades ago, had him playing a key role in sending the church down a path of resistance to change.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America began allowing individual congregations to recognize same-sex marriages in 2009. Episcopalians adopted a same-sex marriage rite in July 2012, although a number of individual dioceses — including the one in Tennessee — chose not to allow it. The Presbyterian Church (USA) came close to approving same-sex marriages in 2012 but narrowly defeated the measure.
And United Methodists, the nation's largest mainline Protestant denomination, are nowhere close after debating the issue for decades.
That hasn't stopped pastors nationwide from defying church doctrine and performing those ceremonies. Some call it ecclesiastical disobedience. Others call it biblical obedience. Either way, it's exposing them to church discipline, with potential punishments ranging from verbal rebukes to loss of their ordinations — and the financial implications that go with it.
Um, OK. Did everyone learn something new? I had no idea same-sex marriage was causing debate within denominations.
Apparently, the news peg is that a retired bishop (a Methodist, we find out deep in the story) performed a same-sex marriage:
Despite warnings from his denomination that he'd be violating the faith's Book of Discipline, Bishop Melvin Talbert traveled from Nashville to near Birmingham, Ala., to perform the Oct. 26 wedding of Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince. They were legally married Sept. 3 in Washington, D.C., but wanted a church wedding. Openshaw said he specifically wanted Talbert to officiate since the bishop had spent years supporting Methodist gays and lesbians.
That wasn't Talbert's stance 40 years ago at the 1972 Methodist general conference, which adopted language saying homosexuality is incompatible with Christianity. His views changed several years later, when he was invited to a weekend seminar of gay and straight Methodists; participants could not reveal which they were until the end.
The revelation destroyed his stereotypes. The married father and grandfather brought the issue to a head last year, when the denomination voted against removing the language he had helped put in.
"I declared those laws that prohibited clergy from marrying gay and lesbian folk and using the church for that purpose are immoral, unjust, they are evil, and they no longer deserve our loyalty and support," he said. "It's time for us to do the right thing."
But what about voices within the United Methodist Church who believe Talbert is doing the wrong thing? How do they respond to him defying the denomination and winning swooning headlines?
Ah ha ha. USA Today makes not even a token attempt to quote anyone on the other side.
Just for kicks and grins, what might an opposing viewpoint have looked like in this rambling report? Here's a chunk of a recent Religion News Service story on the United Methodist debate:
John Lomperis, United Methodist program director of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, said clergy cannot choose which church laws to follow, and he said bishops should hold them accountable for breaking laws.
“If there are meaningful consequences, there could be a meaningful healing,” he said. “If you end up getting suspended or losing your clergy credentials, it might not be so attractive.”
Lomperis said church law should not change simply to reflect the growing support for gays in American society.
“We’re not a weather vane,” he said. “We are actually a global church. We are not seeing these social, secular shifts in global Africa. I would see it as ethnocentric for the church to take its cues from just the American culture.”
My point: If USA Today wants to be a newspaper and not an advocacy organization, it needs to commit some actual journalism. That did not occur in this case.