Welcome back, Qatar: Al Jazeera sets standard for reporting Mennonite gay issues

Here's a modern paradox: One of the best examples of the American Model of the press, as tmatt calls it, is the Arab news service Al Jazeera. A good example is its indepth on the struggle of Mennonites with gay issues.

"As I've come to expect as standard for Al-Jazeera, they dig deep and quote lots of different viewpoints on this issue, and look at a particular group that is not high in the public conversation," says a Faithful Reader who tipped us off to this story.

The reader is right. Al Jazeera, based in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar but boasting a dozen U.S. bureaus, writes sensitively about all sides in the debate. The 1,800-word story starts with a man who feels torn between his attraction for other men and his love for the church.

Then it neatly summarizes a paradox:

The Mennonite church – often vocal on peace and social justice issues – won’t perform his vows and views his sexuality with a wary eye. Though often viewed as a church of old-fashioned, plain-dressed pacifists who live agrarian lives much like the Amish, the reality is that "Plain" and horse-and-buggy Mennonites comprise only about one percent of the church. 
The rest of the church, a Protestant Anabaptist sect founded during the Reformation in the 1500s, uses varying degrees of modern technology. And most adherents wear modern clothing. What unites all factions of the church is a commitment to pacifism and social justice. And it’s those very traits that are also threatening its unraveling, as the church – and the rest of America – comes to terms with recent progress in the fight for LGBT civil rights.

The article gives us a peek at the recent annual conference in Kansas City of the Mennonite Church U.S.A., which failed to yield an agreement on the LGBT community. The delegates simply admitted there was no consensus, then tabled discussion for another four years. In protest, some members -- in a group called "Pink Menno" -- stood with duct tape over their mouths, the story says.

Another good explainer:

The roots of the division rest in the composition of the church itself, which is an eclectic mix of peace and justice activists espousing socially liberal views and more evangelical Mennonites believing in a strict interpretation of scripture. The issue crosses the boundaries between age and religion.
For instance, Chester Wenger, age 96, was stripped of his ministerial credentials by Mennonite Church USA after performing a same-sex wedding for his gay son. On the other end of the spectrum, Briana Thomas, 19, a Mennonite blogger on food and faith, declares gay marriage to be a sin.

See what they did there, as the saying goes? Al Jazeera not only quotes opponents back to back, but shows that the denomination has elderly liberals and young conservatives.

The story also quotes a delegate from Virginia, pastors from Ohio and Washington state, the editor of a denominational journal, the co-founder of Pink Menno, and even Ervin Stutzman, executive director of the 100,000-member Mennonite U.S.A. Church. My only quibble here is calling the liberal side "progressive." As I've said before, the term is a judgment call, implying that the liberal direction is true progress.

But Al Jazeera does well in bringing out the diversity of viewpoint among Mennonites:

"We stand in agreement and affirm the decision in Kansas City. We are a small community and a fairly conservative community. But it would be a mistake to assume every church feels the same way about same-sex marriage. You could contact 10 different Mennonite churches and get 10 different answers," said pastor Ron Wenzel of Trenton Mennonite Church in Ohio. 

For all the facts in this article, some numbers are elusive. I don’t see a count of the Pink Menno protesters, who were said to make sure no one could exit the room without stepping around one of them.

Nor does the piece estimate an emerging caucus of Mennonite evangelicals, the EVANA Network, which is sticking to the historic definition of marriage as one man, one woman. John Troyer, EVANA's director, is quoted in this story; he should have been asked the size of the group, or at least an informed guess.

EVANA "could serve as a conservative alternative to the Mennonite Church U.S.A.," the article says. Quite possible: A new denomination --  ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians -- formed just three years ago over the issue of non-celibate gays in the Presbyterian Church in the United States. That would have been valuable background for this story.

Finally, the Al Jazeera article is vague on how the Mennonite U.S.A. Church will proceed. Executive director Ervin Stutzman says that "there are a variety of ways and venues in which the topic could be addressed." Such as?

The vagaries, I have to emphasize, are mainly in factual reporting. The story is a model of respect and balance, reporting facts and opinions without trying to sway us readers. In this case, the Persian Gulf represents another gulf: between American mainstream media and fairness in reporting.

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