The United Methodist Church's quadrennial conference opened this week, and once again, mainstream media are making it mainly into an LGBT debate. As the largest mainline Protestant body that doesn't ordain gays or perform weddings for them, the UMC has faced growing pressure over the last three decades.
Much of the coverage thus far has been restrained and respectful, but subtle word choices favoring the LGBT side often creep in. And as the 10-day conference in Portland, Ore., continues, we can expect more of the same.
A good example is the Religion News Service, which yesterday reported on the assembly turning back a proposal to send gay matters to small groups for discussion. RNS gives some space to a statesmanlike quote by a top UMC official:
The tension over LGBT inclusion during the meeting, which draws delegates from across the globe, was evident from the beginning. In a sermon at the conference’s opening worship, Bishop Warner H. Brown Jr., president of the Council of Bishops, reminded delegates: "As we discuss our different opinions about same-gender relationships, may we remember our dueling points of view are anchored in our desire to be faithful.
"We hold our respective positions as firmly as our conscience and experience dictates, but can we not also seek the path of unity among Christians with different views on this issue as we have on other disputed matters?"
The general tone of the article is respectful of both sides like that. But it twice uses the concept of the "inclusion" of LGBT people in the denomination. They are not, in fact, excluded; as the group's Book of Discipline says, all persons have "sacred worth" and may "attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, upon baptism be admitted as baptized members, and upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith, become professing members in any local church in the connection." But the book also classifies homosexual practice as "incompatible with Christian teaching."
At least RNS attempts to balance sources. It reports a complaint by the Rev. Vicki Flippin of New York City that she was "denied participation in the service if she did not omit a reference to LGBT people in a greeting she had planned to give." It then quotes General Conference representatives saying the problem was "naming any specific group, not specifically naming LGBT people."
Applause also for RNS' advance story last Friday, with six big issues at the conference -- not only gays but abortion, immigration, religious freedom, gun violence and divestment from companies that support Israel.
The LGBT question was crunched in an especially reader-friendly way:
Several plans have been proposed to streamline all that legislation, including “The Simple Plan” supported by the Reconciling Ministries Network. That plan would change six paragraphs in the denomination’s Book of Discipline that forbid clergy from marrying same-sex couples and regional conferences from ordaining LGBT clergy. The denomination’s Book of Discipline calls the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The Connectional Table, which coordinates Methodist missions, ministries and resources, has proposed the “Third Way Plan” to allow individual clergy to decide whether to perform same-sex unions. It’s similar to “A Way Forward,” another plan that would allow local church bodies to decide whether to perform same-sex marriages, and conferences to decide whether to ordain homosexual clergy.
That story was a genuine reader service. And the difference is especially stark compared with the advance in the Washington Post, which drew almost wholly from the pro-change lexicon -- with sentences like:
Methodists saw Episcopalians – the U.S. wing of Anglicanism – in dozens of congregations break away from their church a decade ago after the denomination became more officially welcoming.
The Post could have said "accepting" or "accommodating" or even "pro-gay." But to say "welcoming" is more than reporting, or perhaps less than reporting. It's more like a pinch of propaganda.
Other loaded words in the Post story include the selective use of "conservative," with the assumption that liberal is mainline. It also calls the liberal Reconciling Ministries Network "pro-equality" in one place; in another, it says the network "advocates for full equality in the denomination." Does that mean the traditional, historic position is unequal, despite what the Book of Discipline itself says?
None of these language choices is neutral. They all mainstream the arguments for change and marginalize the default UMC position.
But now you know what to expect in the final week of the conference. You can tell between coverage that presents facts, and coverage that allows a "correct" conclusion to creep in.