Divorce that could happen: Newspapers sift rumors of a brewing United Methodist Church split

Be glad you're not Bishop Bruce Ough this week. The presiding bishop of the United Methodist Church is trying to dissension at the general conference in Portland, Ore., while denying persistent rumors that a UMC committee is already drawing up divorce papers.

Meanwhile, major media are already doing what they do best: ferreting out the possibility that after decades of debate, leaders of the second-largest Protestant denomination may finally part ways over gay marriage and gay ordination.

The Washington Post does a fine, professional job of gathering facts from secondary sources, then reporting its findings in a non-sensational yet riveting way. It even gives the good bishop a chance to spin it his way:

Amid reports that United Methodist leaders are considering dividing over LGBT equality disputes, the denomination’s top bishop on Tuesday asked members to recommit to remaining together, even though he described their community as having a "broken heart" and in the views of many being "out of time."
Bishop Bruce Ough spoke during an unscheduled appearance at the major, once-every-four-years meeting of the global denomination, which is being held in Portland, Ore. Ough, the incoming president of the Council of Bishops, said he was responding to a flood of social media leaks about secret meetings top church leaders were having in the last week about the possibility of separating. The meeting is called a General Conference.

Ough may not want to play up the private meetings; however, he not only acknowledged to the Post that they’ve been held, but that he attended them. The group "reportedly discussed breaking into conservative, moderate and progressive communities," the article says.

The lengthy WaPo article, more than 1,270 words long, notes the rising numbers and influence of Methodists in Asia and Africa -- who confirm the church's current stance against homosexual practice as "incompatible with Christian teaching."  I also admire how the paper sought viewpoints of more conservative sources like Good News and the Institute on Religion and Democracy. Mark Tooley of the IRD, in fact, says that in a few years, "the whole United States will be a minority and the liberal parts of the United States will be a minority within a minority."

One soft spot in this story is how the rumors spread. The Post mentions social media, but it doesn't pinpoint any place like Twitter or Facebook. It does cite a "statement" -- how it was delivered isn’t clear -- by Good News that talks are moving forward, but that the group "didn’t clarify whether that meant it was in a direction of more unity or more division."

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette likewise reports dutifully that the top guy "refuted reports that the denomination’s leadership was preparing a proposal to split the church and its assets."

The story continues:

Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the Council of Bishops for the United Methodist Church, speaking to delegates at the church’s legislative gathering in Portland, Ore., did acknowledge high-level meetings at which church leaders across the theological spectrum have "risked exploring what many would consider radical new ideas to organize the United Methodist Church."
But, he added, the council is "committed to maintain the unity of the United Methodist Church, not a superficial unity to serve as a veneer over our disunity, but an authentic unity born of the Holy Spirit."

But the newspaper reports also that the liberal Love Your Neighbor Coalition leaked a document on Tuesday that would "call for a special conference in 2018 to vote on a church split."

The Post-Gazette story, only a third of the Post's, still weaves in some background. It notes that even in 2004, a conference delegate proposed a split. It reports also that the UMC is the last mainline Protestant denomination "still fighting over the issue," as opposed to the varying accommodations among Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans.

There's at least one stumble, though. The newspaper says the Love Your Neighbor Coalition works for "greater affirmation of gays in the church," as if other Methodists reject them.

Best balance, I think, comes with the Religion News Service, right from the lede:

PORTLAND, Ore. (RNS) The United Methodist Church is struggling to maintain unity amid deep divisions over Scripture and sexuality, the presiding bishop of America’s second-largest Protestant denomination acknowledged.
Responding to rumors of a potential breakup at the quadrennial United Methodist General Conference, Bishop Bruce Ough said Tuesday (May 17) that the leadership is "not advancing or advocating any plan of separation or reorganization of the denomination."
The church faces increasing pressure in the United States to ordain LGBT clergy and allow same-sex weddings, both strongly opposed by conservatives in this country and among the growing congregations in Africa where homosexuality is banned in many countries.  There are 12 million Methodists worldwide, including 7.2 million in the U.S.

I like the blend of quote, summary and context there. Note also the Portland dateline, indicating that the writer is covering the conference on site. Neither the Washington nor Pittsburgh stories have that.

But RNS doesn't stop there. In a press conference, it gets Bishop Ough to confirm that "legislation had been put forward that would allow the congregations an exit strategy or authorize a commission to design a plan of separation." But he hastens to add that it's only one of a range of proposals -- none of which he details:

He cited a "brokenness" that "surrounds or emanates from matters of human sexuality, interpretation of Scripture, how we include our LGBT brothers and sisters."
"At the same time, we remain open to new and innovative ways to be in unity. We will remain in dialogue with one another and others about how God may be leading us to explore new beginnings, new expressions, perhaps even new structures for our United Methodist mission and witness."

Excellent addition about interpretations of Scripture. The other two articles seem to avoid that facet as if it were a religious "ghost." But those scripture verses about homosexuality are indeed the taproot of the UMC ferment -- as they were in other denominations, which have suffered their own recent splits.

The RNS article also brings out a frustration among conferees at the lack of leadership among the bishops on how or whether to move forward. Says one member of the gay advocacy Love Your Neighbor Coalition: "The bishops obviously are suffering not just from divided opinions, but also from poor interpersonal communication." Yeowtch.

One complaint here is the slapped-on label of "conservative," where "liberal" isn’t used for opponents like Love Your Neighbor. RNS says also that the Reconciling Ministries Network advocates the "full inclusion of the denomination’s LGBT members," its version of the "greater affirmation" gaffe in the Post-Gazette.

And no one seems to have thought of interviewing African delegates to the conference. They keep coming up as a major obstacle of the pro-gay campaign. They and other "conservatives" are painted as divisive, non-progressive, non-affirming, non-inclusive -- even as haters, as protesters at the UMC conference chanted this week. Shouldn't news reports have gotten their response?

At least we won't wait much longer. The conference is scheduled to end on Friday. By then, all the rumored endgames will have fizzled, except one. And we can rely on news media to be there for the final round.




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