United Methodists punt on sexuality; some journalists try to cover from their newsrooms

The United Methodist bishops punted.

This tense flock committee-fied. Kicked the can down the road.

All those clichés were coined for news events like the United Methodist Church conference this week. The Methodists faced a choice: to allow gays to be ordained and married in the church, as other old-line Protestant denominations have done; or to keep the belief that both are "incompatible with Christian teaching," as the denomination has said for more than four decades.

Either option might have split the denomination, especially in an era in which the denomination is in decline in America and growing in the more conservative Global South. So the conference voted instead to have a committee study the matter further.

Let's see how mainstream media covered the decision, starting with the Religion News Service -- which, again, distinguishes itself with onsite coverage in Portland, Ore., rather than just phones, emails and bits of other articles.

This 1,100-word article interweaves updates, background and balanced sourcing. It points out, for one, that the delegates did more than simply delay the day of reckoning. Instead, they allowed bishops to have a commission re-examine all references to sexuality in the Book of Discipline, their basic rulebook.

The ambivalent wording reflects denominational worries:

"We continue to hear from many people on the debate over sexuality that our current discipline contains language which is contradictory, unnecessarily hurtful, and inadequate for the variety of local, regional and global contexts," the bishops’ recommendation added.
It was a compromise to an issue that has vexed the decision-making body of America’s second-largest Protestant denomination, outnumbered only by the Southern Baptist Convention, at every quadrennial meeting since the UMC first deemed homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching" in 1972.
But it’s not clear whether the commission will present findings before the next General Conference planned in 2020.

RNS tactfully says that Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the Council of Bishops, "had demurred on rumors" that the bishops were planning a special general assembly for 2018 on a possible split. It was more than a rumor: RNS itself reported on Tuesday that Steve Clunn, coordinator of the pro-gay pressure group Love Your Neighbor Coalition, made the allegation on the group's Facebook page.

Especially perceptive is a quote from Methodist minister Adam Hamilton: "In America, we’re divided as a nation. The United Methodist Church in so many ways represents that broad spectrum of American people. We are Christians who are some on the left, some on the right, and a large number of us are on what we call the extreme center or the radical center."

Besides Hamilton's centrist viewpoint, RNS includes those on each side as well. It features Dorothee Benz of New York, an LGBT activist. It also quotes the Rev. Forbes Matonga of West Zimbabwe for the traditionalist position. Many news media have said that Asian and African churches oppose changing the Methodist stance toward homosexuality, but this is the first time I've seen an African leader actually quoted.

The article captures color as well as facts. It reports a pro-change demonstration outside the convention center. It tells of African delegates singing and asking God for help during a recess. And it tells of an accusation that a bishop who was emceeing a session was "sending hand signals telling people how to vote."

One slightly acid viewpoint on homosexuality:

"In Africa, definitely it is not a big issue," Matonga said. "It only becomes a big issue because we know there are efforts by those who are from the extreme left to come and influence Africa to appear as if it is a human race issue rather than a U.S. issue.["]

I see only a couple of minor sins in the RNS article.  One is mentioning pressure to make the UMC a "more LGBT-friendly church," as if assuming it's currently hostile toward them. There may be also a typo in Matonga's quote, above. I wonder if he really said "human rights issue," not "human race issue"?

Now, a look at The Gray Lady. The New York Times' article, under 500 words, is less than half as long as that of RNS, and much of it is context and summary.

Within that envelope, the story ain't bad. It attempts a road as middle as the committee decision itself:

It was celebrated by L.G.B.T. Methodists and their supporters as a way to buy time and avoid church discipline against more than 100 clergy and clergy candidates who came out as gay in advance of the conference.
But it disappointed many conservatives who were exasperated that their church is still arguing over what they see as clear church teachings that prohibit openly gay and transgender clergy, and same-sex marriage. The church’s Book of Discipline, its governing document, says that the "practice of homosexuality" is "incompatible with Christian teaching."

The Times laudably avoids the campaign rhetoric of either side. No "fundamentalist" this or "welcoming" that. It even says "liberals" as well as "conservatives."

I liked also how the Times names two prominent UMC members: Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush, about as differently socially and politically as possible. One more measure of how far the denomination tries to stretch its tent.

The Nashville Tennesseean took more interest in the Methodists, possibly because Tennessee's bishop, Bill McAlilly, presided over the committee vote. McAlilly is the bishop who was accused of hand-signaling how to vote.

Tech developments played a part in that fracas, as the 750-word article says: Social media and live streaming aided an unsuccessful bid to take the gavel from McAlilly. Other Tennessee delegates defended him to the newspaper during an "email interview."

The Tennesseean is starker than RNS in its quote selection, sticking mainly with direct opponents.  Matt Berryman of Reconciling Ministries Network says the UMC decision "represents a significant institutional shift in the direction of inclusion and equality."

On the other side, Good News warns: "If the commission is nothing more than a ploy to further a progressive agenda disguised as a plan for unity, it will lead to deeper division and possibly schism."

But the quotes are not equal. Good News is called "conservative," and the quote is an impersonal issued statement. Berryman, on the other hand, was apparently interviewed live, and Reconciling Ministries is said to seek "full inclusion for LGBT Methodists."

So the UMC conference may have shown the importance of compromise, but the news coverage showed the importance of being there. As that great spiritual leader Woody Allen said, "Eighty percent of success is showing up." 

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