Splitsville in Houston: What's right (and wrong) with front-page story on Presbyterian 'divorce'

Maybe you remember the Presbyterian Chihuahua episode.

If you don't, here's the Reader's Digest version: A major congregation affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) closed in the Atlanta area. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution devoted only 233 words (in the Living Section) to the news.

That prompted the GetReligion reader who tipped us to the coverage to quip:

I believe I've seen an obit for a Chihuahua that was longer.

Fast forward a few months to present day, and in Houston, two churches — including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s eighth-largest congregation — are seeking to leave the denomination for a more conservative body.

That sounds like news, right? But will the Houston Chronicle give it more attention than a Chihuahua's obit?

Yes indeed! It's an above-the-fold, Page A1 story in today's Chronicle:

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The byline belongs to religion writer Allan Turner, who I've praised in the past and enjoy reading on a regular basis as a Chronicle e-replica edition subscriber.

This is another strong story — fair and balanced — from Turner.

Let's start at the top:

No one in Houston Presbyterian circles is calling it a “divorce.”
But when regional denomination leaders meet Saturday, they will face the next worst thing: the demands of two dissident congregations to split from the Presbyterian Church-USA to join the newer, more conservative ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.
If the Presbytery of New Covenant, governing body for 95 Southeast Texas congregations, votes to “dismiss,” Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church and Missouri City’s Southminster Presbyterian Church will become the 11th and 12th area churches to leave the denomination in recent years.
As with other denominations nationally, social issues have divided Presbyterian faithful. PC-USA ordains gay and lesbian clergy and permits ministers to officiate at same-sex weddings; ECO does not.

Like many religious groups, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — I'm using the Associated Press Style for that denomination — has debated same-sex marriage in recent years, which we've highlighted in past GetReligion posts:

However, Turner does a nice job of noting that the issues here go beyond a single hot-button concern:

The Rev. Kent Landry, senior pastor of Southminster Presbyterian, said his 289-member congregation’s decision to leave PC-USA came without “anger or high degree of drama.”
Still, he said, “it was a hard decision.” Seventy-two percent of church members casting ballots in a vote on church affiliation opted for ECO.
Driving issues for his church, Landry said, were “authority of the Scripture” and “centrality of Jesus as lord and savior."

Undoubtedly, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) leaders will take offense at the notion that Christ is no longer central to that denomination. A direct response to that claim might have been helpful.

This quick context on other denominations made me wonder if it added to the story or raised more questions than it answered:

Methodists have faced breakaway congregations spurred by perceived laxness in enforcement of church bans on same-sex marriage and ordination of gay clergy. Recent liberalization of Episcopal rules on same-sex matters brought rebuke from the denomination’s conservative Church of England cousins.

But I feel for the challenge faced by a writer like Turner in attempting -- in a 1,000-word story, which is actually pretty long for a daily news report -- to explain theological questions, denominational polity and church real estate in such a way that treats all sides fairly and is accurate as well. Overall, the Chronicle deserves kudos, I believe, as one knows only enough about the Presbyterian intricacies to make this post itself dangerous.

In any case, it's exciting to see this news receive more attention than a Chihuahua's obit.

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