Surprise! Kansas City Star covers only one side of United Methodist debate on sexuality

Let's say that you are a mainstream reporter covering a story about a liberal United Methodist congregation that has been sent a very conservative pastor who decides to take a controversial stand on gun control.

People in the region are outraged and efforts are made to replace the pastor.

Who are the crucial people and groups that journalists would need to contact for input and quotes? First, you would have the pastor. Then you would have the pastor's supporters and critics in the congregation. Then -- absolutely -- you would need quotes from the regional UMC leaders who are in charge of resolving this situation and could speak to the state of church teachings related to this issue. Finally, if reporters have the time and space, they might contact activists on both sides of this hot-button issue.

Now, with these basic journalism values in mind, let's return to the case of the Rev. Cynthia Meyer, the openly gay and non-celibate United Methodist pastor who recently was removed, with some national media fanfare, from her altar and pulpit. Click here for my previous post on this case: "Do ordination vows matter? A crucial hole in RNS report on United Methodist dispute."

Now, The Kansas City Star has an update that starts like this:

On a cold Sunday in January, Cynthia Meyer, pastor at Edgerton United Methodist Church, came out to her congregation.
She did so with hope that change regarding the denomination’s stance on homosexuality was coming. But eight months later, that hope, for now at least, is gone. And after the end of August, Meyer will be gone as well.
To avoid a church trial, Meyer and Methodist officials agreed that she would give up her duties and go on involuntary leave. Her final sermon in Edgerton in Johnson County will be Aug. 28. ... She said she was glad to avoid a trial, which could have resulted in her losing her credentials to ever pastor again.

Before we get to the journalism sourcing issue, let's note a few questions raised in that passage. For starters, what is the UMC's teaching on sex and marriage? Also, when she "came out," did she announce that she was gay or gay and sexually active/partnered with another woman? These are important questions, under UMC doctrine and discipline.

The story does note:

While many other Christian denominations -- including the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (USA) -- already allow gay clergy, the Methodists have stuck to the ban.
Liberals in the church think it’s time for change. Conservatives stick to homosexuality being a sin.

OK, does the United Methodist Church's Book of Discipline say that sexual orientation alone is sinful and just cause for disciplinary actions? Has this church (and many others) banned gay clergy?

As I asked in my earlier post, was:

... Meyer told to step down because she is a lesbian, or because she said she "loves and shares her life with another woman"? Under the Book of Discipline, orientation is not the issue -- it is sexual activity outside of traditional marriage (as defined by the church) that is the issue.
But is this the real reason she has been placed on a leave of absence? Not really.
Ultimately, the reason this has happened is that she openly violated her ordination vows.

And what was that vow? This vow:

... asks the new United Methodist clergyperson if she or he will accept the denomination's "order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God's Holy Word, and committing yourself to be accountable with those serving with you, and to the bishop and those who are appointed to supervise your ministry?"

Meyer and other candidates would then reply: "I will, with the help of God."

Defending the doctrine and discipline of the church, in this case, would include vowing to maintain "personal habits conducive to bodily health, mental and emotional maturity, integrity in all personal relationships, fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness." In keeping with two millennia of Christian teaching, the Discipline defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

That's what Meyer vowed to defend. However, as the story accurately states, she and many, many other American United Methodist leaders and activists want to see those ancient doctrines changed.

None of these statements and basic facts are addressed in the Kansas City Star report, in large part because the story contains zero -- repeat ZERO -- quotes from Meyer's critics -- even in the local church -- or in the regional United Methodist conference.

The story does have that unattributed statement that: "Conservatives stick to homosexuality being a sin."

Really now? Who made that statement? That's important to know because that happens to be an inaccurate statement of the denomination's teachings. Might that be a paraphrase of the views of the Discipline taken from one of its critics on the doctrinal left?

The Star report, as it should, does quote Meyer and some of her supporters.

Rita Jones, president of the United Methodist Women in Edgerton and secretary of the church council, said the congregation was greatly disappointed to lose Meyer.
“She is the same person who walked through the door the first day,” Jones said. “A congregation never agrees a hundred percent on anything, but a big majority here supported her and wanted her to stay.
“She is an excellent pastor and we are sorry to see her leave and wish her the best.”

Now, someone filed a complaint about her breaking her ordination vows. Who took that action? Was it a critic in the congregation? Another local church? The regional conference? Why is that side of the story represented only with second-hand material?

Here that familiar question, based on old-school journalism doctrines: Why talk to qualified, authoritative people on one side and one side only?

Might this editorial decision -- thinking Kellerism, of course -- be based on the assumption that Star editors have decided which side of this debate is worthy or respect and accurate, balanced journalism? I mean, why would they want to do fair coverage of bigots who think that 2,000 years of Christian doctrine in East and West might have some authority in their pulpits and at their altars (and protection of the truly liberal standards of the First Amendment)?

This is THE journalism question of our age, as editors lurch away from the ethics, skills and standards of the past century or so.

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