Charlotte Observer on gay rights: With this United Methodist story, there's a different result

Honest, we're not picking on the Charlotte Observer. Just because this is the third GetReligion piece on that paper's coverage in less than a week and a half, and the other two were blunt criticisms, doesn't mean … 

No, this post is mostly praise for the Observer's  follow-up on United Methodist clergy who performed a gay wedding in violation of church rules. It's a thorough report, but I do have a few qualifications.

The long-stewing controversy began in April, when the Rev. Val Rosenquist, along with a retired United Methodist Church bishop, married two men at First United Methodist in Charlotte. That brought several formal complaints that she had gone against the Book of Discipline, the denomination's main lawbook.

That's a serious charge in the last mainline denomination that rules out homosexual acts as "incompatible with Christian teaching." As tmatt has noted, the crucial issue is whether these clergy are acting in violation of their ordination vows to accept the denomination's "order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God's Holy Word. ..."

As the story notes: "Clergy who violate it can lose their jobs, face a church trial, even lose their clergy credentials."

This week, the Observer announced the resolution. Actually, no, it didn’t -- because the Western North Carolina Conference didn’t tell anyone:

On Tuesday, the conference announced that a “just resolution” of the case involving Rosenquist had been reached.
But it is uncertain what that resolution involves. That’s because Rosenquist, Bishop Goodpaster and Counsel for the Church to whom the complaints had been referred agreed to keep the details confidential. And the resolution will remain sealed until at least 2018, when The United Methodist Church could convene a special General Conference to act on future recommendations relating to same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy.

But as we'll see, the story shows tons more digging and background than the one that drew scolding Aug. 31 from my GetReligion colleague Bobby Ross, Jr. 

The offending article was a one-sided public-relations release on Campus Pride's "Shame List" of religious colleges that don’t espouse homosexuality. One-sided, because the paper not only didn’t quote any school leaders in defense, but pasted in quotes from the Campus Pride press release.

The next day, after a hail of criticisms from a reader, Bobby defended his position, adding that "the paper served more as a stenographer than a reporter in its copy-and-paste coverage of the gay-rights organization's publicity-seeking list."

A big difference in today's story, on gays and United Methodists, is who is handling it: Tim Funk, the Observer's Godbeat pro. In this article, Funk demonstrates a detailed knowledge of United Methodist law, history and organization. He also gets more than one side.

He shows how Pastor Rosenquist's guerrilla action turned up the heat on an already smoldering issue with the UMC, which fought over homosexuality (again) at its main assembly: 

In May, delegates to the denomination’s last General Conference in Portland, Ore., hotly debated those issues. But in the end, they voted to approve a suggestion offered by a majority of their bishops to defer the discussion until a “Commission on a Way Forward” can be formed to study it and make recommendations. A special General Conference could be called for that purpose in 2018, Coles said.

After the gay wedding at First United Methodist, Bishop Larry Goodpaster of the Western North Carolina Conference met with Rosenquist and her accusers and reached what they called a "just resolution." According to Funk, they say it aims at "repairing any harm to people and communities, achieving real accountability by making things right so far as possible and bringing healing to all parties."

Did they reach those goals? As you know, we can't know -- not after the decision was sealed. And as Funk shrewdly notes, they reached agreement "the same week as Bishop Goodpaster’s long-planned retirement."

Unlike the article that lit Bobby's fuse, this story actually quotes someone on the other side:

One of the complainants, Ron Wood, a member of Sharon United Methodist Church in Shelby, said he and the others who filed complaints against Rosenquist do not know what the resolution involves. He said he was under the impression they would be told about any penalties or repercussions.
“Even though I’m not happy (about not being told) ... the resolution that was reached is allowed for in the current Book of Discipline.”

Funk apparently did ferret out one part of the agreement: that Rosenquist will continue as pastor at First United Methodist. It would have been interesting to read how some of the congregants feel about that, after she made their church into a battleground for her notion of denominational progress. But the writer doesn't quote any of them -- one of my few complaints about this story.

Readers who pay close attention will easily spot another flaw. Who is "Coles"?

This person is the main source for half the article, but readers are not given a full reference to who this is.  A previous version of the story says it's Amy Coles, assistant to the bishop. Editors should have caught that. Perhaps the first references was trimmed at the copy desk.

Also, what's the "Counsel for the Church," mentioned three times without explanation? I couldn't even find a definition online myself. The only clue in the article is "Counsel for the Church to whom the complaints had been referred."  One of the risks of expertise is assuming that what you know is common knowledge.

More serious is a subtle bias in calling First United Methodist a "gay-welcoming church." That's rhetoric straight out of the gay-activist lexicon, as if churches that accept the Book of Discipline lock gays out. It also assumes that there are no gays and lesbians who accept the doctrines of their own church.

Although UMC law doesn't accept gay behavior, it affirms every person's right to "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." And a 2012 resolution spells out the church's opposition to homophobia and "heterosexism."

Despite the above, the article is still way better than a cut-and-paste piece of propaganda.

Taken together, the two stories -- this one and the one Bobby dinged -- illustrate three needs, for the Charlotte Observer and every other daily newspaper. First, it really helps to have a religion-beat professional. Second, a reporter should go beyond spoon-fed releases. And third, even with experienced reporters, editors need to read a story draft closely.

Thumb: Screenshot from the website of First United Methodist Church of Charlotte.

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