As veteran journalists know, sometimes there are stories that seem really, really big when you read the press releases, but they turn out to be business as usual when you dig into the details.
That appears to be what happened with the Cincinnati Enquirer story (part of the USA Today network) offering on update on one of the many legal battles unfolding in the United Methodist Church about the status of LGBTQ ministers. The headline: "Gay Methodist minister David Meredith, church claim victory."
It's a very familiar story, part of a familiar ecclesiastical puzzle that has been in place since (wait for it) 1980. How many years ago was that? Let's put it this way: I wasn't even working full-time on the religion beat at that point.
We will return to the WABAC machine angle of this story in a moment. First, let's look at the story that the Enquirer thought it had, as opposed to what appears to have happened. The key question: Is this a local story, a regional story or a national/global story? Here is the public-relations release overture:
Claiming victory for LGBTQ members of the United Methodist Church nationwide, officials told The Enquirer on Wednesday that two of three charges against a Clifton congregation's openly gay pastor, David Meredith, were not certified
The Rev. Meredith appeared Sunday before the Methodist Committee on Investigation in Columbus, Ohio. Several complaints were filed against Meredith after his May 2016 marriage to his significant other of 29 years. Meredith and Jim Schlachter were married in a Methodist church by a Methodist minister.
Meredith was not charged with being a self-avowed practicing homosexual or with immorality.
Clifton United Methodist Church, whose membership overwhelmingly supports its pastor, said the case may be the first time in denominational history that a charge relating to homosexuality reached the investigative body and was dismissed. A charge of disobedience was certified.
OK, readers, here is my question. Based on what you just read, at what level of United Methodist polity was this decision made? What, precisely, is the "Methodist Committee on Investigation" that gathered in Columbus, Ohio?
The lede says this was a victory for "LGBTQ members of the United Methodist Church nationwide," with that final word implying that this was an action at the national level.
That national flavor is reinforced with a reference to the "disobedience" charge being connected to:
... a rule in the 2012 edition of the United Methodist Book of Discipline: "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches."
The story also quotes Meredith saying on Facebook:
"There is much to celebrate today for me and for LGBTQ disciples in the United Methodist Church," he wrote. "Moments like this have been rare in Methodism, but a Committee on Investigation discerned a new way forward where many believed there was no way and where some thought there was only one way.
"I am grateful for what it means to me to have two of the charges dismissed and profoundly grateful for what it might mean for full inclusion of LGBTQ folk in the denomination. It is also bittersweet for me. These dismissals are couples with the certification of one charge and a potential church trial: that my marriage in a United Methodist Church with United Methodist clergy blessing it is "disobedience to the order and discipline of the church." There is still much work to do in defense of this charge."
Clearly, this story isn't over, and there is a good reason for that. This story isn't over.
What we have here is a partial victory for Meredith at the regional level -- not the national/global level of United Methodist life. Is it surprising that he won, sort of, at the regional level -- facing United Methodist officials in a region that is not known for its warm embrace its church's teachings on sexuality? It is not surprising at all.
What happens when this case moves higher up the United Methodist ladder to a point where more traditional voices -- at the national/global level -- will be taking part? We will see.
The Enquirer story mentions the road ahead, at the regional level. And that's that, as far as readers know.
West Ohio Conference Bishop Gregory V. Palmer is required by church proceedings to set an episcopal trial date and select a jury. However, a resolution can be reached at any time prior to that date through an ongoing mediation process, a Clifton United Methodist spokesman said.
So what is missing?
Well, it really would have helped if the Enquirer team had talked to some of the conservative United Methodist voices that were included in one of its earlier news reports on this case (" 'I could lose everything:' Gay Methodist minister in Clifton faces sanctions from denomination").
If that had taken place, readers might have learned that -- after regional proceedings -- Meredith's status will almost certainly face scrutiny at the national/global level. After all, that is the level at which United Methodist laws are passed and debated. Doctrinal traditionalists have been winning recent battles there, since liberal regions of the church have been in statistical decline, while conservative ones have being growing (or on a plateau).
This brings me to our WABAC machine. Several years ago, I tried to explain what's going on in these cases. Let me share a long, long chunk of that again. I think you will see the relevance of this material, especially the part about "The Seven Churches of Methodism."
Sherman, please set the controls of the GetReligion WABAC (pronounced "wayback") machine for the year 1980. Our destination is Denver, because it's time for another episode of Improbable United Methodist History.
Yes, it was in 1980 ... that Bishop Melvin Wheatley, Jr., of the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church announced (wait for it) that he was openly rejecting his church's teaching that homosexual acts were "incompatible with Christian teaching."
Two years later, this United Methodist bishop appointed an openly gay pastor to an urban church in Denver. When challenged, Wheatley declared: "Homosexuality is a mysterious gift of God's grace. I clearly do not believe homosexuality is a sin."
The Denver pastor continued to serve for many years (while also leading the Colorado AIDS Project), in part because the United Methodist policy opposed the appointment of "self-avowed, practicing" homosexuals. Note the words "self-avowed." Thus, when appearing before officials in the liberal Rocky Mountain Annual Conference, this minister simply declined to answer questions about his sexual history or practice. Since he was not, therefore, "self-avowed" (at least not during those official church meetings), his sympathetic local church leaders declared that he was not in violation of the national church's doctrinal standards. ...
This was, in other words, a perfect example of the reality described in an important study -- "The Seven Churches of Methodism" -- published in the mid-1980s by two scribes from Duke University.
One of the authors, a future United Methodist bishop named William Willimon, once told me that it was very painful for the church's leaders to have to admit that United Methodists were already worshiping in what amounted to seven different churches when it came to matters of doctrine and church law. It was hard to find the ties that could bind the declining flocks in the "Yankee Church," "Industrial Northeast Church," "Western Church," "Frontier Church" and "Midwest Church" with those in the larger and still growing "Church South" and the "Southwest Church."
The clergy in these churches went to different seminaries and had radically different beliefs about biblical authority, salvation, evangelism and moral theology. At the heart of many of their disputes, of course, were differences over sexual ethics, especially the moral status of sex outside of marriage.
Denominational executives, seminary leaders and bishops in the liberal regions -- such as Melvin Wheatley, Jr. -- were already openly or quietly opposing the teachings affirmed by the growing United Methodist regions in the United States and, yes, around the world.
Note, once again, that this strategy of open and passive resistance began way back in 1980.
So, readers here in 2017, is it surprising that officials in the "Midwest Church," on the edge of the "Industrial Northeast Church," decided not to wrestle with the "self-avowed" homosexual part of this equation? It is not surprising.
What about that "disobedience" charge that was left standing? Might that have something to do with Meredith openly refusing to follow the laws and doctrines approved at the national and global levels of United Methodist life? In other words, did he violate his ordination vows?
When the United Methodist Church ordains ministers, the rite includes the kind of vow that religious groups have long used to underline the ties that bind.
In this case, the candidate for ordination is asked to accept the church'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?"
The candidate replies: "I will, with the help of God."
So what is going on here? Once again, a doctrinal progressive won -- sort of -- a battle on his home turf in a progressive region of a larger denomination. There was little or no surprise here. However, the ultimate decisions -- at least until the denomination breaks up -- are made at the national/global level.
How would Enquirer and USA Today readers learn this information?
I don't know. In this case, all they got to read was the local press release.