When covering the United Methodist split, remember that there's two sides -- not one

I’ve been only peripherally observing the United Methodist meltdown of this past week where, unlike any other U.S. denomination that’s debated doctrinal issues related to homosexuality over the past two decades, the conservatives won this round. The key: Church growth in the Global South and declining numbers of key parts of the United States.

So what’s the story? The impact on the winners after this historic St. Louis conference, the views of the losers or both? Under normal circumstances, journalists would say “both.”

Since St. Louis, a flood of articles have, voilà, been published bemoaning the crucial votes and concentrating on the angry, grieving liberals who must decide whether to stick with the denomination or leave to form their own. And it is a tough decision to make.

I know, because I covered a lot of conservative Episcopalians –- and some Lutherans -– who had to exit their denominations, starting with my column about the tornado that hit the Minneapolis Convention Center on the day in August 2009 of a crucial vote by members of Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and how some folks wondered if God was sending a message.

But where were these same articles oozing sympathy when theological conservatives were forced to leave? For instance, look at a recent piece in the New York Times:

WASHINGTON — Chet Jechura was 12 years old when he first felt called to preach, but for years he put off ordination. He knew himself, and he knew the official rules of the United Methodist Church: Homosexuality was “incompatible with Christian teaching.” And so he left the denomination.

Then four years ago, he discovered Foundry United Methodist, a church that has carved a different path. He could sing the hymns of his childhood, be fully supported as a gay man, and finally become a candidate for ordination.

This week, a decision at a global conference for Methodists threatened to upend a lifetime of dreams, with the church voting to strengthen its ban on same-sex marriage and gay and lesbian clergy.

At an impromptu prayer service on Wednesday, as Mr. Jechura helped serve communion, he broke out in sobs, his body convulsing, barely able to stand. The emptiness grew louder with every wail. Friends held him up, wrapping him in their arms…

Across the country, progressive United Methodists are reeling from Tuesday night’s vote. As their conservative brethren celebrate, churches like Foundry are faced with difficult decisions.

Covering Foundry is pretty simple; as the go-to church for Hillary Clinton (often with Bill at her side) during the 1990s, it’s known for its predictable stance on the left side of the theological spectrum. It’s pretty simple for any Washington-based reporter to head north up 16th Street a few blocks from the White House to get that point of view.

But apart from one paragraph from a printed press release by a Wesleyan group, there was no other representation in this piece of how conservatives were choosing to “celebrate” the moment or plan for the future. It’s possible that the winners may play some role in where this story goes next.

This other Times piece was a little better as conservatives got four paragraphs of reaction mixed in with a larger copy block representing liberal points of view. And it had this:

But in the United States, the vote poses a significant risk for a denomination that struggles to attract young people. United Methodists have one of the oldest religious populations in the country, with a median age of 57.

Some leaders of Methodist seminaries like Duke Divinity School or Candler School of Theology at Emory worry that this week’s move will dissuade young Americans, who increasingly support gay rights, from going into ministry with the church.

Ah, but which United Methodist churches are aging the most? Those in liberal parts of America or those led by evangelicals, of one form or another? Did anyone ask?

Back in 2017, I did a GetReligion piece on the conservative Bethel Church in Redding, Calif., that millennials are attending in droves, so I am not convinced that the young will stay away from Methodism because of its stance on gay ordination. A lot goes into what millennials seek in a church; things having to do with authenticity, the music, the acceptance of supernatural “gifts” of the Holy Spirit, biblical teaching, involvement with the poor and so on.

I realize there were a number of young supporters of gay marriage among Methodism but it sounds like the young were already moving out of the United Methodist Church even when it has — in blue zip codes — been covertly allowing same-sex unions and ordinations in recent years. It’s sloppy to postulate that this one vote will drive youth away. They were never there in the first place, in many pews.

Other outlets ran pieces sympathetic to the suddenly out-in-the-cold gay members. This Wall Street Journal piece had lots of anecdotes from unhappy gay-friendly Methodists with a quote from a conservative tossed in near the end.

I agree that the feelings of those who lost the debate may seem a lot more colorful than those who won, but seriously, folks? Is there no one out there covering the victorious side of this debate? I’m not seeing it out there.

Look back just four years ago to the coverage of the Obergefell v. Hodges decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that allowed gay marriage. We got editorials saying “love has won,” a White House bathed in rainbow colors and an atmosphere of celebration among most media. There was little to no coverage of the side that lost.

But when the shoe is on the other foot, nearly all we’re getting is react from those who lost.

The bottom line: It appears that way too many reporters only have sources for one side of the question.

Examples? You don’t have to look far. For instance, there’s this piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; this piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and this piece in the Arizona Republic that tells of liberal congregations’ determination to resist the General Conference decision. The Atlanta paper even called it a “divisive LGBTQ vote” in its headline. There are no traditional United Methodists in Georgia, the heart of the denomination’s more conservative Southeastern Conference?

I didn’t see headlines about past votes sending conservative Lutherans or Episcopalians out the door termed as “divisive.” Ditto for the Obergefell decision. I haven’t scanned every single article written on the United Methodist controversy, but I have yet to find one that concentrates on the winners of the outcome. Are they not worth covering?

I’m not complaining that the mourning masses of liberal Methodists make for good coverage and right now — that’s where the drama is.

It’s frustrating that, when the tables are turned, similar solicitude is not shown toward unhappy conservatives. The latter took major hits in the late aughts, losing court battle after court battle for their church properties but their struggles weren’t considered worth covering with anywhere near the pathos and sympathy that these disenfranchised Methodists are getting.

Although they may not stay disenfranchised for long. If liberal Methodists take a page out of the Episcopal playbook, they’ll resist following the special conference vote for years, making sure that gay-friendly congregations don’t change a thing. They may keep on disobeying the rules and dare the bishops to bring them up on charges. Sympathetic bishops will decline to do so or if in the rare chance that they are, a church court may not punish them much if at all.

Certainly conservative Methodists must be talking about this and strategizing about what to do. But are there any reporters listening in on those plans?

Nope. They could start with this essay by Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, who thinks liberal Methodists will form a new church. I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one. I’ve covered too many Episcopal fights to know that one side won’t just give up the fight and leave, even as their numbers continue to decline — especially abroad.

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