As documented repeatedly by my colleagues at GetReligion, precious few reporters have bothered to interview conservative United Methodists about the church’s teachings on marriage and sexual morality. What’s remarkable is when the subject of a one-sided interview does something other than describing the traditionalist side in terms that avoid mere name-calling.
Consider the case of Anne Ford of Chicago magazine interviewing President Lallene J. Rector, of the United Methodist Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in the northern Chicago suburb of Evanston. (As the hyphen suggests, “Evangelical” in this name does not refer to a theological emphasis, but to Garrett’s assimilation of Evangelical Theological Seminary in 1974.)
A pleasant surprise emerges in the first paragraph. Ford’s question repeats the Godbeat meme that the United Methodist Church’s General Conference “voted to ban ordaining LGBTQ people and performing same-sex marriages.”
Rector, while beginning on a note of horror about the vote, works her way around to a touch of humor:
Our students are devastated. I was personally sickened. We’re a left-leaning school. We’re on the record as being inclusive. After the vote, our lobby and stairwells were rainbowed up. The denomination’s been arguing over these issues since 1972, and as you can imagine, many people are fed up. We’ve lost a lot of seminary students to other denominations.
Any writer who must consult the academia-to-English dictionary regularly must give thanks for a seminary dean who uses a phrase as playful as “rainbowed up.”
So what can be found in this interview that is crucial, in terms of journalists learning where this local, regional, national global story might be moving?
Look here: In the second paragraph, Rector provides a brief history lesson and a candid description of how some regions of the church ignore their church’s standards:
In our Book of Discipline, there’s an existing prohibition against “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” being ordained, and clergy are forbidden to officiate at same-sex weddings.
But actual practices vary. We’re divided into conferences, which are like dioceses. Some conferences have an understanding that we’re not asking the question [about a clergy candidate’s sexual orientation]. Other conferences will point-blank ask it. In the Chicago area, our bishop’s position is inclusivity.
In other words: One of the crucial issues is whether the United Methodist Church will divide in a way that results in denominations in which clergy strive to honor the doctrines and laws that are supposed to provide unity.
Then, in the third paragraph, Rector offers an overly simple description of the two most popular plans considered by General Conference. While explaining why the conservative plan prevailed, however, she also acknowledges the demographic reality that church growth among United Methodists is more vigorous outside the United States:
Probably two-thirds of the U.S. delegates voted for the One Church Plan. But in the U.S., we’ve been steadily losing members for a long time, while United Methodists outside the country, in places where there’s a much more conservative sensibility, have been growing. So the Traditional Plan won.
Journalists: Does this raise any questions, for you? Here is one for Rector: Define “conservative sensibility,” please? What are the factors there that promote growth, as opposed to decline?
In the final paragraph, Rector again is clear that her doctrinal heart is with the left:
I’m not prepared to leave the denomination, though we’ll see what emerges. If there is a split, I’ll have to go with the left side. My deepest understanding of what it means to be a person of faith is to love our neighbors, and love doesn’t mean excluding people.
In short, here we have a seminary dean who speaks in straightforward English, who is unguarded about where she stands and who brings more balance than the average mainstream news writer to how she describes the field of competition.
That’s not a bad place to start.
So what next? Surely there is an equivalent of President Lallene J. Rector out there somewhere who is willing to talk frankly about Traditionalist Plan and its effects on United Methodists. How many reporters have the name of William J. Abraham in their database?