Africa

Thinking about Africa, Pope Francis: While seeing through eyes of BBC and The New York Times

Thinking about Africa, Pope Francis: While seeing through eyes of BBC and The New York Times

In my opinion, the world’s two most powerful and influential news outlets are the BBC and The New York Times.

Needless to say, both of these news organizations have offered coverage of Pope Francis and his latest visit to Africa. It’s interesting to note some consistent thin spots — doctrine-shaped holes, really — in the background coverage explaining why this trip matters so much, in terms of certain demographic realities in the modern Roman Catholic Church.

Consider this crucial passage in the BBC advance feature that ran with this headline: “Pope Francis in Africa: Is the continent the Catholic Church's great hope?” This three-nation trip to Africa will be:

… his fourth visit to the continent since he became the head of the Roman Catholic Church in 2013, compared to the two his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, made during his eight-year papacy. 

The importance of Africa to the Catholic Church can be summed up in a word — growth. 

Africa has the fastest growing Catholic population in the world, while Western Europe, once regarded as the heartland of Christianity, has become one of the world's most secular regions, according to the US-based Pew Research Center. And many of those who do identify themselves as Christian in Western Europe do not regularly attend church.

Here is a stunner of a statistic, care of the Center for Applied Research.

Start here. The number of Catholics in the world increased by 57% to 1.2 billion, between 1980 and 2012. However, growth in Europe was just 6%. Frankly, I am surprised to hear that Catholic numbers rose in Europe at all. I would be interesting to see a comparison of Western and Eastern European nations.

Meanwhile, the Catholic population rose 283% in Africa.

So why is that happening? Thinking like a religion writer, the first things that leap into my mind are (1) African Catholics are having more babies and (b) they are making more converts. Both of those factors have major doctrinal components in the post-Vatican II Catholic world. You could also note that the African church is raising up many more priests than the somewhat frozen European churches.

The BBC team, I think it’s safe to say, saw zero doctrinal component in the African church’s growth.

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Washington Post channels devastated United Methodist left. Who needs to talk to the right?

Washington Post channels devastated United Methodist left. Who needs to talk to the right?

This may sound simplistic, but here goes. With most news events that involve elections, or votes to settle disputes inside an organization, there will be a winning side and a losing side.

Life is more complex than that, of course, and the “winners” of a single vote may not be the winners over the long haul. But let’s say that the winners keep winning the big votes for a decade or two.

At that point, journalists need to do one of two things. First, journalists can produce a story that, as Job 1, focuses on what the winners plan to do (since they won) and then, as Job 2, covers how the losing side plans to respond. The alternative is to write a major story about the winning group and then, to offer needed balance, to write a second story about how this outcome will affect the losing side.

With that in mind, please consider the Washington Post story that ran the other day with this headline: “U.S. Methodist leaders lay plans to resist vote against same-sex marriage.” That is one way to state the issue — looking at this from the losing side of the equation.

It would be just as accurate to say that this was a vote — the latest of many — defending the United Methodist Church’s stance in favor of ancient (thinking church history) doctrines on marriage and sex. You could also say that the key votes focused on whether UMC clergy can be required to honor their ordination vows to follow the denomination’s Book of Discipline. However, that would be the point of view held by the winners, after that special global UMC general convention held recently in St. Louis.

So the Post team doing? The headline states the editorial approach: This is a feature story built on the reactions on the losing side in St. Louis, the plans of the left-of-center establishment that has long controlled UMC life in the United States. That’s it. That’s what readers get. Thus, the overture:

When the United Methodist Church voted to uphold its ban on same-sex marriage and LGBT clergy last month, Methodist pastors and churchgoers across America were devastated. A majority of American delegates had voted against the plan, though they were outvoted by more conservative delegates from Africa and other continents.

In the weeks since, several small but powerful cadres of pastors and bishops have begun plotting paths to overturn or undermine the decision.

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New York Times weighs in, offering one side of bitter disputes inside United Methodist Church

New York Times weighs in, offering one side of bitter disputes inside United Methodist Church

If you’ve been following United Methodist Twitter, you know that this bitterly divided denomination has been in a behind-the-scenes uproar about a New York Times gotcha story that ran the other day. The headline: “Improper Voting Discovered at Methodist Vote on Gay Clergy.”

This is the rare case in which news consumers can find more information, and even a hint of balanced coverage, by reading official press releases from United Methodist News. Take this story, for example: “Denials, charges fly in GC2019 voting credentials review.” In this story — from the denominational press — there are actual interviews with people on the conservative side of this battle.

But back to the world’s most powerful newspaper.

Here’s a crucial question, a question that the Times story did ask and, to some degree, did answer: Did voting issues affect the crucial outcomes in the recent general conference in St. Louis? We are talking about the votes that defeated the One Church Plan favored by the United Methodist Church’s American establishment and the vote that passed some elements of the Traditionalist Plan favored by a coalition of American evangelicals and delegates from the Global South.

The Times piece played down, and avoided specifics, on another crucial issue: The fact that 30 overseas delegates were not able to attend, and thus were unable to vote, because of issues obtaining U.S. visas. In other words, the Global South coalition was stronger than it appeared in the final votes. The issue with visas also points to another issue in the Times report: Squabbles (and, potentially, translation issues) over the status of “reserve” delegates at the conference. Thus, the overture for the story:

It was a momentous vote for the United Methodist Church, as the future of the country’s second-largest Protestant church hung in the balance. In a former football stadium in St. Louis last month, church officials and lay leaders from around the world voted to strengthen their ban on same-sex marriage and gay clergy, a decision that could now split the church.

But at least four ballots were cast by individuals who were not authorized to vote, according to interviews and a review of the church’s records. The individuals were from African delegations whose votes were critical to restricting the church’s rules on homosexuality.

The final 54-vote margin against gay clergy and same-sex marriage exceeds the number of unauthorized votes discovered so far. But the voting irregularities raised questions about the process behind the divisive decision, which devastated progressive members. Some have discussed leaving the denomination and possibly creating a new alliance for gay-friendly churches.

The bottom line, of course, is whether American church officials can find a way to challenge the validity of the St. Louis votes and fight on, continuing decades of work to change the denomination’s teachings on sexuality, marriage and the ordination of clergy.

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Question as reporters look ahead: How many United Methodists are there? Are all created equal?

Question as reporters look ahead: How many United Methodists are there? Are all created equal?

Anyone who has worked on the religion beat a year or two knows that it is wise for journalists to read church membership totals with one eyebrow raised high. The professionals who work in religious institutions certainly know that membership statistics are estimates, at best.

As we always used to say when I was growing up Southern Baptist; There are towns in Texas where there are more Baptists than there are people.

But there’s no way around it — estimated membership and attendance figures really do matter. This is especially true when they directly affect the polity and governance of a specific religious body.

This brings us — #DUH — to that dramatic United Methodist battle that took place the other day in St. Louis. This was the topic of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in).

The follow-up coverage, with few exceptions, has focused on the rainbow-draped reactions of United Methodist leaders on the losing side of this special conference — which was charged with finding a way forward after four decades of doctrinal disagreements about marriage, sexuality (LGBTQ grab headlines) and the Bible. Could the UMC as a whole require that its clergy keep the vows they took, in ordination rites, to follow the denomination’s Book of Discipline?

But let’s look at an even more basic and crucial question, one linked to membership statistics. Ready? How many United Methodists are there in the United Methodist Church?

One would think that the official United Methodist News Service would be a solid place to look for that information. A year ago, it published a report online that stated:

The United Methodist Church’s global membership now exceeds 12.5 million.

These membership figures come from the most recent annual conference journals sent to the General Council on Finance and Administration. The vast majority of the journals are from 2016 with some from 2017 or earlier years including one from 2013.

The Rev. Gary Graves, secretary of the General Conference, used these totals in calculating how many delegates each conference sends to the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly in 2020. 

Yes, the word “global” is crucial. The United Methodist Church is a global institution and that reality shapes the structures that govern it.

That brings us to a post-war story in the Washington Post that contains some very interesting — I would say strange — language about church statistics.

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Why is a church shrinking or closing? Reporters: Brace for complex and heated debates

Why is a church shrinking or closing? Reporters: Brace for complex and heated debates

If you are into taking notes, then here is a challenge for folks listening to this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in, or head over to iTunes and subscribe).

The topic, this time, is why so many churches are shrinking and dying these days — in urban areas, as well as small towns and other at-risk locations (think the Rust Belt in general). The hook for this podcast was my recent post about a Religion News Service feature that ran with this headline: “As one historically black Episcopal church closes, others face strong headwinds.”

As host Todd Wilken and I discuss this subject, try to keep track of the number of factors that can affect whether congregations, and in the not-so-distant future entire denominations, shrink and even die.

Is evangelism a priority for this flock?

What about location, location, location — in terms of population growth.

How about the state of the economy in that zip code?

There are demographic issues linked to birth rate and family size.

Is this congregation part of a denomination that is in statistical free fall (is the brand wounded)?

Has the national church taken controversial stands that have caused schisms or departures?

Are the seminaries for this denomination producing pastors that people will trust and follow? Does this particular church body have enough pastors or priests?

Is the church too liberal, or too conservative, for its community?

Does the church have more retirees than young families?

I think there are several others that I’m leaving out, at the moment.

The RNS story focuses on historically black Episcopal parishes closing in North Carolina. That is certainly a poignant topic. My post noted:

These stories are valid, of course. The question is whether reporters will keep asking questions about the trends behind all the “For Sale” signs.

Obviously, this is a complex story that involves urban demographics, real estate, birth rates, worship trends, rising statistics about the “religiously unaffiliated (nones)” and other realities. However, ever since a National Council of Churches executive named Dean M. Kelley wrote That Book (“Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion”) in 1972, journalists and church-growth activists have been arguing about the role of theology in this drama.

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Twists, news pegs, names and questions in impending United Methodist LGBTQ showdown

Twists, news pegs, names and questions in impending United Methodist LGBTQ showdown

At long last, the United Methodist Church has posted detailed proposals (.pdfs here) from its emergency “Commission on a Way Forward” to address what it calls the “deepening impasse” over whether to approve actively gay clergy and same-sex weddings. 

Leaders of America’s second-largest Protestant denomination hope to end this 46-year conflict and avoid schism by uniting around one of three plans from the commission at an extraordinary General Conference, next Feb. 23-26 in St. Louis.

An added news peg: The Council of Bishops is asking the Oct. 23-26 meeting of the UMC’s highest court (Judicial Council) to rule on whether each concept is constitutional. Consider that headline: If the jurists reject one, or two, or all three of the plans, could the General Conference legislate an outlawed proposal anyway?  

Watch for reactions to the three plans from this weekend’s (July 26-29) meeting at the St. Louis Airport Hilton of the Love Your Neighbor Coalition. Its 12-member caucuses want “full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people.” Speakers include the UMC’s first married lesbian bishop, Colorado-based Karen Oliveto (bishop@mountainskyumc.org, 303-733-0083). A key coalition source will be Jan Lawrence (jan@rmnetwork.org, 773-736-5526),  executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network. 

Here are salient aspects of the study commission’s proposals. 

* One Church Plan -- The majority of bishops and commission members favor what amounts to “local option” across the U.S. Regional units (“annual conferences”), congregations, bishops and pastors would be free to decide whether to uphold or reject the UMC’s existing stance against  homosexual relationships. Conservative congregations could still avoid gay clergy. Pastors and clergy candidates on either side could switch from annual conferences or congregations they disagree with. Proponents say this will end church trials and other tumult, and honor consciences on both sides. This also changes, of course, the church's commitment to centuries of Christian doctrine.


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Journalists exploring U.S. evangelicals’ political impact also need to look overseas

Journalists exploring U.S. evangelicals’ political impact also need to look overseas

The Religion Guy has previously complained that the media fixation on socio-political agitation by U.S. evangelical Protestants tends to overlook “mainline” and African-American Protestants, Catholics and Jews, whose congregations over-all may actually be more politicized.

Also neglected is evangelicals’ important political impact on like-minded churches overseas --  and vice versa.

Background on a half-century of activism comes from Melani McAlister, a U.S. foreign policy specialist at The George Washington University who belongs on your sources list. Her “The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of American Evangelicals” is great for background or a story theme and the release in August, allowing  relaxed summertime reading. Reporters seeking galleys can contact Oxford University Press: emily.tobin@oup.com or 212-726-6057. 

There’s perennial debate over how to define the term “evangelical.” For starters, they uphold  standard Christian doctrines such as the divinity of Jesus Christ, but McAlister finds three distinct emphases:

(1) An “authoritative” Bible as “central, foundational, believable -- and true.”

(2) Personal faith in Jesus’ death for one’s sin as “the only path to salvation.”

(3) Passion for “evangelizing the world.”

Please note: McAlister includes U.S. Protestant “people of color,” who are heavily evangelical in faith, though analysts usually treat them separately.

Looked at internationally, she says, “evangelical politics are not just about abortion and same-sex marriage but colonialism and neocolonialism, war and global poverty, religious freedom and Islam.”

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Still thinking about Chick-fil-A, as well as the emerging face of world Christianity

Still thinking about Chick-fil-A, as well as the emerging face of world Christianity

Every now and then, a magazine like The Atlantic Monthly -- a must-read publication, no matter what one's cultural worldview -- publishes a cover story that transforms how thinking people think about an important issue. At least, that's true if lots of members of the thinking classes are open to thinking about information that may make them uncomfortable.

This was certainly the case in October, 2002, when historian Philip Jenkins published a massive Atlantic cover story that ran with this provocative headline: "The Next Christianity." For those with an even longer attention span, there was the book, "The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity."

Now, before I hit you with a key passage from that important Atlantic piece, let me tell you where we are going in this Sunday think package.

Jenkins was writing about a wave of global change in pews and pulpits, as the face of Christianity moved -- statistically speaking -- from Europe and North America to the multicultural reality that is the Global South. Thus, if you are looking for a "typical" Christian in the world today, it is probably an African woman in an evangelical Anglican (or maybe Methodist) congregation. She is probably a charismatic believer, too.

Now, I thought about that Jenkins piece when reading an amazing new Bloomberg essay by Yale Law School professor Stephen L. Carter, addressing the media storm surrounding that bizarre New Yorker sermon about You Know What (click here for my most recent piece, and podcast, on this hot topic). Here is the dramatic double-decker headline on the Carter piece:

The Ugly Coded Critique of Chick-Fil-A's Christianity

The fast-food chain's "infiltration" of New York City ignores the truth about religion in America. It also reveals an ugly narrow-mindedness

What's the connection here, between Jenkins and Carter?

Hint: Demographics is destiny (and doctrine is important, too). Here is a famous (and long) summary paragraph from the 2002 Atlantic essay:

If we look beyond the liberal West, we see that another Christian revolution, quite different from the one being called for in affluent American suburbs and upscale urban parishes, is already in progress.

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WPost reports on pastor 'lighting into' Trump with Pence on front row, but basic question unanswered

WPost reports on pastor 'lighting into' Trump with Pence on front row, but basic question unanswered

These days, it's often difficult to tell what's supposed to be real news and what's simply clickbait and/or aggregation.

That's the case this week with a quasi-news story from The Washington Post that makes no attempt to hide its tabloid-esque approach.

I'm talking about a piece that ran with this not-so-subtle cry for page views:

Watch a pastor light into President Trump — with Vice President Pence sitting in the front pew

Um, OK.

By the way, I realize this is the second GetReligion post today related to Mike Pence. If you missed the first one (written by Godbeat legend Richard Ostling and focused on media coverage of the VP's faith), it's insightful and definitely worth your time.

But back to my musings: My frustration lies with the fact that the Post goes for the easy clickbait but fails to answer a basic question. More on that in a moment.

First, though, the Post's lede (which provides a few details before the paper goes into aggregation mode):

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