Book of Discipline

Religion News Service story on Young Life avoids crucial, complex doctrine questions at Duke

Religion News Service story on Young Life avoids crucial, complex doctrine questions at Duke

If you dig into the history of Duke University — formerly Trinity College — it’s hard to avoid its deep roots in the evangelical Methodist movement.

The key, today, is that Duke is a private university, one defined by research, basketball and modern doctrines linked to its powerful nonsectarian identity. You can still see a few Methodist ties that do not bind in the way the school’s trustees operate (click here for more on that).

However, it is educational — when considering Duke history — to follow the money.

The University has historic ties to the United Methodist Church. The institution was begun in 1838-39 when Methodist and Quaker families in northwest Randolph County united to transform Brown's Schoolhouse into Union Institute, thus providing permanent education for their children. A formal agreement with the Methodist Church was entered into in 1859 when the name of the school was changed to Trinity College. The motto, Eruditio et Religio, which is based on a Charles Wesley hymn, and the official seal, both of which are still in use today, were adopted in 1859. The name of Trinity College continues as the undergraduate college of the University.

The most significant development in the history of the school came with the adoption of Trinity College as the primary beneficiary of the philanthropy of the Duke family in 1889. This occurred in part because the college was an institution of the Methodist Church and Washington Duke practiced stewardship as taught by his church. 

So here is an interesting question linked to a current doctrinal dispute on the Duke campus.

Right up front, note this: Duke is a private university and, thus, its leaders have every right to define the doctrines and covenants that govern their campus. That’s true for liberal once-Christian schools as well as many traditional colleges and universities. The question for journalists and lawyers is whether Duke leaders are being consistent in the proclamation and application of their new doctrines.

This leads us to a recent Religion News Service article that ran with this headline: “Duke University’s student government rejects Young Life over LGBTQ policies.” The problem is that Young Life doesn’t have “policies” that are independent of 2,000 years of traditional Christian “doctrines” on marriage and sexuality.

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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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NBC News wins gold-medal prize for most over-the-top, biased report (so far) on United Methodists

NBC News wins gold-medal prize for most over-the-top, biased report (so far) on United Methodists

Four different GetReligion readers — two of them journalists — sent me notes about an NBC News feature that ran the other day about liberal reactions to that special General Conference that reaffirmed, and even strengthened, the United Methodist Church’s support for old-fashioned, traditional teachings on marriage, sex and the Bible.

One note simply said “wow,” over and over.

Two used the same word — “ridiculous.”

Another added, “Something seems to be missing.”

You get the idea. If you are looking for some kind of gold-standard when it comes to one-sided, biased news coverage of this event — this is the story for you. This is a shake-your-head classic when it comes to assuming that there is only one side in this argument that deserves serious attention and, yes, respect.

Let’s start with the report’s coverage of the conservative side of the story. Ready?

Well, actually, there isn’t anything to quote. Sorry about that.

The story does not include a single sentence of material drawn from African, Asian or American delegates or insiders who support the church’s teachings that sex outside of traditional marriage is sin. That’s a stance that would be affirmed by leaders of the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodoxy, the majority of the world’s Anglicans, almost all Baptists and, well, you get the idea.

Journalists do not, of course, have to agree with this approach to doctrine. However, there’s no way around the fact that this point of view is crucial, in this debate, and it would help if readers had a chance to understand why traditional religious believers defend this stance.In this case, it’s crucial to know that the growing regions of the global United Methodist Church back this doctrinal approach, while the liberal corners of the church — in the United States, primarily — are in numerical decline.

Try to find that fact anywhere in the NBC News report. The story opens with the voice of a gay pastor — the Rev. Mark Thompson — and everything else that follows affirms the same perspective. You can catch the tone in this passage:

Thompson is just one individual within an expansive, diverse group of LGBTQ United Methodist Church leaders who have made enormous personal sacrifices for their faith. He, and countless others, had previously hoped that a vote during a special session of the UMC’s general conference last month would change the course of the church’s relationship with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people.

The vote, however, not only strengthened the church’s ban on openly gay clergy and same-sex marriages, but also increased penalties for future violations. Thompson, and multitudes of United Methodists in attendance, were gutted.

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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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The numbers matter — and so does doctrine — in Methodists' high-stakes meeting on LGBT issues

The numbers matter — and so does doctrine — in Methodists' high-stakes meeting on LGBT issues

“Will the United Methodist Church be ripped apart?”

We considered that question in a recent post that critiqued a Fort Worth Star-Telegram story.

Now comes The Associated Press with a report — getting lots of play in newspapers across the nation — previewing the big meeting that starts this weekend:

The United Methodist Church’s top legislative assembly convenes Sunday for a high-stakes, three-day meeting likely to determine whether America’s second-largest Protestant denomination will fracture due to divisions over same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay clergy.

While other mainline Protestant denominations — such as the Episcopal and Presbyterian (U.S.A.) churches — have embraced gay-friendly practices, the Methodist church still bans them, even though acts of defiance by pro-LGBT clergy have multiplied and talk of a possible breakup of the church has intensified.

At the church’s upcoming General Conference in St. Louis, 864 invited delegates — split evenly between lay people and clergy — are expected to consider several plans for the church’s future. Several Methodist leaders said they expect a wave of departures from the church regardless of the decision.

“I don’t think there’s any plan where there won’t be some division, and some people will leave,” said David Watson, a dean and professor at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, who will be attending the conference.

The AP coverage is informative and filled with crucial details related to what’s at stake.

But two important facets of this scenario seem to get short shrift. Some of that, no doubt, is a matter of a wire service reporter with limited space. Trust me, I know — as a former AP newsman — that there’s never enough space to include every fact you’d like.

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Will United Methodist Church be ripped apart? Ahead of big meeting, here's a fair analysis

Will United Methodist Church be ripped apart? Ahead of big meeting, here's a fair analysis

The United Methodist Church’s much-anticipated meeting on same-sex marriage rites and whether homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” is just a few weeks away.

It’ll be Feb. 23-26 in St. Louis.

In advance of the church’s historic General Conference, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram did a deep dive on the subject — and it’s a generally fair, informative read, as one observer noted on Twitter.

As far as I know, the Star-Telegram doesn’t have a religion writer per se. But the Fort Worth paper has done some excellent work on the Godbeat in recent times, including a must-read investigation on sex crimes in independent fundamental Baptist churches late last year. That project was produced by investigative reporter Sarah Smith, who left the Star-Telegram soon thereafter to join the Houston Chronicle.

The in-depth story on the United Methodist Church was written by Hanaa’ Tameez, who covers diversity for the Star-Telegram.

Tameez open her piece with an anecdote from a Methodist congregation grappling at the local level with the questions facing the entire denomination:

COLLEYVILLE — On a Tuesday in January, pastor Katie Lewis was surprised to have even 26 members of the United Methodist Church of Colleyville attend her study group on human sexuality and same-sex marriage.

In a group of mostly middle-aged white congregants, opinions ranged widely. One man said he felt pressure to accept LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage from “more liberal” members from the East and West Coasts. Others quickly disputed that idea, saying the issue is a concern in Colleyville as well.

“Whether you know it or not, someone in your life is struggling to be accepted for who they are,” one woman told the group.

Lewis said she felt the conversation was necessary ahead of the United Methodist General Conference this month in St. Louis. The conference meets every four years, but a special session was called to vote on a plan regarding same-sex marriage and the acceptance of LGBTQ clergy in the church.

The United Methodist Church faces the possibility of a schism because of the vote. It’s inevitable that people will leave the church because of how polarizing the issue is, according to congregants, clergy and experts. It’s also possible entire congregations could leave the denomination.

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Follow the money: Does old United Methodist left really want a smashing LGBTQ win in 2019?

Follow the money: Does old United Methodist left really want a smashing LGBTQ win in 2019?

It’s one of the most familiar mantras in American journalism: "Follow the money." This is, of course, a cynical way to look at life on the religion beat, since many idealistic believers have been known to take doctrinal stands that clash with their own self interests. 

However, things are different when you are covering the actions of big ecclesiastical fortresses -- like the United Methodist Church. This is especially true when reality begins to threaten the "way things are done around here" and the foundations of the fortress start moving.

Now, with the money mantra in mind, let's look at the "first the right said this," and then "the left said this" opening of a new Religion News Service feature about the denominational chess game that’s being played ahead of a special General Conference slated for Feb. 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis. This historic showdown is supposed to bring some form of peace after decades of doctrinal debates about marriage, ordination and sexuality. Here we go:

(RNS) -- United Methodist Church activists who sharply disagree about whether to ordain LGBT clergy or officiate same-sex marriages do agree on one point: A plan recommended by the Council of Bishops isn’t satisfying to either side.

Socially conservative evangelicals say the plan, which aims to avert schism in the 12 million-member denomination, goes too far by permitting individual pastors and regional bodies to make their own decisions on whether to perform same-sex weddings and ordain LGBT people as clergy. ...

Meanwhile progressives aren’t happy either. Reconciling Ministries Network and the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus, two groups committed to the full inclusion of LGBT people in the United Methodist Church, also expressed concerns that none of the three plans included in the bishops’ report would affirm ordination and marriage for all the denominations’ LGBT members.

In other words, there is no plan that clearly upholds 2,000 years of Christian doctrine on marriage and sex, but there is no plan that clearly overthrows small-o "orthodox" church tradition, either. Orthodoxy would be optional, and we all know what that means.

But, once again: Follow the money.

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Question for podcast listeners: How does your zip code affect doctrine in your pulpits and pews?

Question for podcast listeners: How does your zip code affect doctrine in your pulpits and pews?

It was a pretty ordinary Catholic news story in The New York Times in the age of Pope Francis. The headline proclaimed: "As Church Shifts, a Cardinal Welcomes Gays; They Embrace a ‘Miracle’."

The story hook was that Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of the Archdiocese of Newark had welcomed 100 LGBTQ Catholics and members of their families to a Mass on their behalf at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

This newsworthy event was called a "pilgrimage," but the Times called it a homecoming. Here is some crucial material that ran high in the story:

“I am Joseph, your brother,” Cardinal Tobin told the group, which included lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics from around New York and the five dioceses in New Jersey. “I am your brother, as a disciple of Jesus. I am your brother, as a sinner who finds mercy with the Lord.”
The welcoming of a group of openly gay people to Mass by a leader of Cardinal Tobin’s standing in the Roman Catholic Church in this country would have been unthinkable even five years ago. But Cardinal Tobin, whom Pope Francis appointed to Newark last year, is among a small but growing group of bishops changing how the American church relates to its gay members. They are seeking to be more inclusive and signaling to subordinate priests that they should do the same. ...
Four years ago, Pope Francis shook the Catholic world with his comment about gay priests seeking the Lord: “Who am I to judge?” But it was unclear how his words would affect Catholics seeking acceptance in the pews.

The story, of course, does not include a crucial word found in all discussions of this topic by LGBTQ Catholics who strive to live out the teachings of their church -- "Confession."

When Pope Francis referred to gay priests who are "seeking the Lord," the implication was that these priests were wrestling with their temptations and sins in Confession. (Click here for a transcript and discussion of news coverage of this issue.)

Thus, who was Francis to judge? This issue was between the sinner and his spiritual father and, of course, the ultimate judge was God. Was this the message in Newark?

But never mind doctrinal details like that. This Times story entered into this week's "Crossroads" discussion for another reason. (Click here to tune in that podcast.)

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Location, location, location: Did the whole United Methodist Church ordain a non-binary deacon?

Location, location, location: Did the whole United Methodist Church ordain a non-binary deacon?

This truth cannot be stated too many times: This whole religion-beat thing is complicated.

Take the gazillions of complicated facts and potential errors hidden in one simple word -- "polity." In addition to having countless doctrinal differences, the world's thousands of organized religions also have their own systems for laws and governance.

One flock's bishop fills a completely different role than another flock's leader with the same title. Each of these "bishops" has completely different powers and tasks, according to the laws or his or her flock. Church history matters. Scripture matters. The words in vows matter.

So what about that recent headline in The Washington Post? The one that proclaimed: "The United Methodist Church has appointed a transgender deacon."

Well, there is the United Methodist Church -- a global denomination. There are also local United Methodist churches, with a lower-case "c." To understand what happens at the various levels in between means wrestling with UMC polity.

As I said in a 2014 post: "United Methodism doctrine? Think location, location, location."

So, has the United Methodist Church -- the whole shooting match -- appointed (or even approved the appointment of) it's first trans deacon? Let's look carefully at the top of the Post story on this complicated event:

The bishop spoke the traditional words as she placed her hands on the new deacon named M with just a slight difference from the way those words have always been spoken before.
“Pour out your Holy Spirit upon M,” the bishop said. “Send them now to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, to announce the reign of God and to equip the church for ministry.”
Not “send him now” or “send her now.” “Send them now.” 
That’s what M Barclay has been working for 12 years to finally hear.
Barclay, a transgender person who identifies as neither male nor female and thus uses the pronoun “they,” was commissioned on Sunday as the first non-binary member of the clergy in the United Methodist Church.

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