Cooperative Baptist Fellowship

Too late to patch things up? How to cover a schism, United Methodist Church edition

Too late to patch things up? How to cover a schism, United Methodist Church edition

Church splits are endemic with Protestantism, and in coming years a really messy example is almost certain to afflict the large (6,951,278 members, $6.3 billion annual  income) U.S. sector of the United Methodist Church.

At issue is biblical teaching and authority, especially regarding openly gay clergy and same-sex marriage, Protestants’ most divisive issues since slavery.

As reporters and other religion-watchers will know, the UMC’s highest tribunal ruled on April 26  that church law allows much of the “Traditional Plan” that global church delegates passed in February to reinforce existing moral prohibitions. The tribunal also approved a measure that allows dissenting congregations to leave the UMC and keep their buildings and assets (text here).               

Approval of this special “exit plan” is a huge local, regional and national story. This exit plan apparently lasts until New Year’s Eve 2023 and sidesteps the “trust clause” by which the denomination claims ownership of local church properties.

Withdrawal plans must be approved by two-thirds of a congregation’s professing members, but also by a simple majority of delegates to area meetings called “annual conferences.” Judging from past struggles in other denominations, one can imagine mischief with that second requirement.

Methodists who want to loosen church discipline and give congregations local option on gay policies will mount  a last-chance effort at next year’s General Conference (mark your calendars: May 5–15, Minneapolis Convention Center), but the traditionalists should be able to continue their unbroken 48-year winning streak.

Herewith a few pointers for covering future developments. 

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Thinking about the United Methodist future and (parts of) the Southern Baptist past

Thinking about the United Methodist future and (parts of) the Southern Baptist past

GetReligion readers who have been around a while may recall that I grew up as a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid in Texas. Then I did two degrees at Baylor University in Waco, long known as Jerusalem on the Brazos.

This was all before the great Southern Baptist Convention civil war broke out in the late 1970s. That all went down as I was breaking into journalism and then into religion-beat work.

Looking back, I would say that I was raised on the conservative side of “moderate” SBC life and then went way over to the liturgical “moderate” left — but only on a few political issues (I was very pro-abortion rights, for example). I never was a “moderate” in terms of doctrine. That’s what pushed me over into Anglo-Catholicism and then on to Orthodoxy. You can see signs of that in this 1983 magazine piece I wrote entitled, “Why I Can No Longer Be A Baptist: Giving the Saints the Right to Vote.”

While at The Charlotte Observer, I wrote one of the first stories about the formation of the “moderate” alliance against the more conservative SBC establishment.

Now, if you lived through all of that the way I did, you know this name — Nancy T. Ammerman. Writing as a sociologist of religion, she became one of the go-to scholars who interpreted the SBC civil war and, thus, a popular source for reporters in elite newsrooms (see her “Baptist Battles” book).

If you spoke fluent Southern Baptist, it was easy to see that she was totally sympathetic to the moderates on the losing side of this fight. Still, her views were interesting and often quite perceptive.

That brings us to this weekend’s “think piece,” an Ammerman op-ed for Religion News Service entitled: “How denominations split: Lessons for Methodists from Baptist battles of the ’80s.” Here is a very typical Ammerman summary of the thesis:

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Homosexuality is 'amoral?' Dear newspaper, I don't think that word means what you think it does

Homosexuality is 'amoral?' Dear newspaper, I don't think that word means what you think it does

James A. Smith Sr., a Southern Baptist known to frequent this journalism-focused website, had a GetReligion-like response to a sentence he saw in a Louisville Courier-Journal story.

To set the scene, the news article involves the Kentucky Baptist Convention — “the powerful Kentucky Baptist Convention,” as the Courier-Journal likes referring to it — disassociating itself from congregations dually aligned with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Yes, these cut ties resulted from a dispute between a Baptist convention upholding traditional doctrinal beliefs and one taking more progressive stands. That’s certainly newsworthy, particular in a state where the Southern Baptist-aligned Kentucky convention reportedly has over 2,400 affiliated churches with more than 750,000 members.

But these type of reports in the Courier-Journal always seem to be slanted toward one side of the debate — the progressive one. (See past examples here and here.)

In the case of the latest story, the language again seems overly loaded, depicting the Kentucky Baptist Convention as “booting” and “targeting” and “kicking out” churches as opposed to standing by its beliefs. And of course, the first quote comes from a critic of the decision:

The Kentucky Baptist Convention on Tuesday cut ties with more than a dozen churches, including at least one in Louisville, for supporting a Baptist religious organization that earlier this year lifted a ban on hiring LGBTQ employees.

The Louisville-based Kentucky Baptist Convention, which has long opposed same-sex marriage, ordaining gay ministers and believes homosexuality is sinful, voted to end its relationship with KBC-affiliated churches that also made financial contributions to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship at its annual meeting in Pikeville, Kentucky.

The KBC targeted several local churches, including the 1,600-member St. Matthews Baptist, where leaders called the decision ending a 90-year relationship "historic and disheartening."

But I’ve seen worse, less balanced coverage of such decisions: To its credit, the Courier-Journal does quote a few supporters of the move, including the convention’s president:

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'Southern Baptist' voucher-hating pastor touted on Dallas front page -- but is he still Southern Baptist?

'Southern Baptist' voucher-hating pastor touted on Dallas front page -- but is he still Southern Baptist?

"Pastor's message: Vouchers are evil."

OK, Dallas Morning News, you've got my attention with that front-page, above-the-fold Sunday headline.

Spoiler alert: The newspaper never gets around to explaining why the pastor believes vouchers are evil.

But believe or not, that unanswered question is not even the most frustrating part of this Page 1 profile: That would be the story's failure to specify whether the pastor in question -- whom the Dallas newspaper three times describes as a Southern Baptist -- actually still leads a Southern Baptist congregation. 

Or is the pastor -- Charlie Johnson -- a former Southern Baptist, a la Jimmy Carter? More on that question in a moment.

First, though, let's back up and consider the lede:

AUSTIN -- Quoting Bible verses and calling the school vouchers proposal by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and other lawmakers “sinful,” Fort Worth minister Charli Johnson has been driving feverishly round the state before the March 6 primary.
At rallies and impromptu meetings arranged by friendly school superintendents with local ministers, the longtime Southern Baptist preacher delivers a fiery message on behalf of public schools. His get-out-the-vote crusade has irritated GOP state leaders and staunchly conservative activists who favor using tax dollars o help parents of children enrolled in public schools pay to attend private schools.
Johnson, pastor of the small, interracial Bread Fellowship in Fort Worth, does not mince words. Christians have an obligation to embrace public schools as a social good, especially for poor children, he says.
As he said in a sharp exchange with a leading House voucher proponent at a legislative hearing just over a year ago, “You have the right to home-school your children. You have the right to ‘private school’ your children. You don’t have the right to ask the people of Texas to pay for it.”

Let's see: The piece opens with a reference to Bible verses that Johnson uses to characterize vouchers as "sinful." As I kept reading, can you guess what I was expecting to see? That's right -- I assumed the paper would mention a specific verse or two to help readers understand the theological case that the pastor makes.

Nope!

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Courier-Journal pins F-word (fundamentalist) on Southern Baptists, but thinks better of it

Courier-Journal pins F-word (fundamentalist) on Southern Baptists, but thinks better of it

Words have meanings.

For example, for journalists the word "fundamentalist" has a specific meaning. The Associated Press Stylebook -- the journalist's bible -- notes that "fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

"In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself," the stylebook advises.

Those pejorative connotations are why I was surprised to see the Louisville Courier-Journal characterize ordinary Southern Baptists as fundamentalists in a story today. I was prepared to question this original lede in the Courier-Journal:

Fundamentalist Southern Baptists have long opposed same-sex marriage and ordaining gay ministers, arguing that the Bible unequivocally rejects homosexuality as sinful and perverted.
The Louisville-based Kentucky Baptist Convention hasn't left that position to interpretation. The powerful Southern Baptist group, which has 2,400 churches and 750,000 members across the state, has ousted congregations that bless gay unions and welcome people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender as pastors and missionaries.
That's why discussions on dropping a ban against hiring gay and transgender people by a more liberal group of affiliated churches, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, has threatened to trigger an even larger rift.

Why, I wondered, did the Courier-Journal choose to use that adjective in this story?

I was not alone in asking that question:

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Black and white in Georgia: About those two First Baptists that AP discovered in Macon

Black and white in Georgia: About those two First Baptists that AP discovered in Macon

The Associated Press has a series that it has dubbed "Divided America."

The wire service describes the series as "AP's ongoing exploration of the economic, social and political divisions — and in some cases attempts at reconciliation — in American society."

Yes, religion is one of the topics that the series has covered, including veteran AP Godbeat pro Rachel Zoll's in-depth feature this week on two First Baptist Churches in Macon, Ga. — one black and one white.

More on that story in a moment.

But first, a little background: A few months ago, I praised an earlier religion installment in the "Divided America" series, also written by Zoll.

However, not all my fellow GetReligionistas (past and present) were as complimentary of Zoll's piece: 

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Hard-hitting journalism on Baptist church's acceptance of same-sex marriage? Not exactly

Hard-hitting journalism on Baptist church's acceptance of same-sex marriage? Not exactly

"Hard-hitting religion journalism," said the subject line on an email from a GetReligion reader.

Methinks that reader enjoys the fine art of sarcasm.

The friendly correspondent shared a link to a front-page story in today's Greenville News in South Carolina.

The story concerns a Baptist church — which disassociated itself from the Southern Baptist Convention in 1999 — deciding to embrace same-sex marriage.

At 1,900 words, the Gannett newspaper's report on "One church's journey" is long enough to be considered in-depth. But hard-hitting journalism it most definitely is not.

If newspapers wrote love songs instead of news articles, this is how one might go — complete with the reporter tweeting unabashedly about the church's "amazing transformation."

Here's the first verse:

The conversation at First Baptist Church Greenville took place well before the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision this summer to legalize same-sex marriages.
The dialogue was bold — particularly for one of downtown Greenville’s influential legacy churches that in its earliest years served as a birthplace for revered Southern Baptist institutions.
Would the congregation be willing to allow same-sex couples to marry in the church?
To ordain gay ministers?

 

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