Mainline Protestantism

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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News mystery: Why so little interest in 'mainline' Protestants' liberal politicking?

News mystery: Why so little interest in 'mainline' Protestants' liberal politicking?

The dominant religion theme in the U.S. news media across the past two years, without question, has been political fealty to Donald Trump and his works among grassroots evangelical Protestants and a like-minded coterie of old-guard clergy celebrities.   

In the same period, “mainline” Protestant groups have been ardent in politicking for leftward and anti-Trump causes, perhaps even moreso than with the typical evangelical congregation.

You would barely know this, if at all, from reading or viewing most news media reports.  

Take the United Methodist Church (UMC), America’s second-largest Protestant body with 7.7 million members and millions more in overseas jurisdictions. Yes, the UMC is much in the news but only regarding its internal doctrinal dispute over whether to liberalize LGBTQ policy, per last week’s Guy Memo

UMC proclamations come from the General Board of  Church and Society, whose office hard by Capitol Hill is more than strangely warmed (to quote John Wesley) about President Donald Trump. The board has issued repeated directives urging churchgoers to phone or e-mail protests against Trump's actions to members of the House and Senate. (Years ago its former leader Jim Winkler, now National Council of Churches president, called for impeachment of President George W. Bush, a fellow Methodist, over his war policy.)        

Recently, U.S. religious bodies across the board denounced the Trump policy, now  rescinded, of separating “undocumented” immigrants from their children. But the UMC went further, urging funding cuts for immigration enforcement and border protection, and an immediate halt to all arrests and detentions of undocumented border-crossers.

The Methodists were aggrieved at the U.S. Supreme Court for upholding Trump’s travel ban against seven nations, five of them majority Muslim. Rejecting the court’s reasoning and the government’s national-security rationale, the church charged that the policy “institutionalizes Islamophobia, religious intolerance, and racism.”  


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Pew Research: There've been three significant religious shifts in U.S. politics since 1994

Pew Research: There've been three significant religious shifts in U.S. politics since 1994

The latest Pew Research Center survey amalgamates (that's our word of the day) 257 surveys over 23 years about the  political alignments of some 350,000 U.S. registered voters, with important data on gender and other demographics.

We also find valuable context for religion reporters covering political dynamics, and for political reporters covering religious dynamics. Rather than lumping all Protestants and Catholics together, Pew’s data carefully distinguish between the two main and very different Protestant camps, white “mainline” vs. “evangelical,” and between white non-Hispanic Catholics and the politically distinct Hispanics who are now 34 percent of U.S. Catholics.

The following numbers will compare January of 1994, the year Republicans regained control of the U.S. House after a 40-year drought, with last December, the end of Donald Trump’s first year as president. The percentages combine those who identify with a political party with those who “lean” that way.

For Democrats, some patterns are stable. Black Protestants’ overwhelming support rose a notch, from 82 percent to 87 percent. Hispanic Catholics’ Democratic affinity slipped from 69 percent to 64 percent. Jews’ loyalty was virtually unchanged at 69 percent vs. the current 67 percent.

White "mainline” Protestants are split between the parties, with Republican support edging up a bit, from 50 percent in 1994 to the current 53 percent. Mormons’ strong Republicanism (a major irony in 19th Century terms) was 80 percent during the 1994 sweep but sagged to 72 percent last December, presumably reflecting some distaste toward Mr. Trump.

This brings us to the three big shifts that will shape national and state elections in 2018 and beyond.

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Cutting shrinking pies: The Baltimore Sun bravely looks into liberal pews seeking signs of life

Cutting shrinking pies: The Baltimore Sun bravely looks into liberal pews seeking signs of life

How long have journalists been writing stories about the decline of America's liberal mainline churches, both in terms of people in the pews and cultural clout?

I've been studying religion-news coverage since the late 1970s and I cannot remember a time when this was not "a story." For many experts, the key moment was the 1972 release of the book "Why Conservative Churches Are Growing" by Dean M. Kelley of the National Council of Churches.

You could argue, as I have many times on this blog, that the decline of the oldline left is a story that deserved even more press coverage than it has received. Why? Because the decline of the old mainline world helped create a hole in American public life that made room for the rise of the Religious Right.

Now we have reached the point, as "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I discussed in last week's podcast, where the story has become much more complex. While the demographic death dive has continued for liberal religious institutions (as opposed to spiritual-but-not-religious life online and elsewhere), we are now seeking slow decline in parts of conservative religious groups, as well.

What's going on? To be blunt, religious groups are growing or holding their own when they inspire believers to (a) have multiple children, (b) make converts and (c) live out demanding forms of faith that last into future generations. Yes, doctrine matters. So does basic math.

With this in mind, consider the brave attempt that The Baltimore Sun made the other day to describe what is happening in churches in that true-blue progressive city. Here is the overture and, as you read it, get ready for an interesting and, apparently, unintentional twist in the plot:

For a decade and more, Govans Presbyterian Church and Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church have labored in the manner of many mainline Protestant congregations: Working ever harder to provide spiritual resources for dwindling number of congregants.

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This just in! Lutheran left tests theory that progressive doctrine is key to church growth

This just in! Lutheran left tests theory that progressive doctrine is key to church growth

From the first days of this blog, I have argued that religion-beat professionals need to dedicate more coverage to theological, doctrinal and cultural issues on the religious left (hardly anyone uses capital letters).

Why? Consider this equation: One of the biggest news stories of the late 20th Century was the rise -- in terms of public-square clout in America -- of what became known as the Religious Right (almost everyone uses capital letters).

There were, no doubt about it, big stories there to cover -- especially among evangelical Protestants shaken by the Roe vs. Wade ruling. But consider this question: Were religious conservatives, to some degree, stepping into a cultural void created by decades of numerical decline among liberal Protestants? I would argue that both halves of this equation needed lots of coverage.

There have been attempts by liberal churches to fight back against the demographics that have been pulling them down, by which I mean declining numbers of converts and the cumulative impact of decades of low birthrates.

There are valid stories to cover, in all of this. Thus, I was glad to see Religion News Service dedicate nearly 1,800 words to a feature about church-growth efforts at a Bible Belt (but college-town) congregation in the liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

As things turned out, 1,800 words were not enough. Here is the overture:

CARY, N.C. (RNS) -- At a Bible study on a weekday evening, Lutheran minister Daniel Pugh paced before a group of 50 church members in cargo shorts and a plaid button-down shirt talking about Adam and Eve.
Clutching a hand-held remote he clicked through a PowerPoint presentation, telling members of Christ the King Lutheran Church that one way to interpret the story of Adam and Eve is as a coming-of-age allegory about a pair of carefree teens caught red-handed having sex.
In this, alternative reading of The Fall, the “forbidden fruit” offered to Eve in Chapter 3 may be a metaphor for sex, he said, and the “serpent” may be a metaphor for a penis.

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Some flocks grow, while others shrink: Yes, that's a big, complex, religion story. So there!

Some flocks grow, while others shrink: Yes, that's a big, complex, religion story. So there!

This week's Crossroads podcast is all about connecting the dots.

Warning: This is a rather confusing podcast (click here to tune that in). Host Todd Wilken and I wander all over the map, touching on topics ranging from shuttered Episcopal cathedrals to declining (and growing) Southern Baptist statistics, from Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod arguments about worship to declining numbers of students in Catholic seminaries, as well as in some (repeat some) urban Catholic parish pews.

Along the way, there's lots and lots of talk about religious real estate (as in my recent post, "There may be faith angles in all those stories about fading flocks in urban America"). Lots of this once-sacred real estate is for sale in prime urban locations, from sea to shining sea.

Do you see any connections yet? Basically, we are talking about some of the biggest stories in American religion. The thread that connects them is demographics and the tricky subject of why some religious congregations (and denominations) die while others grow.

Ah, you say, that's all about where these institutions are located! How did The New York Times team -- not the religion desk, by the way -- put it the other day, in the latest of many Times stories about religious sanctuaries sporting "for sale" signs? That headline proclaimed: "Struggling to Survive, Congregations Look to Sell Houses of Worship." The key paragraph looked like this:

This situation is playing out again and again across New York City. Upward mobility, suburban growth and the dissolution of traditional ethnic enclaves have all contributed to empty pews, said Robert P. Jones, chief executive of the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute. Twenty-seven percent of New Yorkers identified as religiously unaffiliated in 2014, compared with 17 percent in 2007, according to the Pew Research Center.

Now, in my post I noted that the final sentence there points off the secular real estate map, with a reference to the "Nones" trend that has been one of America's biggest religion-beat themes in recent years.

But, you see, even in New York City there are booming religious movements and congregations, as well as those that are fading. Did you know that?

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Passing of sociologist Peter Berger provokes nostalgia about religion news coverage

Passing of sociologist Peter Berger provokes nostalgia about religion news coverage

Boston University’s iconoclastic sociologist Peter Berger, who died June 27 at age 88, was one of those doubly valuable stars of the religion beat, both as a provider of pertinent quotes (if you could get him on the phone) and as a thinker whose every book and article needed to be checked out for news potential.  

It was a pleasure to see the byline of Joseph Berger (no relation) on The New York Times obit. He boasts the unique distinction of winning the  top Religion Newswriters Association award three years running while with Long Island Newsday (1982, 1983, 1984) and covered the beat for the Times as well.

The combination of Berger and Berger provokes nostalgia about the past, with this for analysts of current media to ponder: What is the ongoing place for coverage of important religious scholarship and books?

Not so long ago, the better mainstream print media paid considerable attention to religious thought, with pieces often written by specialists, providing a refreshing break from the daily squabbles that tend to dominate news coverage. Today, such treatments are largely relegated to the Internet, and often presented from a sectarian viewpoint. (TV and radio news rarely did or do much.)

As the Times noted, Peter Berger got the widest notice when he twitted the “God Is Dead” fad with his 1969 book “A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural.” Ever the skeptic, Berger turned his skeptical eye toward skepticism, arguing that there’s good reason to perceive transcendent forces at work in the universe.

That contrarian claim emerged alongside Berger’s abandonment of the well-entrenched “secularization thesis” which he had long embraced.

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Regarding a 'mainline' slide (yet again), a noted journalist raises questions to ponder

Regarding a 'mainline' slide (yet again), a noted journalist raises questions to ponder

A previous Religion Guy Memo looked at Canada's spiritual landscape as it celebrates its 150th anniversary.

That item provoked an e-mail response worth pondering by journalistic analysts. The writer is Kenneth A. Briggs, a competitor and friendly colleague as religion editor of The New York Times during the Religion Guy’s early years writing for Time magazine’s religion section. Briggs, also an award-winner for his work at Long Island Newsday, later became a college teacher, book author and independent journalist in varied media projects.

Importantly for this context, Briggs is a certified mainline Protestant as a Yale Divinity School graduate and an ordained elder in the largest U.S. mainline denomination, the United Methodist Church (which granted him a “special appointment” for journalistic work).

First, Briggs asks whether the Religion Guy was “suggesting cause-and-effect” in stating that  both Canada and the U.S. “show remarkable losses for ‘mainline’ churches that have floated leftward”? These Protestants’ gradual numerical decline and liberal shifts this past half-century are established facts, but Briggs says the two could be simply “coincidental,” rather than that liberalism caused decline.

The Guy -- yes -- meant to imply that a shift toward more liberal doctrinal beliefs was one contributor to the unprecedented membership losses, with breakaways by local congregations, outright schisms, and individual members switching to other options or forsaking church altogether. Meanwhile, conservatives often held steady or gained adherents (though note the past decade’s smaller, but significant, decline for the staunchly conservative Southern Baptist Convention). 

Briggs calls that scenario -- linking doctrinal changes and numerical decline -- “evangelical boilerplate.”

The Guy must quickly add that factors other than liberalism played into church trends.

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After crucial ruling against an openly lesbian bishop, what now for United Methodists?

After crucial ruling against an openly lesbian bishop, what now for United Methodists?

In recent years, the "Seven Sisters" of the old mainline Protestant world have not been making as much news as they have in the past, at least as evidenced in the annual "top stories" polls conducted by the Religion News Assocition.

However, it’s likely that 2017’s  religion story of the year will be the April 28 United Methodist Church (UMC) ruling that the western region improperly consecrated Karen Oliveto as a bishop and she should be removed. Reason: as an openly married lesbian, she violated church law and her ordination vows.

That Judicial Council edict produced typically sure-footed stories by The Religion Guy’s former AP colleague Rachel Zoll (The San Francisco Chronicle ran wire copy even though Oliveto led a big local church!) and Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times (a rare treat that this fine, neglected scribe gets 34 inches atop A18!). United Methodist News’s Linda Bloom was a must-read (maxim: always check such official outlets plus independent caucuses left and right.)  

Jennifer Brown’s Denver Post spot story and walkup report were appropriately comprehensive, since Bishop Oliveto supervises five states from an office in suburban Denver. “Whatever the ruling, the expectation is that the denomination may divide,” Brown reported, noting that Methodism’s last split, over slavery, took 95 years to heal.

The media mostly overlooked another important Judicial Council decision. Reviewing Illinois and New York disputes, it reaffirmed that ordained or appointed clergy must observe “fidelity in marriage” or “celibacy in singleness.”

The UMC has long upheld traditional belief on sex and marriage shared among the nation’s five biggest denominations (with more than 100 million members). Groups shifting in conscience to favor same-sex clergy and marriage, e.g. Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), exist only within the U.S. But at UMC policy-setting General Conferences the U.S. has only 58 percent of delegates, with 30 percent from Africa and 12 percent from elsewhere. In Protestantism worldwide, liberal change is largely limited to predominantly white “Mainline” churches in western Europe and North America.

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