Reformed Church in America

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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New Year’s observations on matters religion writers will want to be watching (Part I)

New Year’s observations on matters religion writers will want to be watching (Part I)

The Religion Guy’s thoughts about religion-what beat specialists may want to anticipate for 2017 once the New Year has been properly toasted are as follows: Much of the action will circle around LGBTQ-related controversies. I am sure that is not a surprise.

As throughout 2016, all things Donald Trump will dominate the news. Due to the ongoing conflict between gay rights and religious-liberty assertions there’s keen interest in the unpredictable new president’s Supreme Court choice to succeed the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Justice Samuel Alito recently lamented the repression of free speech, particularly on college campuses, but warned that “freedom of religion is in even greater danger.”

Again, this is not a big surprise.

Alito and Scalia uttered that same warning as dissenters when the court majority dodged religious rights in its 2015 ruling legalizing gay marriage. A new justice in Scalia’s mold won’t shift the Court’s balance of power. The bigger ruckus comes later, with a replacement for swing voter Anthony Kennedy (age 80), or liberals Ruth Bader Ginsberg (83) or Stephen Breyer (78). 
Also vital, though often neglected by the media, will be Trump’s nominees for lower federal courts that will decide most of these First Amendment disputes.

Though this is often portrayed in the press as a mere concern of Catholics and white evangelicals, 27 African-American Protestant leaders rallied by the Seymour Institute sent a notable letter to candidate Hillary Clinton. Alongside conventional black concerns on matters like education and justice, the clergy charged that gay activists want to “criminalize our biblical texts as hate speech,” and accused Democrats of “open contempt for religious freedom.”

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Twitter-verse fact checking: The New Yorker learns that Calvinism can be tricky stuff

Twitter-verse fact checking: The New Yorker learns that Calvinism can be tricky stuff

Here's some advice for journalists venturing into religion-beat terrain: Be careful when you get into church-history arguments with Calvinists, because you may be predestined to fall into error.

What we are talking about here is the profile of Betsy DeVos that ran the other day in The New Yorker. DeVos, for those following Citizen Donald Trump and his evolving cabinet, has been proposed as the next Secretary of Education.

The Big Idea in this piece (the stuff of politics, of course) is that she is a crucial figure in the world of big, scary GOP money that is on the wrong side of history. This is captured perfectly in the overture:

After choosing for his cabinet a series of political outsiders who are loyal to him personally, Donald Trump has broken with this pattern to name Betsy DeVos his Secretary of Education. DeVos, whose father-in-law is a co-founder of Amway, the multilevel marketing empire, comes from the very heart of the small circle of conservative billionaires who have long funded the Republican Party.
Trump’s choice of DeVos delivers on his campaign promise to increase the role of charter schools, which she has long championed.

Lots and lots of GOP money lingo follows. What will interest GetReligion readers comes later, when New Yorker veteran Jane Mayer ventures into the building blocks of the DeVos worldview, as well as her bank account. The result is a fascinating thread in the Twitter-verse that explores what some would call "post-truth" issues in the world of digital fact checking.

Here is the crucial material in the feature, as it currently reads on the magazine's website:

DeVos is a religious conservative who has pushed for years to breach the wall between church and state on education, among other issues.*

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Sound of the last trump: Where does this leave the Christian #NeverTrumpers?

Sound of the last trump: Where does this leave the Christian #NeverTrumpers?

With Donald Trump now set to be the GOP nominee thanks to Indiana, there’s a good piece waiting on the extinct “NeverTrump” movement's Christian wing, which spurns him over attitudes toward ethnic and religious minorities, personal life, vulgarity, and other matters.

There have been four basic strategies among those who believe Trump violates Christian moral standards. (1) Suffer in silence. (2) Speak out individually, hoping to influence others. (3) Organize a group declaration. (4) Seize this chance to bash Republicans and conservatives.

An early example of option No. 2 was the efforts by the Rev. Russell Moore, the social-issues spokesman for the nation’s largest Protestant body, the Southern Baptist Convention. He moved to the forefront Sept. 17, excoriating the billionaire as “decadent and deviant” in a sharp New York Times op-ed.

In a recent piece at Slate.com, Ruth Graham (no relation to Billy’s evangelical clan) ran down the anti-Trump fulminations by Moore, seminary President Albert Mohler and other Southern Baptists. She noted that Moore peeved some pastors (on that see the Religion Guy’s Feb. 9 Memo). In the clergy name-dropping, she noted, Trump can cite enthusiasm from Jerry Falwell Jr. and Robert Jeffress. However, World magazine’s latest survey among 81 “evangelical leaders and influencers” found 76 percent favored Ted Cruz vs. 5.1 percent for Trump.

Two examples of option No. 3: Early last December several colleagues at the Presbyterian Church (USA) seminary in Georgia decided to write “An Appeal to Christians in the United States.” Endorsers, largely Protestant, included former Fuller Theological Seminary President Richard Mouw, President Jul Medenblik of Calvin Theological Seminary and retired United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon. This text avoided mention of Trump, the obvious target, as it assailed unnamed politicians who “exploit fear and pride,” “slander our neighbors and blaspheme against the one God of all peoples” and demonize “the refugee and immigrant.” Posted by the Journal for Preachers quarterly, the petition drew thousands of online endorsers by word of mouth, but the public splash didn’t occur until April and an ad in Christianity Today.

Too little, too late.

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For reporters’ datebook: A busy nine weeks on LGBT issues for U.S. Protestants

For reporters’ datebook: A busy nine weeks on LGBT issues for U.S. Protestants

With Easter celebrations behind them, four U.S. Protestant denominations are about to plunge into a 9-week swirl of big decision-making on their unceasing and anguishing gay dispute. The actions will come less than a year after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage.

In the Reformed Church in America, 21 days of continent-wide fasting and prayers for wisdom will culminate in an April 15-18 “Special Council on Human Sexuality” in Chicago. The 74 delegates are assigned to devise “a constitutional pathway forward” that can manage the deep division over sexuality, for proposal to the General Synod June 9-14 in Palos Heights, Illinois. Though relatively small, the RCA is one of the oldest U.S. denominations, dating to 1628 in New Amsterdam (today’s New York City). 

Next up is the May 10-20 General Conference of the large United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon. The UMC has debated the question without letup since 1972, always upholding the belief that “the practice of homosexuality” is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” while liberals regularly defy the required discipline of clergy living in homosexual relationships or who conduct ceremonies for same-sex couples.

An unusual aspect of the situation is that though the U.S. flock has declined dramatically to 7.2 million, the UMC includes overseas churches, mostly in Africa and mostly conservative, that now boast 5.2 million members. Legislation on the table includes a bid from the “Connectional Table,” an official coordination body, to replace the strict UMC-wide policy with local option.

The split is demonstrated by two pending cases.

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Lesbian pastor makes FDNY history (on edge of Reformed Church in America)

Lesbian pastor makes FDNY history (on edge of Reformed Church in America)

So, The New York Times recently ran a profile of the Rev. Ann Kansfield, the first female chaplain and the first openly gay chaplain in the New York Fire Department. As GetReligion readers would expect, the doctrines of orthodox "Kellerism" were in effect (click here for background on that term), with the Times team making no attempts whatsoever to explore any points of view other that those of people thrilled about this event.

So what else is news? Well, this time around the story did manage to contain a few hints that the denominational history behind this woman's ministry is a bit more complex, and interesting, than the culture wars triumph on the surface.

First, there is the rebel-with-a-cause lede:

Maybe it is her short, spiky hair, or the cigarettes, which she gives to the men repairing the wiring in her Brooklyn apartment. Maybe it is because she swears. For whatever reason, the Rev. Ann Kansfield does not fit the stereotype of a minister.
Not that she is worried about meeting anyone’s expectations for what a clergywoman should say or do.
“We shouldn’t have to hide ourselves or worry about being judged,” Ms. Kansfield, who ministers at the Greenpoint Reformed Church, said.

Now, remember the name of that church and the "Reformed" reference.

You see, this story is pretty predictable -- when it comes to New York City culture. However, if you read between the lines, it's offers interesting glimpses into the state of life in the Reformed Church in America, a small, declining flock that is perched right between the world of liberal, oldline Protestantism and the rapidly evolving world of evangelical culture. RCA leaders are trying to figure out which direction to fall.

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