United Church of Christ

Bad vibrations: Riverside Church war offers perfect case study of @NYPost vs. @NYTimes

Bad vibrations: Riverside Church war offers perfect case study of @NYPost vs. @NYTimes

This certainly was not your typical media storm about a Baylor University graduate who achieved fame in the ministry by heading to Washington, D.C., and then to New York City.

However, the fall of the Rev. Amy Butler from the high pulpit of Manhattan’s world-famous Riverside Church offers readers a classic journalism case study illustrating the differences between New York Post readers and New York Times readers. It’s also educational to note that the religious themes in this controversy played little or no role in either report.

Starting with a classic A1 headline, the Post editors knew what would zap readers awake while reading in their subway cars:

The reason for her ouster is far more stimulating than any sermon this pastor could have delivered.

The Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, the first woman to lead Manhattan’s famed Riverside Church, lost her lofty post amid complaints that she brought ministers and a congregant on a sex toy shopping spree and then gave one of them an unwanted vibrator as a birthday gift, The Post has learned.

On May 15, Butler allegedly took two Riverside assistant ministers and a female congregant to a sex shop in Minneapolis called the Smitten Kitten, during a religious conference, according to sources familiar with the out-of-town shopping excursion.

At the store, the pastor bought a $200 bunny-shaped blue vibrator called a Beaded Rabbit for one minister — a single mom of two who was celebrating her 40th birthday — as well as more pleasure gadgets for the congregant and herself, sources said. The female minister didn’t want the sex toy, but accepted it because she was scared not to, sources said.

The great Gray Lady, on the other hand, knew that the readers in its choir would want a story rooted in sexism, patriarchy and workplace politics. The headline, as you would imagine, was a bit more restrained: “Pastor’s Exit Exposes Cultural Rifts at a Leading Liberal Church.”

The sex toys angle made it into the Times story, with a nod to Post coverage, but readers had to wait a few extra paragraphs to find that angle. Here’s the overture:

When the Rev. Dr. Amy K. Butler was hired to lead Riverside Church in Manhattan in 2014, she was hailed as a rising star, the first woman to join a distinguished line of pastors at one of the pre-eminent progressive Protestant congregations in the United States.

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New social-media explosion could make news: Should Protestants have women pastors?

New social-media explosion could make news: Should Protestants have women pastors?

THE QUESTION:

Should women be pastors or preachers in U.S. Protestant churches?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The above issue erupted in recent days among U.S. evangelicals (more on this in a moment). In the interest of full disclosure, the (Protestant) Religion Guy’s personal opinion on this is yes, and in fact his own local congregation has its first female pastor. But as usual “Religion Q & A” intends to provide a non-partisan journalistic survey.

Let’s first note that Catholic and Orthodox tradition bars any realistic prospect of female priests, even as increasing numbers of U.S. Protestant women become ministers. The Association of Theological Schools reports women are 30 percent of the students (mostly Protestants) in member seminaries preparing for the M.Div. professional clergy degree.

With “mainline” Protestants, the Congregationalist ancestors of today’s United Church of Christ ordained America’s first female, Antoinette Brown, in 1853, though she later went Unitarian and few other women followed till the 20th Century. Women achieved full clergy status in e.g. predecessor bodies of the United Methodist Church and Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1956 and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1970, and in the Episcopal Church in 1977 (following non-canonical protest ordinations in 1974).

Among “evangelical” Protestants, from the late 19th Century some denominations appointed women to such leadership roles as preacher, evangelist, missionary or deacon, and in certain instances to clergy status. But most congregations barred women pastors, either de facto or de jure.

Lately, a vigorous evangelical movement has formalized the belief that limiting pastors, preachers and lay officers to males is God’s mandate in the Bible. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) organized in 1987. Its founding “Danvers Statement” defined Protestant “complementarianism,” meaning the two genders have distinct roles that complement each other, over against “egalitarians.”

This document teaches that gender distinctions are part of God’s “created order.”

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RNS: Religious Left rallies to stop Kavanaugh. Religious Right sitting this one out?

RNS: Religious Left rallies to stop Kavanaugh. Religious Right sitting this one out?

Let’s have a short religion-beat test.

When a story is built on media contacts with the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalists, you are really with what part of the cultural and doctrinal part of the marketplace of American religion?

(Cue the think music)

I see that hand on a religion-news desk! These are outspoken churches on the Religious Left. The United Church of Christ is the elite flock that was home to President Barack Obama.

Now, would you be surprised to find out, on cultural issues, group’s such as the National Council of Churches, the National Council of Jewish Women and Muslim networks linked to the pink-hat Women’s March hail from the same basic zip code, in terms of moral, social and religious issues?

Now, what else do these groups have in common? Well, they are all, to be blunt, they are all tiny, in terms of the size of their flocks. However, they have lots of connections in the media-rich Acela Zone between Washington, D.C., and New York City. Odds are, when you see headlines that say “Religious groups” gather to protest this, that or the other, you are talking about these groups, often accompanied by progressive Catholic nuns dressed in pant suits.

What’s my point? Well, it is not that reporters should avoid covering them. GetReligion has been calling for increased coverage of the Religious Left — especially on religious issues, not just political issues — since we went online in 2004.

No, liberal believers matter. However, experienced reporters know that these groups are small and that portraying them as diverse, influential groups that represent mainline Christianity is, well, just about as fair as saying First Baptist Church, Dallas, and Liberty University are perfect voices for all of American evangelicalism.

That brings us to a very normal Religion News Service story with this headline: “After Senate clash, Kavanaugh nomination an occasion for prayer.” The overture:

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A liberal Baptist preaching to Unitarians: Washington Post digs into racial conflicts (period)

A liberal Baptist preaching to Unitarians: Washington Post digs into racial conflicts (period)

From Day 1, folks here at GetReligion have urged newsrooms to pay more attention to liberal Christianity and other forms of liberal faith. There is, of course, lots of coverage of these groups when it comes to politics and social-justice issues. Progressive actions on sexuality make news. 

What is missing is what any of this has to do with the basic building blocks of religious faith and tradition. What do these liberal groups have to say about, well, doctrine?

With that in mind, let's turn to the long, intensely reported Washington Post feature that ran under this headline: "Prominent progressive D.C. church, accused of racism, tries to move on." The church at the heart of this story is All Souls Church Unitarian, a prominent congregation at or near the heart of progressive Beltway culture. Here is the overture:

One of the District’s best-known progressive congregations was locked for months this year in a very public conflict with its associate minister, who claimed she was mistreated and pushed out because she is black. Her supporters -- in the church and around the country -- spotlighted the case as an example of what, to them, liberal racism looks like, and vowed to keep it in the public eye until she got a better exit package.

The conflict at the 1,100-member All Souls Church Unitarian, known for nearly 200 years as a bastion of social justice activism, became fodder for debate about the nature of racism, and whether its pervasiveness will always seep into interactions and judgments even among people and institutions who say they are fixated on fighting it.

Now, three months after All Souls reached a private settlement with the Rev. Susan Newman Moore, the impacts of the dispute are still unfolding.

A few lines later, a very interesting word enters this discussion. Let us attend:

Moore has returned to the Baptist denomination in which she was ordained in the 1970s, and a few weeks ago the D.C. Baptist Convention held a “reaffirmation” ceremony for her, “as a binding of sore spots where wolves have taken a bite of you.”

You read that right. This prominent Unitarian Universalist preacher is a Baptist.

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Waves of transgender news add to difficult agenda confronting religious traditionalists

Waves of transgender news add to difficult agenda confronting religious traditionalists

A bit of U.S. “mainline” Protestant history was made May 11. The Rhode Island State Council of Churches announced that its 70-year-old executive minister, American Baptist Donald Anderson, will take three months off for an unspecified “process of transitioning” to female identity.

The council’s board is “totally supportive,” stated its  president, a United Church of Christ pastor, and anticipates Anderson’s September return under the new name of Donnie. The council sponsored an April 24 “merciful conversation on gender identity and expression” at an Episcopal church.

By coincidence, the April 25 edition of The Christian Century, a prototypical “mainline” voice, published a noteworthy article on “nonbinary gender” as part of God’s good creation.

The piece was an excerpt from a new release by the Presbyterian Church (USA) book house, “Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians.” Author Austen Hartke, creator of the youtube series “Transgender and Christian,” is a recent graduate of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he won an Old Testament prize.

This frontier in modern moral theology confronts many U.S. religious groups head-on, and just after legalized same-sex marriage, causing religious-freedom disputes the news media will be covering for the foreseeable future. 

The transgender cause contrasts with the heavily “binary” and “cisgender” culture throughout the Bible and the Quran that shapes the beliefs of traditional Christians, Jew and Muslims.

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So two female pastors get married, but The New York Times avoids deeper theological details

So two female pastors get married, but The New York Times avoids deeper theological details

When covering the wide divide between liberal Christians and Christian conservatives, is the status of same-sex marriage the only doctrinal issue that matters?

Of course not.

In fact, if you dig deep enough, you'll often find that other issues are much more important in these disputes, such as how different brands of believers view the authority of scripture (especially in low-church Protestant settings) and how much authority they grant ancient doctrines taught in the early church (especially in high-church, liturgical settings).

Yes, there are times when a person's experiences linked to sexuality leads him or her to seek a new ecclesiastical home. That is common. However, even then, this faith crisis almost always involves other doctrines, other theological issues.

But sexuality -- same-sex marriage, in particular -- is the hot issue right now and that is what mainstream reporters will write about, over and over, even when other issues are involved.

If you want to see this process at work, check out the recent New York Times "Weddings" feature that ran with this headline: "Two Pastors in Love, and Only God Knows." The basic structure of this story is seen in the overture:

Pastor Twanna Gause stepped out of a limousine amid the whir of cameras outside the New Vision Full Gospel Baptist Church in East Orange, N.J.
Dressed in an off-white wedding gown and veil that sparkled in the cascading sunshine, she carried a bouquet of white roses and lilies, hugged several guests, then parted a sea of well-wishers on the way to her best friend, Pastor Vanessa Brown, who stood waiting at the altar in a cream-colored long coat called a sherwani and gold Punjabi jutti shoes.
The church doors opened, allowing the faint strains of “You Are So Beautiful” to float on the hot August air.

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Are millennials leading the way in rejecting Gideon Bibles? Los Angeles Times says yes

Are millennials leading the way in rejecting Gideon Bibles? Los Angeles Times says yes

A few weeks ago, a spokesman for Gideon Bibles spoke at my church and the need was great, he said, for younger people to join up with a group that’s usually connected –- in the public eye –- with older men in business suits. (Membership is limited to evangelical Protestant men 21 years or older).

I went up to him afterwards and he said their chief need is for funds to continue the work. Seems that the organization hasn’t been in the public eye like better-known charities and that the popular culture has changed since the first Bibles were placed in a Montana hotel room in 1908.

 A century later, when more people than ever are objecting to any sign of religion in the public square, a well-known hotel chain has decided that allowing Bibles even hidden away in a drawer is too religious. As the Los Angeles Times tells it:

When the ultra-hip Moxy Hotel opens in San Diego next year, the rooms will be stocked with the usual amenities — an alarm clock, hair dryer, writing desk and flat-screen TV.
But you won’t find a Bible in the bedside nightstand.
Marriott International, the world’s largest hotel company, supplies a Bible and the Book of Mormon in the rooms of every other hotel in the franchise. But the company has recently decided that no religious materials should be offered at two of its newest millennial-oriented hotel brands, Moxy and Edition hotels.
“It’s because the religious books don’t fit the personality of the brands,” said Marriott spokeswoman Felicia Farrar McLemore, explaining that the Moxy and Edition hotels are geared toward fun-loving millennials.

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The state of Donald Trump's soul: Lots of chortles and, so far, few factual questions

The state of Donald Trump's soul: Lots of chortles and, so far, few factual questions

At least once a month, I receive some kind of angry email (or perhaps see comments on Facebook) from someone who is upset about mainstream press coverage of President Barack Obama that identifies him as a Christian.

Very few of these notes come from people who think Obama is a closet Muslim. Mostly, they come from doctrinally conservative Christians whose churches clash with the Obama White House on moral and cultural issues, most of them having to do with the Sexual Revolution. What they are saying, of course, is, "Obama isn't one of us." His actions show that.

Of course he isn't one of them. But it's perfectly accurate for journalists to note that the president has made a profession of faith (numerous times) as a liberal mainline Protestant. He walked the aisle and joined a congregation in the United Church of Christ, the bleeding edge of the liberal Protestant world, and has, functionally, been an Episcopalian while in the White House. Before becoming president he was quite candid about the details of his faith (the essential interview here). Obama has a liberal Christian voice.

This, of course, brings us to the God-and-politics story de jour right now -- the online interview in which Dr. James Dobson, once the creator of the Focus on the Family operation, says that he knows the person who recently led Donald Trump to born-again faith.

You can imagine the Twitter-verse reaction to this news, coming so soon after that closed-door New York City meeting between Trump and about 1,000 selected evangelical leaders. Here is the crucial material from The New York Times, which, as you can imagine, opened with a question lede. Then:

In an interview recorded ... by a Pennsylvania pastor, the Rev. Michael Anthony, Dr. Dobson said he knew the person who had led Mr. Trump to Christ, though he did not name him.

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NPR puff piece on transgender church leaves lots and lots of predictable gaps

NPR puff piece on transgender church leaves lots and lots of predictable gaps

Recently, I wrote about one unusual congregation (Mark Driscoll's Trinity Church) starting up in Phoenix and now here's another, at the opposite end of the theological pole. The United Church of Christ is one of the country’s most liberal Protestant denominations and one of their clergy seems to have found a way to minister to transsexual youth. This NPR piece is on the church he started back in 2009 that has, to one degree or another, taken off.

I think it’s fine to spotlight unusual ministries. What I have a problem with is when the presentation is totally uncritical. That is, the people who attend this church are always loving. The families they come from -- and other Christians -- are always hateful. There are no complex details.

It starts thus:

Some churches have become inclusive of gays and lesbians, but for transgender people, church can still feel extremely unwelcoming. A congregation in Phoenix is working to change that by focusing on the everyday needs of its members — many of whom are homeless trans youth.
It starts with a free dinner every Sunday night with donated homemade and store-bought dishes.

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