United Methodists

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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President Lallene J. Rector of Garrett-Evangelical: 'Our lobby and stairwells were rainbowed up'

President Lallene J. Rector of Garrett-Evangelical: 'Our lobby and stairwells were rainbowed up'

As documented repeatedly by my colleagues at GetReligion, precious few reporters have bothered to interview conservative United Methodists about the church’s teachings on marriage and sexual morality. What’s remarkable is when the subject of a one-sided interview does something other than describing the traditionalist side in terms that avoid mere name-calling.

Consider the case of Anne Ford of Chicago magazine interviewing President Lallene J. Rector, of the United Methodist Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in the northern Chicago suburb of Evanston. (As the hyphen suggests, “Evangelical” in this name does not refer to a theological emphasis, but to Garrett’s assimilation of Evangelical Theological Seminary in 1974.)

A pleasant surprise emerges in the first paragraph. Ford’s question repeats the Godbeat meme that the United Methodist Church’s General Conference “voted to ban ordaining LGBTQ people and performing same-sex marriages.”

Rector, while beginning on a note of horror about the vote, works her way around to a touch of humor:

Our students are devastated. I was personally sickened. We’re a left-leaning school. We’re on the record as being inclusive. After the vote, our lobby and stairwells were rainbowed up. The denomination’s been arguing over these issues since 1972, and as you can imagine, many people are fed up. We’ve lost a lot of seminary students to other denominations.

Any writer who must consult the academia-to-English dictionary regularly must give thanks for a seminary dean who uses a phrase as playful as “rainbowed up.”

So what can be found in this interview that is crucial, in terms of journalists learning where this local, regional, national global story might be moving?

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What happened to old-school journalism? Reporters keep slanting United Methodist coverage

What happened to old-school journalism? Reporters keep slanting United Methodist coverage

Here’s something that you don’t see every day.

I mean, it used to be perfectly normal to see a top editor at an American newspaper defend old-school virtues like balance, fairness and showing respect for people on both sides of hot-button debates. But recently, this has not been the norm — especially when dealing with news about religion and culture.

Consider, for example, recent coverage of the United Methodist Church and, especially, the trials and tribulations endured by leaders of this global denomination’s liberal U.S. establishment.

Please hear me: I have been covering this story for four decades and I know that activists and clergy on both sides have experienced lots of pain. All kinds of people have been tempted to head for the exits.

Liberal U.S. United Methodists, in particular, have seen one general conference after another vote against them, in part because the growing parts of this global — repeat GLOBAL — flock are doctrinally conservative when it comes to marriage, sex and the Bible. The left holds the high ground in American bureaucracies, but the right has more converts, more children and, thus, more votes.

Press coverage of the latest traditionalist victory, this past February in St. Louis, has been dominated by the beliefs and stories of the UMC left, usually with one quote provided by a conservative (90 percent of the time, that’s Mark Tooley of the Institute for Religion & Democracy). Click here for my post on an NBC News report that — so far — gets the gold medal for bias.

So, the other day a Toledo Blade reader named Joe Strieter wrote the newspaper’s managing editor to express concern about UMC coverage. The reader send GetReligion a copy of this very detailed letter and here is a sample:

Although the writer … did not specifically express her personal opinion, it's hard to avoid the impression that her sympathies lie with the "losing side."  …

Three people are pictured — all of them opposed to the action taken at the conference. No one is pictured who voted for or defended the resolution. …

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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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Los Angeles Times LGBTQ-beat reporter weighs in on local gay-friendly Methodist churches

Los Angeles Times LGBTQ-beat reporter weighs in on local gay-friendly Methodist churches

Ever since Patrick Soon-Shiong, a billionaire biotech entrepreneur, bought the Los Angeles Times last July, the paper has been on a hiring spree. Check out this list of current openings.

Notice a gap?

Yep, despite all the 2020 political writers they’re hiring plus bureaus in Singapore and Seoul and increased staffing on entertainment and business beats, they’ve yet to hire one religion reporter. I’m losing track as to how many years it’s been since they’ve had one. And most beats on that paper have multiple reporters sharing the various beats.

But the religion beat will have to wait. And when there is important religion news, they bring in folks from other specialties — like an LGBTQ-beat reporter, who wrote the following piece on what the recent swing to the doctrinal right among United Methodists means for the locals. How do you think this approach worked?

Tim Baudler was taught that God doesn’t love gay people.

When he was about 10, he realized he liked other boys. So Baudler, who grew up in a conservative church in Iowa, made himself a promise: If he made it to 20 and still felt the same way, he was going to kill himself.

At 15, he was found to have a malignant brain tumor and was given days to live. He was relieved. God, he thought, was taking care of everything. He wouldn’t have to commit suicide, and he wouldn’t have to be gay.

But he made it to 20. Then 30. His family shunned him. He moved to California, where he found Hollywood United Methodist Church. The Rev. Kathy Cooper Ledesma told him, “We’re your family now.”…

But like so many gay Methodists, Baudler now feels betrayed by the United Methodist Church, which is fighting a civil war over homosexuality so acrimonious that it could split the denomination.

Actually, 40 years of fighting over the Bible, marriage and sexuality has already carved a painful divide in the United Methodist Church. Now if this was a conservative being covered, we’d see “betrayed” in quote marks, as if to suggest it really isn’t betrayal. But Baudler and this particular UMC congregation get the benefit of the doubt.

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Looking at this story internationally, what’s the status of modern church doctrines on gays?

Looking at this story internationally, what’s the status of modern church doctrines on gays?

THE QUESTION: 

Looked at internationally, what’s the status of churches’ policies on the same-sex issue in the wake of the United Methodists’ important decision on this February 26?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

You may have read that in late February the 12.6-million-member United Methodist Church held a special General Conference in St. Louis, seeking to settle its painful conflict over the gay-and-lesbian issue and avert a split. The delegates decided by 53 percent to support and strengthen the denomination’s longstanding ban against same-sex marriages and clergy living in such relationships.

Though U.S. bishops, officials, and academics had advocated leeway on gays, the vote was not a shock. A 2015 poll by the denomination found 54 percent of U.S. pastors and 54 percent of lay leaders (though only 41 percent of lay members over-all)  favored keeping the traditional policy. Another poll of U.S. members, released just before the St. Louis conference, showed 44 percent identify as conservative or traditional in belief, 28 percent as moderate or centrist, and only 20 percent as progressive or liberal.

Moreover, United Methodism is a multinational denomination whose U.S. component has declined and now claims only 55 percent of the global membership. The congregations in Africa and Asia are growing, and that buttresses the traditionalist side. Unlike the Methodists, most “mainline” Protestant groups in North America and western Europe that recently liberalized on the same-sex issue had no foreigners casting ballots.

International bonds have always been central in Christianity. Currently, conservative and evangelical Protestants in North America, including a faction within liberalizing “mainline” groups, are united in sexual traditionalism with most of the Protestant and indigenous churches in Africa, Asia, the Mideast, eastern Europe and Latin America. Add in Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and the vast majority of the world’s Christians belong to churches that have always opposed gay and lesbian relationships.

This broad Christian consensus results from thousands of years of scriptures, interpretations, and traditions. This is the context for the West’s serious clash of conscience — between believers in that heritage versus religious and secular gay-rights advocates — that confronts government, politicians, educators, judges, journalists, and ordinary citizens.

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When covering the United Methodist split, remember that there's two sides -- not one

When covering the United Methodist split, remember that there's two sides -- not one

I’ve been only peripherally observing the United Methodist meltdown of this past week where, unlike any other U.S. denomination that’s debated doctrinal issues related to homosexuality over the past two decades, the conservatives won this round. The key: Church growth in the Global South and declining numbers of key parts of the United States.

So what’s the story? The impact on the winners after this historic St. Louis conference, the views of the losers or both? Under normal circumstances, journalists would say “both.”

Since St. Louis, a flood of articles have, voilà, been published bemoaning the crucial votes and concentrating on the angry, grieving liberals who must decide whether to stick with the denomination or leave to form their own. And it is a tough decision to make.

I know, because I covered a lot of conservative Episcopalians –- and some Lutherans -– who had to exit their denominations, starting with my column about the tornado that hit the Minneapolis Convention Center on the day in August 2009 of a crucial vote by members of Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and how some folks wondered if God was sending a message.

But where were these same articles oozing sympathy when theological conservatives were forced to leave? For instance, look at a recent piece in the New York Times:

WASHINGTON — Chet Jechura was 12 years old when he first felt called to preach, but for years he put off ordination. He knew himself, and he knew the official rules of the United Methodist Church: Homosexuality was “incompatible with Christian teaching.” And so he left the denomination.

Then four years ago, he discovered Foundry United Methodist, a church that has carved a different path. He could sing the hymns of his childhood, be fully supported as a gay man, and finally become a candidate for ordination.

This week, a decision at a global conference for Methodists threatened to upend a lifetime of dreams, with the church voting to strengthen its ban on same-sex marriage and gay and lesbian clergy.

At an impromptu prayer service on Wednesday, as Mr. Jechura helped serve communion, he broke out in sobs, his body convulsing, barely able to stand. The emptiness grew louder with every wail. Friends held him up, wrapping him in their arms…

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Friday Five: Godbeat trend, United Methodist future, Wheaton 'proof texts,' targeting atheists

Friday Five: Godbeat trend, United Methodist future, Wheaton 'proof texts,' targeting atheists

In a post this week about religion writer Tim Funk retiring from the Charlotte Observer, I asked about the status of religion reporting at the nation’s regional newspapers.

I mentioned a few metro dailies — the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Peter Smith), The Tennessean (Holly Meyer) and The Oklahoman (Carla Hinton) among them — that still rock the Godbeat.

But I asked readers to help me compile a list of all the big papers with full-time religion writers. Got a name to add to the list? By all means, comment below or tweet us @GetReligion.

Now, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Did you hear that the United Methodist Church had a high-stakes meeting in St. Louis, the latest battle in decades of warfare over marriage, sex and the Bible? LGBTQ issues are at the heart of this drama, as always (it seems).

Of course you heard about that and here are some of our posts from that major shindig:

Next big news story: After 40 years of war, is United Methodist establishment ready to bargain?

Big United Methodist questions: Has left embraced 'exit' plans? Do 'coexist' clauses work?

Yes, the United Methodist Church's big meeting in St. Louis is national news, but it's something else, too

Out of all the news coverage that I read, my favorite piece was this one by The Atlantic’s excellent Emma Green. Got a different nominee? Share a link below or tweet us at @GetReligion.

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Next big news story: After 40 years of war, is United Methodist establishment ready to bargain?

Next big news story: After 40 years of war, is United Methodist establishment ready to bargain?

The late Lyle E. Schaller was always popular with journalists because he had the rare ability to dig deep into statistics and demographics, while speaking in direct-quote friendly language. But it was always hard to know what to call him. He was an expert on church-growth trends. But he was also a United Methodist. Wait for it.

Schaller used to laugh whenever he was called a “United Methodist church-growth expert,” in part because of that flock’s serious decline in membership over the past quarter-century or more. If he was a church-growth pro, why didn’t his own denomination listen to him? It was something like being an expert on Baptist liturgy, Episcopal evangelism or Eastern Orthodox praise bands.

But when Schaller talked about the future, lots of people listened. Check out this material from a column I wrote about him entitled, “United Methodists: Breaking up is hard to do.

One side is convinced the United Methodist Church has cancer. The other disagrees and rejects calls for surgery. It's hard to find a safe, happy compromise when the issue is a cancer diagnosis. …

So it raised eyebrows when United Methodism's best-known expert on church growth and decay called for open discussions of strategies to split or radically restructure the national church. Research indicates that United Methodists are increasingly polarized around issues of scripture, salvation, sexuality, money, politics, multiculturalism, church government, worship and even the identity of God, said the Rev. Lyle E. Schaller of Naperville, Ill.

Many people are in denial, while their … church continues to age and decline, he said, in the Circuit Rider magazine for United Methodist clergy. Others know what's happening, yet remain passive.

Sports fans, That. Was. In. 1998.

Schaller told me that he was basing his diagnosis on the open doctrinal warfare that began two decades earlier, in the late 1970s. He was very familiar with a prophetic study that emerged from Duke Divinity School in the mid-1980s, entitled “The Seven Churches of Methodism."

Do I need to say that Schaller’s words are highly relevant in light of the acid-bath drama in yesterday’s final hours at that special United Methodist conference in St. Louis (GetReligion posts here and then here)?

But this is old news, really. Activists on both sides of this struggle have been doing the math (see my 2004 column on that topic) for four decades.

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