Location, location, location: Did the whole United Methodist Church ordain a non-binary deacon?

Location, location, location: Did the whole United Methodist Church ordain a non-binary deacon?

This truth cannot be stated too many times: This whole religion-beat thing is complicated.

Take the gazillions of complicated facts and potential errors hidden in one simple word -- "polity." In addition to having countless doctrinal differences, the world's thousands of organized religions also have their own systems for laws and governance.

One flock's bishop fills a completely different role than another flock's leader with the same title. Each of these "bishops" has completely different powers and tasks, according to the laws or his or her flock. Church history matters. Scripture matters. The words in vows matter.

So what about that recent headline in The Washington Post? The one that proclaimed: "The United Methodist Church has appointed a transgender deacon."

Well, there is the United Methodist Church -- a global denomination. There are also local United Methodist churches, with a lower-case "c." To understand what happens at the various levels in between means wrestling with UMC polity.

As I said in a 2014 post: "United Methodism doctrine? Think location, location, location."

So, has the United Methodist Church -- the whole shooting match -- appointed (or even approved the appointment of) it's first trans deacon? Let's look carefully at the top of the Post story on this complicated event:

The bishop spoke the traditional words as she placed her hands on the new deacon named M with just a slight difference from the way those words have always been spoken before.
“Pour out your Holy Spirit upon M,” the bishop said. “Send them now to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, to announce the reign of God and to equip the church for ministry.”
Not “send him now” or “send her now.” “Send them now.” 
That’s what M Barclay has been working for 12 years to finally hear.
Barclay, a transgender person who identifies as neither male nor female and thus uses the pronoun “they,” was commissioned on Sunday as the first non-binary member of the clergy in the United Methodist Church.

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RNS report confuses many crucial terms in Eastern Orthodox debates on female deacons

RNS report confuses many crucial terms in Eastern Orthodox debates on female deacons

I know that we have been over this before, but once again we need to address a complicated issue in church history -- whether the role of "deaconess" that existed in the early church is the same thing as the status being described in modern proposals to raise women to the ordained role of permanent deacons.

This is the crucial question that reporters and editors need to understand if they are going to cover debates on female deacons in the Church of Rome and in Eastern Orthodoxy. As always, journalists do not have to AGREE with the traditional point of view on the issues involved in this debate, but they do need to understand them.

It would help, of course, if journalists knew the details of the duties that historians believe ancient deaconesses performed, as well as the liturgical work done by today's permanent deacons. (Note: "Permanent," as opposed to deacons who will soon transition to the priesthood.)

The pivotal question, as described by Pope Francis last year, is whether the church is going to restore the ancient role of the deaconess or do something new, which would be ordaining -- that's the key word -- women to the altar-centered role of permanent deacon.

I bring this up because of a recent Religion News Service story that, truth be told, is basically a press release for the movement to ordain female deacons in Eastern Orthodox churches. The headline: "Orthodox Church debate over women deacons moves one step closer to reality."

The crucial material begins here, where the issue is clearly framed as a debate about the ordination of women:

That prospect may now be a giant step closer to reality, since the Patriarch of Alexandria, who presides over the entire Orthodox Church in Africa, followed up on his 2016 decision to reintroduce women deacons and last month appointed six nuns to be subdeaconesses within the church.
In a symbolic ceremony, the patriarch blessed the women and used other religious symbols to effectively restore women’s ordination within Orthodoxy. The move follows years of discussions within different branches of Orthodoxy on whether to reinstitute women deacons, and it comes at a time of growing interest around the issue within the Greek Orthodox Church, the largest Orthodox denomination in the U.S.

This is completely over the top. And what, exactly, is a "subdeaconess"?

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Warning! Journalism maze ahead! When ministers are ministers but maybe not ...

Warning! Journalism maze ahead! When ministers are ministers but maybe not ...

First, my apologies for the fact that this week's "Crossroads" feature post is a day or two late. The world just keeps spinning out of control and it's hard to catch one's breath.

Second, I should warn readers that this week's podcast -- click here to tune that in -- deals with a topic so confusing that, several times, host Todd Wilken and I got a bit confused ourselves. In the end, we confessed that we totally understand that some journalists struggle in this complicated corner of the religion-news world (and thus make mistakes, such as this and even -- oh my -- this).

The topic? The language that various religious groups use to describe their leaders who are ordained, or in other cases not ordained. As I wrote several days ago:

When it comes to history, some religious movements insist that they don't have ordained clergy -- yet clearly they have leaders who play some of the roles that ordained clergy play in other flocks. Remember all the controversies a few years ago about GOP White House candidate Mitt Romney and his time as a "bishop" in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
Suffice it to say that a Mormon bishop is not the same as a Pentecostal bishop, or a United Methodist bishop, or a Lutheran bishop, or an Anglican bishop, or an Eastern Orthodox bishop. Reporters need to understand these kinds of facts, when dealing with stories that involve clergy or other "ministers" in various religious traditions.

In addition to offering reporters and editors many, many chances to make factual errors, these ordained-on-not issues can affect a wide range of legal and even financial issues linked to religious life and practice.

Everyone knows that, when a Catholic priest hears confessions, this communication is -- stated in legal language -- "privileged" and protected communication. With America's heritage of church-state separation, the state has no write to ask this priest to violate his vows (a point of law that is, some are convinced, getting blurred as of late).

But how about a Catholic deacon who has a private conversation with a church member in which she or he divulges loaded information?

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