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Journalists may want to ask: When will United Methodist left decide that enough is enough?

Journalists may want to ask: When will United Methodist left decide that enough is enough?

Way back in the 1980s, as the sex wars in the Episcopal Church really began to heat up, I heard a conservative priest tell a joke that gently mocked many of his Anglo-Catholic colleagues on the doctrinal right.

The whole point of the joke is that it is really hard to cut the ties that bind, when people have invested decades of their lives in religious institutions and traditions. And then there are the all-too human, practical details that come into play. In the end, it may be easier to edit the Apostles Creed and modernize the prayer book than it is to split the clergy pension play or divide a denomination’s trust funds.

Which brings us back to that joke that I have shared once or twice in the past. I have left the time-element in the first line intact. Like I said, it’s an old joke.

The year is 2012 … and two Anglo-Catholic priests in the back of National Cathedral are watching the Episcopal presiding bishop and her incense-bearing lover process down the aisle behind a statue of the Buddha, while the faithful sing a hymn to Mother Earth.

"You know," one traditionalist whispers, "ONE more thing and I'm out the door."

Right now, in the multi-decade United Methodist Church civil war, things may be close to reaching that point for LGBTQ clergy and their supporters on the denomination’s doctrinal left. What will it take for these believers — who are sincerely convinced that 2,000 years of Christian doctrines on marriage and sex should be changed — to decide that enough is enough?

That’s the key question that I asked during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast. (Click here to tune that in, or head over the iTunes.) What would this old “ONE more thing” joke look like today, if you turned it around — doctrinally speaking — and looked at it from the point of view of United Methodists on the left?

Maybe you would have two United Methodist pastors from the Iliff School of Theology in Denver — long a safe haven for the left — standing at the back of a global General Conference that is being held in a United Methodist stronghold in Africa. They are watching an African bishop walk down the aisle with his wife with his hands in the air singing an evangelical praise song. The service ends with the Rev. Franklin Graham giving an altar call.

One more thing and I’m out the door?

Then what? That was the other half of the equation in this podcast. Follow me through a few “ifs” here.

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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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New York Times weighs in, offering one side of bitter disputes inside United Methodist Church

New York Times weighs in, offering one side of bitter disputes inside United Methodist Church

If you’ve been following United Methodist Twitter, you know that this bitterly divided denomination has been in a behind-the-scenes uproar about a New York Times gotcha story that ran the other day. The headline: “Improper Voting Discovered at Methodist Vote on Gay Clergy.”

This is the rare case in which news consumers can find more information, and even a hint of balanced coverage, by reading official press releases from United Methodist News. Take this story, for example: “Denials, charges fly in GC2019 voting credentials review.” In this story — from the denominational press — there are actual interviews with people on the conservative side of this battle.

But back to the world’s most powerful newspaper.

Here’s a crucial question, a question that the Times story did ask and, to some degree, did answer: Did voting issues affect the crucial outcomes in the recent general conference in St. Louis? We are talking about the votes that defeated the One Church Plan favored by the United Methodist Church’s American establishment and the vote that passed some elements of the Traditionalist Plan favored by a coalition of American evangelicals and delegates from the Global South.

The Times piece played down, and avoided specifics, on another crucial issue: The fact that 30 overseas delegates were not able to attend, and thus were unable to vote, because of issues obtaining U.S. visas. In other words, the Global South coalition was stronger than it appeared in the final votes. The issue with visas also points to another issue in the Times report: Squabbles (and, potentially, translation issues) over the status of “reserve” delegates at the conference. Thus, the overture for the story:

It was a momentous vote for the United Methodist Church, as the future of the country’s second-largest Protestant church hung in the balance. In a former football stadium in St. Louis last month, church officials and lay leaders from around the world voted to strengthen their ban on same-sex marriage and gay clergy, a decision that could now split the church.

But at least four ballots were cast by individuals who were not authorized to vote, according to interviews and a review of the church’s records. The individuals were from African delegations whose votes were critical to restricting the church’s rules on homosexuality.

The final 54-vote margin against gay clergy and same-sex marriage exceeds the number of unauthorized votes discovered so far. But the voting irregularities raised questions about the process behind the divisive decision, which devastated progressive members. Some have discussed leaving the denomination and possibly creating a new alliance for gay-friendly churches.

The bottom line, of course, is whether American church officials can find a way to challenge the validity of the St. Louis votes and fight on, continuing decades of work to change the denomination’s teachings on sexuality, marriage and the ordination of clergy.

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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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Thinking about the United Methodist future and (parts of) the Southern Baptist past

Thinking about the United Methodist future and (parts of) the Southern Baptist past

GetReligion readers who have been around a while may recall that I grew up as a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid in Texas. Then I did two degrees at Baylor University in Waco, long known as Jerusalem on the Brazos.

This was all before the great Southern Baptist Convention civil war broke out in the late 1970s. That all went down as I was breaking into journalism and then into religion-beat work.

Looking back, I would say that I was raised on the conservative side of “moderate” SBC life and then went way over to the liturgical “moderate” left — but only on a few political issues (I was very pro-abortion rights, for example). I never was a “moderate” in terms of doctrine. That’s what pushed me over into Anglo-Catholicism and then on to Orthodoxy. You can see signs of that in this 1983 magazine piece I wrote entitled, “Why I Can No Longer Be A Baptist: Giving the Saints the Right to Vote.”

While at The Charlotte Observer, I wrote one of the first stories about the formation of the “moderate” alliance against the more conservative SBC establishment.

Now, if you lived through all of that the way I did, you know this name — Nancy T. Ammerman. Writing as a sociologist of religion, she became one of the go-to scholars who interpreted the SBC civil war and, thus, a popular source for reporters in elite newsrooms (see her “Baptist Battles” book).

If you spoke fluent Southern Baptist, it was easy to see that she was totally sympathetic to the moderates on the losing side of this fight. Still, her views were interesting and often quite perceptive.

That brings us to this weekend’s “think piece,” an Ammerman op-ed for Religion News Service entitled: “How denominations split: Lessons for Methodists from Baptist battles of the ’80s.” Here is a very typical Ammerman summary of the thesis:

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Demographics and destiny: Big story brewing if many religious colleges are destined to die

Demographics and destiny: Big story brewing if many religious colleges are destined to die

Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School predicts that half of America’s colleges will die during the coming decade, due especially to competition from online coursework.

Many will pooh-pooh this dire forecast for institutions that have been so cherished a part of the nation’s culture. But Gettysburg College historian Allen Guelzo contended that the danger is palpable, and increasing, in a recent Wall Street Journal piece (behind a pay wall).

Guelzo said America’s 1,800 private colleges are especially at risk, and the smaller they are the bigger their problem. Though elite private schools boast fat endowments, offer ample scholarship aid and lure plenty of applicants, hundreds of private campuses lack these advantages.

Schools in the Northeast are especially vulnerable. In the past six years, 17 small colleges died in Massachusetts alone, and in recent months three more in New England announced closures. The ghost of Vermont’s debt-ridden Burlington College, which went under in 2016, remains in the news because financial moves by its former head, Jane Sanders, got the blame and she’s married to a would-be U.S. president.

Parents and students may protest tuition increases that exceed inflation year by year, conservatives may bemoan faculties dominated by politically correct liberals and some pundits may question the value of a college degree.

But Guelzo said the big threat is simple demographics. He projects that sagging birth rates will reduce potential college applicants by 450,000 during the 2020s. Private colleges must charge much higher tuitions than tax-supported competitors and will be hammered further if Democrats achieve “free college for all” plans that subsidize public campuses.

Obviously a big story is brewing, and religion writers will want to focus on the 247 Catholic colleges listed by the U.S. bishops’ office and the 143 conservative Protestant campuses linked to the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. Most are four-year liberal arts institutions, but the counts include some seminaries and other specialized programs. Myriad other schools founded by “mainline” Protestants have only vestigial faith commitments and are of less religious interest.

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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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Question as reporters look ahead: How many United Methodists are there? Are all created equal?

Question as reporters look ahead: How many United Methodists are there? Are all created equal?

Anyone who has worked on the religion beat a year or two knows that it is wise for journalists to read church membership totals with one eyebrow raised high. The professionals who work in religious institutions certainly know that membership statistics are estimates, at best.

As we always used to say when I was growing up Southern Baptist; There are towns in Texas where there are more Baptists than there are people.

But there’s no way around it — estimated membership and attendance figures really do matter. This is especially true when they directly affect the polity and governance of a specific religious body.

This brings us — #DUH — to that dramatic United Methodist battle that took place the other day in St. Louis. This was the topic of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in).

The follow-up coverage, with few exceptions, has focused on the rainbow-draped reactions of United Methodist leaders on the losing side of this special conference — which was charged with finding a way forward after four decades of doctrinal disagreements about marriage, sexuality (LGBTQ grab headlines) and the Bible. Could the UMC as a whole require that its clergy keep the vows they took, in ordination rites, to follow the denomination’s Book of Discipline?

But let’s look at an even more basic and crucial question, one linked to membership statistics. Ready? How many United Methodists are there in the United Methodist Church?

One would think that the official United Methodist News Service would be a solid place to look for that information. A year ago, it published a report online that stated:

The United Methodist Church’s global membership now exceeds 12.5 million.

These membership figures come from the most recent annual conference journals sent to the General Council on Finance and Administration. The vast majority of the journals are from 2016 with some from 2017 or earlier years including one from 2013.

The Rev. Gary Graves, secretary of the General Conference, used these totals in calculating how many delegates each conference sends to the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly in 2020. 

Yes, the word “global” is crucial. The United Methodist Church is a global institution and that reality shapes the structures that govern it.

That brings us to a post-war story in the Washington Post that contains some very interesting — I would say strange — language about church statistics.

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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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