Methodist trial: “Experts on both sides of the divide agree”


In a quick glance through some of the coverage of the United Methodist trial of the Rev. Karen Dammann (shown at right in a United Methodist News Service photo) I found something interesting — a newspaper bravely steering to the left of the New York Times in coverage of a moral and religious issue.

That would be the Washington Post, with a story that is — even by modern journalistic standards — starkly one-sided. There is no way to do a content analysis of the whole story, so let’s look at one core issue: In terms of numbers, which side is on the upswing? Oh, and there is a related question: Who is to blame for this painful dispute?

The Post story notes that the United Methodist powers that be are in the midst of a branding campaign to promote peace and harmony:

Outside the courtroom in a church social hall, protesters carried signs saying “Closed Minds, Closed Hearts, Closed Doors” — a reference to the church’s $18 million television advertising campaign, which uses the slogan, “Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors: the People of the United Methodist Church.”

Church officials say the four-year campaign has been successful, boosting overall attendance by 7 percent and first-time visitors at 150 test churches by 14 percent. Some worry that those gains could be offset by negative publicity about the trial. But a church spokesman, Stephen Drachler, said the trial also “shows the church living its faith and opening minds. In the United Methodist Church, as in society, people don’t agree on every issue.”

This makes it pretty clear that in the eyes of reporter Alan Cooperman (the Post specialist covering the world of oldline Protestantism), the people who are defending the church’s teachings on marriage and sex are undercutting a church-growth campaign. This would then mean that it is the traditionalists who are causing the church to decline — that’s bad for business. Thus, it would be the progressives who are on the side of health and growth.

This sounds strange, in light of reporting at National Public Radio, the Atlantic Monthly and a host of other places showing that the church-growth wave shaping these doctrinal debates is on the side of the traditionalists — especially if the voices of Third World churches are taken into account. We can also see similar patterns in churches here in the United States. Look for similar tensions between Catholic leaders in, let’s say, Europe and Africa in the chess game leading up to the next papal election.

Or consider this information from a New York Times story on this trial, written by veteran religion writer Laurie Goodstein. It contains something amazing — a highly relevant and apparently non-controversial fact. Journalists need to look for this kind of information.

The United Methodist Church — the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination, with about 8.3 million members — has remained so torn over homosexuality that it has argued over its stance at every quadrennial meeting for the last 32 years. Based on previous votes at the conventions, it appears that about two-thirds of church members are opposed to acceptance of homosexuality, while about one-third are in favor, church experts on both sides of the divide agreed.

Now that is a major divide. Obviously, the larger story behind this trial up in Washington state is not going to fade away. This also implies that the current tensions are rooted in the efforts of a minority of United Methodists — even in the North American context — to change church doctrines against the will of a large traditionalist majority.

That would have been nice for a major newspaper such as the Washington Post to note. In this case, the New York Times goes further, adding material from a conservative source to balance large blocks of quoted material from progressives. According to Mark Tooley, director of the United Methodist project at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative group that watches mainline trends:

… the Pacific Northwest region not only was out of step with the majority of the church, but also was part of a liberal Western jurisdiction that is losing members while the more conservative Southeastern and overseas regions are growing.

“I suspect that homosexuality will be a point of contention for at least the next two decades,” he said. “However, those of us on the traditional side are at least hopeful that in a demographic sense, the church is going in our direction.”

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Joe Perez

    A church whose slogan is “Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors” can hardly seem to be pushing the growth bandwagon by catering to a large traditional minority! It is entirely appropriate for protesters to highlight the hypocrisy in the Methodist Church. And it’s a sad state of affairs when a journalist writing about such protesters and noting objectively that “Some worry…” about the impact on the church’s progressive image is taken to task on your blog as “one-sided.”

  • John Hetman

    After a lengthy process of discernment where a jury of 14 Methodist ministers (including 2 lesbians, 3 polygamists, 1 polyandrist, 1 Yaqui Shaman, and 2 gay vegetarians) met in the Hall of Meditation made available to them by the 3rd Tibetan Presbyterian Church of Gaia, they reached a unanimous verdict in the acquittal of Jane Jacob Jinglehiemer-Schmidtt. The Rt. Rev. MrMs. Jingleheimer Schmidtt had been accused of violating the long held Methodist principle that banned the eating of human flesh. “We prayed to Gaia, Buddha, Krishna, John Lennon and Yoko, PeeWee Hermann, and the Rev. Frank Griswold for guidance and they came through with a thoroughly inclusive insight in a voice that said, “First take out the foot of your own mouth, before you take your sibrother’s eyes off the roasted Swiss theologian!”

    Hundreds of supporters of the Rt. Rev. MrMs. Jingleheimer-Schmidtt clapped with the sound of one hand…the other holding that of their loved one soon to be sautÃ(c)ed with onions and portobello mushrooms in a bonding ceremony to be performed in Portland, Oregon, the first city to officially wed consensual cannibal couples.

    When asked for his comment, 2012 Democratic Party Presidential nominee, John Kerry responded that he was quite in favor of civil rights for consenting cannibals, but had not yet reached an opinion on a formal spiritual ceremony. `My heart and mind are still open to the idea,` said Mr. Kerry. He then turned to his secret service agent assigned to protect him and called him “You F–k–g S-n of a Bi-ch” for getting too close to the mike.

  • Bob Klimek

    I’m a lay staff member at a United Methodist Church in the Seattle area. Despite claims of “7% growth” in denominational attendance, my conference is declining in membership and financial support. As a whole, we’ve been decommisioning churches, not adding members.

    Please contrast this with my own church’s experience. Over the past two years we have increased our aggregate weekly worship attendance by approximately 30%. How is this possible, in the state ranked 49th in the nation for frequency of church attendance? 18 months ago, we added a ministry/service that tries, at it’s heart, to be solidly based on Biblical teaching and Scriptural authority. It is an outreach ministry — not TV ads trumpeting “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors”, but individual members asking family and friends to “Come and hear the Good News that God has for you”.

    At the same time, our “traditional” worship service – a typical, “inclusive” Pacific Northwest Methodist ministry, has lost perhaps 40% of it’s weekly attendance.

    Perhaps the Pacific Northwest annual conference should run it’s own ad campaign: “No Ethics, No Message, No Members: the Churches of the PNW Conference.”