Here some stand

Schmeling“Stories like this annoy me,” a Lutheran pastor wrote when he notified us of the following Chicago Sun-Times piece. Written by veteran religion reporter Susan Hogan/Albach, it’s about how the Metropolitan Chicago bishop-elect of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America views his denomination’s celibacy requirement for gay and lesbian clergy. The Lutheran clergy and GetReligion reader is a pastor in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which does not ordain gay clergy. Though both Lutheran groups are large (and I’m a member of the LCMS), only the larger ELCA is mentioned in the story.

Because of insufficiently clear mainstream media coverage, LCMS Lutherans are used to being asked if we really pay for the abortions of our female clergy members (the LCMS doesn’t even have female clergy members and officially believes the lives of unborn humans should be protected) and other such questions that are better posed to the larger and more politically liberal ELCA. But rarely is there any differentiation among the Lutheran groups in mainstream media. The mention that not all Lutherans are ELCA Lutherans doesn’t need to be big or a substantive part of the story — but it’s probably good to mention it. Particularly considering just how wildly different the two groups stand on everything from confessional approach to political involvement. On to the story:

The Chicago Sun-Times story begins with a horrible headline: “Same-sex salvation.” The story isn’t about whether gays and lesbians are saved. The story isn’t even about whether or not gays and lesbians should be ordained. The story is about the debate in the ELCA over whether or not people who are gay and lesbian AND are ordained should be engaged in sexual behavior. The story and accompanying side bar never even address salvation. Here’s how the story begins:

The Lutheran pastor soon to be bishop of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod wants his denomination to lift a celibacy requirement for gay and lesbian clergy.

“That’s where I think the church is going,” Bishop-elect Wayne Miller of Aurora said. “That’s where I think it needs to go.”

He’s hoping the change will come next month in Chicago, where the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is conducting its churchwide assembly. Nearly a third of the denomination’s 65 synods are asking for a policy shift in clergy standards.

Two things that I would like to praise about the story: thank goodness Hogan/Albach is on this very timely story about possible changes in the ELCA’s position on homosexuals in sexual relationships serving in the ministry. It’s a big story and there has not been enough coverage. The denomination’s assembly is being held shortly after a decision to defrock a popular gay pastor in Atlanta (Bradley Schmeling, pictured) for his sexual relationship with his partner. And it’s also great the lengths she goes to identify the denomination by its official name: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. There are many stories that just go with ‘Lutheran’. The reason why it’s a shame there hasn’t been more coverage of this particular angle is that it leaves those of us curious about the debate completely in the dark about the particular views of the various sides involved. It’s hard to analyze viewpoints when they’re not substantively looked at.

The reporter speaks with folks on one side of the issue, including the current bishop:

“Some of the churches with the most growth in this synod are led by gay pastors in committed relationships,” said Bishop Paul Landahl, 69, who has led the Metropolitan Chicago Synod since 2001.

Landahl said he approaches the issue pastorally and with compassion.

“I have a daughter [who is in] a same-sex committed relationship,” he said. “It’s been part of my life. To see her connected to a church that’s kind of slammed the door on gay and lesbian people is a miracle in and of itself.”

Unfortunately, the reporter doesn’t speak with anyone in the ELCA who believes differently. And the problem with lack of diversity is not just intra-ELCA or intra-Lutheran. In a sidebar, Hogan/Albach tries to show “where the faiths stand” on ordaining homosexual clergy. Here’s the full list:

Catholics: The church, which only ordains celibate men, says homosexuality is “intrinsically disordered,” but that it is not a sin to have a “homosexual orientation.”

Episcopal Church (U.S.): Supportive of gay clergy, including a bishop in a same-sex relationship, which put the denomination at odds with some in the worldwide Anglican communion.

Presbyterians (U.S.): Clergy are required to live either in “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.”

United Church of Christ: Not only supports gay clergy, but endorses same-sex marriage.

United Methodist: Because homosexuality is considered “incompatible” with Christian teaching, “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” aren’t ordained.

Judaism: More liberal branches allow for gay and lesbian rabbis.

Islam: Imams aren’t ordained and homosexuality is considered immoral.

So there’s no differentiation for Presbyterians. There’s the funny (U.S.) designation after them and the Episcopal Church. Does that mean she’s referring to the PCA? or the PCUSA? There’s a mention of the UCC and UMC but no mention of, say, any Baptist, charismatic or evangelical denominations. And while the LCMS is over twice as large as the UCC, it doesn’t even get mentioned. It’s kind of like we got a view of the full scope of religious viewpoints — as seen through the windows of a mainstream newsroom.

It would be one thing if the story was limiting its focus to old-line mainstream Protestants, but with the inclusion of the Catholic church and Judaism and Islam, it’s hard to see what the goal of the sidebar is.

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  • Eric G.

    I agree that the selection of religious bodies in the sidebar doesn’t make a lot of sense.

    As to the main story, it strikes me as more incomplete than unbalanced. It is written as if the issue of noncelibate gay clergy is the only one facing the Lutheran body. Surely there are other issues to be decided at this conference, aren’t there?

    Also, the story is sadly lacking in any historical background. The denomination has been debating various aspects of homosexuality ad nauseam for at least a decade, yet the article does nothing to put the issue in historical context.

    This article simply needs more work to be a good one.

  • http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct Ted Olsen

    Mollie: For some reason, your blog post makes no mention the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Because of insufficiently clear mainstream media coverage and blog posts like this one, WELS Lutheran women are asked how they voted in various church proceedings (they can’t) and other such questions that are better posed to the larger LCMS. But rarely is there any differentiation among the conservative Lutheran groups in online media. The mention that not all conservative Lutherans are LCMS Lutherans doesn’t need to be big or a substantive part of the blog post -— but it’s probably good to mention it. Particularly considering just how wildly different the two groups stand on everything from ecumenical relations to the understanding of ministry.

    (And let me make the next post: Ted Olsen’s post above makes no mention of the Lutheran Churches of the Reformation…)

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Ted,

    I stand convicted!

  • John

    In this case, the goal of the sidebar would appear to be mostly design-related (“we need a little graphics box here with some stuff about other religions”), but I’d want to see the original print version to render a final judgment on that. It’s certainly the role it plays for the web version.

  • Jerry

    I understand and basically agree with the point but I do have to ask how far the media should go. Should they report on the beliefs of every group or sub-group, if they represent 20% of a denomination? 10%? 1%? .001%? And what about those non-denominational churches? On one hand, there is blatant stereotyping. At the other pole, there is nit-picky PC inclusion of every group’s beliefs. I don’t think there is an answer to this conundrum, but I do think it’s worthwhile keeping the question of where the line is drawn when reading such stories as this one.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I don’t even know what the breakdown is in the ELCA. The story says 1/3 of the districts want to change the policy but it doesn’t specify if they all want to change the policy in the same direction or if the remaining 2/3 feel differently or just haven’t registered their thoughts.

    I think the answer is “it depends.”

    For a story all about Lutheran views on homosexually active clergy, I think it’s good to mention that not all Lutherans share the ELCA view on ordaining homosexuals. Particularly if your story specifically mentions other denominatinos.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Here’s a simple one-word summary of this article: slanted. Reasons:
    * Article does not explore whether or not “synods” (undefined term) represent the viewpoints of ELCA parishoners but implies that they do
    * Use of term “Nearly a third” to describe synods looking for a “policy shift in clergy standards” implies momentum and obscures actual number of synods — 20 or 21 out of 65 probably doesn’t look as compelling
    * Reporter interviews only those who feel that the ELCA should lift the celibacy requirement for gay and lesbian clergy
    * ELCA’s current policy is described as “middle-of-the-road”
    * Bishop who is supportive of gay sexual relationships says that he “approaches the issue pastorally and with compassion”; claim is treated sympathetically and not challenged or balanced by counter view

    There is not one reference to the Bible, church history, or denominational history. Pitiful. The sidebar is atrocious, but the article is not much better.

  • http://rpreeves.wordpress.com Russ

    How often do the GR editors think the regrettable (in my opinion) journalistic predilection for snappy, alliterative/rhyming headlines clouds the actual content of story (such as “Same Sex Salvation,” when as noted above, salvation isn’t the issue)?

  • Chris Bolinger

    Maybe the headline writer was trying to obscure the fact that this article stinks.

  • Gary Aknos

    “United Church of Christ: Not only supports gay clergy, but endorses same-sex marriage.”

    Is also incorrect. The General Synod of the UCC made this pronouncement… but local UCC churches are autonomous and only 10% are “Open and Affirming” (the designation local churches get if they accept gays into the whole life, including marriage, of the church).

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    Well, Molly, we in the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (“the WELS”) also feel left out when “Lutherans” (meaning the liberal dudes based in Chicago) are reported on. I do like how the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel will finish an article on a Lutheran news item by identifying the various synods and each one’s stand on an issue. Of course it could be that “the WELS” is baed in Milwaukee (ELCA almost became based in Milwaukee, but that’s another story).

    I have noticed that ELCA’s The Lutheran (I know, how egocentric!) will have liberal-leaning articles one month and conservative-leaning articles the next month. Of course I wrote an article once that was rejected by The Lutheran. The day the rejection came my copy of the mag cae and there was a blurb asking for anecdotes on sermons, which is what the rejected article was about. I resubmitted and it was published! It’s often all about timing….

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    Judaism: More liberal branches allow for gay and lesbian rabbis.

    An interesting thing about the New York Times Sunday paper is the Style section that reports on weddings. Any couple–hetero, homo, or other–can have their coupling listed (with picture, if you so desire). And I have noticed that same-sex couplings among Jewish people are usually performed by female rabbis. Just an interesting phenomena I have noticed.

    I suspect you can take any group of people with a vague label and find righties, lefties, and centrists.

  • http://www.ucc.org/synod/resolutions/covenantal-relationships-final.pdf Richmond T. Stallgiss

    Gary Aknos is only partially correct. The United Church of Christ did indeed pass an “Open and Affirming” resolution (in 1985) but there has never been an official affirmation of deviant sexual activity. Even the Pentecostalists would agree that Gays and Lesbians ought to be affirmed as children of god equally deserving of unconditional love.

    Even the 2005 “Equal Marriage rights” resolution was not univocal on the issue of church marriage even as it made political statements about equal civil benefits.

    Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, groups like the UCC Biblical Witness Fellowship and the UCC Faithful and Welcoming Movement clearly establish that the UCC has no single position on these potentially divisive issues.

    Most people write off the UCC based on General Synod resolutions without even bothering to inquire into the dynamics of our “heady and exasperating mix.”

  • http://gpiper.org/katiesbeer Theresa K

    Oooohhh, two days late, but I still get to write it:

    Mollie: For some reason, your blog post makes no mention the Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Because of insufficiently clear mainstream media coverage and blog posts like this one, ELS Lutheran women are asked how they voted in various church proceedings (they can’t) and other such questions that are better posed to the larger LCMS. But rarely is there any differentiation among the conservative Lutheran groups in online media. The mention that not all conservative Lutherans are LCMS Lutherans doesn’t need to be big or a substantive part of the blog post -— but it’s probably good to mention it. Particularly considering just how wildly different the two groups stand on everything from ecumenical relations to the understanding of ministry.

    (Disclaimer: my comment above makes no mention of the CLC nor the AEFLC. . .)

    Let me also add that I grew up in Minnesota and was a member of the ELCA for over thirty years. I myself did not learn of the LCMS until I was in my mid-twenties, but I didn’t like them because they wouldn’t commune me unless I was a member. I had thought, erroneously, that ALL synods became one with the merger (except for the rare rogue dissenting church). I didn’t hear of the ELS until I was 44 years old. Who’s to blame for that? Who knows? I think the ELCA is at fault because of their sheer size; they just plain overshadow everyone. And the ELCA, for all their claims of diversity, certainly doesn’t welcome the diversity of opinion when it falls on the conservative side so why would they mention that their are other synods. As a member of the ELS, I think we don’t advertise ourselves on purpose! Ha!

  • Gary McClellan

    True, the ELS, and then the other, yet smaller groups rarely get mentioned. On the other hand, it is only fair to ask the question about size.

    The LC-MS is around 2.4 million people, and generally hangs around the #10 spot on the list of largest denominations in the United States (depending on which list you use), which means that it is a significant presence in the religious structure of the United States. WELS is somewhere around 1/6 the size of the LC-MS, while the ELS and others are smaller still.

    It’s interesting to note that the LC-MS is actually a fair bit larger than the Episcopal Church in the United States. So, then the question rotates to journalists who cover “Lutherans”, is 2.4 million and #10-12 in overall size make the LC-MS a group worth considering when writing their stories?

  • Rick the Texan

    The lack of clarity about Lutheran bodies can be annoying. Once when Fred Phelps and his “church”, Westboro Baptist (godhatesfags.com) came to our community to picket churches that affirm homosexuality, they chose our LCMS church which does not. When they were advised in advance that they were coming to the wrong church, they didn’t care.

  • Peggy

    When these denominations reach a decision that homosexual clergy need not be chaste, does it mean also that unmarried heterosexual clergy need not remain celibate either?


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