And in non-Episcopal news …

rethink1Gosh, did everybody see that wave of coverage of the United Methodist Church’s recent General Conference, the one in which evangelicals won two very important victories — moving in precisely the opposite direction as the course taken by the Episcopal Church?

No, I didn’t see that wave of coverage either, primarily since there wasn’t one.

Which is strange, if you think about it.

After all, there are about 2 million Episcopalians, depending on who is doing the counting. The membership statistics for the United Methodist Church have been sliding, as well, but the denomination still has nearly 8 million members in the United States and another 3.5 million (and rising fast) in Africa.

Do the math. The 2 million Episcopalians received X million gallons of printer’s ink worth of coverage recently as the denomination’s liberal establishment won a series of strategic victories on several doctrinal fronts linked to sex and marriage. Meanwhile, the 8 million or so United Methodists received how much coverage as the conservatives won two big victories on similar issues? Click here and here for a quick comparison, at the time this post was written.

The contrast is rather striking, don’t you think? By all means, call up the search engine of your choice and give it a shot.

However, news junkies can be thankful that the Religion News Service did cover the story and its report was used by USA Today. Thus, we can read:

United Methodists have defeated amendments that would have made church membership open to all Christians regardless of sexual orientation and furthered the creation of a new, U.S.-only governing body, according to the denomination’s news service.

Delegates at the United Methodist Church’s General Conference last year approved the sexual orientation amendment, as well as several others that would have changed how the international church is governed. But the amendments failed to gain support from two-thirds of the denomination’s annual conferences, as required by church law. The conferences voted in May and June.

Twenty-seven of the 44 regional conferences that reported voting results rejected the amendment that would have made membership in local churches open to “all persons, upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith, and relationship in Jesus Christ,” according to United Methodist News Service.

Now, that lede is a bit confusing. In the long run, the most important action taken was the rejection of the restructuring plan.

What was that all about? RNS quotes a conservative leader on that front

The complicated amendments to church polity in the UMC, which counts 8 million members in the U.S. and about 3.5 million more in Asia, Africa and Europe, was seen by some as a way to make it easier for Americans to pass pro-gay resolutions.

“It is only thanks to the African and other international delegates that United Methodism has upheld biblical standards about homosexuality,” Mark Tooley, a Methodist and president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy, warned in April. “Liberals increasingly resent the growing African influence in our church and know they cannot win when the African churches are growing and the U.S. church declines, unless they can at least partially separate the U.S. church from the African churches,” he wrote in lobbying against the amendments.

It would have helped to include a strong voice from the U.S. establishment at that point, representing the liberal side of the denomination. However, it’s clear that the United Methodists are experiencing some of the same U.S. vs. Global South tensions that are affecting Anglicans, Presbyterians, Lutherans and others. However, traditionalists have been hanging on in this particular denomination.

That’s interesting. That’s news. This is a big story at the local, regional, national and global levels. Because of the size of the United Methodist flock, it really deserved coverage in the mainstream press. So what happened?

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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.

  • Webmaster

    I am so glad you highlighted this!!

    All I ever see is news on the Episcopal church, which frankly has become so boring I try to avoid reporting on it anymore.

    But I did report on the Methodist vote, but I’m sorry to say my little blog probably fell under the radar! :(
    Early tallies show that United Methodists in the United States are not in favor of restructuring their global body. They’re also against opening membership to all persons without regard to sexual orientation

    Keep up the Good work, I love this website and have since I very recently discovered you and now has become essential reading via by feedreader!

  • Davis

    It doesn’t excuse the lack of coverage, but I wonder if one of the reasons the Episcopal conflict gets so much play is that they are just easier to cover from the comforts of your office. It seems like every Episcopalian and Anglican has a website where they are grinding their axes. When you look at Julia Duin’s recent story that was praised here, it appears that there’s a lot of websurfing for quotes instead of actually talking to people.

    Except for Tooley and IRD–who was was quoted in the RNS–there’s just not a lot of organized lobbying and online advocacy in the Methodist conflict. There’s not the multi-million dollar opposition campaign funded by Ahmanason and others. There’s not a sophisticated pro-gay lobby like Integrity. The various camps aren’t hiring PR flacks.

    So it makes it harder to cover unless you are on the ground.

  • robroy

    I don’t think the two stories are unrelated. The liberals are “winning” the battle in the Episcopalian denomination and thereby killing it. Like the business about “having to destroy the village to save it.” Other denominations are seeing the carnage and putting on the brakes. It is too late for the TEClub, however.

    That two gallons of ink isn’t even dry, and they are nominating a practicing lesbian to be bishop of Minnesota. I know you are thinking, “Hey, Ms Schori and a bevy of liberal bishops told us that the moratorium on new homosexual bishops is still in place.” I am quite sure the calls from Ms Schori et al will soon be forthcoming for Minnesota to ask the lesbian candidate to withdraw.

    The story about the TEClub might be getting stale, but I think that its implications in other denominations is very important.

  • Bob Smietana

    Apples and oranges. The Episcopal Church held a major meeting, with a visit from the Archbishop of Canterbury; had an issue on the table that could cause a schism in the Anglican Communion; and the fight has been very public–all the parties involved have very active press operations, so the reporting more straightforward.

    This Methodist vote is not official yet, won’t be until 2010, so it’s not exactly breaking news. Lots of reporting is needed. So it’s going to take some time for the news to get out.

  • TH

    “Too late for TEC club?” A bit smug, don’t you think? It depends on how you measure success. Being popular does not always mean being right. We lost members in the 60′s when we started declaring that churches had to let African American folks take communion at the altar. We lost members when we changed the prayer book for the first time in 50 years and when we admitted women to holy orders. All of which were, in my opinion, the right things to do. I feel great hope for a future in a part of God’s Church that acts with what I believe to be integrity. The claims of TEC’s death are premature and a lie.

  • MisterDavid

    However, traditionalists have been hanging on in this particular denomination

    But surely, the news in this case is that the traditionalists are NOT ‘holding on’ – they are the expanding constituency, internationally speaking at least. The question for the American branch of the United Methodists (and for the journalists covering them) is to what extent are they prepared to be led by the burgeoning international brigade.

    And on a different point, are there obvious reasons why Episcopalians get all the media? I’d appreciate people’s thoughts, since, writing as I am from England, I haven’t much of a clue. Could it really be a post-colonial layover, where the national church of the ‘mother country’ gets special attention?

  • Dave

    IMHO the big news in both stories is the emergence of the African churches as bastions of tradition, particular as regards sexuality.

    Parsing the reasons for this is potentially a huge story, possibly the biggest current one in Christianity. Is this doctrinal fidelity or competition from Islam? Should this be seen as survival of tradition in non-postmodern provinces, or evangelical pigeons coming home to roost? Huge story.

  • UMJeremy

    tmatt, the denomination’s worldwide conferences haven’t all voted yet; some not until 2010. So the amendments have not been defeated or approved yet.

    Please fact-check with the original UMNS article, which clearly states this, and not a secondary source like USA Today which got it wrong.


  • Bob Smietana

    Terry — a couple of other factors that influence why the Episcopal Church gets so much press (IMHO)

    -Anglicans all speak English. The Anglican Communion is I would think the largest English speak Christian group in the world, and conducts its official business in English.
    So the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of Church of Uganda, the Presiding Bishop of TEC all speak the same language. So their fights are all accessible.
    - Anglicans like to fight in public. Again, makes it easier to cover their fights–unlike Baptists who much of their fighting in private.

  • Dan

    One of my pet peeves is how the press always equates the moral teaching that homosexual acts are sinful with exclusion of homosexuals. The Religion News Service article does it in the first sentence of the text that tmatt quotes:

    “United Methodists have defeated amendments that would have made church membership open to all Christians regardless of sexual orientation and furthered the creation of a new, U.S.-only governing body, according to the denomination’s news service.”

    I’m not a Methodist and know next to nothing about the United Methodist Church but I seriously doubt that it excludes anyone based on sexual orientation.

    (And what does it mean to be “open to all Christians”? A Catholic can become a Methodist but a Muslim cannot? If a Catholic does join up, does he have to renounce the Pope? And how does being “open to all Christians” square with the notion that homosexuals are excluded? If to become a Methodist a Catholic has to renounce the Pope just as a homosexual has to renounce any claim that homosexual acts are not sinful, then isn’t the Methodist church already equally open to “all Christians” and homosexuals? Conversely, if neither renunciation of the Pope nor renunciation of the goodness of homosexual acts is a requirement, isn’t the church in that case also already open “to all Christians regardless of sexual orientation”?)

  • Dan

    The reason for the difference in coverage is analagous to the reason that the press finds a trend toward states allowing same sex marriage even though in the last few years far more states have barred it than allowed it. Change is news. Reaffirmation of the old ways is not as newsworthy.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    This issue of membership can get complicated (making news coverage even more complicated). Just because someone has an inclination to a particular sin doesn’t mean he should be barred from membership in a church (as the coverage makes it look like the Methodists are doing). We all have inclinations to one or more sins whether it be gossip, adultery, coveting, drunkeness, lieing, etc. The problem comes when people of a certain inclination start denying that their actions are sinful, but, instead, argue that their actions should be a sacrament –and therefore refuse to repent and seek absolution.
    I know some say homosexuality is “genetic” and not a choice so homosexuals can’t be other than what they are. Sadly, most Americans have been brainwashed by this Big Lie and the media is content to have it this way. Yet most reputable geneticists seem to have stopped looking for an alleged gay gene. (Oh how many times have I seen headline stories announcing the finding of THE gay gene only to find a retraction buried later in the classifieds).

  • Jerry

    I know some say homosexuality is “genetic” and not a choice so homosexuals can’t be other than what they are. Sadly, most Americans have been brainwashed by this Big Lie

    It’s worthwhile to be as precise as possible in discussing this issue including understanding what science actually is finding. There’s a temptation on the part of many people to overgeneralize or ignore the science.

    The relationship is apparently quite complex from what I’ve read including studies of identical twins reared apart which would be a genetic gold standard study. For example:

    In a similar search restricted to the X chromosome, brothers concordant for the trait of homosexual orientation showed significant excess allele sharing (33 out of 40 cases) in the region Xq28, suggesting the involvement of a genetic factor influencing at least the particular subtype of homosexuality studied

  • dalea

    Discussion of the subject of what causes homosexuality is very complicated, something the press does not do well. Here is a link to a new media presentation on the subject:

    In this actor John Barrowman, star of Dr Who and Torchwood, inquires as to why he is gay. And goes thru a number of tests to find an answer. It seems to cover all the currently available schools on the subject.

    The link is to the first section; the following sections appear in the RelatedVideos column on the right. There are six in all.

    The new media can handle a topic like this with ease. They let scientist speak and show their results. Watching Barrowman’s brain MRI as he responds to sexual stimulus, really does give a good presentation of a complex topic.

    Since this topic comes up peripherally here all the time, I would like to suggest that this series from the very MSM BBC would be good subject for discussion here. Both because it covers a topic related to much of the religious coverage and because it shows how the new media differ from the old media. I would propose that this would be worth having our experts cover.

  • Andy

    I’m curious about the specific language. Surely they mean that membership is denied to practicing homosexuals (who thereby deny that it’s sinful), rather than denying membership to people who struggle with the temptation while acknowledging that it’s sin.

  • Brett

    Although there’s some debate as to what the current status is, the language of our most recent Book of Discipline does not refer to homosexuality in the paragraphs at issue. Pastors at this point have the option of determining readiness or unreadiness to take the vows of membership. The case in Virginia hinged on homosexuality, so that debate colored the discussion and prompted the proposed change.

    Opponents argued that, if adopted, the amendment would force pastors to admit everyone who asked, regardless of how they viewed church membership vows. Membership, they said, would become meaningless. Amendment supporters said that explicit statements about how our denomination welcomes all people were important enough that they should be in the constitution.

    With regard to Andy’s specific question, it is likely a pastor would have searching questions and a lot of discussion about the meaning of church membership with a person who is actively practicing homosexuality, but there is no hard rule that demands such a person be denied membership. Even if the pastor disagreed that the person was ready to take membership vows, their presence in worship and other functions would not be curtailed in any way. The only time that would happen would be if such presence might pose a threat to others, such as a convicted sex offender of any orientation teaching children’s Sunday school or a person with a protective order against them being allowed interaction with the person who sought the order.

    UMJeremy is correct that the amendments have yet to be officially defeated. However: 1)The conference votes so far totaled represent as much as 90 percent of the total votes likely to be cast. 2)The amendments require a two-thirds majority for approval. 3)The membership amendment stands at about 49% yes and 51% no in the unofficial tallies; the reorganization amendments are running just under 40% yes and just above 60% no. Mathematically, their defeat is very likely.

  • dalea

    What exactly is a practicing homosexual? It seems to refer to people who have not yet got the way things work. As a side note, the prefered term is Gay. Use of homosexual is comparable to referring to black people as n******.

  • Ray McCalla

    I would quibble with the RNS’s imprecise and perhaps even slanted language regarding the 2005 case that preceded this membership amendment. They say:

    a Virginia clergyman denied membership to a gay man who would not agree to change his sexuality.

    Maybe I need to read up on the case, but I assume the concept they’re referring to is “repentance,” which is a Christian term, rather than “changing one’s sexuality,” which sounds like psychotherapy or something else.

  • Dwight

    I think the public face of the debate helps the TEC. I was reflecting on the lack of coverage of the Disciples of Christ General Assembly this week and noticed that that while some issues had public import (should the church have sense of the assembly resolutions which tend to relate to public issues) the debate/discussion was mainly done by individuals in person and not on the web at all (maybe that relates to the size?)

    But the Methodists are quite large, they have international import and they have gotten coverage of church trials over gay pastors. Maybe this issue of structure is just boring, hard to follow for journalists? Also the union of the northern and southern churches in 1972 (reflecting the theological divide in the church fairly well) doesn’t suggests that traditionalists are “holding on”. You had a liberal and more conservative denomination merge and as far as I can tell liberals are getting squeezed out. Maybe the reverse of the TEC in it’s own way.

  • dalea

    Dan says:

    I’m not a Methodist and know next to nothing about the United Methodist Church but I seriously doubt that it excludes anyone based on sexual orientation.

    The Methodist Church has closed down congregations when Gay people joined. Happened to Broadway UMC in Chicago in the 80′s. It was in a heavily LGBT neighborhood. Gays joined the church in some number. One day the Bishop changed the locks and declared the congregation disbanded. This has been extensively covered in the gay press.

  • Brett

    I suspect the news of their closure would surprise the members of Broadway UMC, who may be found at this website:

    According to their own history page, a fire in 1983 forced them to meet elsewhere during a long funding campaign to rebuild. When that campaign was successful, the congregation celebrated their new building and their centennial as a Methodist congregation in 1990.

    As shown by the pictures of church members and by their mission statement, they consider their understanding of openness to be one of their strengths in ministry and a reason their membership now stands at more than 300 people.

  • Steve

    As a Methodist Pastor who voted on these amendments, it is interesting for me to read the various takes/political angles of our polity. Yet, the main purposes of the amendments goes relatively uncommented upon:
    – “Pastoral authority” to guide and consent when persons are ready to become members of the church –
    – The global nature of Methodism and our desire not to set up a “separate but equal” way of dealing with issues –