Crystal Cathedral’s controversial covenant

Question: How many named sources does it take to ignite a full-blown national controversy over a church choir?

Answer: Zero.

At least that appears to be the case if the choir involved is tied to the “financially troubled Crystal Cathedral.”

The Orange County Register reports in a 1,000-word news story:

GARDEN GROVE — Choir members at the financially troubled Crystal Cathedral say they are upset by a covenant they have been asked to sign that places a strong emphasis on them being heterosexual and Christian.

The “Crystal Cathedral Worship Choir and Worship Team Covenant,” recently handed out to members, states that members should commit to being Christians by following the Bible in every way.

Former and current choir members say they are particularly offended by a statement in the document that refers to homosexuality. Long-time church members say this is the first time they have seen the cathedral take a firm stand against homosexuality and are disturbed by it.

The covenant states: “I understand that in an era where images of family relationship and personal sexuality are often confused, Crystal Cathedral Ministries believes that it is important to teach and model the biblical view. I understand that Crystal Cathedral Ministries teaches that sexual intimacy is intended by God to only be within the bonds of marriage, between one man and one woman.”

The lede gives the impression that the entire choir is upset by the covenant, although the story leaves unclear exactly how many members comprise the group.

But guess how many current choir members are quoted — by name — in the story? I think we already answered that question.

About 700 words into the story, an anonymous choir member is quoted:

A church member who has been with the Crystal Cathedral choir for the last 19 years said she will quit if she is required to sign the covenant.

“I have already told them I won’t sign it,” said the choir member, who asked not to be identified. “We have had gays in the choir before. I’m not gay. But I don’t believe in what they’re saying.”

The choir member says she doesn’t agree with the statement that choir members should be “Christian” either.

The story does quote two longtime church members — including a former prominent choir member — by name, along with church officials:

Sheila Schuller Coleman, daughter of the founder and senior pastor of the Crystal Cathedral, issued a statement Tuesday saying the document is intended to “clarify expectations placed on them as ministry leaders.”

“It is true that our new choir covenant includes a definition of marriage and that may have contributed to the hurt,” she stated. “The definition is the one that our denomination, The Reformed Church in America, and the Crystal Cathedral adheres to, based on its understanding of the scriptures.”

Homosexuality has been a topic of debate and discussion in the Reformed Church in America for at least 33 years, but the story provides no background of that kind.

Meanwhile, The Associated Press and USA Today quickly relayed the Orange County Register report to national audiences.

This is the lede of the AP report:

GARDEN GROVE, Calif. (AP) — Several choir members at Orange County’s Crystal Cathedral say they’re upset over a document they’ve been asked to sign that takes a strong stand against homosexuality.

The “Crystal Cathedral Worship Choir and Worship Team Covenant” recently handed out to members states that they should commit to being Christians by following the Bible in every way, the Orange County Register reported Tuesday.

Of course, AP quotes none of those “several choir members” — not even the Register’s anonymous source.

USA Today’s Cathy Lynn Grossman used the California newspaper report as the basis for a blog post titled “Can you sing to the Lord if you’re gay?” In the post, Grossman suggests:

You’d better not be having sex outside of marriage — and gay marriage doesn’t count — if you want to lift your voice in the Crystal Cathedral’s choir.

GetReligion focuses on mainstream media coverage, but I was intrigued, too, by the lede on the Christian Post report on this subject:

The Crystal Cathedral in Southern California has taken the surprising step of asking its choir members to model a biblical lifestyle, which would include abstaining from homosexual behavior.

Surprising that a church would ask its choir members to model a biblical lifestyle? Really?

In future coverage, I’d love to find out exactly how many members the Crystal Cathedral choir has. I’d love for a reporter to interview a number of members and see if — indeed — the entire choir is upset with this decision or if there is a diversity of opinions.

Other questions: Are all choir members also church members? Or has the choir traditionally been chosen for its ability to sing as opposed to its church involvement and beliefs? Are choir members paid? Or is this a volunteer role?

Feel free to chime in with your own comments and questions, but remember to stick to journalistic issues. We’re not here to debate whether the choir covenant is good, bad or in between.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Dave

    Bobby, I think you’re making a journalistic issue out of a social fact: The choir members who disagree with this new covenant do not feel empowered to speak out for attribution, and those who support it do feel thus empowered. This is not information about choir; it’s information (and not surprising) about where the power lies in the church.

  • Bobby

    and those who support it do feel thus empowered.

    That makes it sound like there are choir members who do support the new covenant? I didn’t see them quoted either.

  • Mike

    I have a dim recollection from my long-ago wire service days that we had an informal rule that required us to back up in the story any lead that started with something as vague as “several choir members.” My editors would never have filed this piece without more substantiation. Just another example of the decline of journalism.

  • Dave

    Bobby, I would speculate that the choir has its own subculture supportive of gay members but out of step with the church as a whole on this matter. This may be why the covenant was promulgated at this time. Sheer speculation but what fun it would be to actually do some journalistic digging and find out.

  • Bobby

    Some actual journalistic digging on a story such as this would indeed be fun.

  • Mike Hickerson

    Having been around church musicians for my entire Christian life (though not a musician myself), there are two contrasting approaches to church music that are at play here:

    1) The primary goal is to provide the best music, period. In college, many of my friends were hired to be musicians – even choir members – at churches that didn’t care or even ask what they believed. In some cases, I bet the churches even saw this as a way of reaching out to non-Christians or supporting poor college students. The concern is for the musical experience of the congregation.

    2) As some of the best-known faces in the whole service, church musicians ought to be exemplary representatives of the church. I’ve known other churches that spend large parts of auditions talking to musicians about their spiritual beliefs and practices. They want good musicians, but they also want musicians who are spiritually mature members of their congregation. Notice that this convenant is for choir members “and Worship Team” – so it’s being applied to guitarists, pianists, soloists, etc.

    This is not a new debate within church music. With a few phonecalls, I bet a journalist could easily find prominent churches on both sides of the debate.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I couldn’t help but wonder if the AP would run a story nationwide about “some” people who objected to something their organization did that was too liberal from a traditional or conservative point of view.

  • tmatt

    I think one other point must be stressed.

    The Crystal Cathedral has long been known as a pioneer of a kind of vague, foggy, optimistic, post-doctrinal approach to Christianity. For Grossman, this is a plus. Many critics of the church have — over the decades — considered this bad and an open door to trouble.

    It appears that, facing decline and struggle, the congregation’s leaders have decided to veer back toward Christian doctrine, as defined by most Christians through the ages.

    That’s an interesting story. Maybe it could be covered?

  • Harold

    “For Grossman, this is a plus.”

    Where does she say that?

  • Jerry

    It appears that, facing decline and struggle, the congregation’s leaders have decided to veer back toward Christian doctrine, as defined by most Christians through the ages.

    That is apparently true for the current leaders but not Schuller himself:

    Megachurch founder won’t sing anti-gay note

    Now, The Orange County Register finds Schuller didn’t know what senior pastor Sheila Schuller Coleman was doing and didn’t approve. Indeed, he says, when he ran the show people didn’t even have to be Christian to sing for the church.

    He told the paper Wednesday:

    … He strongly disapproves of an anti-gay covenant his own church administrators asked choir members to sign, stating that it goes against the principles of tolerance, acceptance and positive thinking on which he built his 50-year-old ministry.

    …I have a reputation worldwide of being tolerant of all people and their views. I’m too well-educated to criticize a certain religion or group of people for what they believe in. It’s called freedom.

  • Jay Jonson

    You could have at least emphasized the good news in the story: the Crystal Cathedral bankrupt, which is something more definite that the gauzy, feel-good “financially troubled” you used. Also it might be relevant that the Cathedral was designed by a gay man, architect Philip Johnson. Does Sheila Shuller Coleman think the building should be torn down to get rid of the gay?

  • Joe

    The choir member says she doesn’t agree with the statement that choir members should be “Christian” either.

    Why is “Christian” in quotes?

  • John Pack Lambert

    I know the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has a very stringent requirement of uprightness on the part of its members. Of course the fact that choir members first and foremost have to be baptized members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints makes the perameters of membership more clear. The Crystal Cathedral wanting a Christian Choir thus seems the bigger issue journalistically.

    The Mormon tabernacle Choir has conduct regulations that far exceed those of the Chrystal Cathedral. They not only have to abide by the law of chastity, which is essentially the same as the sexual rules discussed in this article, but they also have to be temple recomend holders, which means full tithe payers, not consuming alchohol, coffee, tobacco or tea, being honest in their dealings with their fellow man, and a few related issues.

    I also have a sense that the claim that the rules forces people to be “heterosexual” is not in line with the actual rules. The rules that the Chrystal Cathedral is emphasizing seem to emphasize that sex if it happens should be in a marriage between a man and a woman. There is no indication that the policy is meant to drive out people who do not have sex at all. I guess at some level there are people in society who assume that the belief anyone does not have sex is a myth, so that all people are having sex of some kind. This is a bias on the part of either the disgruntled choir member(s) or the newspaper, that needs to be subjected to investigation.

    The assumption that all people engage in sex and that chastity and abstinance are not long-term options colors much of the media coverage of those who seek to abide by these rules.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I am wondering what the exact nature of the “being Christian” requirement for Choir members are. Would a Mormon pass the rules? Would a catholic pass? Do you just affirm a belief in Jesus Christ as Lord? Do oyu have to affirm specific belief in the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the Nicene Creed, The Bible alone, Salvation by Faith alone in Christ alone known through the Bible alone?

    Why the assumption is that a rule that excludes those who have sex outside of man/woman marriage only affects homosexuals is treated as a fact also needs to be examined.

    Lastly, I am suspicious of the fact that no one has cited the entire text. I wonder if there may be other rules that are just as galling to some people. At some level it seems even from the quoted passages that a more relevant issue is that this changes the role of choir members from just being singers to being recognized as worship leaders.

    The shift is from art to ministry. This has the potential to go against the aesthetic views of some choir members. It is a much more complexed issue, with less chance of rallying people to the side of the angry choir members.

    At heart this is not a question so much about the rules of choir membership, but the basic purpose of the choir. USA Today makes allusions to this. However they make the false assumption in framing the question that being in the choir is primarily about singing. At heart the question is not what the rules for singing are, but what the purpose and position of the choir within the overall church is. A good journalist would delve into these deeper issues of the purpose of a choir, and not let the debate be framed in the specific section of the covenant that its oponants want to be the public rallying cry against it.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Mike’s suggestion that about bringing in other churches is a good one. It would be very easy to ask the heads of multiple local congregations what their own policy is on who can be in their choir.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Claiming that the actions of the architect who is never seen and of the choir members who openly participate in worship services are the same ignores the notion that the choir is worship leaders, which I have never heard said of an architect.

    Anyway the architect being as you claim “a gay man” does not mean he ever engaged in homosexual activity. Even more to the point, it does not mean he ever did such during the time he was designing the Church.