A tale of two storylines

It’s always interesting when two reporters cover the exact same event and come away with strikingly different perspectives.

As a reader, the obvious question is: Which of the two scribes has a better handle on this particular story?

To read a Reuters report on dissident church members contemplating a break away from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the big issue is gay clergy:

Presbyterians opposed to gay clergy split from the church on Thursday, announcing in Orlando a new denomination called the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians.

More than 2,000 Presbyterians from 500 churches witnessed the launch of the new group, which was formed in reaction to a decision in July by the 2.3 million member Presbyterian Church (USA) to permit gay clergy, said John Crosby, president of the order.

“The problem is people are going to hell,” John Ortberg, a leader of the splinter group and minister at the Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California, said in a sermon to begin Thursday’s events.

The new Presbyterian denomination coincides with recent comments by Pope Benedict, head of the 1.3 billion member Roman Catholic Church, describing gay marriage as one of several threats to traditional marriage that undermine “the future of humanity itself.”

Crosby said he wants to prevent ECO from being branded as a one-issue movement, though some Presbyterians see the opposition to gay clergy as the driving reason behind the breakaway.

(As an aside: Does the effort to connect this movement with the pope’s recent comments seem strange to anyone besides me? I’m all for journalistic context, but that reference seems like a connection between an apple and an orange.)

Contrast Reuters’ treatment of the subject with that by religion writer Jeff Kunerth of the Orlando Sentinel:

Organizers of a new Presbyterian denomination unveiled their vision Thursday for a less bureaucratic, more organic church capable of invigorating congregations that have experienced stagnation or decline.

Under the umbrella The Fellowship of Presbyterians, the new denomination is called the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians — ECO for short.

“The church is a living organism and an organism lives within an ecosystem,” Pastor John Ortberg told the convention of 2,150 Presbyterians meeting in Orlando through Friday. “There ought to be an ecosystem that builds flourishing churches that make disciples of Jesus Christ.”

Ortberg characterized the Presbyterian Church (USA) as mired in bureaucracy, membership decline, internal strife and a lack of both bold leadership and invigorating theology.

The Sentinel story makes no mention at all of gay clergy.

So which report got the story right? Or perhaps most right? That’s an intriguing question. (Here’s some background in a Christianity Today story from last summer.)

Strangely enough, the most helpful report I came across was not a news story per se but a blog post by Houston Chronicle religion writer Kate Shellnutt. The reason: Shellnutt provided links to supporting documents and background information that allowed me to investigate the story myself. Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal did the same.

Welcome to the world of news, 2012 style.

Photo via Shutterstock

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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.

  • http://hereisthechurch.wordpress.com Allie

    Without a more objective look at the context, it’s hard to say who got it most right. Each piece definitely has a different spin and agenda attached with it. I don’t have time to read the documents, but I suspect that this splinter group is a reaction to the ordaining of gay clergy. As a result, they chose to separate, and in the process, looked at what else they could change. If that’s the case, I think Reuters wins for stating the facts, although I like the tone of the Orlando Sentinel piece better. The problem with the Reuters piece is that it turns this into just the issue, when it appears the new denomination wanted the changes to extend beyond the issue. Even though it explains that, I think it focuses too much on the issue alone. That in and of itself isn’t exactly news, but the new structure is.

    The Pope reference is a bit odd. I could maybe see including it if it echoed statements the new denomination made in their rejection of gay clergy. But as it is, there’s no explanation of why Presbyterians oppose gay clergy. It’s just alluded to that it matches the Pope’s thoughts.

  • carl jacobs

    A story line of “They departed because of gay clergy” is easily comprehensible, and comes with ready-made victims and villains. It doesn’t require any deviation into doctrine and Scriptural interpretation – which I am sure editors fear would cause the general reader to turn to the comics section. But all of these conflicts in the old Protestant churches – TEC, ELCA, UMC, PCUSA – represent the same basic conflict. It is a struggle between two different religions fighting over control of one institution. “Liberal” Christianity differs from “conservative” Christianity in the same way the Buddhism differs from “conservative” Christianity. “Conservatives and “liberals” may use the same words, but they attach entirely different definitions. How to explain that in 200 words to a general reader who really doesn’t care? You don’t. You say “It’s all about gay clergy.”



  • Conchúr

    recent comments by Pope Benedict, head of the 1.3 billion member Roman Catholic Church, describing gay marriage as one of several threats to traditional marriage that undermine “the future of humanity itself.”

    Except Benedict didn’t say anything about gay marriage at all in that recent address.

  • Jeff the Baptist

    Why are they forming ECO instead of just moving their churches into communion with more conservative existing denominations like the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA)?

  • Jerry

    This seems to me to be a case of the “Blind Men and the Elephant“.

    I assume the comment about the Pope was an attempt to indicate that gay marriage is controversial amongst many different Christian groups.

  • sari

    I read the original articles and the linked ones as well. One gets a sense that the issue of gay clergy is the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. That is, there was already dissension as to interpretation and to change.

    Of the issues presented, the one I’d be most interested in learning about is the decline in membership. We hear lots of reasons, but are they grounded in fact? Are people leaving because church hierarchy puts leaders out of touch or are other factors at play, like the demands churches make on an increasingly secular -and- less affluent populace? What about changes in family structure, like the increase in never-married mothers, and greater mobility, where generations cease to attend the same church? So many factors to be addressed, but what we’re given, by both media and interviewed clergy, are unsubstantiated facts.

  • http://blog.gajunkie.com Steve

    Well, actually they are both right depending on your perspective.

    The first, while seeming a bit more sensational to me, does identify ordination of gay clergy as the issue. This is partly correct but to be precise the trigger point was the removal of explicit restrictions on ordination of same-sex partnered individuals as officers (not just clergy). The reference to the pope is a bit off topic because for the PC(USA) gay ordination and same-sex marriage are actually two different issues. (Watch for the latter at the meeting this summer.) The first reporter put together a story without doing a lot of homework on the details of the denomination.

    The second report strikes me as less sensational and more moderate. But again, it is simplistic. The PC(USA) itself is trying to do many of the things mentioned in the article, just not as fast as the new bodies are trying to do it. The lack of mention of the ordination issues is interesting because to many in the PC(USA) that is the elephant in the room even when the new group says it is about mission.

    So both are right to a point, and each misses a good chunk of the story.

    Thanks for providing the comparison as well as the links to better researched stories.

  • http://blog.chron.com/believeitornot Kate Shellnutt

    Thanks for the link back. (Two Ts on my last name, please!)

    I am curious to see where Houston congregations end up falling on this issue. Our presbytery had concerns over the ordination vote so a number of congregations could decide to leave the PCUSA.

  • Arthur Shippee

    A close friend there messaged me that the Reuters story is a lie, and I can see why. 1) Orlando is not just about those interested in ECO. 2) ECO does not call itself a denomination (although they have explaining to do there I think).

    However one judges the others, I think the Reuters is wrong, perhaps to simplify (as suggested above) or perhaps partly as well from anti-Christian bias. Some will see that, and it seems plausible to me.

    In any case, it will inflame people on both “sides”, when a lot of folks at Orlando are there for peace and for renewal of mission and ministry, in some form.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.


    Last name spelling fixed (I think!). Would you believe that I went back twice to check your name spelling? Obviously, I need to cut and paste next time because my eyes must be getting really bad.

  • Stan

    Bobby, you or someone deleted my post. Why? It was focused on journalism and answered the question that you asked. Is there some requirement to toe a particular party line?

    I believe that the Reuters story is the most accurate because the events conform to the threats that were made during the Presbyterian vote on allowing same-sex clergy last summer. I suspect that the Orlando Sentinel story is basically a stenographic report issued by the founders of the new group who did not want to seem homophobic and therefore attempted to disguise the reason for their leaving the PCUSA. They realize that bald expressions of homophobia do not play as well as they used to, especially with younger people; hence they employ euphemism and evasion. That is my belief. It may be wrong. But you did ask what we thought.

  • Chris Vogel

    Both lack historical perspective. Prebyterians are a notoriously fractious bunch. In the US, the PCUSA is merely the largest of scores of Presbyterian denominations. It had split at least once before, in 1861, when southern, more conservative, congregations separated from those in the north because they wanted to retain slavery. They patched up their differences, apparently only temporarily, in 1983.

  • Arthur Shippee

    @ Stan, although I disagree with your analysis, I’m sorry the first one disappeared, and I’m glad you reposted.

    There are some fire-breathers on both sides, and analytically we are wrong to imagine they speak for all the side. (E.g., Evangelical big-wigs get together & throw their support to Santorum just ahead of S.C., and Gingrich picks up the anti-Romney vote. Hmmm….)

    A lot more & different went on at Orlando, from what I hear. It was more about finding a positive missional and ministerial voice for moving forward, and getting away from picking fights. Many there don’t mean to leave PS(USA), and want to find positive ways of staying and doing God’s work.

    For me, beyond the analytic, I look for the more irenic voices, to work for a better way forward. They are there. I know there are a lot of wounds, as well as voices quick to anger. But there’s a lot of material to work with as well.

    And that’s what I’m interested in.

    (And I still think the Reuters article, as phrased — as phrased, seeks to fan flames in a prejudicial way. I don’t like it, as it stands.)

  • Matt

    Jeff the Baptist #4 is starting to get at the question I want to ask. Being in the PCA myself, I know that most congregations that have stayed in the PCUSA this long, even if they are evangelical enough to be leaving now, would probably find us more conservative than they would be comfortable with. On the other hand, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) is between the PCA and the PCUSA on the spectrum, and the EPC has recently been working to incorporate congregations leaving the PCUSA, even creating a special nationwide presbytery solely for such congregations.

    However, inasmuch as ECO seems to be yet another denomination, it seems to be a clear repudiation of the EPC on the part of at least some of the congregations now leaving the PCUSA. My question is, where is the EPC in all this?

  • Matt

    Chris Vogel #12, methinks you also lack some historical perspective. Presbyterians are hardly more fractious than other U.S. Protestants. Wikipedia numbers the current number of U.S. Presbyterian denominations at 11, not “scores” (Baptists might qualify for the latter term). The North-South divide was indeed patched up in 1983 and replaced with a liberal-conservative divide (in addition to pre-existing groups like the OPC and RPCNA, conservatives in the southern Presbyterian church formed the PCA in 1973, and were soon joined by many northern congregations).

    It seems to me that the current pattern is people who find the mainline getting too liberal split off, leaving a spectrum of other denominations whose age correlates with their conservatism (OPC in 1936, PCA in 1973, EPC in 1981, and now ECO). Again, this is similar to other Protestant streams. Before this latest development, the PCUSA accounted for about 70% of U.S. Presbyterians, the PCA for another 10% to 15%.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.


    I didn’t spike your comment. I assume one of my colleagues did, probably because it only tangentially addressed the journalistic issue.

  • Arthur Shippee

    Tx., Matt, for some interesting points.

    Of note about ECO (which says it is *not* a denomination) is that they accept and retain the current PCUSA Book of Confessions — including Brief Statement, specifically because it supports the leadership role of women. That is I think a significant difference from EPC & al.

    And FOP is more than ECO, or distinct from, I’m hearing.

  • carl jacobs

    Jeff the Baptist

    Why are they forming ECO instead of just moving their churches into communion with more conservative existing denominations like the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA)?

    It has much to do with Women’s ordination. The PCA/OPC does not ordain women and the EPC is trying to maintain a delicate political balance on the issue. A huge influx of PCUSA churches that support WO would be problematic. It’s the same issue faced by conservative churches leaving ELCA. That’s why a new Lutheran denomination was formed to accommodate those churches. They didn’t want to place ordained women in a position where they would have to renounce their position.


  • Matt

    The EPC has decided to decide the WO issue at the presbytery level, and their establishment of the “New Wineskins Presbytery” specifically for recently ex-PCUSA congregations means that the latter would have no problem retaining WO as part of the EPC.

    So I don’t think WO can be the primary issue with the EPC. It is not clear to me whether the new ex-PCUSA congregations are shunning the EPC because of other doctrinal disagreements or because of more practical misgivings about how the EPC has been functioning (I understand that the “delicate political balance” has sometimes been a bit fraught). As a journalism point, it would be nice to have some quotes on this question.

  • Matt

    Arthur #17: Yes, the FOP is an umbrella organization meant to include congregations that stay within the PCUSA, congregations that leave for the ECO, and even congregations that achieve some kind of dual membership. It would also be interesting to have some quotes on whether the third option will pass muster with the PCUSA.

  • Stan

    Bobby, thanks for the clarification.

  • http://Faith&Reason Cathy Grossman

    I wasn’t at the event so my view is shaped just by reading here. I can’t see how they are contradictory. It’s like the old fable of the blind men and the elephant…
    Really, does anyone think there would have been a split, organic or not, without the gay issue? Anglicans grumbled for decades but it was the gay issue that rocked them into significant action.

    And then there’s the issue between the two of simple read-ability… Reuters got it. The Orlando story missed.

    Readers come to secular media for NEWS. It has to be correct, and given in context. But it still has to have a reason, in the lead, answers, “Why am I reading this and why am I reading it NOW?” given all the other demands on attention.

    That’s not easy and you all know how often I miss that mark but that’s where I’m aiming.

  • Matt

    Really, does anyone think there would have been a split, organic or not, without the gay issue?

    Actually, Cathy, we have already been discussing that this is hardly the first split from the PCUSA, and all the previous ones happened without any help from gay issues. So the answer to your question is “Yes, and in fact there have been.”

  • http://areformedcatholicinthepcusa.blogspot.com Reformed Catholic

    FWIW … I was an attendee of the conference. John Ortberg’s comments were taken out of a larger context, none of which had to do with gay ordination.

    In fact there was no mention of that during the entire conference.

    For some better reporting you may want to check some Presbyterian news outlets:



  • Jeff

    “Anglicans grumbled for decades but it was the gay issue that rocked them into significant action.”

    Anglicans did much more than “grumble” in the decades before Gene Robinson arrived.

    They left The Episcopal Church in droves long before that point, just as they have left it in droves since then, and just as they will keep on leaving it in droves for as far into the future as the leadership of TEC continues its long-term drift away from Christianity.

    The same dynamic has held true and will hold true for Presbyterians and for every other group of faithful Christians whose church leaderships are abandoning the faith for worship of left-liberal politics and other such things of this world.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Anglicans grumbled for decades but it was the gay issue that rocked them into significant action.

    Arguably true. Before they made Gene Robinson a bishop, Episcopalians indulged theological innovations for at least 40 years (from Bishop Pike to Bishop Spong). Bishops who objected to the ordination of women on theological grounds spent their entire priestly and episcopal ministries in Communion with women ordaining bishops (and they still are in Communion with them in the ACNA). They didn’t leave until a partnered gay man was made a bishop. They did experience decline from the mid-70s, but what changed was that groups – parishes and dioceses – began to leave. Before 2003, the decline is an increasing number and rate. To me that looks like attrition up to 2003, when it becomes protest.

    So if you can make the case that the Presbyterians are bolting in protest against ordination of gays, then the case needs to be made, not assumed. From the headline through the body of the article, Reuters assumes gays are the issue, but never makes the case. Sorry, but “some Presbyterians see…” and “For the average pew-sitter, that’s what they perceive,” do not a case make.

    Actually, Ms. Grossman, I’ve read several of your pieces, and whether I agree with you or not, I never questioned that what you wrote was worth reading. Well, once I did, but I don’t remember which story. :-)

  • Arthur Shippee

    A major issue driving many people at Orlando was the role and authority of scripture. Now, I think a good biblical case can & has been made for God doing something new now for gays, and I find it annoying when some conservatives won’t even notice this.

    But, also, I have seen plenty of places where the bible is not respected, so I can certainly understand this aspect of the motivation.

    It is this aspect of the full-inclusion debate that bothered many. (Not all anti’s are homophobes.)

  • Miguel

    I was at the orlando conference. The Reuters article does not describe the conference well at all. The first sentence in particular in no way captures the theme of the conference. Was the author even at the conference? If so, was he listening? Tabloid journalism lives!

  • Jim Steadman

    Great observation. I was at the conference, and Reuters was ridiculous. The Reuters article was especially deceptive in taking one line from John Ortberg’s sermon out of context, implying that Ortberg was referring to homosexuality when he said that people are going to hell. Homosexuality was hardly mentioned at the conference.