Reporting on gays, women and the PCUSA splits

Thou shakest thy head and hold’st it fear or sin
To speak a truth. If he be slain, say so;
The tongue offends not that reports his death:
And he doth sin that doth belie the dead,
Not he which says the dead is not alive.
Yet the first bringer of unwelcome news
Hath but a losing office, and his tongue
Sounds ever after as a sullen bell,
Remember’d tolling a departing friend.

The Earl of Northumberland in Henry IV part II
Act I, scene 1, lines 95-103
William Shakespeare

Blaming the teller of bad news for the bad news is as old as time. Reporters who break stories about malfeasance in churches are often attacked for airing dirty linen. I’ve been reproached by those perturbed by what they read in my stories about bad behavior in churches. My critics argue that as a Christian (which I am) and a priest (which I am) I should suppress discomforting or embarrassing news. I should take as my guide Matthew 18:15-17.

15 If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

I am not persuaded  by their Biblical exegesis nor by the merits of the argument, believing that truth telling is a higher virtue than face saving. The phrase, “shooting the messenger” is a valid rejoinder to these criticisms,

The same retort can be applied to media criticism. Complaining about what something is not, rather than addressing what it is, is a form of shooting the messenger. When there is a hole in a story a reader should not assume the reporter is responsible. Some things are unknowable — try as we like, reporters are not omniscient.

A recent story in The Colorado Springs Gazette on the disaffiliation of one of the state’s largest churches from its parent denomination — the Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A. (PCUSA) — brought this problem to mind.

Let me say up front there is nothing wrong with the article on the First Presbyterian Church of Colorado Springs’ vote to leave its presbytery — it is a workman-like story that relates crisply the facts. But The Gazette story entitled “Sparked by acceptance of gay ministers, First Presbyterian bolts denomination” seemed to be missing something. This something was not the rather dumb headline. The  story makes it clear that it was not only about gay ministers and the church didn’t bolt — but reporters do not write headlines and this brick forms no part of my critique.

The lede is clean and lays out the facts well:

In an historic vote Sunday morning, the largest Presbyterian church in Colorado voted overwhelmingly to leave its governing body and join a new, more conservative denomination.

An estimated 95.5 percent of the 1,769 congregants who cast ballots at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Colorado Springs voted to leave the mainstream Presbyterian Church USA in favor of the newly-created Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians.

The new denomination was created with the help of First Presbyterian’s senior pastor Jim Singleton.

The reporter’s editorial voice comes into play at this stage through her selection of quotes — and to her credit she does not play favorites. After relating the news of the vote, the author addressed the question of the minority who opposed the vote — identified as 80 out of almost 1780 members who voted. The first quote comes from a church spokesman who acknowledges that “some members may leave.”

This is followed by a quote from a church spokesman stating the vote was historic. Background on the church and its decision to leave the PCUSA follows with The Gazette avoiding the mistake of portraying this as being solely a gay issue.

Sunday’s vote was the culmination of almost a year’s worth of work by church leaders who wanted to distance themselves from the Presbyterian Church USA. That organization voted in 2011 to allow openly gay ministers to be ordained, but First Presbyterian leaders say the divide is greater than just that issue — going back to a basic way that scriptures are read and interpreted.

“God has called us to respond to his call, step into something new and hold firm to our understanding of scripture,” Cindy Sparks, chair of the church’s Board of Trustees said Sunday morning.

Further detail on the vote and what happens next follow, as does a quote from a member of the minority opposed to the split, and  closing quote from a member of the majority. All in all this was a very clean story.

But it was also incomplete. The pastor is quoted as saying this was historic. Well why was it historic? The story is not clear on this point. Was it historic for First Pres, for Presbyterians in Colorado, for all Presbyterians?

I was struck by the weakness of the pastor’s comments reported in the article as to why it was historic. Did the reporter not do her job? Did she not understand what was said? I think she did. The problem was that she was not given much to work with.

When I checked the church’s website and read the statement  issued after the vote, I found that all the reporter had to work with were some rather anodyne comments. If you want to know why this was a “historic day,” you won’t find an answer from the church.

As an aside — What is it about Colorado Springs and conservative churches? First Presbyterian of Colorado Springs was the largest PCUSA congregation in Colorado and it quit is denomination. In 2007 Colorado’s largest Episcopal Church, Grace and St Stephen’s in Colorado Springs, quit its denomination over the same basic issues as First Presbyterian. That split ended badly for the parish and the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado — the Presbyterians appear to have avoided the path of litigation. Is there something in the air, or unique to the culture of that community that would see schisms in two mainline congregations — as well as produce inordinately large Episcopal and Presbyterian churches?

To find out why this was historic — and why this story has wider significance you need to do some research in the congregation’s website. What is the significance of the choice of First Pres’s new denomination? The article mentions that the pastor, Jim Singleton, helped form the ECO — Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians — but why did the church not join one of the existing conservative Presbyterian groups?

A letter to the congregation on the church website states that it was the issue of women ministers that led First Pres to the ECO, as the existing conservative groups were not as accepting of women clergy as was First Pres.

One of the subtexts often unreported in the stories about the mainline splits is the question of women clergy. Conservatives leaving the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church may be at odds with their denomination’s teachings on human sexuality, and they may express this as being a division over the interpretation of Scripture, but amongst themselves they are divided over women clergy.

And this division over women clergy is driven by the interpretation of Scripture. What criteria is First Presbyterian using to say that the PCUSA has broken with Scripture over homosexual clergy, but not over women clergy? In asking this question, I am not assuming an answer — rather seeking development of an issue. One, for example, that may well divide the nascent Anglican conservative church, the Anglican Church in North America, and is dividing First Presbyterian and the ECO from the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

I also liked this article from The Gazette because it did not make the mistake so often made by newspapers in distilling the mainline splits into a story about opposition to gay ministers or gay marriage. That is part, but is far from the whole story. It is the back half of the story — the question of where these breakaway churches are going and why — that was missing. And, if the church can’t explain why — a reporter can’t tell her readers why.

The first bringer of unwelcome news, as Shakespeare observes, hath but a losing office. Beating up on the press for omitting part of a story is easy. But when the actors in the drama don’t say their lines — the reporter is unable to say it for them.

What say you GetReligion readers? Is this a case of the subject, not the journalist, dropping the ball? Who should be telling this story?

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About geoconger
  • John Hylton

    I applaud the folks at that church for voting and rejecting membership in PCUSA. My wife and I denounced and gave up 12+ years of membership in Salem, OR First Presbyterian over this same exact matter. When has “man’s law” taken precedent over God’s law?” One more thing… least that congregation got the chance to publicly voice their opinion and vote accordingly. At SFPC, it was never, ever, mentioned, anywhere that anyone knew anything about. This was pulled off behind all of our backs.
    TRANSLATION: The issue of ordination of gays/lesbians to the Presbyterian Ministry was never, ever brought before the congregation of Salem First Presbyterian Church, Salem, OR. for discussion, for vote, for nothing.

    Someone(s) made this decision, took it to Presbytery of the Cascades, and sent an un-approved congregation vote forward. This was done behind our backs in a sneak manner to help keep things quiet, and to also keep further congregation dissent to a minimum.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Colorado Springs is a community highly impacted by the military presence. To the west are mountains, to the north the Air Force Academy, to the east Air Force Space Command, to the south Fort Carson, a major Army installation. Government contractors brought scientists and computer specialists to town, positioning it to grow with the electronics, communications and computer industries. It is a place with a congenial climate and the beauty of the front range, dominated by Pike’s Peak, makes it an attractive place to live, especially for former military families who retire as early as age 40. The city has mushroomed since 1973, when my wife and I were stationed there. The rapid growth seems to have affected existing churches as well.

  • Eric

    What’s with Colorado Springs? Colorado Springs is home to Focus on the Family and the headquarters of numerous parachurch ministries and other evangelical groups. It probably has a higher percentage of evangelical Protestants than any major U.S. city outside the Bible Belt, so it shouldn’t be surprising that even the mainline churches have a theologically conservative tilt.

    I read the story and thought that the reporter did a good job for the 15 to 20 inches or whatever it was that she had to cover a breaking news story. Considering the newspaper’s presumed large religious readership, I would assume (or at least hope) that the broader issues have been or will be in other stories.

    I agree that the media tend to do what this writer didn’t do, which is to frame the church splits solely in terms of gay issues. On the other hand, while conservatives have been grumbling for years about liberal theology in their churches, it often wasn’t until the gay issues came to the forefront that they started taking dramatic action. So I wouldn’t blame the media entirely for their approach.

  • Jack

    To Stan at #4:
    Do you think that the reporter should have parsed Ms. Sparks’ comment as something like “I have experienced a personal revelation from God, and he has indicated this is the right course?” In this context,”God has called us” seems to clearly refer to an interpretation of Scripture or other canonical teachings accepted by the congregation. I think a journalist would be safe to assume that this is the intended meaning of such a statement.

    Take this quote from a proclamation, published by the Obama White House (link at signature):
    “Through the ages, Abraham Lincoln calls us to take a renewed devotion to the unfinished work remaining before our Nation[...]”
    Do you think a reporter should ask the Executive branch what sort of divining/seances were used to determine this call? Or whether a member of the Cabinet met Lincoln’s ghost?

  • Nathaniel Campbell

    First, while I echo Eric’s point about the Focus on the Family presence in Colorado Springs (and we should remember that is was the Roman Catholic bishop of Colorado Springs who was amongst the lead group on refusing John Kerry communion back in 2004), the historical trend of Colorado churches bolting their mainstream denominations stretches back to the 1970′s. St. Mary’s in Denver was among the first and led the pack of leaving the Episcopal Church (ECUSA) after their 1976 decision to ordain women. It eventually settled into the Anglican Catholic Church.

    Second, I agree that there needs to be deeper inquiry into what they mean by “holding firm to our understanding of scripture”. I suspect, based on the name of the new congregation (“Evangelical”), that there are deeper but acknowledged issues her over hermeneutics and the evangelical insistence on privileging (often exclusionarily) a literal reading of Scripture.

    In my estimation, at least, that is the major “ghost” behind a lot of mainstream/evangelical friction. While on the surface level it manifests as doctrinal disputes, I think it is at root a problem over how to read and understand Scripture.

  • Deacon Michael D. Harmon

    Perhaps someday some brave reporter will discuss the differences among interpreting Scripture “literally,” and/or considering it “infallible,” and/or “trustworthy as regards all matters pertaining to salvation,” and/or thinking it to be “inspired.” But I won’t hold my breath.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    “.”but reporters don’t write headlines.” How true. I wrote a weekly column for our local newspaper for 3 years and some of the headlines or titles on my stories made me gag. Noone ever called me on the phone to check if the headline or title given to my story was accurate.
    How very often I have seen on Get Religion the excuse or observation that I quoted above.
    So why isn’t that policy changed?? Why aren’t writers given the responsibility of providing the headlines for their stories subject to editorial review?? Or on the other hand, at least make a policy that on major stories or articles the headline writer has to check with the story writer to see if the proposed headline is a fair window into the story.

  • Jon in the Nati

    Conservatives leaving the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church may be at odds with their denomination’s teachings on human sexuality, and they may express this as being a division over the interpretation of Scripture, but amongst themselves they are divided over women clergy.

    I think this is an important thing to note. It can be easy, I think, to surmise that the newly-created denominations are doctrinally monolithic, and now that they’ve left their parent denominations everything is all sunshine and lollipops and rainbows. In reality, there are still issues. This is particularly apparent in the Anglican Church of North America, which includes Anglicans of all stripes (high church, broad church, evangelicals, etc.) who have left the ECUSA. A useful contrast is to the so-called “Continuing Anglicans” who left ECUSA in the 1970′s; in addition to being opposed to ordination of women and the then-new prayerbook, they were united in a common ecclesiological and sacramental understanding: that of being largely Anglo-Catholic. ACNA, on the other hand, is held together in large part by the bare understanding that they could not be part of a denomination which would consecrate openly LGBT bishops.

    I don’t mean to say this is a bad thing; they felt they needed to leave, so they left. But I think it could be interesting to see some reporting on that subject within the context of reporting on local churches leaving their parent denomination.

  • Cathy G.

    What headline would you have written instead, geoconger?
    (The way the newspaper industry is going, pretty soon there won’t be any copy editors left to write headlines.)

  • Xander

    A recent story in The Colorado Springs Gazette on the disaffiliation of one of the state’s largest churches from its parent denomination — the Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A. (PCUSA) — brought this problem to mind.

    I guess it’s picking at nits, but since this is a site dealing with journalistic accuracy among other things, I feel compelled to note that the name of the denomination in question is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), not the Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A. As for acronyms, denominational offices seem to prefer PC(USA), not PCUSA, though the later is certainly seen.