Abusive Presbyterians?

Reuters runs a piece about how a “Gay-led Los Angeles parish breaks with Presbyterian Church.” It begins with some dramatic language:

As throngs of religious conservatives break from the U.S. Presbyterian Church over the ordination of gay ministers, a small gay-led California parish is staging a schism of its own, saying the church has done too little to accept homosexuality.

Throngs suggests that we’re talking about a ton of people. And yet the only quantification for that number is at the end of the piece where we’re told that a conservative advocacy group lists 35 congregations that have begun the process of leaving. We do learn that West Hollywood Presbyterian Church is the first to leave in order to join a more liberal church. In this case, that’s the United Church of Christ. On that note, I was a bit confused by the way Reuters describes which denomination is in question. I mean, I knew it was the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) but the “U.S. Presbyterian Church” language kind of threw me.

The reader who sent it in did so because he thought the quotes in the story deserved a response from “the other side” of the debate. Here’s a sample:

“I can’t wait” said the Reverend Dan Smith, a gay pastor who has led the congregation with 57 members since the 1980s. “It’s like being released from an abusive relationship,” he said. “We’re ready to be set free.”

Clearing a last hurdle for the defection, a regional governing body called the Presbytery of the Pacific voted on Tuesday to let the 99-year-old parish keep property belonging to the parent church when it makes the move.

West Hollywood is the first congregation to leave the fold to join a more liberal church under a so-called “gracious-dismissal” policy church elders devised to avoid contentious lawsuits over congregations seeking to leave the denomination.

The reader felt that allegations of abuse deserved a response. And that seems right. Particularly since the story itself fails to substantiate those claims. Not only do we learn about the “gracious-dismissal” policy but the only quote from someone supportive of the Presbyterian Church — which we’ll look at in a second — isn’t supportive of the abuse claim.

The story does a nice job of explaining the views of the departing congregation, though more of a discussion on doctrine than emotions would have been helpful. Or doctrine in addition to emotions. We simply never learn the justification for either the Presbyterian Church’s position on same-sex marriages or the departing congregation’s, a missed opportunity.

A pastor and her partner were married by another Presbyterian pastor, who was rebuked. We learn that the couple attends the church in question and that the pastor, Rev. Lisa Bove, was sad about her church’s move:

“But I’m not sad for the congregation,” she said. “All people deserve the chance to be loved, to know that their parent church body is proud of them and celebrates their gifts.

“The United Church of Christ is proud to have us. Presbyterians are just waking up to tolerate us. We want our gifts celebrated, not just simply tolerated.”

Then we hear from a remaining Presbyterian who says that his church body is a hostile environment for gays and lesbians. Yet we don’t learn what that means or why the environment is viewed as hostile. In other words, there’s kind of a surprising lack of religious content in this story about a religious dispute.

Anyway, here’s the solitary quote from the mean, abusive and hostile side:

The Reverend Mark Brewer, also a member of the group that negotiated the dismissal, supports the parent church’s opposition to same-sex marriage and said he thought the congregation would “find the peace in the United Church of Christ that they wouldn’t find in the Presbyterian Church.”

Yes, all the quotes — whether we’re talking about this one or the ones from the departing side — are about this substantive. I found myself wanting to know more about the euphemisms and language used. What is a “rightful place at Christ’s table” in the context of this sexual issue? What does “progressive” mean, in this context? And so on.

I love that Reuters is highlighting the departure of this small congregation, but a bit more substance would have been nice. And, of course, if you quote people attacking others for being hostile and abusive and what not, it’s only proper reporting to go ahead and get the other side’s perspective in the dispute, too.

Gay Rights image via Shutterstock.

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  • http://www.chriskrycho.com/theology Chris Krycho

    Part of the issue may not be the reporters, in this case. The responses from the PCUSA side sound very much like carefully constructed statements designed to avoid controversy – a fair, if not so great for reporters, approach, methinks. The PCUSA is bleeding churches slowly but steadily from the right; to be losing members from the left precisely as it’s taking the steps causing that bleed from the right must be particularly challenging for them. I agree that it would be nice for the reporter to get more here; I wonder just how much the PCUSA could give.

  • http://ecben.wordpress.com Will

    “Progressive” means the side we are supposed to like,period. Just like the Bad Guys, regardless of context, are always “conservatives.”

  • Stan

    I’m not sure what you want. Rev. Smith said “It’s like being released from an abusive relationship.” He was stating a subjective opinion. That is what it feels like to him. Are you suggesting that the reporter should have said, “No it doesn’t really feel like that to you” or should have asked someone else to say that?

    There seems to be a double standard. You don’t seem to criticize reporters for not questioning people who say that God told me to do all sorts of things from running for President to joining or leaving a particular church. Yet you think the reporter was obligated to question a person’s description of how a particular experience felt to him.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Stan,
    I want journalism.
    When a source tells you that they felt abused by another person or group, a journalist — rather than a stenographer — asks “how so?” And then they get specifics and include those specifics in the story.

    It actually *is* a reporter’s job to question sources. That’s basically what we are to do. Ask them questions.

    I mean, neither you nor I have any idea whatsoever what Rev. Smith meant. The reporter should have found out and then told us. Aren’t you curious what the source meant? I am. Super curious, in fact. About that and a bunch of other stuff in the story.

    And it also goes without saying that then the reporter should have given the alleged abuser a chance to respond to the charges.

    This is not brain surgery so much as Reporting 101.

    And if you can find any instance of GetReligion supporting the idea that sources shouldn’t be asked follow-up questions, I will eat my sock. So I’m not sure what you’re talking about.

  • Captain DG

    Mollie you flat out rock. Your blogging on religion and the press is concise and insightful.

  • Mark C.

    I think you’re missing what is actually interesting and noteworthy in the story. It isn’t the comment about feeling like being released from an abusive relationship. It is readily apparent that the policy of “gracious dismissal” was set up so that those who could not abide decisions around human sexuality in the PC(USA) could arrange an agreeable departure and avoid expensive and contentious fights over property. It is thus particularly interesting to see a congregation which has long supported the sort of policy recently adopted by their church taking advantage of that offer for amicable divorce.

    Could there be more about the “abusive relationship” comment? Sure, there could. But that would be a very different focus and article, about a different issue. What the comment about an abusive relationship means really isn’t and shouldn’t be all that difficult to understand. The congregation and its members have been told for years and years that they are wrong, endorse sin, have called an unacceptable pastor, and so forth. Strides in directions they like are made, only to have them pushed back again and again. They might celebrate the recent decisions, but there is still the sticking point about marriages noted in the article. It’s not a mystery why a congregation described as it was might feel like their relationship with their church body could be characterized, at least to some extent, as abusive.

    Lastly, you suggest that more discussion of doctrine than emotion might be helpful. I’m not sure it would be. The doctrine of various “sides” here is well-trodden ground. Why repeat it once again? You are also making an assumption that doctrine rather than emotion is or should be primary in such a decision. It rarely is when the subject is so emotionally charged, even when everyone is talking doctrine. Why not acknowledge that this decision is likely about emotion? For a brief article, I think it handles the matter fairly well.


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