‘Openly’ debating a key news issue in 2014 Summer of Sex

Faithful readers of this blog may have noted that your GetReligionistas rarely mention the names of reporters in our posts when we are critiquing news reports, unless a particular issue turns into a pattern that must be discussed.

There is a simple reason for this names-free policy and we have stated it many times: We have all been there in the press doing this difficult work.

We know that, far too often, reporters are assigned impossible stories and then given too little time and too little space. We also know that many errors and biases are actually edited into stories or reflect what is happening at the level of editors, more than the reporters. So we strive — as much as possible — to criticize news organizations, rather than individuals.

Praise, however, is another matter. We often end up mentioning Godbeat veterans who consistently get the job done right.

So readers will know that, when we see the “Peter Smith” byline, we know we are going to get a story that includes lots of basic reporting and, whenever possible, the people on both sides of hot debates are going to get to speak for themselves (as opposed to lots of vague “some” references and second-hand commentary). This is the case, once again, in his Pittsburgh Post-Gazette news feature on a key element in the annual oldline Protestant Summer of Sex rites.

The goal here is a high-altitude overview of the doctrinal angles in same-sex marriage debates, with special attention given to events in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Methodist Church. Thus, the opening:

“Goin’ to the chapel and we’re gonna get married.”

Well, some chapels anyway.

With this week’s landmark federal court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania, some houses of worship, including those affiliated with more liberal Protestant and Jewish denominations, will be opening their doors to gay couples — and in fact have been doing so for years before they had benefit of a marriage license.

Many other religious groups — including Roman Catholics, Orthodox and conservative evangelical Protestants — are holding fast to traditional doctrine as a matter of course. And for still other religious groups, the ruling only further complicates their long-running debates over homosexuality.

The leader of the region’s United Methodists is immediately given a chance to explain why the judge’s ruling has, primarily, turned up the heat on debates for religious leaders, as opposed to settling the debate.

“The ruling may change the understanding of marriage in the commonwealth, but it doesn’t alter the stand of the United Methodist Church at all,” said Bishop Thomas Bickerton of the Western Pennsylvania Conference of that denomination. “What it really does is heighten the debate that already exists within the church.”

The denomination forbids involvement of its pastors and churches in blessing same-sex unions. Bishop Bickerton said Thursday he would be issuing a letter urging pastors to find ways within the bounds of church rules to minister to gay couples and members. “I really believe our pastors, all of them, want to be in ministry to the people they’re serving,” he said.

Cautious, but clear words there. And the state of the liberal Presbyterians and other members of the old Mainline Protestant world?

That’s the time element, at the moment, since it’s a month until the national General Assembly meets in Detroit, with, as Smith explains, the representatives expected to vote “on a proposal to redefine Christian marriage to involve two persons regardless of gender. A similar proposal was narrowly defeated in 2012 in favor of further study.” At this point, PCUSA law allows clergy to bless same-sex unions “as long as the ceremonies aren’t purported to be marriages.”

Voices on the doctrinal left and right are allowed to speak, as is proper. Unlike many reporters these days, Smith does not quote activists on the progressive side and then settle for dry press-release statements from the doctrinal traditionalists, thus avoiding any real interaction with that point of view.

However, there is one wording in this piece that I would question. Pay close attention, because this is an issue seen in many other stories:

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) already has authorized the ordination of openly gay clergy, as have the nation’s largest Lutheran and Episcopal groups.

Those and other liberal trends have already prompted scores of conservative congregations to break off and join such bodies as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the Ambridge-based Anglican Church in North America and the North American Lutheran Church, all of which have strongly opposed redefinitions of marriage. Similar statements are voiced by other conservative evangelicals — including the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Assemblies of God and Southern Baptist Convention — and by the Orthodox Union, representing traditionalist Jews.

So, is the key issue here whether clergy are “openly gay”? The term “openly” could have several meanings.

Isn’t the real issue here (a) whether clergy are taking stands that clearly clash with church teachings, (b) openly sexually active outside traditional marriage or (c) involved in, or part of, same-sex marriages or rites?

In other words, there are “openly” gay Christians — several articulate Catholics leap to mind and there are similar voices in other folds — who also “openly” support ancient Christian doctrines on marriage and sex.

Thus, is “openly” the accurate word here? Readers, what do you think mainstream reporters should write, if the goal is to be as neutral and accurate as possible?

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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.

  • Johannes Oecolampadius

    “Practicing.” that’s the issue. Behavior.

    • tmatt

      That is a word that has been tried, but the moral left also says that it is imprecise. Sexually active? Non-celibate? These are other candidates.

      • Reformed Catholic

        In 2012, the PC(USA) removed what was called the ‘fidelity & chastity’ requirements for church officers, which include Deacons, Ruling Elders and Teaching Elders (Ministers).

        It said that candidates must be faithful in marriage, or chaste in singleness. Now, marriage as of the Book of Order today, is still listed as a ‘man and woman’, after this upcoming GA, and if approved by the Presbyteries, it may change.


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