A ‘startling’ statement in NYTimes United Methodist report

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The religion beat is just so, so, so complicated. There are all those historical facts and picky doctrines and stuff. You know?

Thus, the following correction in The New York Times was probably amusing to readers who had, at some point in their past, survived a church-history course (or maybe a young-adult Sunday school class in a half dozen or more Protestant denominations).

An earlier version of this article misstated when John Wesley started the religious movement that became the United Methodist Church. It was the 18th century, not the early 19th century.

Well, actually, the Rev. John Wesley was an Anglican priest until the day he died and he started a renewal movement within that body that, after his death, turned into a denomination. The birth of the United Methodist Church was many twists and turns down the road. Oh well, whatever, nevermind.

Actually, I just kind of shook my head when I read that correction. But I laughed out loud when I hit one HILARIOUS word in the lede on the early Times piece on the latest sex-wars win for the United Methodist establishment.

Experienced Godbeat scribes and consumers, and activists on both sides of the oldline Protestant sex wars, will have no trouble spotting the howler. Here goes.

A onetime Methodist pastor who was stripped of his clerical credentials because he presided at the wedding of his gay son is being reinstated, a startling reversal for a large Protestant denomination that, like many, is riven by divisions over same-sex relationships.

So where was the laugh? It’s the word “startling.”

Why is that so funny? Let’s read on.

A United Methodist Church appeals committee — a nine-member panel made up of laypeople and clergy — said Tuesday that it had decided to overturn the punishment of Frank Schaefer, who with three gay children and a determination to celebrate their relationships has become an unexpected champion of gays and lesbians in church life. The panel deemed the punishment too harsh.

Mr. Schaefer, who had been the pastor of Zion United Methodist Church of Iona in Lebanon, Pa., was defrocked last year, six years after officiating at the same-sex wedding of his son. An all-clergy church court found him guilty of disobeying the denomination’s order and discipline. His case has become a test of the denomination’s willingness to enforce its own rules.

Now, anyone who knows anything about United Methodist polity knows that it is dominated by what has — literally for decades — been a functional “local option” policy. There is no one United Methodist Church; there are several radically different bodies, with the content of the faith depending on where in the United States (and the world) one happens to live.

Thus, the question savvy readers had to ask — after reading that passage — was this: What was the location of this particular “nine-member panel” that overturned his punishment?

Later on, readers were told this:

Mr. Schaefer, 52, appealed his defrocking, and last Friday a panel called the Committee on Appeals for the Northeastern Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church held a nearly three-hour-long hearing on the case, and then deliberated behind closed doors, at a hotel in Linthicum, Md., near Baltimore-Washington International Airport. At the hearing, an advocate for the church’s Eastern Pennsylvania conference, which had ruled against Mr. Schaefer, argued that church courts had an obligation to uphold church law. …

The appeals panel did not question Mr. Schaefer’s guilt but significantly altered his punishment. It changed his penalty to a 30-day suspension, which it deemed to have already taken place.

So, United Methodist readers and veteran religion-news scribes, raise your hands high if you think it is “startling” that United Methodist officials in the NORTHEAST issued this ruling.

Startling? This is like saying that it’s startling that people in Boston cheer for the Red Sox or that Texans prefer beef brisket over tofu.

Like I said earlier, using a phrase from a famous 1980s report on the state of this denomination, the “Seven Churches of United Methodism” have been a reality for a long, long time. Doctrine is all about location, location, location.

So, how long has this been a reality? Can you say, “Bishop Roy Sano” and “the Rev. Julian Rush”?

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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.

  • raylampert

    I don’t get this, and nobody has been able to explain it to me in a way that makes sense. Their Book of Discipline says that the United Methodist Church doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage, that pastors are not supposed to officiate same-sex weddings, and that you can’t be openly gay and an ordained minister. If they don’t like these rules, why did they join the UMC in the first place, and why do they stay? If you don’t like the rules and doctrines, then pick up and go elsewhere. This isn’t the Middle Ages, they won’t burn you at the stake as a heretic. If you disagree, then you’re free to vote with your feet and quit. Find a church you do agree with. I don’t see what’s so hard about that.

  • wlinden

    The problem is that the writer implies that Wesley’s “movement” became the UMC, but not any of the other Methodist churches, which presumably to him either already existed or sprang up from some other source.

    • tmatt

      Thank you. Yes, read the wording of my post carefully.

  • Brett

    My only quibble, Terry, is that Mr. Wesley’s movement did become a separate church before his death. Following the War of Independence, he found that his fellow priests of the Church of England did not desire to remain in the former colonies, nor did large segments of the former colonies feel like they wanted priests of the Church of England around. Such a situation left them without the opportunity to take the sacrament of communion, which he felt essential to Christian life.

    Mr. Wesley then ordained Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury for work in an American church, to which he gave an abridged list of the Articles of Religion of the Church of England. Mr. Wesley felt himself authorized as a priest to ordain other priests for work such as this; few ecclesial authorities agreed. When Mr. Coke and Mr. Asbury began styling themselves bishops, Mr. Wesley himself wondered if he had made the right decision.

    That Methodist Episcopal Church was an ancestor to the modern UMC.

    • Julia B

      I grew up and still live in an area with many AME churches. Until I started following this blog I was unaware that Methodism was originally a movement within Anglicanism/Episcopalianism. So – the African Methodist Episcopal name is a very correct description of the roots of that church. I had thought AME was some kind of fanciful name that just sounded prestigious. Thanks.

      I wonder about the journalist’s multiple use of the term “defrock”. In Catholic parlance that’s just slang with no definite meaning which confuses people. Does it have a particular meaning in the Methodist Church?

      • Brett

        The technical name for the process is that he had his “credentials removed;” I think “defrocking” has been used as a handy shorter phrase.

        • Julia B

          Thanks, but “credentials removed” is much better in my book and only one word longer.
          Reporters use “defrocking” for all kind of things involving clergy in different groups that have a variety of processes that might not fit “credentials removed” at all. I’m a lawyer – I think this sloppy imprecision is not good and leads to misunderstandings.

          • Brett

            I agree with you; the “handy” is in the eyes of the reporters ;-)


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