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.

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What’s in a name? PCA vs. PCUSA

Oh my. My heart goes out to the writer at NBC News’ breaking news desk for having bungled a story from the Presbyterian Church of the USA (PCUSA)’s General Assembly in Detroit.

From the conservative religion news and advocacy website Juicy Ecumenism, here is a report from reporter Alexander Griswold from the meeting:

At its 2014 General Assembly held in Detroit, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to approve two measures to allow ministers to perform same-sex marriages. The first, Item 10-03, issued an authoritative interpretation of the Book of Order stating that pastors have a right to preside over gay marriages in states where they are legal. The second, Item 10-02, amended the Book of Order to redefine marriage as between “two people” rather than between a man and a woman and allows ministers to perform any legal marriage between two people. That amendment will require the approval of a majority of the presbyteries before it will take effect.

For religion news watchers this vote was not unexpected. The delegates to the 201o General Assembly voted to permit the ordination of non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy, while the 2012 General Assembly narrowly turned down a similar gay marriage bill. The surprise was in the strong margin of support the measure received this time round.

Religion News Service observed:

The church has long grappled with the issue, which came to a head at the last General Assembly, in 2012, when a similar resolution allowing for gay marriage lost 338-308. Since then, the church’s decades-long decline in membership — it has lost 37 percent of its membership since 1992 — has continued. These losses have been led by conservative-leaning congregations that defected over what they lamented as the church’s embrace of more liberal values.

Those defections — many to smaller and more conservative Presbyterian denominations — made it more likely that the General Assembly would approve a gay marriage resolution this year.

One of these more conservative denominations is the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) — the second largest Presbyterian denomination and one that withdrew from what is now the PCUSA in the early 1970s.
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Axing the wrong questions after Brat-Cantor stunner

There’s analysis, and there’s hack ‘n’ slash. When blindsided by the come-from-behind election of David Brat over Virginia’s longtime congressman Eric Cantor, many mainstream media fell back on the latter. Often with dull, rusty blades.

Brat is a (gasp) fiscal conservative, some pundits said. He’s an (gasp #2) evangelical, said others. And a Calvinist. And a Catholic. And still others insinuated that he’s a closet anti-Semite, or his supporters are, or something.

Let’s take the last first. In the otherwise distinguished Wall Street Journal, Reid Epstein seizes on something that Brat wrote three years ago:

David Brat, the Virginia Republican who shocked House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) Tuesday, wrote in 2011 that Hitler’s rise “could all happen again, quite easily.”

Mr. Brat’s remarks, in a 2011 issue of Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology, came three years before he defeated the only Jewish Republican in Congress.

Whoa. Linking the Holocaust with the defeat of a Jew. What sinister intent can we draw from that? Well, as Epstein himself says, Brat was dissecting Nietzsche’s idea of the “weak modern Christian democratic man,” and warned believers not to become passive in the face of massive evil:

Hitler came along, and he did not meet with unified resistance. I have the sinking feeling that it could all happen again, quite easily. The church should rise up higher than Nietzsche could see and prove him wrong. We should love our neighbor so much that we actually believe in right and wrong, and do something about it.

So Epstein reports Brat’s horror at Nazism, yet he still tries somehow to tie Brat with some kind of Holocaust thinking. This amounts to a flailing attack on a level with medieval battle-ax fighting.

The New York Times tried to have it both ways in its own post-game analysis. It confronted a question by TheWeek.com on whether Cantor lost because of his Jewishness. The Times answer was “no” — a good call for someone who has held public office in Virginia for more than two decades.

But then the writer tries to show that Brat’s familiarity with Christian talk played better with Virginia voters than did Cantor’s more general moral language, mustering a couple of political “analysts” to agree with her on that. Among them was David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report:

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NYTimes notices old doctrine wars over InterVarsity chapters

The debate started out behind closed doors but quickly jumped into the mainstream press. The news hook was that a lesbian student at Tufts University claimed that, under the campus nondiscrimination policy, she had been unfairly denied access to a leadership role in the Tufts Christian Fellowship, which was affiliated with InterVarsity.

The campus chapter was banished, at first, but then allowed to re-draft its charter to stress that it was a doctrinally defined religious association, one requiring its leaders to “seek to adhere to biblical standards and belief in all areas of their lives.” The story was already rather old at that time, as I noted in an “On Religion” column.

“We have had more challenges to our basic right to exist in campus settings during the past two years than in the previous 55 combined,” said Steve Hayner, president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA. “It’s not just us. … This is hitting Catholics and Muslims and others. What we are seeing is a growing challenge to religious free speech — period.” …

InterVarsity created a “Religious Liberties Crisis Team” in response to this dispute and similar cases on five other campuses. Then attorney David French of Cornell Law School and Tufts InterVarsity staff member Curtis Chang produced a sobering handbook for others who will face similar conflicts. French and Chang noted: “In a free country, individuals or groups are permitted to form schools that serve only Christians, or only Jews, or only Muslims, or only gays.” For traditional Christians at private schools, the “sad reality is that there may come a time when you are no longer welcome … and there is nothing that any lawyer can do to change that decision.”

The year was 2000.

I bring this up because of a New York Times story that — 15 years down the road — has noticed this legal issue and put it on A1 as a hot trend. To cut to the chase, this First Amendment story has reached Bowdoin College and another InterVarsity chapter is facing the same old fight for its rights as a doctrinally-defined association.

But read the following carefully and see if you notice something interesting in the Times frame around this story. This is long, but crucial:

After this summer, the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship will no longer be recognized by the college. Already, the college has disabled the electronic key cards of the group’s longtime volunteer advisers. In a collision between religious freedom and antidiscrimination policies, the student group, and its advisers, have refused to agree to the college’s demand that any student, regardless of his or her religious beliefs, should be able to run for election as a leader of any group, including the Christian association.

Similar conflicts are playing out on a handful of campuses around the country, driven by the universities’ desire to rid their campuses of bias, particularly against gay men and lesbians, but also, in the eyes of evangelicals, fueled by a discomfort in academia with conservative forms of Christianity. The universities have been emboldened to regulate religious groups by a Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that found it was constitutional for a public law school in California to deny recognition to a Christian student group that excluded gays.

At Cal State, the nation’s largest university system with nearly 450,000 students on 23 campuses, the chancellor is preparing this summer to withdraw official recognition from evangelical groups that are refusing to pledge not to discriminate on the basis of religion in the selection of their leaders. And at Vanderbilt, more than a dozen groups, most of them evangelical but one of them Catholic, have already lost their official standing over the same issue; one Christian group balked after a university official asked the students to cut the words “personal commitment to Jesus Christ” from their list of qualifications for leadership.

At most universities that have begun requiring religious groups to sign nondiscrimination policies, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and mainline Protestant groups have agreed, saying they do not discriminate and do not anticipate that the new policies will cause problems. Hillel, the largest Jewish student organization, says some chapters have even elected non-Jews to student boards.

My question: Did the Times team investigate whether the issue is a matter of practical work or mere symbolic statements? In other words, is the issue that traditional Christian groups — evangelicals, mostly — are simply not willing to pretend to go along with the policies? And what about in other doctrinally defined groups linked to science, the environment, arts, sexuality?

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Church to boycott Redskins? Not enough to fill a stadium

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The Washington Redskins are changing their name because of its negative connotations, a friend posted on Facebook.

Apparently, the National Football League team will drop the “Washington” and be known simply as the Redskins.

Bah-duh-BOOM!

But seriously, folks, check out this Washington Post lede:

Eleven days before the United Church of Christ will vote on a resolution calling for its 22,000 members to boycott the Washington Redskins, a team official called a top minister and asked him to speak to three Native Americans who support the controversial name.

Does anything about that opening sentence strike you as a little off?  How about the 22,000 members? I mean, I knew that mainline denominations had shrunk in recent decades, but the last time I checked, the United Church of Christ had almost 1 million members across the U.S.

Alas, since the Post functions often as a national newspaper, I assumed that the figure related to the national denomination. Wrong.

Keep reading:

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‘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?

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Boy, you got a prayer in … the drive-thru lane

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I’ll never forget a sermon I heard as a young boy — mainly because I found the message extremely humorous.

In Churches of Christ, we observe the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. But some folks were showing up and quickly leaving after the communion service. So the minister got up one week and proposed distributing the grape juice and crackers through a drive-through so people wouldn’t even need to get out of their cars.

Fast-forward 35 years, and the idea of a drive-thru faith connection isn’t theoretical.

This story (which I came across via the Pew Research Center’s daily religion news email) caught my attention this week:

Drive-thru at church: The easy-pray lane

As a journalist who once wrote a national Associated Press story on 1-800 prayer lines, I found the headline intriguing. Honestly, though, I expected to find “shallow” and “cheesy” on this story’s menu. Instead, the Philadelphia Inquirer treated the subject in a thoughtful, meaty — and yet still interesting — way:

Have it your way.

No, not your fast-food burger. Your prayer.

In an age when convenience is king and religion is often ridiculed, some churches looking to widen their outreach efforts are embracing what community banks and pharmacies have utilized for decades: the drive-through.

The latest to offer a bit of spiritual uplift in the comfort of your car is Hope United Methodist Church in Voorhees.

“People go to Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee, not because it’s the best coffee, but because it’s the most convenient,” reasoned Hope’s lead pastor, Jeff Bills. “In a similar way, this is a port of entry for somebody to begin to connect with God in an intentional kind of way.”

(Dunkin’ Donuts doesn’t get a chance to respond in this story. Call me old school, but they should. Surely a Dunkin’ PR person could come up with a nice quip about coffee and prayer that fits with the story’s tone. But I digress.)

Back to the story: Three things I liked about this piece:

1. It considers the big picture: The Inquirer provides details both about the trend involved and the context in which drive-thru prayer has a chance to thrive.

The trend:

In Lancaster, there are drive-through hours Wednesday afternoons from the steps of Lancaster First Assembly of God during spring, summer, and fall months, when it’s not too cold to sit outside. Sonrise Worship Center in Lutz, Fla., extends coffee with its comfort the third Saturday of every month. Other drive-through churches have opened in Wichita, Kan.; Richmond, Va.; Aurora, Ill.; and Modesto, Calif..

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United Methodists stand at a ‘tipping point’ — once again

Yes, it’s time to head into yet another oldline Protestant summer of sex.

This leads to a painful, and very old, oldline Protestant question. Here it is: Just how long have United Methodists been debating whether (a) local bishops have the right to ignore passages in the denomination’s Book of Discipline linked to homosexuality and (b) this means that it is inevitable that schism will result?

At this point, the evangelical (and international) wing of the denomination is openly discussing this equation, which led to a Religion News Service feature on the subject by former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey. After months of mainstream news coverage of the actions on the doctrinal and cultural left, her piece focuses on the painful discussions now being held on the other side of the denominational aisle.

Here is the section of the piece — the background, context material — that caught my eye:

Amidst a wave of open defiance over rules that prevent pastors from presiding at same-sex marriages, and a host of high-profile church trials that have largely upheld church policy, some UMC pastors say the 11.8 million-member church has reached an impasse. Many feel that the sexuality debates simply touch on larger issues of how Methodists understand Scripture and how leaders uphold church teaching.

Frank Schaefer, a former Pennsylvania pastor, was found guilty of violating church law when he officiated at his son’s 2007 wedding, though his appeal will be heard on June 20. Schaefer was told he could keep his clergy credentials if he recanted his support of gay marriage, but refused.

And here is the crucial statement that grew out of that:

The tipping point for many conservatives came, however, after Bishop Martin D. McLee of New York announced in March he would drop a case against a retired seminary dean who officiated at his gay son’s 2012 wedding and called for an end to church trials for clergy who violate the denomination’s law on ministering to gays.

The pastors saw McLee’s move as failing to uphold agreed-upon church teaching. He should have gone through proper means of changing the church’s stance on sexuality, they say, rather than declining to uphold the church’s Book of Discipline, or constitution.

The key words, of course, are “tipping point.”

In other words, the alleged point of no return was McLee’s failure to enforce the teachings that he, as a bishop, is supposedly committed to enforcing — even more than one clergyperson’s actions in violation of the Book of Discipline. Bishops are supposed to be the doctrinal backstops, the defenders of the faith. It’s right there in their vows, to one degree or another in the various churches that claim to have bishops.

I do not doubt that Bailey is quoting her sources accurately. I also do not doubt that it is possible that McLee has created a “tipping point” for this long divided denomination. However, I do think it’s crucial to note that this is merely the latest in a long, long, long series of alleged “tipping points” for this Protestant body. Is this the one that cracks through the denominational inertia? Do the lessons of the past matter?

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