Instructing v. reporting on gay clergy from The Times

What’s the difference between advocacy journalism and classical, liberal, some would say “objective” journalism?

Advocacy journalism tells you what you should think about a news story while old-school liberal journalism sets out the facts of the story and lets you make up your own mind. The first method produces copy that fits a pre-determined template. The second is rooted in professional standards in which professionals strive for accuracy, balance, fairness, etc.

A comparison of the coverage by The Times and The Scotsman of this week’s vote by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to allow gay clergy succinctly illustrates the assumptions and agenda of these two schools. While both articles give the same essential fact pattern, The Times tells you what you should think about the vote, while The Scotsman lays out the facts and gives voice to the participants — letting you decide.

The story entitled “Desire for church unity opens way for gay clergy” on the front page of the Scottish edition of The Times begins:

An historic proposal has been passed by the highest court of the Church of Scotland paving the way for the ordination of gay ministers.

Commissioners at the General Assembly in Edinburgh voted by 369 to 189 to approve what has become known as a “mixed economy” in the church, enabling individual congregations to appoint a minister who is in a civil partnership, and opt out of traditional church teaching which is opposed to same-sex relationships. The vote, the fourth in the last six years, showed a widening gap between hard-line traditionalists opposed to same-sex relationships, and the more tolerant body of the kirk. The Rt. Rev. John Chalmers, the moderator, said the trend showed a growing desire for unity.

(As an aside the members of the General Assembly are called commissioners — and the General Assembly is the highest governing body or court of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland).

The Times starts off the story with the facts of the vote and then moves to paragraph after paragraph of explanation as to why the outcome of the vote was, to use a technical journalism term, a “good thing.” The article presents the moderator’s argument as to why unity is necessary, followed by assertions that threats of conservative sessions over gay ministers have not been credible so far — plus a warning that if the Kirk does not permit gay ministers it could be sued for discrimination.

The implication is clear — all right thinking people should approve.

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Pod people: Presby-speak again

The meaningless drivel that passes for public language these days was the major theme of my chat last week with Todd Wilken, the host of Issues, Etc.  In our conversation broadcast on 24 May 2013, Todd and I discussed my article “Scotland the confused: Did Presbyterians back gay clergy?”, posted at GetReligion and talked about all that double-talk.

I led off my GetReligion post with the observation:

Something happened on Monday at the General Assembly the Church of Scotland — they appear to have become Anglicans. No — they didn’t change from a Presbyterian to Episcopal form of church government. They did something more Anglican than combining bishops with Calvinism.  They’ve accepted the sacred “yes/but”  Anglican doctrine of deliberate confusion,  and have adopted a policy on gay clergy that no one quite seems to understand.

What lay behind my observation was the news the General Assembly had adopted a new policy on gay clergy.  Same-sex relations continue to be placed in the sin column for the Church of Scotland — but individual congregations can opt out of this view and hire non-celibate gay clergy. The gay clergy bill must be backed by majority of the presbyteries and at this point only 35% are in favor. The issue becomes further confused as the Guardian announced this was a victory for supporters of gay clergy, running the headline “Church of Scotland votes to allow gay ministers.”

Two years earlier the Guardian ran a story about the 2011 General Assembly with the headline “Church of Scotland votes to allow gay ministers”, reporting the news the church of Scotland had voted to allow gay clergy. Problem with the headlines was that they reported what the Guardian wanted to have happened, not what did happen.

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Scotland the confused: Did Presbyterians back gay clergy?

Something happened on Monday at the General Assembly the Church of Scotland — they appear to have become Anglicans. No — they didn’t change from a Presbyterian to Episcopal form of church government. They did something more Anglican than combining bishops with Calvinism.  They’ve accepted the sacred “yes/but”  Anglican doctrine of deliberate confusion,  and have adopted a policy on gay clergy that no one quite seems to understand.

Let’s compare headlines and ledes from the Guardian, the Press Association and the Associated Press to see what they think happened.

The Guardian saw Monday’s vote as a victory for the liberal faction in the church that is seeking to change church teaching on homosexuality. Under the headline “Church of Scotland votes to allow gay ministers” it reported: (seems I’ve heard that before — but don’t let me distract you.)

The Church of Scotland, the country’s largest Protestant church, has narrowly voted to admit gay and lesbian ministers after traditionalists agreed to compromise after four years of division.  The church’s ruling general assembly voted to allow congregations to admit gay ministers but only if they specifically elect to do so, in a radical departure from more than 450 years of orthodoxy set in train by the protestant reformer John Knox.

The Press Association was less sanguine. It took a “two steps forward one step back” approach to the story. The headline used by the Huffington Post with the PA story gave the liberals the win —  ”Church of Scotland votes for openly gay ministers” – but the lede did not back it up:

The Church of Scotland has voted in favour of allowing openly gay men and women to become ministers – whilst maintaining a traditionalist standpoint. The General Assembly backed a motion affirming the Church’s “current doctrine and practice in relation to human sexuality”, but permitting liberal congregations to depart from that approach if they wish to do so.

The Associated Press report was even more cautious than the PA and filed a “yes, but” story implying the decision was a draw. The headline that topped the AP story as printed on the FOXNews website stated: “Church of Scotland votes to allow gay ministers, but only if congregations choose to do so”.

Senior members of the Church of Scotland have voted to let some congregations have openly gay ministers, a compromise first step that could lead to the church allowing gay clergy. The church’s General Assembly backed a motion affirming a traditional conservative view on homosexuality, but permitted liberal congregations to “opt out” if they wish to ordain gay men or women. The assembly vote would require the approval of next year’s General Assembly as well as votes by the church’s regional presbyteries to become law. The process is expected to take at least two years.

You can see this diversity of interpretation in the British press as well as and blogs that follow church issues. So what did happen on Monday?

The always excellent Law & Religion UK blog summarized the day as follows:

Yesterday the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland voted in principle to allow men and women in civil partnerships to be ordained to the ministry and/or inducted as parish ministers. There were various options before the Assembly:

  • the Revisionist option, which would allow ministers in civil partnerships to be appointed to churches and gay couples in civil partnerships to be allowed to have their partnerships blessed – but would allow individual kirk sessions to opt out of the arrangement;
  • the Traditionalist option, under which no new minister in a civil partnership could be ordained or inducted; and
  • a countermotion to section 2 of the proposed Deliverance by the immediate past Moderator of the Assembly, The Very Revd Albert Bogle, which reaffirmed the Kirk’s traditional view  on the issue but would allow an individual Kirk Session to choose to call a minister in a civil partnership if it so wished.

In short, the Kirk voted for the compromise resolution which affirmed the church’s traditional theological stance against  gay clergy, but nevertheless allowed  individual congregations to opt out and engage gay clergy — an outcome the British delight in calling a “fudge”.

Each of the newspapers reported that there will be no immediate change as the bill must now go to a legal committee to be submitted to the 2014 General Assembly.  If adopted, it  will be sent to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act 1697 because the issue touches upon “doctrine or worship or discipline”. Only if a majority of presbyteries approved the bill and the General Assembly confirms it in 2015, will it become law.

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