Still another one-sided same-sex marriage story

Here we go again.

A major media organization has published still another one-sided story on the religious debate over same-sex marriage.

This time, the guilty party is not The Associated Press. Rather, it’s USA Today, which as you might recall used to employ an actual religion writer. It could use one right about now.

This story, which originated with Gannett sister paper The Tennessean, is a long, winding ode to same-sex marriage disguised (not extremely well) as a news story.

Let’s start at the breathless top:

The couple buys a marriage license, a recognized officiant signs it and it’s refiled with the local government. That’s a legal marriage, and in 14 states — with Illinois just the governor’s signature away from becoming the 15th — that’s a process open to both straight and gay couples.

Getting the church on board is a little more complicated. The issue of whether clergy should officiate same-sex marriages is dividing an increasing number of denominations.

Now, a retired Nashville bishop has become the latest to draw headlines on the issue — reversing course from a path that, four decades ago, had him playing a key role in sending the church down a path of resistance to change.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America began allowing individual congregations to recognize same-sex marriages in 2009. Episcopalians adopted a same-sex marriage rite in July 2012, although a number of individual dioceses — including the one in Tennessee — chose not to allow it. The Presbyterian Church (USA) came close to approving same-sex marriages in 2012 but narrowly defeated the measure.

And United Methodists, the nation’s largest mainline Protestant denomination, are nowhere close after debating the issue for decades.

That hasn’t stopped pastors nationwide from defying church doctrine and performing those ceremonies. Some call it ecclesiastical disobedience. Others call it biblical obedience. Either way, it’s exposing them to church discipline, with potential punishments ranging from verbal rebukes to loss of their ordinations — and the financial implications that go with it.

Um, OK. Did everyone learn something new? I had no idea same-sex marriage was causing debate within denominations.

Apparently, the news peg is that a retired bishop (a Methodist, we find out deep in the story) performed a same-sex marriage:

Despite warnings from his denomination that he’d be violating the faith’s Book of Discipline, Bishop Melvin Talbert traveled from Nashville to near Birmingham, Ala., to perform the Oct. 26 wedding of Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince. They were legally married Sept. 3 in Washington, D.C., but wanted a church wedding. Openshaw said he specifically wanted Talbert to officiate since the bishop had spent years supporting Methodist gays and lesbians.

That wasn’t Talbert’s stance 40 years ago at the 1972 Methodist general conference, which adopted language saying homosexuality is incompatible with Christianity. His views changed several years later, when he was invited to a weekend seminar of gay and straight Methodists; participants could not reveal which they were until the end.

The revelation destroyed his stereotypes. The married father and grandfather brought the issue to a head last year, when the denomination voted against removing the language he had helped put in.

“I declared those laws that prohibited clergy from marrying gay and lesbian folk and using the church for that purpose are immoral, unjust, they are evil, and they no longer deserve our loyalty and support,” he said. “It’s time for us to do the right thing.”

But what about voices within the United Methodist Church who believe Talbert is doing the wrong thing? How do they respond to him defying the denomination and winning swooning headlines?

Ah ha ha. USA Today makes not even a token attempt to quote anyone on the other side.

Just for kicks and grins, what might an opposing viewpoint have looked like in this rambling report? Here’s a chunk of a recent Religion News Service story on the United Methodist debate:

[Read more...]

In post-denominational age, what’s in a name?

Joe Carter, our newest GetReligionista, referenced Southern Baptist name-change discussions in a post earlier this week. It’s a topic that GetReligion has tackled a time or two before — or more.

I bring up the subject again because I came across a fascinating Miami Herald news-feature this week with this headline:

For some Baptists, the name of the church is hindrance to saving souls

The top of the story:

After 87 years, the University Baptist Church of Coral Gables recently shed its name for something it felt was more forward looking — Christ Journey.

It was following the lead of First Baptist Church of Perrine, which dropped the name it had held for 89 years in favor of Christ Fellowship.

Coral Baptist Church of Coral Springs relaunched itself in 2006 as Church By the Glades.

And First Baptist Church of Fort Lauderdale is now known as “First Fort Lauderdale” in its new website. The word “Baptist” is found in a faintly lettered tagline.

These South Florida churches are joining a growing number of Southern Baptist congregations around the country that are quietly moving away from their denomination’s historic namesake — worried that it conjured up images of pipe organs, narrow-mindedness or stuffy, formal services.

The reality, pastors say, is that many modern Baptist churches mix their liturgy with rock bands and gourmet coffee, and sermons are more likely to be about personal growth than fire and brimstone.

This is one of those “growing number” trend stories that never actually provides any concrete statistics to back up the nut graf up high. Alas, I’ve written similarly vague summaries myself, so I won’t be too critical of that lapse. I do wonder, however, if the Southern Baptist Convention actually tracks the number of member churches that don’t use “Baptist” and how those figures have changed in recent years.

It’s not as if this trend is breaking news: I did an Associated Press feature in 2004 contrasting the approaches of Ed Young’s Second Baptist Church in Houston and Ed Young Jr.’s Fellowship Church, a non-Baptist “Baptist” megachurch in Grapevine, Texas. Christianity Today, meanwhile, notes that Rick Warren’s Saddleback Community Church is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

Another concern for me: the editorially charged (as in, opinionated) descriptions of Baptist churches as “narrow-minded” and “stuffy” with no specific sources making those claims — and no one who might disagree given an opportunity to dispute the characterization. The same holds true in a later paragraph:

WWROD: Which denominations do what well?

So, GetReligion readers, have you submitted a religion-rooted question yet to veteran scribe Richard Ostling, over at his new weblog? That would be the one called “Religion Q&A: The Ridgewood Religion Guy answers your questions” (click here for some background).

Anyway, this week’s Ostling offering here at GetReligion focuses on a question that is sure to raise hackles in a few corners of the world of organized religion.

The provocative question, from one Judy in Pennsylvania:

The various Christian denominations seemingly have particular strengths in the theology, practice, outreach, and church polity of their forms of Christian faith. How would you see these strengths being shared among individual churches and Christians across the USA and around the globe in an effort to strengthen the Christian faith?

This is the time of year, Ostling noted, when media folks are inclined to assemble lists of various kinds.

This particular list, however, is by its nature rooted in opinion and, thus, is a bit perilous. Nevertheless, based on his decades of experience on the religion beat, he offered some of his views. The list starts like this:

Salvation Army — Taking Jesus seriously, and not just at Thanksgiving or Christmas (“as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren you did it to me.”)

Eastern Orthodox — Worship that conveys awe and mystery. Unwavering devotion to the faith that “was once for all delivered to the saints.”

Roman Catholics — Doctrinal clarity. Rich intellectual tradition. Parochial schools. Hospitals. Charities. And much, much else. But could benefit by learning from:

Presbyterian; Reformed churches — Skill with sermons (usually). Classic Protestant governance balancing regional oversight with local iniitiative, plus responsibility, voice, vote, and sense of vocation for lay members (concepts that helped create secular republics).

Lutherans — Choirs. Parish architecture and other visuals (often). Wise handling of schism to honor conscience and limit strife.

Anglicans; Episcopalians — Liturgy. Hymnody. But could learn much from the Lutherans on schism.

You get the idea.

Head on over to his site to read the rest and, by all means, leave a few questions that will force this religion-beat patriarch into hard-news terrain.

Just do it. Make our day.

WWROD: What the heck is a ‘denomination’ anyway?

As I mentioned the other day, one of the best religion-beat professionals ever — that would be Richard Ostling of Time and the Associated Press — has opened up a weblog here in the Patheos online universe.

The name of the blog is “Religion Q&A: The Ridgewood Religion Guy answers your questions” and the goal is, quite simply, for Ostling to field questions from readers and then to try to answer them in a simple, journalism-driven fashion.

After years of trying to get Ostling to consider writing for GetReligion from time to time, I was overjoyed to hear him commit throwing his hat into the cyber-ring. I also promised him that your GetReligionistas would point our readers toward at least one of his posts a week that we think would be especially interesting to journalists interested in religion and to readers who are interested in the kinds of issues that make the religion-news beat so fascinating and, at times, prickly.

With Ostling handling this, I would imagine that there are weeks we might pass along more than one.

Anyway, one of the scribe’s readers just asked this question about life in what many call post-denominational America:

What do you think is the future of denominations? Do you see any trends in history that may be indicators? And what do you think is the purpose (if any) of denominational affiliation?

And “The Guy” begins his response this way:

The oddities surrounding religious denominations bring to mind that incomparably sinister American clergyman Jim Jones, who in 1978 lured 909 Peoples Temple followers at his Guyana compound into an orgy of murder and suicide, a third of whom were children. More on him below.

The United States invented the “free exercise of religion” and has never had a dominant or “established” church like those in Europe. Even the big Catholic Church is merely one “denomination” among many. The term applies essentially to hundreds of Christian bodies in the freewheeling U.S. religious market, though American Jews also speak of their several denominations or branches.

The American tendency toward individualism and localism produces increasing numbers of “non-denominational” congregations. When 1960s disruptions fostered general suspicion toward authority, tradition, and institutions, the chief religious victims turned out to be the older and relatively liberal “Mainline” Protestant denominations. Meanwhile, notable expansion continues among unaffiliated congregations of Evangelical, Fundamentalist, Pentecostal and Charismatic persuasion.

Since World War Two especially, much dynamism in Protestant outreach has come from Evangelical entrepreneurs and their “parachurch” organizations instead of denominational agencies. This is sometimes a mixed blessing.

There’s more, of course. So click right here and get over there and finish the article.

Feel free to leave journalistic comments here. However, I would assume that Ostling would like to hear from our readers on his own site. And leave him a few journalistic questions that bug you. I can’t think of anyone I would prefer to take them on in a constructive manner.

The Southern Baptists’ scarlet ‘A’

Let’s say your church’s pastor is accused of molesting at least four teenage girls.

Let’s say your local congregation decides to keep the pastor in the pulpit while depending on the court system to sort out the accusations.

Let’s assume that the newspaper story about your church will not be pretty. Neither should it be, in my humble opinion.

But in the case of an autonomous Southern Baptist church, should the outrage extend to the national denomination? That’s the key question raised in an in-depth St. Louis Post-Dispatch report.

Starting at the top:

STOVER, MO. — Last Sunday, the Rev. Travis Smith paced First Baptist Church’s sanctuary, decorated for the holidays with poinsettias and a Christmas tree. He addressed his congregation, speaking to them about forgiveness.

Smith read verses from the Gospel of Matthew that follow the Lord’s Prayer:

“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you,” he said.

Since Smith’s arrest in October on sexual abuse and statutory rape charges, which follow similar allegations from 2010, forgiveness from his congregation has become critical to his survival as its pastor. It is this group of about 100 souls — not a bishop, nor a disciplinary committee nor national church leaders at a faraway headquarters — who will decide Smith’s future in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Unlike members of many denominations — such as Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalian and Presbyterians — Southern Baptists don’t conform to a centralized, hierarchical structure.

The forgiveness peg up high is catchy, but I’m not certain it’s entirely accurate. Based on my reading of the story, the church members have not forgiven their pastor so much as refused to believe the allegations against him. If he has not sinned, what’s there to forgive?

The story then proceeds to push the idea that the autonomous nature of Southern Baptist churches makes it easier for abusive pastors to keep their positions:

In any denomination, Christians confronted with the shocking news that their often-beloved pastor has been accused of sexual misconduct, many congregations circle the wagons, some experts say. …

In those denominations with a centralized hierarchy, it is often a high-ranking church official who provides incontrovertible evidence that an accusation against a pastor is credible, forcing the congregation to face reality.

In many scandals I have read about, high-ranking church officials hushed allegations of abuse and moved abusers from state to state — and even country to country — without alerting local members.

Given that fairly well-known history, I wish the story had provided more insight and analysis on the claim that hierarchical denominational bodies inherently handle such cases better than autonomous churches.

Critics are given a voice in the story:

Advocates for clergy sexual abuse victims say Southern Baptist leaders are hiding behind their governing structure to avoid taking responsibility for the misconduct of Southern Baptist pastors.

“There’s nothing about autonomy that precludes denominational structures,” said Christa Brown, author of “This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and His Gang.” “Other large congregational faith groups have regional bodies that assess a minister’s fitness to continue ministry.”

Who is Brown? Does she have a Southern Baptist background? Are those raising concerns about the Southern Baptists’ approach internal critics or outside voices? What do leading Southern Baptist theologians say about the autonomy issue as it relates to the ability of sexual predators to move from church to church with little oversight? These are questions I wish the story had addressed.

More from the story:

If the organizing body of a denomination claims no responsibility for supervising, or even ordaining clergy, it may be harder to hold it responsible when a pastor molests a child.

Even so, a Florida jury in May found the Florida Baptist Convention liable for the sexual abuse of a 13-year-old boy by former pastor Douglas W. Myers. Jurors decided the convention failed to check Myers’ background, which included a history of sexual abuse in Maryland and Alabama, according to news reports.

The incident is among dozens of sex abuse cases by pastors at Southern Baptist churches listed on Brown’s website

If the reporting is accurate, the Florida case seems to hold an important precedent. More details on that case — and exactly how the state convention was held liable for a local church’s hiring — would have improved the Post-Dispatch story. I am a little leery of facts attributed to “news reports.” I’d prefer that the reporter go ahead and verify the court records and decisions himself.

The story ends this way:

That theological tension between God’s invitation to forgive and his expectations of his servants has hung a burden on the congregants of First Baptist Church of Stover.

“This is a delicate situation for our church,” said Marriott, the church deacon. “We could jump to conclusions and dismiss him, but what if we’re wrong? We’re just a bunch of average people trying our best to live by God’s word.”

Smith’s sermon Sunday resonated with that struggle. Just as the Gospel of Matthew promises heavenly forgiveness to those who forgive, so, too, does it spell out consequences for those who refuse.

“But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

“Salvation,” Smith told his flock, “is conditional.”

Not to take a total detour, but salvation is conditional for Southern Baptists? Really?

All in all, give the Post-Dispatch credit for tackling an important subject matter. I just wish the newspaper had dug a little deeper.

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