Clash of absolute truths in WPost coverage of Schaefer trial

And this just in.

The editorial team of The Washington Post has published a direct quotation from an outside voice, a figure of authority, who supports the doctrines and disciplines of the United Methodist Church, which reflect centuries of Christian tradition on marriage and sex. This is the first time that this old-school journalistic device — a throwback to the days in which balance and fairness were journalistic virtues — has been used in the newspaper’s national-level coverage of this local-news story in rural Pennsylvania.

While the Post has done an admirable job of quoting local voices linked to the case of the Rev. Frank Schaefer, a pastor accused of violating his ordination vows by performing his gay son’s wedding rite, the crucial framing material explaining the national context and meaning of this story has consistently been drawn from supporters of efforts to change and modernize United Methodist doctrines. (For a previous GetReligion post on this story, click here.)

First, here is how this local news story opens:

SPRING CITY, Pa. – A jury of clergy Tuesday night suspended for 30 days a pastor who officiated at the wedding of his gay son, telling him he must decide whether he can embrace church rules — or, if not, leave the Methodist ministry.

The dozens of gay and lesbian advocates in the audience threw their folding chairs on the floor in protest after the announcement and began singing hymns and performing Communion in the middle of the gym that had been used as a courtroom. …

Gay advocates across the country lit up Twitter with anger at the ruling, which many saw as a “de facto defrocking,” but the Rev. Frank Schaefer and some members of his congregation, a small country church in Lebanon, said the jury could have removed him immediately. The call for him to follow the rules “in their entirety” might give him a chance to argue again that he believes he is, they suggested.

Once again, it is clear that Schaefer has merely violated some church rules. Also note that the Post team claims that the key question is whether he “can” embrace church rules, which avoids the issue at the heart of the trial — which is that, when ordained, Schaefer had already vowed to defend the “order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline” of his denomination.

This brings us to the shocking quote from a leader in an unnamed conservative United Methodist group:

Thomas A. Lambrecht, vice president of a traditional group of Methodists who advised the church counsel in this case, said he was pleased with the penalty and did not consider it ambiguous.

“I think it registers how serious the breach of the covenant was that took place. At the same time gives a time of grace for Reverend Schaefer to reconsider and potentially change his mind,” Lambrecht said.

The key word in that quotation is “covenant,” a reference to the ordination vows in Schaefer’s past.

In your typical online dictionary, “covenant” is defined this way:

1. A binding agreement; a compact. …
2. Law
a. A formal sealed agreement or contract. …
3. In the Bible, God’s promise to the human race.

A covenant has two sides. Schaeffer’s ordination vows where part of a covenant to which he consented.

Once again, the Post team does a fine job of showing that there is little or no unity in the United Methodist Church on issues linked to marriage and sex, although — for several decades — liberals in the church have fallen short in their efforts to change the denomination’s doctrines. You can see the same tensions and divisions in this Religion News Service report on the Schaefer trial.

I have been following the United Methodist wars close since the early 1980s, when I began covering the case of the Rev. Julian Rush in the liberal Rocky Mountain Annual conference. With that background, I thought that this passage in the new Post report was especially well done:

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