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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RNS blames Catholics for Anglican ecumenical ills

Opinion presented as fact dominates several stories in the run up to today’s meeting of Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.

Some of the stories are crafted as news analysis pieces. This BBC story begins with fact and then transitions into the analysis, using the phrase “our correspondent said” to demarcate the line between the two. The reader may choose to accept the reporter’s interpretation, or not.

Some stories like this report from the Religion News Service as printed by the Washington Post combine fact and opinion but do not disclose to the reader what they are reading is not news.

This is a problem of the contents of the package not matching the label. In this case the problem is compounded by false information and faulty analysis.

The lede in the RNS story reports this will be the first meeting between the new pope and the new archbishop before turning to a statement from the Vatican official overseeing that church’s relations with Anglicans.

Welby’s visit to Rome will be “short but very significant,” said the Rev. Mark Langham, the Vatican’s point man on dialogue with Anglicans. While its primary purpose is to allow the two leaders to get to know each other, he noted that they share the same concerns about poverty and the global economic crisis.

I’m not familiar with all different stylebooks out there: Associated Press, Times of London, New York Times, etc., but I’m quite sure all would agree that on first reference a full title is provided. Mark Langham holds the rank or office of Monsignor. This difficulty with labeling extends to a description of the second person quoted in the story.

On the issue of an “economy for the people,” they have “many ideas in common,” said Archbishop David Moxon, the Anglican representative in Rome.

Archbishop Moxon, the former primate of the Anglican Church in Aoteroa, New Zealand and Polynesia, is not the Anglican representative in Rome. There is no such office. Archbishop Moxonn is the director of the Anglican Center in Rome and may have a quasi official/unofficial commission from the Archbishop of Canterbury to facilitate communication between the two churches, but he has no authority to speak on behalf of the Anglican Communion or does he hold a commission akin to a papal nuncio or ambassador.

The article then moves into opinion and gets into trouble. The question of labeling is merely a quibble and is excusable given the shorthand reporters must use to convey as much information into as small a space as they can. But the account of the troubles between Anglicans and Catholics offered by RNS places the blame on the Catholics.

With new leadership on both sides, the relationship between Anglicans and Catholics could be primed for a reset after several years of tension following Pope Benedict XVI’s controversial initiative to woo back disgruntled Anglicans. For years, the Catholic Church has been critical of the Anglicans’ decision to ordain women priests in the Church of England, and is unhappy over steps to allow women bishops. Relations between the two churches were strained in 2009 when the Vatican announced a special structure, called an “ordinariate,” to allow conservative Anglicans to convert to Catholicism while retaining bits of their Anglican tradition. When he was still in Argentina, then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio’s Anglican counterpart recalled him saying that he thought the special structure for Anglicans was “unnecessary,” and that the Catholic Church “needs us as Anglicans.”

But both Moxon and Langham stress that the tensions are now past, pointing out that an official dialogue between Anglicans and Catholics that had been suspended in 2007 over the ordination of an openly gay bishop by U.S. Episcopalians had been recently restarted.

In principle, I would prefer the Anglican or Episcopalian side to be presented in the best light. But the argument that the Catholic response to Anglican innovations in doctrine and discipline is the problem, not the changes themselves, is extraordinary. And the facts presented in support of this contention are incorrect.

Since the project began in 1969 there have been three sessions of the Anglican – Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC): 1970-1981, 1983-2005, 2009 to present.  In the early days of ARCIC there was hope that a series of agreed statements would emerge which would uncover a common faith, on the basis of which corporate reunion might be possible. Statements on Ministry, Sacraments and other topics were produced but they were never officially accepted by the Vatican as being an adequate representation of Catholic belief.

Nor were other statements accepted by Anglicans. The second ARCIC commission studied the doctrine of salvation, communion, and the churches’ teaching authority and produced a paper on the role of Mary. I attended the meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council in Nottingham in 2005  and recall the vociferous objections to the paper from evangelicals, who rejected the report out of hand.

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