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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About those evangelical whispers on same-sex marriage

As you would imagine, your GetReligionistas are never eager to critique the work of previous members of our team who have found their way back into the world of mainstream religion-news work. However, that professional courtesy doesn’t mean that we can’t point our readers toward stories by our former colleagues that we think everyone needs to read.

Right now, Sarah Pulliam Bailey has a fine report out for Religion News Service that openly explores the doctrinal question that is currently being debated behind closed doors (including most faculty lounges) just about everywhere in the messy postmodern world that is American evangelicalism.

Wait a minute. That’s not quite right. Truth is, progressive evangelicals are debating this question and ordinary, run-of-the-mill evangelicals are debating what to do about the fact that lots of progressive evangelicals are about to make mainstream-news headlines by debating this question out in the open. Did you follow that?

In other words, Sarah has herself an important story here and I would imagine she will keep chasing it. Here’s some material from the top of her report. The key, of course, was the World Vision explosion, before and after it’s decision to reverse its decision to hire Christians openly living in same-sex marriages.

Wait a minute. I forgot to let Sarah state the question:

At its core, the reversal raised a stark question: Can you be an evangelical and support same-sex marriage?

Taking a softer position, a group of progressive Christians wrote in a letter released Wednesday (April 9) that they grieve World Vision’s reversal. “And, we call on Christian institutions to employ LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ who help further the mission of their institutions,” the letter states, acknowledging disagreements on both sides.

“There are committed Christians who believe, honestly, that a few passages in the Bible referencing sexual activity between people of the same gender have been historically misconstrued,” the signers say. “There are also committed Christians who believe, honestly, that homosexuality is sinful and flies in the face of what God desires.”

More than 300 signers include theologian Walter Brueggemann, Dartmouth College historian Randall Balmer, Louisville Seminary theology professor Amy Plantinga Pauw, Yale University emeritus professor Nick Wolterstorff and pastor Brian McLaren.

“I would like the world to know that there are many Christians who support the hiring of gay Christians in Christian institutions,” said Julia Stronks, a political science professor at Whitworth University who organized the letter. Whitworth is an evangelical university based in Spokane, Wash.

Now, there are very few surprising names among the early signers of this letter, which means that large segments of the progressive evangelical world — including academic leaders on many campuses — are still sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what happens. In the months ahead, wise reporters will keep their ears open for whispers (or shouting) on elite campuses in northern zip codes.

Meanwhile, Sarah had no trouble finding people who still think that marriage, and the status of sexual acts outside of traditional marriage, are not core issues in Christian doctrine. For example:

In a blog post for The Gospel Coalition, LifeWay Christian Resources employee Trevin Wax asked: “Can an institution with an historic evangelical identity be divided on an issue as central as marriage and family and still be evangelical?”

(LifeWay is, of course, linked to the Southern Baptist Convention, which is America’s largest non-Catholic flock.)

Ah, but there is the rub in terms of church history. What, precisely, is the doctrinal make-up of this so-called “historic evangelical identity”? What ecclesiastical body has the power to define such a thing for the wider evangelical movement?

The World Vision war hinted that evangelicalism remains a diverse movement defined by the leaders and financial supporters of large parachurch groups that, by their nondenominational nature, struggle to know which issues are essential and which ones are not. Often, there is no there there.

GetReligion readers already know what is coming, right? We are back to this challenge: Define “evangelical” and give three examples.

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Pod people: Local vs. national press on religious liberty

Proposed religious liberty exemptions for wedding vendors — such as bakers, florists and photographers — opposed to same-sex marriage keep making headlines.

Here at GetReligion, we’ve highlighted recent media coverage of a ballot initiative in Oregon and legislation in Kansas (where the Senate, for now, has killed a controversial measure). The Tennessean reported this week on a similar bill failing in Tennessee.

Meanwhile, LifeWay Research released results of a national survey today. LifeWay’s Bob Smietana has the story:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Americans have always had mixed feelings about religious liberty. Most say it’s important, but they don’t always agree how much liberty is enough or too much.

That’s the issue at the heart of the upcoming Supreme Court hearings between Hobby Lobby and the Obama Administration over the HHS contraceptive mandate.

It’s a dispute that is unlikely to go away, no matter what the Supreme Court decides.

American preachers, it turns out, are more than a bit uneasy about religious liberty these days.

A survey from Nashville-based LifeWay Research found seven out of 10 senior pastors at Protestant churches say religious liberty is on the decline in America. About seven in 10 also say Christians have lost or are losing the culture war. The telephone survey of Protestant senior pastors was taken Sept. 4-19, 2013.

Of course, social media such as Twitter are the modern-day water cooler, and the religious liberty issue inspired an interesting discussion Wednesday between two of Religion News Service’s national correspondents: Sarah Pulliam Bailey (of former GetReligionista fame) and Cathy Grossman (who has blogged on the “values tug-of-war”).

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Hey, guess what, all Baptists are Calvinists

Where’s Joe Carter when you need him?

Oh, right. I forgot.

Before his premature departure, Carter served as GetReligion’s resident expert on Calvinism. Trust me, I am a poor fill-in, although I posted a few months ago on media coverage of the Southern Baptist Convention debating that subject. (At that time, I acknowledged that I flunked Professor Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s Calvinism 101 course.)

So, I am stepping into this post with fear and trepidation — and under duress from Editor tmatt, who sent me the relevant link with the note, “Take it away, Bobby.”

So, as instructed, I am taking it away. Let’s just hope it doesn’t crash and burn.

The featured story, titled “The Protestant Work Ethic Is Real,” appeared in Pacific Standard magazine. Let’s start at the top:

Why do we work the way we do? For years Americans have been arguing over whether or not it has something to do with the country’s religious history. Does a history of Protestant religiosity make us work harder? Now we’ve finally got some answers.

The influence of Protestantism on American capitalism has been a matter of considerable debate since German sociologist Max Weber wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in 1905. The book wasn’t even translated into English until 1930, but it’s particularly interesting to this country because Weber argued that capitalist success stems from Calvinism.

Today just 53 percent of Americans identify with some sort of Protestant church, and only the Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, and Baptist denominations (which directly influence less than five percent of the American population) can be called churches in the Calvinist tradition. But Calvinists were the religious ancestors of our Puritans, the English Calvinists who helped establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony so that they could have a place to practice their (rather extreme) religion in freedom. Because they were some of the first major settlers of the United States, they had a rather profound influence on our country’s economic development.

OK, since I already declared my ignorance, I’m going to admit that I’m confused.

First question: Is this story suggesting that all Baptists are Calvinists? If so, why did the reporting I read this past summer include background such as this?:

Calvinism, which is traditionally the domain of Reformed churches like Presbyterians, differs from traditional Baptist theology in key aspects, particularly on the question of salvation.

Say it ain’t so, Joe!

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Et tu, Tim? Townsend latest to leave the Godbeat (updated)

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Speaking of Ch-ch-ch-ch Changes

In the last few weeks, we’ve highlighted the departures of two respected journalists from the Godbeat.

First, Bob Smietana left The Tennessean.

Then Ann Rodgers announced plans to leave the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 

Now, a third religion-writing superstar — Tim Townsend of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch — has decided to leave the Godbeat.

Townsend revealed his plans on Twitter and even provided dramatic music to go along with the announcement:

Townsend’s tweet prompted this response from religion writer Laurie Goodstein  of The New York Times: 

Smietana. Rodgers. Townsend.

Tim Townsend

In journalism, we all know that three examples make a trend. (Or are we up to six now?)

There’s a legitimate news hook here, people. Who will be the enterprising Godbeat soul (if there’s anyone left) who will step up, interview these three and write a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature story on why no one wants to cover the religion beat anymore? (To anyone out there screaming that I’m overgeneralizing, shhhhhhh. We’ll add context to the piece later, but first we need to inspire someone to take the assignment. The more dramatic, the better.)

My nomination for this assignment: former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey, now a rockin’ Godbeat pro herself (at least as of this moment) for Religion News Service.

What say ye, Sarah? You up for it?

In the meantime, kind GetReligion readers, please feel free to leave a comment. If you want, you can reflect on how much you’ll miss Townsend’s excellent journalism with the Post-Dispatch. Or if you prefer, you can speculate on who will be next to leave the Godbeat. No wagering, please.

Update: Sarah just sent the following tweet to RNS Editor in Chief Kevin Eckstrom, so it appears she’s considering the story idea!

 

 

One, two, trend: Godbeat pros changing jobs!

Here at GetReligion, we focus mainly on critiquing the mass media’s coverage of religion news.

Occasionally, though, we like to call attention to news related to the Godbeat itself.

Alas, at least three well-known individuals in the world of religion news reporting have made or announced major moves in recent weeks.

And as we all know, three examples make a trend. So we must report on this growing trend of religion journalists changing jobs.

First, there’s Daniel Burke, who has left Religion News Service for CNN.

From CNN last week:

Daniel Burke joined CNN Digital on Monday as co-editor of the Belief Blog. Burke comes to CNN from Religion News Service, where for the past seven years he covered everything from Amish funerals to the Zen of Steve Jobs. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today and The New York Times, and he has been recognized by the American Academy of Religion and the Religion Newswriters Association. He is based out of DC and reports to Meredith Artley, Managing Editor of CNN Digital.

Congrats, Daniel!

Burke’s departure, of course, created an opening at RNS.

Enter former star GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey, who will join RNS as a national correspondent in June.

From RNS this week:

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Another hack piece by CNN … maybe (Updated)

Screenshot from CNN.com home page

What’s good for the goose is good for, um, Sarah Pulliam Bailey.

Right?

Sarah, former online editor for Christianity Today and now managing editor for Odyssey Networks, spent three years as a GetReligion contributor before leaving us this past October.

To be honest, I still haven’t forgiven Sarah for giving up her high-paying gig as a GetReligionista. How dare she abandon our close-knit team of blogging professionals?

But anyway, this tweet by Sarah caught my attention today:

I tweeted back:

So here we are, with me about to treat Sarah to a big ole helping of the no-holds-barred media criticism that she doled out so often herself. (After typing that, why do I feel a sudden urge to take a break and watch some professional wrestling?)

Actually, in case you couldn’t tell, I’m delaying the inevitable part of the post where I have to say what a great journalist Sarah is and how much I enjoyed her 2,800-word story because, well, you know how much GetReligion readers hate posts that actually praise mainstream media coverage of religion.

Right?

Here’s the top of Sarah’s story:

Wheaton, Illinois (CNN)– Combing through prayer requests in a Wheaton College chapel in 2010, then-junior Benjamin Matthews decided to do something “absurdly unsafe.”

He posted a letter on a public forum bulletin board near students’ post office boxes. In the letter, he came out as gay and encouraged fellow gay Christian students — some of whom had anonymously expressed suicidal plans in a pile of the prayer requests — to contact him if they needed help.

In a student body of 2,400 undergraduates in the suburbs of Chicago, at what is sometimes called the Harvard of evangelical schools, Matthews said that 15 male students came out to him. Other students seemed somewhat ambivalent about his coming out, he said.

No one told him he was wrong or needed to change, Matthews said some students were obviously uncomfortable with someone who would come out as gay and remain a Christian.

“I don’t think most Wheaton students knew what to do because they’ve been given ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ rhetoric, but they don’t know how that plays out in real life,” said Matthews, who graduated in 2011. “They would mostly just listen, nod and say, ‘Yeah man, that’s hard.’”

Sarah packs the report with diverse voices, relevant context and history, strong survey data and important nuance that recognizes the complex nature of the issues at play. All in all, it’s an extraordinary story, worthy of the lead spot that it occupies on CNN’s home page at the moment I type this.

If I have any criticism, it’s that the story takes too long — in my humble opinion — to quote any Wheaton officials. We’re nearly 900 words into the piece before we get to this:

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