Hero or troubled soul: Dallas pastor takes his life

Right from the start, a long Page 1 story in The Dallas Morning News portrays the Rev. Charles Moore as a hero.

The headline on the weekend story:

In dying act, minister hoped to inspire social justice

The top of the 1,750-word story:

From segregated churches of East Texas to destitute slums of India, the Rev. Charles Moore fought for human rights.

He delivered sermons about racism and sexism. He stood vigil against the death penalty. He went on a hunger strike to protest discrimination against gays and lesbians.

But during retirement, the United Methodist minister questioned whether he had done enough. He saw the broken world around him.

So how did Moore — according to the Morning News — take his final, courageous stand?:

On a Monday afternoon in June, Moore, 79, drove from his home in Allen to Grand Saline, the town of his childhood about 70 miles east of Dallas. He traveled along country roads near fields of wildflowers and grazing cattle. In a strip-mall parking lot, outside a dollar store, beauty salon and pharmacy, he knelt down, doused himself with gasoline and lit himself on fire.

As flames engulfed him, he screamed and tried to stand. Witnesses rushed to put out the blaze with shirts, bottled water and, finally, an extinguisher.

He was flown unconscious to a Dallas hospital, where he died from burn injuries.

Keep reading, and the Dallas newspaper uses Moore’s own terminology — self-immolation — to describe the nature of his death:

Moore had intended his act to be a grand but selfless gesture in the manner of Buddhist monks who have done the same before him.

“I would much prefer to go on living and enjoy my beloved wife and grandchildren and others, but I have come to believe that only my self-immolation will get the attention of anybody and perhaps inspire some to higher service,” he wrote in one of the notes he left behind.

The Morning News does not explain the term, but Wikipedia defines self-immolation as “a ritualistic suicide practice” that refers to “killing oneself as a sacrifice.”

In an earlier story headlined “Madman or Martyr: Retired minister sets self on fire, dies,” the Tyler Morning Telegraph used the term “suicide” up high:

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A ‘startling’ statement in NYTimes United Methodist report

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The religion beat is just so, so, so complicated. There are all those historical facts and picky doctrines and stuff. You know?

Thus, the following correction in The New York Times was probably amusing to readers who had, at some point in their past, survived a church-history course (or maybe a young-adult Sunday school class in a half dozen or more Protestant denominations).

An earlier version of this article misstated when John Wesley started the religious movement that became the United Methodist Church. It was the 18th century, not the early 19th century.

Well, actually, the Rev. John Wesley was an Anglican priest until the day he died and he started a renewal movement within that body that, after his death, turned into a denomination. The birth of the United Methodist Church was many twists and turns down the road. Oh well, whatever, nevermind.

Actually, I just kind of shook my head when I read that correction. But I laughed out loud when I hit one HILARIOUS word in the lede on the early Times piece on the latest sex-wars win for the United Methodist establishment.

Experienced Godbeat scribes and consumers, and activists on both sides of the oldline Protestant sex wars, will have no trouble spotting the howler. Here goes.

A onetime Methodist pastor who was stripped of his clerical credentials because he presided at the wedding of his gay son is being reinstated, a startling reversal for a large Protestant denomination that, like many, is riven by divisions over same-sex relationships.

So where was the laugh? It’s the word “startling.”

Why is that so funny? Let’s read on.

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United (for now) Methodists and the same-sex debate

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Amid talk of a possible schism over homosexuality, the United Methodist Church is back in the news.

On the heels of an exceedingly positive profile of Methodist gay-rights advocate Frank Schaefer, the Washington Post reported this weekend:

Hundreds of American pastors from the United Methodist Church have signed a proposal released Friday that aims to keep the global denomination of 12.5 million members from splitting over the issue of homosexuality.

It offers churches and regional bodies the option to make up their own minds on issues like affirming gay clergy and same-sex marriage.

The proposal, titled “A Way Forward,” includes some prominent pastors, including Adam Hamilton, who leads an 18,000-member church in Kansas and delivered the sermon at President Obama’s 2013 inaugural service, and David McAllister-Wilson, president of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.

The gist of the proposal, as described by the Post:

“The Church leaders that offer this proposal believe that the current debate is virtually irresolvable if left to the choices that the General Conference has been faced with recently. These leaders believe division would be shortsighted, costly, detrimental to ALL local congregations, and out of step with God’s will,” Friday’s statement read.

“One side believes the ‘practice of homosexuality’ is incompatible with Christian teaching. That is what’s written into the UMC Book of Discipline. The other side believes that scriptures related to homosexuality reflect the values of the time period in which scriptures were written more than the timeless will of God.”

The response from those opposed to budging on homosexuality? More from the Post:

It wasn’t possible to get immediate comment from the leaders of the traditional wing of the church, but the proposal came a few weeks after a group of conservative pastors issued a call of their own for “a way forward” that sounded more like a request to split.

It wasn’t possible? Seriously, what does that mean? Would the traditional leaders not answer their phones? Did the Post get the story too close to deadline? (But give the Post credit for including after that paragraph the most recent statements from the denomination’s traditional wing.)

In most of the reporting on debates such as this, you have one side pushing for something — such as compromise on the issue of homosexuality — and another side opposing it. To a large extent, that’s the nature of news. At the same time, these debates — in real life — often are marked by as much gray as black and white.

With that in my mind, I found a Florida Today story this weekend refreshing in that it reflected the complexity of the discussion among many Methodists:

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Boy, you got a prayer in … the drive-thru lane

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I’ll never forget a sermon I heard as a young boy — mainly because I found the message extremely humorous.

In Churches of Christ, we observe the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. But some folks were showing up and quickly leaving after the communion service. So the minister got up one week and proposed distributing the grape juice and crackers through a drive-through so people wouldn’t even need to get out of their cars.

Fast-forward 35 years, and the idea of a drive-thru faith connection isn’t theoretical.

This story (which I came across via the Pew Research Center’s daily religion news email) caught my attention this week:

Drive-thru at church: The easy-pray lane

As a journalist who once wrote a national Associated Press story on 1-800 prayer lines, I found the headline intriguing. Honestly, though, I expected to find “shallow” and “cheesy” on this story’s menu. Instead, the Philadelphia Inquirer treated the subject in a thoughtful, meaty — and yet still interesting — way:

Have it your way.

No, not your fast-food burger. Your prayer.

In an age when convenience is king and religion is often ridiculed, some churches looking to widen their outreach efforts are embracing what community banks and pharmacies have utilized for decades: the drive-through.

The latest to offer a bit of spiritual uplift in the comfort of your car is Hope United Methodist Church in Voorhees.

“People go to Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee, not because it’s the best coffee, but because it’s the most convenient,” reasoned Hope’s lead pastor, Jeff Bills. “In a similar way, this is a port of entry for somebody to begin to connect with God in an intentional kind of way.”

(Dunkin’ Donuts doesn’t get a chance to respond in this story. Call me old school, but they should. Surely a Dunkin’ PR person could come up with a nice quip about coffee and prayer that fits with the story’s tone. But I digress.)

Back to the story: Three things I liked about this piece:

1. It considers the big picture: The Inquirer provides details both about the trend involved and the context in which drive-thru prayer has a chance to thrive.

The trend:

In Lancaster, there are drive-through hours Wednesday afternoons from the steps of Lancaster First Assembly of God during spring, summer, and fall months, when it’s not too cold to sit outside. Sonrise Worship Center in Lutz, Fla., extends coffee with its comfort the third Saturday of every month. Other drive-through churches have opened in Wichita, Kan.; Richmond, Va.; Aurora, Ill.; and Modesto, Calif..

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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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Surprise! Dallas Morning News finds a Methodist to quote

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Once or twice (or maybe three or four or five times) in recent weeks, we have criticized The Dallas Morning News’ inability to find anyone to quote who supports the United Methodist Church’s stance on homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

The Methodist bishop for the region, Michael “Never Can Be Reached for Comment” McKee, hasn’t helped matters any, from a journalistic perspective. Whether there’s a history between the bishop and the Morning News or he just doesn’t want to be quoted on this matter, I have no idea. Perhaps he silenced his phone during church and forgot to ever turn it back on?

But rather than settle for a “no comment,” GetReligion has made the case that the Morning News needs to find a voice on the “other side” in its coverage of a retired Methodist minister who presided over the wedding of two gay men earlier this month. That is, unless the Dallas newspaper wants to practice advocacy journalism.

In one of our posts, I got snarky and said:

So we’re left — still — with explaining to a Pulitzer-winning newspaper how it might practice balanced journalism and treat all sides of a divisive issue such as this fairly.

Alas, there’s been a new development on this story: the minister who conducted the same-sex wedding has been suspended by the bishop.

Did the Morning News continue its trend of quoting only one side? To the Dallas newspaper’s credit, no. (Perhaps the Morning News took GetReligion’s constructive criticism to heart?)

From the latest story:

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Pod people: There really are two sides to every story, folks

The stories we critique here at GetReligion usually fall into one of two categories. First we have the good stories: well-written pieces that are fair, balanced, properly sourced and complement the outlets they represent. The second category is comprised of the opposite kind of story, the poorly written ones. These pieces have problems such as ghosts, bias, unexplored angles, poor attribution, inadequate sourcing, vague terminology, etc. The possibilities are endless.

Which would you think would be the more difficult posts for your GetReligionistas to write? If you said the well-written ones, you get a cookie. Or a sugar-free lollipop, since that’s more politically correct.

The well-written stories take much more time and thought and energy and work (at least for this girl) to post about for the very reasons they take longer to write. When a journalist does the job correctly, the story is a veritable treasure chest of information. It features colorful writing and multiple angles. Sources are plentiful, selected thoughtfully and allowed to speak without the journalist inferring or labeling or categorizing for them. When I encounter a good story, I read it multiple times — each time I flesh out a new detail or appreciate a particular pattern of thought. Writing about these gems is an extension of reading them. (And then I have to take a timeout to Google the author, if I don’t recognize the byline. Just to give the writer a virtual high-five.)

Todd Wilken and I discussed the contrasts between good stories and incomplete ones on this week’s edition of “Crossroads,” the GetReligion podcast. In particular, we looked at my part of a three-post journalistic train wreck from The Dallas Morning News. Three stories about two elderly gay men and one maverick Methodist minister preparing to marry them — and zero quotes from anyone affiliated with the United Methodist Church who might speak to the denomination’s official stance on gay marriage. I feel like I know this couple quite well, as do I all their friends and supporters, after the trilogy. What we don’t know, as Todd astutely pointed out, is why no one bothered to walk inside one of the many, many Methodist churches that line the streets of Dallas and interview someone who felt differently about gay marriage than the journalist, the couple, the rogue minister and those who know and love them.

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United Methodism doctrine? Think location, location, location

Sherman, please set the controls of the GetReligion WABAC (pronounced “wayback”) machine for the year 1980. Our destination is Denver, because it’s time for another episode of Improbable United Methodist History.

Yes, it was in 1980 — note that this was one-third of a century ago — that Bishop Melvin Wheatley, Jr., of the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church announced (wait for it) that he was openly rejecting his church’s teaching that homosexual acts were “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Two years later, this United Methodist bishop appointed an openly gay pastor to an urban church in Denver. When challenged, Wheatley declared: “Homosexuality is a mysterious gift of God’s grace. I clearly do not believe homosexuality is a sin.”

The Denver pastor continued to serve for many years (while also leading the Colorado AIDS Project), in part because the United Methodist policy opposed the appointment of “self-avowed, practicing” homosexuals. Note the words “self-avowed.” Thus, when appearing before officials in the liberal Rocky Mountain Annual Conference, this minister simply declined to answer questions about his sexual history or practice. Since he was not, therefore, “self-avowed” (at least not during those official church meetings), his sympathetic local church leaders declared that he was not in violation of the national church’s doctrinal standards.

That was the end of that, for the most part, in this western region of the United Methodist Church. Defenders of the denomination’s teachings had to take their battles elsewhere.

This was, in other words, a perfect example of the reality described in an important study — “The Seven Churches of Methodism” — published in the mid-1980s by two scribes from Duke University.

One of the authors, a future United Methodist bishop named William Willimon, once told me that it was very painful for the church’s leaders to have to admit that United Methodists were already worshipping in what amounted to seven different churches when it came to matters of doctrine and church law. It was hard to find the ties that could bind the declining flocks in the “Yankee Church,” “Industrial Northeast Church,” “Western Church” and “Midwest Church” with those in the larger and still growing “Church South” and the “Southwest Church.”

The clergy in these churches went to different seminaries and had radically different beliefs about biblical authority, salvation, evangelism and moral theology. At the heart of many of their disputes, of course, were differences over sexual ethics, especially the moral status of sex outside of marriage.

Denominational executives, seminary leaders and bishops in the liberal regions — such as Melvin Wheatley, Jr. — were already openly or quietly opposing the teachings affirmed by the growing United Methodist regions in the United States and, yes, around the world.

Note, once again, that this strategy of open and passive resistance began way back in 1980.

This brings us to the current headlines focusing on the supposedly radical actions of New York Bishop Martin D. McLee, especially his open announcement that he would refuse to hold church trials of clergy who violate the denomination’s teachings that homosexual activity, as opposed to orientation, is sinful. McLee is, in effect, saying what Wheatley said in 1980-82.

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