WPost listens to half of the great United Methodist debate

WPost listens to half of the great United Methodist debate November 20, 2013


After years of covering the sexuality wars in America’s oldline denominations, I am well aware that different camps within these churches interpret the rites and vows of their traditions in different ways. The wordings in their rites have been known to change from decade to decade, as well.

Still, one can state with certainty that in the rite in which he was ordained as a minister in the United Methodist Church, the Rev. Frank Schaefer spoke the following words or words very similar to them:

Are you persuaded that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and are the unique and authoritative standard for the church’s faith and life?

I am so persuaded, by God’s grace. …

Will you be loyal to The United Methodist Church, accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word, and committing yourself to be accountable with those serving with you, and to the bishop and those who are appointed to supervise your ministry?

I will, with the help of God.

Now, there’s a ton of tradition and content packed into those crucial words “order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline” and, yes, there are plenty of people in the highly diverse local, regional, national and global reality that is United Methodism that interpret these words in radically different ways.

Nevertheless, it is a factual statement that United Methodist ministers, including Schaefer, vow — at the very least — to accept and defend the church’s doctrines.

Thus, the language used at the top of the following Washington Post story is loaded, to say the least. Also, the headline frames the story in a way that favors one side of this bitter global debate, as well, stating: “Methodist pastor found guilty at church trial for officiating at gay son’s wedding.”

Well, yes, that was the act that was at the heart of the trial. That fact as never in dispute.

The key to the trial — at the level of arguments and facts — was that this minister was found guilty of violating the vows that he willingly took when he chose to be ordained into a specific religious tradition. He was found guilty of breaking his own vow to defend the doctrines of the faith.

Nevertheless, here is the Post lede:

SPRING CITY, Pa. — After weeks of cross-examination, witness lists and wrangling over admissible evidence, the Rev. Frank Schaefer stood in the gymnasium of a rural Methodist retreat center to answer a charge: Did he violate his faith when he officiated at his son’s same-sex wedding?

Did he violate HIS faith? What a radically individualistic way of stating that.

It is to the credit of the Post team that, with the next statement, the viewpoint of the church is stated in a way that is clear, if rather incomplete.

By the end of the day Monday, the rare jury of 13 Methodist pastors had found Schaefer guilty on two charges: “conducting a ceremony that celebrates same-sex unions” and “disobedience to order and discipline of the Methodist Church.”

The story also offers rather gripping testimony — drawn from the trial itself — from people on both sides of this dispute at the level that is most personal and effective, which is Schaefer’s own faith community.

This is a key element of good journalism: When in doubt, let participants clearly state their own beliefs and convictions. At the same time, it is also important to clearly state the facts that define their religious lives and their traditions.

Personal is important. Feelings and emotions matter. However, the facts at the heart of the story matter, as well.

First to testify was William Bailey, a longtime member of the Zion United Methodist Church, who said he and Schaefer over the years had “agreed to disagree” about literalism and scripture.

“I believe in the Bible, and the [Methodist Book of Discipline] is enforcing the Bible and the Ten Commandments,” said Bailey from a witness stand before some 150 rapt listeners — mostly advocates for gay rights. “Violating a rule makes me very, very stubborn. Because if I violate a rule, I expect to be punished, and I expect nothing else from our church.”

Christina Watson, a newer member who was overseeing Christian education at the church, broke into tears as she described Schaefer telling her that the Methodist Book of Discipline “was just guidelines, that it didn’t have to be followed.” She said she took her family out of the church this fall.

Ultimately, this local news story — far from the Post newsroom — is receiving in-depth coverage (imagine that) because the editors have concluded that national-level issues are at stake. Here are the crunch, summary paragraphs. Read carefully and be on the alert for the crucial tripwire:

Indeed, Schaefer is the first among five Methodist ministers to be accused by church officials over the past year of possibly violating church doctrine on gay rights. The other four could also face church trials. The cases, which are being closely watched by advocates on both sides, represent perhaps the biggest flare-up in recent years in mainline Protestantism over the issue of homosexuality. At 8.3 million members, Methodists are the second-largest group of Protestants in the United States.

A church trial is unusual, as is the sight of a pastor as a “defendant” of his ministry to his own son. The Schaefer family is also atypical in that three of the pastor’s four children are gay.

At the same time, parts of the story unfolding … are very familiar in American religion: a church torn apart by personality clashes or power struggles about routine matters, including whether to keep the service traditional or make it more contemporary and who gets hired or fired.

Wait a minute: Is there any question that Schaefer violated the existing “order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline” of the United Methodist Church? Is it accurate to say that he “possibly” violated church doctrines? Or, is the question whether (a) those doctrines should be modernized and (b) until they are, pastors and bishops should be allowed to do as they please under a “don’t ask, don’t tell” regime?

The skilled journalists in the Post team know that this is the key issue, since that reality is included in this nuanced story. However, why — at crucial moments — does the content of this story assume that it is impossible to know the factual content of the CURRENT teachings of the church, including the vows that Schaefer — in a courageous act of candid protest — willingly chose to break? Thus, readers are told:

The Methodist Church, like the rest of mainline Protestantism, has been wrestling with issues surrounding gay rights for decades. It has added affirmations about the dignity of gays and lesbians and the importance of pastors to minister to them, but unlike some other mainline denominations, the Methodist Church has not expanded gay rights on things such as marriage and allowing clergy to be openly gay.

In reality, many bishops practice a don’t ask, don’t tell policy, and many Methodist churches are led by gay clergy.

Toward the end of the story, there is a brief reference to Schaefer being urged to “keep his oath.”

So why did the pastor take the action that he did? This brings us to the thesis statement, a specifically doctrinal truth claim that sums up the ultimate message in this Post report:

Schaefer believes that Methodism’s governing documents are contradictory. The Book of Discipline calls pastors to minister equally to all people, he said in an interview. Methodism’s constitution demands inclusiveness.

At its root, such conflicts are about whether scripture is fixed in the past or continues to be revealed, said Scott Campbell, a Harvard University chaplain and counsel to one past and one current pastor facing trial for officiating at a gay marriage. “Those of us who want to say God is continually making things new see this as one of the manifestations of this newness.”

And what does the other side say? If offered a chance by the Post team, what would articulate, authoritative voices on the other side, the side of centuries of church teachings, say in response?

Apparently, there is no need to quote those who would defend the content of the vows that were once affirmed by Schaefer. Why is that?

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23 responses to “WPost listens to half of the great United Methodist debate”

  1. I was struck by the clunky “church doctrine on gay rights.” I am not a methodist and do not play one on TV (and more importantly, am not an expert in their theology), but I strongly doubt they have a category known as gay rights (as opposed to human rights, which all people, gay or not, inherit by virtue of being human). So I suspect the phrase “church doctrine on gay rights” is a journalistic chimera.

    • They do have doctrine, however, on the morality of sex (gay or straight) outside of Christian marriage. That, plus having to apply that moral theology of same-sex marriage rights, equals “church doctrine on gay rights” in MSM copy. You think?

      • Perhaps that is the case (your background points are of course true), but the semantic construct still seems vehemently apples and oranges. My point is not there is not such an animal, but that the wording almost certainly comes from the writer and not someone versed in the theology. (IOW my point is journalistic through and through. ) I could be wrong…I would love to hear of a theological expert who would offer an example using that phrasing in a canonical Methodist statement.

        • Again, to the point of the post: When it comes to the framing questions and language, the story never seriously deals with voices of authority who want to defend the current doctrines.

          • The headline the Post put on its front webpage read, “He officiated at his gay son’s wedding. Then his church put him on trial.” That’s why they never seriously dealt with “voices of authority who want to defend the current doctrines” — they had, and still have, an agenda.

      • I would think not. I know nothing of UMC doctrine, but I seriously doubt that they have anything in their writings about “gay rights.” That, of course, is pure speculation from this Catholic, but I think it’s fairly good speculation.

      • I don’t know of any different-sex couple being denied marriage rites over whether they have had premarital sex or not.

  2. This was on CNN too… It just boggles my mind that of all the conflicts that are occurring in regards to same-sex marriage and religion, this is getting so much attention. I keep a close track on what’s going on legally by going to religion clause blogspot, and it just seems like there’s so much more going on that’s significantly more important.

  3. I don’t find a link to the full article, but working off what I see here, it seems an unanswered question is whether the Book of Discipline actually is guidelines or rules. We get this preacher claiming the one, to which a woman takes get family out of the church. Do Methodists have canon lawyers who could define the status of the Discipline for us? That would seem a critical question.

  4. ABC did a piece before the trial even more loaded, Check out the reporter’s glib lead in after she’s introduced by the show’s anchors http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JeqSfIk3V58. There’s no doubt in ABC’s view Schaefer represents love and the United Methodists represent–well, their position is never made clear, so it must be hate, I guess.

  5. FW Ken: My error. The link has been restored from an earlier draft.

    The Book of Discipline is a combination of many things, but to imply it is a mere rule book is simply not inaccurate.

  6. “The key to the trial — at the level of arguments and facts — was that this minister was found guilty of violating the vows that he willingly took when he chose to be ordained into a specific religious tradition.”

    Him and Martin Luther both…

    • Not to get into theology .. but Luther was trying to bring the Catholic Church of that time back to the core truths that he made those vows about. He did not leave the Catholic Church, they threw him out.

  7. The UU Church would be happy to have him! As a former Methodist I find this whole thing ridiculous in the year 2013!

  8. what was really shocking was this thing about swearing an oath of loyalty to a doctrine, a tradition, and a church. I had no idea such things were still happening.

    • They are not, at least not in United Methodist churches. As a UM minister, I promised — not swore — to uphold its doctrines and teachings. As a UM church member, I said — again, not swore — “I will be loyal” to the denomination I was joining. “Loyalty” was defined with my promise — not oath — to uphold it by my prayers, presence, gifts and service.

      Sorry for the non-journalism-related digression.

  9. This type of hypocrisy seems to permeate all organized religion and other bodies that write the rules for human behavior. Jesus led by his own example of living a loving, family and friend-centered life, not by a set of creeds, oaths, and rituals.

    How about this for an easy “church”” doctrine: Follow the two great commandments and go out and celebrate life with all of nature, including people.”

    • Let me preface my response/question by admitting that the issue of SSM is yet unresolved in my mind. So please accept the following in that spirit. I agree with you that much of the law can rightly be summarized by ‘love your neighbor’. But to be complete it must be paired with ‘love your God’. And in John 14:23 (I’m pretty sure) Jesus says ‘…if you love me, you will keep my word.’ So, then doesn’t this behoove us to carefully examine scripture in order to better know God and what he desires from and for us? I have several gay friends and I really do love them and wish them much happiness – as does I believe my God. But I can only bless their unions if I believe my God does likewise. But scripture seems to point otherwise. I welcome any responses regardless of position.

      • Dear Steve, I have struggled mightily with the seemingly inconsistent commands of OT and NT. The conclusion I have come to is that faith is on a continuum. As humanity evolves, and as each individual and community evolves, there are different paths to take in those times and by those people.

        Because I believe that all we see is simply manifestations of The Sacred Spirit (Energy), I don’t believe that each of us exists in what we experience as time and space. I tree that died thousands of years ago has probably fed its nutrients into millions of manifestations since what we refer to as its death.

        I accept that sexuality served different purposes for different people in different situations and times. It is folly to believe that all human sexuality is meant strictly for procreation. The OT is full of other uses for sexuality, including the taming of the tempers of many warlords.

        The people of Abraham were obviously needing to control procreation for purposes of creating and maintaining power in increasing their tribal numbers. I believe that, until the industrial revolution, this was probably the case for many taboos against babies being unclaimed by a tribe (married couple) and against conception control. Our societies needed great population for production and destruction, both efforts to create and maintain bases of power.

        Religion has always been eventually co-opted by politics for the purpose of frightening people into submission to the religious societal rules. I believe the need for less population is opening the door to acceptance of committed sexuality as an accepted form of maintaining stability in society, hence the new “enlightenment.”

        We humans seem to be more sacred and more humane when we work inside of loving unions. Denying people dignified ways to bond and express their commitment to using their individual talents and the synergy that a responsible, committed partnership creates is dehumanizing and destabilizing to civil society.

        It will not happen in my lifetime that all creation will all work toward the focus of our physical manifestations on earth being harmony on earth, but I will continue to push to do my part at creating collaboration and cooperation. I believe that post-Pentecost, we are commanded to look to each other for guidance in what is serving The Sacred Spirit here on earth. Responsible compassion has no race, religion, gender, nationality or creeds. It is The Sacred Spirit that manifests in many physical forms on earth and the rest of the universe.

        I have just released a book “We’re Already Eternal” on this very issue, as I see it. Let me know if you’d like a copy.

        • Thank you for the gracious response and offer. But I believe we may be starting from different places and therefore must take different roads. By faith, I believe that the spirit to whom you refer is a living, conscious, unchanging self that revealed His (or her but probably neither) perfect will for us through the law and the
          prophets. And most importantly, I believe this perfect ‘will’ became manifest in the Christ. So for me there is no conflict between the law and Christ, the old testament and the new, rather only clarification and amplification. And again to quote Jesus, “If you keep my
          commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.”
          (John 15:10) And so friend, I feel compelled to continue to look to scripture through the guidance of the Holy Spirit for my answer. God bless and keep you.

  10. History remembers people who just followed orders and people who disobeyed higher authorities to do what they believed was right. But it does not remember them in the same way.

    • I think it depends upon the orders.

      Lenin disobeyed orders so that he could do what he believed was right and the results were horrific. One could make the same argument about Hitler but I don’t want to run afoul of Godwin’s Law…. 🙂

      History is also full of people who followed (good) orders and stood against those who would rebelliously do what they felt was the “right” (that is, evil) thing.

      But the bottom line is that I don’t think journalists should make those kinds of judgement calls about the folks they are covering. A journalist should describe the issue at hand and report what those on all sides of that issue are thinking. Leave the ethical ruminations to the readers.