Methodists

Follow the money: Does old United Methodist left really want a smashing LGBTQ win in 2019?

Follow the money: Does old United Methodist left really want a smashing LGBTQ win in 2019?

It’s one of the most familiar mantras in American journalism: "Follow the money." This is, of course, a cynical way to look at life on the religion beat, since many idealistic believers have been known to take doctrinal stands that clash with their own self interests. 

However, things are different when you are covering the actions of big ecclesiastical fortresses -- like the United Methodist Church. This is especially true when reality begins to threaten the "way things are done around here" and the foundations of the fortress start moving.

Now, with the money mantra in mind, let's look at the "first the right said this," and then "the left said this" opening of a new Religion News Service feature about the denominational chess game that’s being played ahead of a special General Conference slated for Feb. 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis. This historic showdown is supposed to bring some form of peace after decades of doctrinal debates about marriage, ordination and sexuality. Here we go:

(RNS) -- United Methodist Church activists who sharply disagree about whether to ordain LGBT clergy or officiate same-sex marriages do agree on one point: A plan recommended by the Council of Bishops isn’t satisfying to either side.

Socially conservative evangelicals say the plan, which aims to avert schism in the 12 million-member denomination, goes too far by permitting individual pastors and regional bodies to make their own decisions on whether to perform same-sex weddings and ordain LGBT people as clergy. ...

Meanwhile progressives aren’t happy either. Reconciling Ministries Network and the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus, two groups committed to the full inclusion of LGBT people in the United Methodist Church, also expressed concerns that none of the three plans included in the bishops’ report would affirm ordination and marriage for all the denominations’ LGBT members.

In other words, there is no plan that clearly upholds 2,000 years of Christian doctrine on marriage and sex, but there is no plan that clearly overthrows small-o "orthodox" church tradition, either. Orthodoxy would be optional, and we all know what that means.

But, once again: Follow the money.

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Let us attend: A reminder that Southern Baptists have their own rules when they play chess

Let us attend: A reminder that Southern Baptists have their own rules when they play chess

If you are going to watch religious leaders play high-stakes chess, it helps to know that the rules are quite different in various churches, denominations and other large religious institutions.

Why can't Catholics act more like Episcopalians? Well, there are different doctrines, different rules. Why are Global South believers, and folks in growing sections of the U.S. Sunbelt, so much more powerful in the United Methodist Church than in the Episcopal Church? There are different rules shaping the conventions that make the rules.

Long ago, I watched United Methodists elect new bishops while gathered at the historic Lake Junaluska Conference Center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. It was easy to watch the clergy engage in face-to-face negotiations about candidates while gathered under the giant trees surrounding the open-air sanctuary. Every now and then the politicking would pause, and everyone would bow their heads as a prayer was read for the Holy Spirit to guide the voting. When the prayer was over it was back to business.

Now, the Southern Baptist Convention game is played on several levels -- as journalists are learning during the debates about the future of the Rev. Paige Patterson, in the wake of debates about his statements about domestic abuse, divorce, women, etc.

You have the public game, of course, with activists on both sides doing that thing they do in their own media forums. Then you have the fact that -- as a seminary president -- Patterson ultimately answers to the trustees of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (click here and dig into the story). Those trustees are selected by the SBC, through its elected leaders. The SBC meets once a year as a convention to do business.

Note the word "convention." This is not a denomination or "Church." It is a complex association of congregations, with local associations, state conventions and then the big national SBC meetings once a year. There are actions the SBC can only take during the two days in June that it does business.

Rest assured that the most important meetings in this current affair are taking place behind closed doors and in conference calls. At that level, almost all flawed, oh-so-human institutions are alike. Every now and then, however, SBC leaders release public statements that are read like Russian tea leaves.

This brings me to that Baptist Press item at the end of this last week, with the headline: "Gaines addresses Patterson, racial diversity, SBC."

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Attention New York Times editors: There are private Christian colleges on religious left, as well

Attention New York Times editors: There are private Christian colleges on religious left, as well

When it comes to theology and doctrine, the world of higher education is a complex place.

For example, did you know that there are liberal Catholic colleges as well as conservative Catholic colleges? Then there are other schools that are left of center and right of center.

There are liberal Baptist colleges and universities and there are conservative Baptist options, as well. Once again, there are myriad options somewhere in the middle. Ditto for Lutheran schools. Ditto for schools with strong or weak ties to Presbyterian and Methodist thought.

At the same time, there are lots of private colleges and universities that are "secular," or, at the very least, free of any ties -- past or present -- to a specific religious tradition. Some are quite liberal, on matters of culture and morality, and a few are conservative.

So here is a tough question: How does the government relate to all of these private campuses? How does it relate to them, in terms of government funds and tax issues, without sliding into a kind of "viewpoint discrimination" that says secular intellectual content is acceptable and religious content is uniquely dangerous? Or even trickier, should "progressive" (or perhaps nearly nonexistent) religious intellectual content and doctrine be acceptable, while "orthodox" religious content is not?

Or how about this: Should the government strive to treat all private schools the same, no matter what kind of doctrine -- secular or religions, liberal of conservative -- defines life in these voluntary associations of believers or nonbelievers?

Now, I realize that this was quite an overture for a GetReligion post. Here is why I wrote it: There are some important voices and points of view missing in the New York Times story that ran with this headline: "DeVos Moves to Loosen Restrictions on Federal Aid to Religious Colleges." In addition to its focus on evangelical schools, this story really needed input from educational leaders on liberal religious campuses and even secular private campuses.

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Religion News Service -- irreplaceable and rocked by turmoil -- faces key journalistic issues

Religion News Service -- irreplaceable and rocked by turmoil -- faces key journalistic issues

The specialized Religion News Service is irreplaceable, not only for its media subscribers but religious leaders and anyone interested in this complex field.

Now it has suddenly been rocked by turmoil as depicted by GetReligion here and here and then here. To grapple with the state of things, let's start with some history.  

America owes a debt to two Jewish journalists and this media innovation they built. Founder Louis Minsky ran “Religious News Service” (later renamed) from 1934 until his death in 1957. Then his longtime assistant, the inimitable Lillian Block (well remembered by The Religion Guy), took charge until she retired in 1979.

Through those 45 years, the agency was subsidized by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, established to counter prejudice when Catholic Al Smith became a presidential prospect. But RNS was strictly independent, not an NCCJ propaganda mill. It fused journalistic and democratic ideals, believing that reliable, knowledgeable and non-sectarian religious information enhances interfaith understanding. That remains true, and vital, in 2018.

With strong editors and NCCJ’s hands-off policy, day by day, year by year, RNS chronicled religious affairs with objectivity, accuracy, respect and fairness -- values then shared across the news industry.

The agency thereby gained the trust of “secular” media and, harder to achieve, from a wide range of religious outlets.

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Still thinking about Chick-fil-A, as well as the emerging face of world Christianity

Still thinking about Chick-fil-A, as well as the emerging face of world Christianity

Every now and then, a magazine like The Atlantic Monthly -- a must-read publication, no matter what one's cultural worldview -- publishes a cover story that transforms how thinking people think about an important issue. At least, that's true if lots of members of the thinking classes are open to thinking about information that may make them uncomfortable.

This was certainly the case in October, 2002, when historian Philip Jenkins published a massive Atlantic cover story that ran with this provocative headline: "The Next Christianity." For those with an even longer attention span, there was the book, "The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity."

Now, before I hit you with a key passage from that important Atlantic piece, let me tell you where we are going in this Sunday think package.

Jenkins was writing about a wave of global change in pews and pulpits, as the face of Christianity moved -- statistically speaking -- from Europe and North America to the multicultural reality that is the Global South. Thus, if you are looking for a "typical" Christian in the world today, it is probably an African woman in an evangelical Anglican (or maybe Methodist) congregation. She is probably a charismatic believer, too.

Now, I thought about that Jenkins piece when reading an amazing new Bloomberg essay by Yale Law School professor Stephen L. Carter, addressing the media storm surrounding that bizarre New Yorker sermon about You Know What (click here for my most recent piece, and podcast, on this hot topic). Here is the dramatic double-decker headline on the Carter piece:

The Ugly Coded Critique of Chick-Fil-A's Christianity

The fast-food chain's "infiltration" of New York City ignores the truth about religion in America. It also reveals an ugly narrow-mindedness

What's the connection here, between Jenkins and Carter?

Hint: Demographics is destiny (and doctrine is important, too). Here is a famous (and long) summary paragraph from the 2002 Atlantic essay:

If we look beyond the liberal West, we see that another Christian revolution, quite different from the one being called for in affluent American suburbs and upscale urban parishes, is already in progress.

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Serious charges against a preacher friend of George W. Bush (oh, and Barack Obama, as well)

Serious charges against a preacher friend of George W. Bush (oh, and Barack Obama, as well)

Here is a name that may or may not ring a bell for many news consumers: The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell.

Maybe the video at the top of this post will refresh your memory. That's Caldwell, a megachurch pastor from Houston, saying one of the prayers at the 2001 inauguration of George W. Bush as president.

At the moment, Caldwell is -- as Texans would say -- in a heap of trouble, as you can see at the top of this report in The Houston Chronicle, under this headline: "Kirbyjon Caldwell -- Houston megachurch pastor and spiritual adviser to George W. Bush -- indicted on fraud charges."

A prominent Houston pastor and spiritual adviser to President George W. Bush has been indicted on federal charges that he sold millions of dollars in worthless Chinese bonds to elderly and vulnerable investors, according to federal authorities.
Kirbyjon H. Caldwell, 64, and Shreveport financial planner Gregory Alan Smith, 55, were charged with 13 counts of conspiracy, wire fraud and money laundering.
Caldwell is accused of using his position as the senior pastor of the Windsor Village United Methodist Church to help lure nearly $3.5 million in investments into historic Chinese bonds that are not recognized by the Chinese government. He and Smith told investors they could see returns as high as 15 times their initial investment, according to the indictment.

Now, pause and remember that many, and perhaps most, Americans who still read newspapers simply scan the headlines and then decide whether they want to dig deeper into a story. So read that Chronicle headline again.

Done? Now read this ABC News headline about the same story: "Megachurch pastor with ties to Presidents Bush, Obama to surrender Monday: Attorney."

Did you spot an interesting difference in these two headlines?

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Trying to figure out why a tiny Christian school's financial problems are front-page news in Dallas

Trying to figure out why a tiny Christian school's financial problems are front-page news in Dallas

As we at GetReligion frequently lament, the Dallas Morning News — which once boasted a team of religion writers — no longer has anyone covering the Godbeat.

That lack of focus and expertise shows up often in the Dallas newspaper's coverage of stories with religion angles.

I can't help but think that the Morning News — in its religion-writing heyday — would have offered a much more insightful treatment of a story on today's front page.

Actually, I'm not sure I can explain exactly why this particular story is Page 1 news in a major daily.

The basic story is that a small Christian school in the Dallas area is experiencing serious financial problems.

The somewhat opinionated lede:

Carrollton Christian Academy may soon need another miracle.
After struggling financially for years, officials at the tiny, faith-based school scrambled in December to raise $400,000 they said they needed to keep the doors open through the end of the school year.
In a matter of weeks, donors were able to raise enough money to keep the school afloat, and Carrollton Christian officials now say they believe they can complete the school term.
But court records, interviews and statements from school officials over the past few months cast a wide shadow of doubt about whether that confidence is merited.
"It is our plan to move forward, finish the year, re-enroll for next year," Principal Elaine Marchant said in an email Thursday. "But we are still working on financial planning."
It seems, though, that Carrollton Christian is always walking a financial tightrope, relying on crowdsourcing and even pleas through the media to help meet its basic obligations such as payroll for its 17 teachers, rent and insurance.

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This is how you do it: New York Times regional desk puts spotlight on a sacred World War II drama

This is how you do it: New York Times regional desk puts spotlight on a sacred World War II drama

Human lives are ticking clocks and, right now, it's easy to forget that the clocks are ticking louder and louder for members of America's Greatest Generation.

These clocks have made news before. If you worked in the Washington, D.C., area toward the end of the 20th Century, it was easy to follow the debates about the World War II Memorial that was finally, finally, built on the National Mall. It was, in my opinion, a stunning commentary on American priorities that it took so long to build it (and required the intervention of an actor and a movie director to make it happen). We built the Vietnam and Korea memorials first.

Meanwhile, these clocks keep ticking. People who run newsrooms should remember that fact, since older Americans are loyal news consumers. In the years ahead, we will be seeing lots of coverage of symbolic events linked to the passing of the Greatest Generation and these stories could have strong religious content.

Thus, news editors and producers should mark Feb. 3 with a permanent pin on their computer calendars -- marking the Feb. 3, 1943, sinking of the U.S.A.T. Dorchester, a military transport ship carrying 902 Americans. Hit by German sub torpedoes, it sank in 18 minutes 100 miles off the coast of Greenland.

Journalists can file a copy of the New York Times feature marking the 75th anniversary of that event, which focused on the ship's four most famous casualties. The headline: "Remembering the Four Chaplains and Their Ultimate Sacrifice."

Symbolic stories, whenever possible, should be linked to appropriate symbolic events. Someone helped the Times regional desk find the perfect news hook -- the annual memorial rites held on the first Sunday of February at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in Kearny, N.J. Here is the story's crisp summary of the drama on the doomed ship:

Panic ensued. The sailors who were not killed in the explosion or trapped below rushed to the decks, where some of the lifeboats had frozen to the ship, survivors recounted. But four chaplains standing on the decks remained calm, distributing life jackets. When the supply ran out, the chaplains gave the sailors their own.

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New York Times learns that, yes, leaders in liberal black churches are mad at Donald Trump

New York Times learns that, yes, leaders in liberal black churches are mad at Donald Trump

If you have studied religion in American life -- either as a reporter or in history classes -- then you have had to wrestle with the complex and fascinating role that the black church plays in African-American communities, large and small, rural and urban.

Obviously, black churches and their charismatic leaders have always been politically active at the local, regional and national levels. In the second half of the 20th Century, most of that activism has taken place inside the structures of the Democratic Party.

Thus, most reporters think of African-American Christians as loyal Democrats. Period.

However, if you have followed the debates about who is, and who isn't, an "evangelical" these days, you know that lots of African-American churchgoers fit quite comfortably -- on doctrinal issues -- in the true "evangelical" camp. This is one reason why it's so misleading to use the "evangelical" label as another way of saying "white, Republican conservatives."

What about issues in which doctrine and politics have been known to clash? Take abortion, for example. Or flash back to 2008, when black voters in California voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama's White House bid AND also voted to oppose same-sex marriage. As the Washington Post noted at that time:

The outcome that placed two pillars of the Democratic coalition -- minorities and gays -- at opposite ends of an emotional issue sparked street protests in Los Angeles and a candlelight vigil in San Francisco. To gay rights advocates, the issue was one of civil rights. ...
That appeal ran head-on into a well-funded and well-framed advertising campaign in favor of the ban -- and the deeply ingrained religious beliefs of an African American community that largely declined to see the issue through a prism of equality.

This brings me to a recent New York Times story that ran with this headline: "In Trump’s Remarks, Black Churches See a Nation Backsliding." The key question: Did this story seek to diversity, in terms of the kinds of churches that reporters visited?

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