Methodists

Friday Five: Lifetime achievement winner, Willow Creek drama, Spikeball Mennonites and more

Friday Five: Lifetime achievement winner, Willow Creek drama, Spikeball Mennonites and more

Talk about a slam dunk!

The Religion News Association announced its 2018 William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award recipient this week.

What a fine choice the RNA made:

When the Vatican ordered the bishop of Pittsburgh to reinstate a pedophile priest, then Pittsburgh religion reporter Ann Rodgers received the decision even before the bishop himself.

When an evangelist was making false claims about miracles in a Houston hospital, Rodgers did the hard yards of investigation and spotted the fake.

And when she was invited to join Pope Francis’ Palm Sunday procession in St. Peter’s Square, Rodgers waved a palm and reported back to Pennsylvania on the experience.

In addition to serving as president of the Religion News Association during a time of significant transition and growth, Rodgers faithfully served on the religion beat in New Hampshire, Florida, and finally in Pittsburgh, Pa., for more than three decades.  

For her many years of work in religion newswriting and service to RNA, Rodgers will receive the William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award at the 69th Annual RNA Conference in Columbus, Ohio, on Sept. 15.

The William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award was created in 2001 and is presented to individuals who demonstrate exceptional long-term commitment and service to the Religion News Association and its members, and to the field of religion newswriting.

Read the rest of the release.

Let's dive into the Friday Five:

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News mystery: Why so little interest in 'mainline' Protestants' liberal politicking?

News mystery: Why so little interest in 'mainline' Protestants' liberal politicking?

The dominant religion theme in the U.S. news media across the past two years, without question, has been political fealty to Donald Trump and his works among grassroots evangelical Protestants and a like-minded coterie of old-guard clergy celebrities.   

In the same period, “mainline” Protestant groups have been ardent in politicking for leftward and anti-Trump causes, perhaps even moreso than with the typical evangelical congregation.

You would barely know this, if at all, from reading or viewing most news media reports.  

Take the United Methodist Church (UMC), America’s second-largest Protestant body with 7.7 million members and millions more in overseas jurisdictions. Yes, the UMC is much in the news but only regarding its internal doctrinal dispute over whether to liberalize LGBTQ policy, per last week’s Guy Memo

UMC proclamations come from the General Board of  Church and Society, whose office hard by Capitol Hill is more than strangely warmed (to quote John Wesley) about President Donald Trump. The board has issued repeated directives urging churchgoers to phone or e-mail protests against Trump's actions to members of the House and Senate. (Years ago its former leader Jim Winkler, now National Council of Churches president, called for impeachment of President George W. Bush, a fellow Methodist, over his war policy.)        

Recently, U.S. religious bodies across the board denounced the Trump policy, now  rescinded, of separating “undocumented” immigrants from their children. But the UMC went further, urging funding cuts for immigration enforcement and border protection, and an immediate halt to all arrests and detentions of undocumented border-crossers.

The Methodists were aggrieved at the U.S. Supreme Court for upholding Trump’s travel ban against seven nations, five of them majority Muslim. Rejecting the court’s reasoning and the government’s national-security rationale, the church charged that the policy “institutionalizes Islamophobia, religious intolerance, and racism.”  


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Twists, news pegs, names and questions in impending United Methodist LGBTQ showdown

Twists, news pegs, names and questions in impending United Methodist LGBTQ showdown

At long last, the United Methodist Church has posted detailed proposals (.pdfs here) from its emergency “Commission on a Way Forward” to address what it calls the “deepening impasse” over whether to approve actively gay clergy and same-sex weddings. 

Leaders of America’s second-largest Protestant denomination hope to end this 46-year conflict and avoid schism by uniting around one of three plans from the commission at an extraordinary General Conference, next Feb. 23-26 in St. Louis.

An added news peg: The Council of Bishops is asking the Oct. 23-26 meeting of the UMC’s highest court (Judicial Council) to rule on whether each concept is constitutional. Consider that headline: If the jurists reject one, or two, or all three of the plans, could the General Conference legislate an outlawed proposal anyway?  

Watch for reactions to the three plans from this weekend’s (July 26-29) meeting at the St. Louis Airport Hilton of the Love Your Neighbor Coalition. Its 12-member caucuses want “full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people.” Speakers include the UMC’s first married lesbian bishop, Colorado-based Karen Oliveto (bishop@mountainskyumc.org, 303-733-0083). A key coalition source will be Jan Lawrence (jan@rmnetwork.org, 773-736-5526),  executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network. 

Here are salient aspects of the study commission’s proposals. 

* One Church Plan -- The majority of bishops and commission members favor what amounts to “local option” across the U.S. Regional units (“annual conferences”), congregations, bishops and pastors would be free to decide whether to uphold or reject the UMC’s existing stance against  homosexual relationships. Conservative congregations could still avoid gay clergy. Pastors and clergy candidates on either side could switch from annual conferences or congregations they disagree with. Proponents say this will end church trials and other tumult, and honor consciences on both sides. This also changes, of course, the church's commitment to centuries of Christian doctrine.


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A side question re: that viral story about baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph in a cage: Which Bible to quote? (updated)

A side question re: that viral story about baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph in a cage: Which Bible to quote? (updated)

Baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph in a cage?

Everyone seems to talking about that viral religion story, as The Tennessean faith reporter Holly Meyer points out. 

In case you missed it, the Indianapolis Star reports that the three biblical figures "were incarcerated behind a barbed wired-topped, chain link fence on the lawn of Monument Circle's Christ Church Cathedral on Tuesday."

The reason:

The Rev. Stephen Carlsen, dean and rector of Christ Church, said the caged Holy Family is a protest to President Donald Trump's zero-tolerance policy that is holding families in detention centers at the U.S.-Mexico border.

"I know what the Bible said," Carlsen said. "We're supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves."

It's a fascinating story, and I'd urge you to check it out. But for the purposes of this post, I have a side question: Which version of the Bible should a news organization quote in a story such as this?

I'll admit surprise at the one the Gannett newspaper chose to quote:

The Rev. Lee Curtis, who came up with the idea for the demonstration, said the Biblical trio was a family of refugees seeking asylum in Egypt after Jesus' birth. 

"An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, 'Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him,'" the Message Bible says in Matthew 2:13-14. "When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt."

"This family is every family, and every family is holy," Curtis said. 

For those not familiar with The Message, it's a contemporary version in modern English. The religion satire news site Babylon Bee has published stories such as "‘The Message’ Now Available In Popular Comic Sans Font" and "7 Updates ‘The Message’ Totally Needs." Among the proposed updates: Substituting all references to Jesus with "The J-Man." That gives some indication of how seriously (read: not) some take that translation.

I'm not sure I've ever seen The Message be the go-to version quoted in a news story. (I'll eagerly await all the links proving me wrong.) My first thought was perhaps the Star was trying to put the verses in language readers could understand.

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New American Bible Society policy defends (a) ancient orthodoxy, (b) evangelicalism or (c) both?

New American Bible Society policy defends (a) ancient orthodoxy, (b) evangelicalism or (c) both?

Let's start with a few old questions about Christian doctrine and church history.

First, what does does the Roman Catholic Church -- at the level of its Catechism -- teach about the definition of marriage and the moral status of sex outside of marriage?

Second question: What doctrines do Eastern Orthodox churches around the world affirm on these same topics, which have implications for issues such as cohabitation before marriage and premarital sex?

Third question: What do the vast majority of Anglican churches around the world teach on these same issues? Ditto for United Methodists?

Come to think of it, what does the ancient Christian document known as the Didache have to say on issues linked to marriage and sex?

I could go on. However, let's jump to a current news story that is linked to these issues. In particular, I would like to call attention to the Religion News Service report that was posted with this headline: "Employees quit American Bible Society over sex and marriage rules." The overture is quite strong:

(RNS) -- One of the oldest nonprofit organizations dedicated to distributing Bibles around the world will soon require all employees to adhere to orthodox Christian beliefs and heed a conservative code of sexual ethics.

Employees are resigning in protest of the new policy, which will effectively prohibit sexually active LGBT people and couples in cohabitating relationships from working for the American Bible Society. But the organization stands by it as a measure intended to bring “unity and clarity.”

The key word in that lede is "orthodox," with a small "o." It would have been possible, I guess, to have used phrases such as "ancient Christian beliefs" or even "traditional Christian beliefs." Both would have been accurate in terms of history. In this context, the use of "conservative" is fine, since there are "liberal" churches that have modernized their doctrines on these subjects.

However, strange things start happening soon after that strong, factual opening, Note, for example, the end of this paragraph:

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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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