WPost listens to half of the great United Methodist debate

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?

Please respect our Commenting Policy