RNS produces good but flawed update on gay controversy in United Methodism

"Defiant clergy are refusing to abide by what they regard as unjust prohibitions."

Whoaaa, strong language -- perhaps even pejorative -- for a mainstream media story on gays and the old mainline Protestantism. Usually, gay activists are portrayed as freedom fighters, and those who hold out for the traditional moral stance are seen as restrictive and prejudiced.

Not so in this story from the Religion News Service on a new alliance to oppose mainstreaming homosexuality in the United Methodist Church.

At an organizational meeting today, the Wesleyan Covenant Association plans to "outline their expectations for a soon-to-be-appointed denominational commission to discuss the conflict over sexuality," RNS says.

The article does a good job of introducing us to the controversy and the traditionalist pushback, but it doesn't get reaction from more liberal church members. It also doesn't answer a couple of questions about the movement's prospects. Apparently, it doesn't even ask them.

The fast-moving narrative opens on a note of urgency:

(RNS) Undoing the election of the first openly lesbian bishop in the United Methodist Church will be a primary goal when 1,500 Methodist evangelicals gather this week in Chicago to found a new renewal group, according to organizers.
At the inaugural meeting of the Wesleyan Covenant Association on Friday (Oct. 7), charter members will outline their expectations for a soon-to-be-appointed denominational commission to discuss the conflict over sexuality.
The United Methodist Church is hoping to prevent a schism in the wake of Bishop Karen Oliveto’s July election to lead the denomination’s Western Jurisdiction, which covers 11 states from Arizona to Alaska

Her election has "touched off a crisis in the 12.4 million-member United Methodist Church worldwide, where defiant clergy are refusing to abide by what they regard as unjust prohibitions," the article continues. At least it adds the defiant ones' viewpoint, though it doesn't quote any of them directly.

This isn’t the first time we GetReligion folks have dealt with coverage of this matter and the United Methodist Church.

In May, for instance, I asked why so much coverage of the quadrennial assembly had to slip in code words like "welcoming" and "equality" to hint whom to root for.  And in August, tmatt asked why a Methodist pastor was said to be disciplined for coming out as gay, when the real reason was that she broke her ordination vows to shun sex outside traditional marriage.

Those are just two ways that mainstream media show they don’t understand what is happening inside this major mainline denomination that still teaches "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."

At the May assembly, the UMC dodged a potentially divisive vote on same-sex marriage, delegating it to a committee and putting off a decision until at least the next assembly. The new Wesleyan group wants to remind the embryonic commission that traditionalists have not left the (global and national) building:

In Chicago, the WCA plans to send a pre-emptive message about what Methodist evangelicals in the United States, Africa and Asia will need to see in any proposal from the commission.
"A plan that requires traditionalists to compromise their principles and their understandings of Scripture, or that allows for varieties of beliefs and practices within the global communion of the church, isn’t acceptable to most evangelicals," said Jeff Greenway, lead pastor of Reynoldsburg United Methodist Church in Ohio and a member of the WCA’s board of directors.
Activists want the commission to reaffirm the church’s ban on ordained leadership by "self-avowed practicing homosexuals." Formal statements are already in the works.

As newsy as this report is, I find it limited to the point of unfairness. Although it has a lot of facts and background, Greenway is the only quoted source. 

No denominational leaders. 

No one from the opposition.

Sorry, conservatives; I'd also complain if the imbalance went the other way.

Another problem paragraph:

Last May, the General Conference of the UMC declined to vote on proposals to revamp policies, deferring instead to the new commission to find a solution that can pass muster with progressives and conservatives alike. Among the possibilities: repeal policies regarding homosexuality, restructure the church to allow for varying practices or separate into different denominations.

Are those options the writer's own list, or an official UMC statement? If it's the latter, then it means that the one thing the traditionalists want most -- returning the denomination to its historic pro-heterosexual stance -- is not even on the table. Big ambiguity there.

And what of the upcoming denominational commission? RNS says the Council of Bishops has invited 29 people -- eight bishops, 13 clergy and eight laity -- to the body. But what are they like? Do we know any of them? Could they change the game? RNS doesn't say.

Worse -- or better, if you're on the pro-change side -- is when the story says:

The WCA intends to remain in the United Methodist Church, according to Greenway.
"It’s never been our intent to form the Wesleyan Covenant Association in order to form a new denomination," he said.

Yikes. Did Greenway just give away the group's only bargaining chip? He may have felt the need to emphasize the point because some reports have said WCA does plan to form another denomination. But still.

Let's recap. The Wesleyan group wants the UMC to roll back concessions to gays, apparently even Bishop Oliveto’s regional position. But the RNS article doesn't even suggest that's a viable option.  The church's bishops have already sent invitations for the special commission. And the Wesleyans have said they don’t plan to leave. Has the other side already won?

That's guesswork on my part, of course. But it would have made another good question for Greenway, methinks.  His reply would have made a good bottom line for this article.

RNS is sharp to spot and report some movement in this struggle for the sexual definition of United Methodism. But in what direction is the movement, well, moving?  

I can only guess (again) that it depends on what the WCA leaders decide at their meeting today. That will likely be worth a follow-up story. I hope RNS does one.

Thumb: FreeImages.com/Felipe (Aladim) Hadler. Used by permission.

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