Lesbian bishop war: Yes, United Methodists are debating status of sexually active LGBT clergy

As your GetReligionistas have said many times, reporters do not have to agree with the doctrines and laws of groups that they cover. Journalists must, however, strive to be accurate when covering what religious people and groups believe.

Basic accuracy is a journalistic virtue, even when reporters are writing for advocacy publications that are not committed to balance, fairness and showing respect for believers on both sides of hot-button issues in public life.

So the other day I wrote about the major New York Times piece describing developments in United Methodist Church battles over LGBT rights -- specifically the election of an openly lesbian bishop who is married to her same-sex partner. The Rev. Karen Oliveto of San Francisco was elected in the church's tiny (2 percent of the global church) Western Jurisdictional Conference.

The Times piece did a good job of letting readers hear from leaders on both sides. However, the report also claimed that United Methodist law bans the ordination of all gays, when in reality it rejects the ordination of gays who, in word and deed, openly reject church teachings.

As I said in that post, this is a fine line, but a crucial one -- in doctrine. I requested a correction. United Methodists law forbids the ordination of “self-avowed, practicing” gays and lesbians as clergy. The assumption is that there are also some gays and lesbians who affirm, and follow, church teachings that sex outside of traditional Christian marriage is sin.

This brings me to a follow-up report by Religion News Service -- "United Methodist groups divided after election of first LGBT bishop" -- that demonstrates what some accurate language looks like in practice, when covering this story. It's actually pretty simple, as in:

On Friday (July 15), the Rev. Karen Oliveto, senior pastor of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, was elected bishop by the Western Jurisdictional Conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., and consecrated the following day.
The election comes despite the denomination’s ban on the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.”

Thus, this policy bans the ordination -- as pastors and then, obviously, bishops -- of gays and lesbians who are sexually active in the context of same-sex relationships.

The Times piece quoted this language, but then undercut it with references to a ban on the ordination of gays and lesbians, period.

Now, are there celibate gays and lesbians at United Methodist altars, men and women who experience same-sex attractions yet do not act on them -- because they affirm the content of their church's doctrines and their own ordination vows? Why not ask that question to United Methodists on the left and right?

I do not know how many individuals of this kind are out there. It might make an interesting story to seek some out and hear what they have to say (just as some of the most interesting voices in Catholic debates on sexuality are gay and lesbian laypeople who affirm their church's doctrines).

Now, I have heard people argue that a ban on the ordination of sexuality active gays and lesbians is IN PRACTICE a total ban on gays and lesbians being ordained -- because people would have to mentally flawed and unstable to live without sex. Celibacy is a sign of trouble, in other words.

If that is what the Times piece was assuming (or the sources who helped shape the Times piece) then that is an issue worthy of open debate and serious coverage. Journalists can interview real people and quote them. Go for it.

There are also gay theologians who completely reject monogamy, as traditionally defined. That's another debate to cover, on the doctrinal left. As a gay United Methodist theologian in Denver once told me, few gay men will settle for "twin rocking chairs looking at the sunset and that's that." Also, some LGBTQ people have a different definition of "fidelity" in marriage, one that does not completely ban sex with other people.

The bottom line: There are lots of doctrinal issues involved in this debate and it's important that America's most important newsroom -- that would be the Times -- use accurate language when covering these debates.

By the way, even thought the RNS piece I mentioned included an accurate statement of United Methodist teachings, it also contained this passage:

At its quadrennial General Conference in May, the United Methodist Church had decided not to take up contentious issues regarding the full inclusion of its LGBT members. At the Council of Bishops’ recommendation, the denomination agreed instead to create a commission to discuss the conflict over sexuality that could lead to a special session of the global conference in 2018 or 2019.

Now, think about it. Will participants in that future conference be debating "issues regarding the full inclusion of its LGBT members" or will it be dealing with issues regarding the full inclusion of sexually active LGBT members who reject the church's teachings? Once again, that is a fine doctrinal line -- but one that matters.

You see, no matter what reporters do, they are going to have to admit that they are covering debates about moral theology and the Bible -- debates that are then linked to sexual activity. The crucial issue is whether the DOCTRINES will change or whether the denomination will decide that these ancient doctrines no longer matter and that following them is optional and that's that.

This is about solid, accurate journalism.

How are readers supposed to follow these debates without accurate statements detailing what believers on both sides are saying? How do you cover debates about church laws without accurately stating the contents of the church laws?

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