I didn't know the Knoxville News-Sentinel has a religion writer, as there was certainly no one from that paper covering the pentecostal serpent handler beat when I lived in Tennessee. Turns out they do have one -- Amy McRary -- who wrote a church-dumps-gay-couple story in pretty short order after said couple started making the rounds of newspapers and TV stations.
The setting is bucolic Blount County, a rural area south of Knoxville that sits in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. I vacationed there in 2014 and found it refreshingly distant from an interstate highway.
Now, this is an area that's very conservative and it's full of churches, which is how our story begins.
MARYVILLE -- A Blount County gay couple say their hearts were broken but their Christian faith remains strong after they were denied full membership in a nondenominational church.
Now Courtney and Jessica Wright are cautious, even scared, about stepping in any church.
The Wrights were told in late January they couldn’t become full-fledged “core” members of Faith Promise Church because they're homosexual. One of the church's core beliefs is that marriage is between a man and a woman.
The couple, married in August 2016, knew Faith Promise listed heterosexual-only marriage as a belief. But they say their homosexuality and marriage were never secret, and church members made them feel accepted and included for months.
Part of me wonders: Is this really a news story?
Maybe, because the newspaper had previously reported that Faith Promise is one of the country’s fastest-growing churches. But if an attendee had complained to the newspaper about being shut out of full membership for any other reason, would the newspaper have run it?
Religion reporters have long learned to stay out of church fights unless there is a lot of money involved or there's a lawsuit. There's been reporting elsewhere -- lots of it -- on stand-offs between churches, denominations and would-be gay members over the past two decades. So, what makes this story different?
People in Tennessee care about church and this nondenominational congregation looks like a zillion others out there that are in America's malls. It's pretty typical for the area. I’m not sure what form training for baptism takes there, but usually there’s some training about beliefs and repentance for past sins. Did no one there bring that up to these women?
Apparently not. The women knew that traditional Christian marriage is a core doctrinal belief at this church for members but they didn't think it applied to them.
Faith Promise pastors declined an interview request and didn't answer emailed questions from USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee. Executive Pastor Josh Whitehead responded with a statement.
“At Faith Promise we love and embrace all people because people are made in the image of God. We welcome anyone who desires to take their next step in search of the God of the Bible and invite them to be our guest at any of our campuses," Whitehead said in the statement. "Although we believe the Bible defines marriage, sharing this view is not a requirement to be a part of our faith community."
I looked up the church’s values on its web site and noticed its definition on marriage, but nothing saying the “core” members had to abide by that. It does have a vague sentence saying members must agree with church doctrine, which apparently includes the above definition on marriage.
It's not at all clear and I can see why the couple was confused. It sounds like church leaders danced around the matter until they finally couldn't. There's a story there, in that lots of church leaders act like they want this issue to go away -- which is not going to happen.
Another thing that puzzles me is that many conservative churches allow people from all walks –- and practices –- of life become members, but they are much stricter as to what they expect from staff or at least people who have some kind of teaching role. And does the church employ a similar rule for membership against divorced people? None of the reports I saw looked into that.
All these are legitimate questions that go unanswered when a church stonewalls a reporter by sending out bland statements like the above. It’s difficult to maintain balanced coverage when you have one side of the story giving interviews to whomever will listen and the other side saying essentially nothing.
Still, it's possible for journalists to do their jobs. The Daily Times in Blount County had a better-written piece, with a good lede and interviews with other local clergy.
Note that this story also came out several days before the News-Sentinel piece. It also made a clearer point about the lesbian couple not being upset with the church’s doctrines per se but how they were led to believe for more than a year that their marriage would not be an issue.
The Times even dug back into posts on Faith Promise's Facebook page to include a happy quote from Jessica Wright in favor of the church's acceptance of her and her family posted a year ago.
I’m guessing the story is more about the church than this couple and if it’d been a smaller church keeping the lesbians at arms length, there would not have been the news play that it got. But because Faith Promise is a large Bible Belt church, whatever happens there is news.
We've written a lot here about people who apply for jobs at conservative religious institutions and then profess to be surprised when doctrinal covenants or agreements they've signed come back to haunt them. I'm curious: When did the couple feel they should have been informed of the strictures? Before baptism? When they first arrived?
So yes, this conflict is still a story and it illustrates a huge divide in American religion that gay couples have opened up. And in this case, the church was sloppy with its definitions and squishy as to who it accepts and who it does not.