Will United Methodist Church be ripped apart? Ahead of big meeting, here's a fair analysis

The United Methodist Church’s much-anticipated meeting on same-sex marriage rites and whether homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” is just a few weeks away.

It’ll be Feb. 23-26 in St. Louis.

In advance of the church’s historic General Conference, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram did a deep dive on the subject — and it’s a generally fair, informative read, as one observer noted on Twitter:

As far as I know, the Star-Telegram doesn’t have a religion writer per se. But the Fort Worth paper has done some excellent work on the Godbeat in recent times, including a must-read investigation on sex crimes in independent fundamental Baptist churches late last year. That project was produced by investigative reporter Sarah Smith, who left the Star-Telegram soon thereafter to join the Houston Chronicle.

The in-depth story on the United Methodist Church was written by Hanaa’ Tameez, who covers diversity for the Star-Telegram.

Tameez open her piece with an anecdote from a Methodist congregation grappling at the local level with the questions facing the entire denomination:

COLLEYVILLE — On a Tuesday in January, pastor Katie Lewis was surprised to have even 26 members of the United Methodist Church of Colleyville attend her study group on human sexuality and same-sex marriage.

In a group of mostly middle-aged white congregants, opinions ranged widely. One man said he felt pressure to accept LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage from “more liberal” members from the East and West Coasts. Others quickly disputed that idea, saying the issue is a concern in Colleyville as well.

“Whether you know it or not, someone in your life is struggling to be accepted for who they are,” one woman told the group.

Lewis said she felt the conversation was necessary ahead of the United Methodist General Conference this month in St. Louis. The conference meets every four years, but a special session was called to vote on a plan regarding same-sex marriage and the acceptance of LGBTQ clergy in the church.

The United Methodist Church faces the possibility of a schism because of the vote. It’s inevitable that people will leave the church because of how polarizing the issue is, according to congregants, clergy and experts. It’s also possible entire congregations could leave the denomination.

If I had been the editor, I might have pushed for more names in that opening section (for the man and woman as well as the experts), but I think the information provided is helpful and sets the scene nicely.

Keep reading, and the Star-Telegram goes into a lot of detail to help readers understand how Methodists have reached this point and what the most likely scenarios are at the General Conference.

Give credit to the paper for quoting Methodists with differing viewpoints on the debate, such as in this section:

Marco Rosas, executive director of the Tarrant County Democratic Party, attends Arlington Heights United Methodist Church. He said there hasn’t been much discussion on the upcoming vote from the pulpit of his church, but it’s a conversation that congregation members are having among themselves.

“I feel kind of weird about it,” Rosas said. “It’s weird to move forward with part of the congregation embracing the notion of ‘all are welcome’ and then the rest are stuck in the past. Personally, I would like a plan that’s more progressive and recognizes LGBTQ marriage in the church and accepts LGBTQ clergy.”

Gary Winburne attends the United Methodist Church of Colleyville and Lewis’ discussion group. He said he joined the group because he wanted to hear from fellow congregants about their beliefs. He describes himself as a traditionalist and said he will most likely leave the United Methodist Church if the One Church Plan is passed.

“I think as Christians we are called to love all peoples but we don’t have to necessarily condone their actions,” Winburne said. “I believe the Bible is very straightforward on that. While It doesn’t specifically mention homosexuality, it does talk in many places about sexual immorality. To me, the ultimate decision has already been made because the Bible is Scripture and the Bible tells me how to live my life.”

The mention of Rosas’ role with the Democratic Party did puzzle me a little. I mean, I am interested in his perspective as a church member. But I’m uncertain as to why his political affiliation matters in this context.

Later, the story quotes a religion professor at Texas Christian University on the potential impact of the General Conference’s decision. I understand that sourcing.

But then the story quotes a political scientist at the University of North Texas. Yes, the political scientist has studied the intersections of religion, politics and LGBTQ identities. But I wondered if a political scientist was the best source for a story on a religious denomination. Would a professor who has studied United Methodists and understands their history not be a better analyst for this situation?

Finally — and I’m starting to nitpick, even though I really appreciated the piece overall — the Star-Telegram is about halfway done with its story when it finally quotes Bishop Mike Lowry, who oversees 300 United Methodist Churches in Fort Worth and beyond.

Guess what? He’s a traditionalist and perhaps even someone who would advocate churches leaving the denomination if the vote goes the wrong way:

He noted that whichever plan is voted on will be debated and amended, and whatever decision is made will not take effect until January 2020, at the earliest.

However, he said he stands behind the current practices of the church, which say “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” and that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”

“I’ve been clear that I do not endorse any of the three plans,” Lowry said. “I support the current stance of the United Methodist Church. Our understanding that love is for all, and Christian marriage is between a man and a woman.”

Lowry is also a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a membership organization that supports orthodox United Methodist beliefs. He’s quoted in an association brochure saying, “Friends in Christ, I invite and encourage you to consider joining with me as a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. I do so as a call to the highest level of doctrinal integrity and missional commitment in the name of our Lord.“

Lowry said he is not advocating for people to leave the church, and that joining the Wesleyan Covenant Association is not a decision or a pledge to leave the United Methodist Church.

In November, the Wesleyan Covenant Association held its first global legislative assembly where members discussed developing a contingency plan to part from the United Methodist Church, depending on the vote in February. Lowry was one of three bishops who spoke at the meeting, according to United Methodist News Service.

Here’s my question: Shouldn’t Lowry have been up higher — a whole lot higher — in the story? I did a quick scan of the Star-Telegram archives and found no earlier reference to Lowry’s position, so this seems like important, new information for the local paper’s readers.

Overall, I like that the Star-Telegram tackled this issue, gave it so much space and treated the various sides so impartially.

One other constructive criticism, though: I wish the paper had given a better feel for whether we’re talking about a United Methodist conference that is generally conservative with a sizable contingent of progressives scattered here and there. That’s kind of where the story left me, but since it’s not precise in saying so, I could be totally wrong about that.

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