This may sound simplistic, but here goes. With most news events that involve elections, or votes to settle disputes inside an organization, there will be a winning side and a losing side.
Life is more complex than that, of course, and the “winners” of a single vote may not be the winners over the long haul. But let’s say that the winners keep winning the big votes for a decade or two.
At that point, journalists need to do one of two things. First, journalists can produce a story that, as Job 1, focuses on what the winners plan to do (since they won) and then, as Job 2, covers how the losing side plans to respond. The alternative is to write a major story about the winning group and then, to offer needed balance, to write a second story about how this outcome will affect the losing side.
With that in mind, please consider the Washington Post story that ran the other day with this headline: “U.S. Methodist leaders lay plans to resist vote against same-sex marriage.” That is one way to state the issue — looking at this from the losing side of the equation.
It would be just as accurate to say that this was a vote — the latest of many — defending the United Methodist Church’s stance in favor of ancient (thinking church history) doctrines on marriage and sex. You could also say that the key votes focused on whether UMC clergy can be required to honor their ordination vows to follow the denomination’s Book of Discipline. However, that would be the point of view held by the winners, after that special global UMC general convention held recently in St. Louis.
So the Post team doing? The headline states the editorial approach: This is a feature story built on the reactions on the losing side in St. Louis, the plans of the left-of-center establishment that has long controlled UMC life in the United States. That’s it. That’s what readers get. Thus, the overture:
When the United Methodist Church voted to uphold its ban on same-sex marriage and LGBT clergy last month, Methodist pastors and churchgoers across America were devastated. A majority of American delegates had voted against the plan, though they were outvoted by more conservative delegates from Africa and other continents.
In the weeks since, several small but powerful cadres of pastors and bishops have begun plotting paths to overturn or undermine the decision. In conference calls and clandestine meetings, the disparate groups are discussing options that include splitting the church into two denominations and withholding funds until the pressure prompts the denomination to redo the recent vote at the next worldwide meeting in May 2020 in Minneapolis.
“We’ve either got to figure out how we go together [with same-sex marriage], or how we separate,” declared North Georgia’s Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson, a co-leader of one of the groups.
That’s a valid, important story. But that is not the whole story.
Notice, that there is no third option mentioned — honoring the outcome of the vote. In fact, there is not a single sentence in this lengthy Post feature that quotes, or even considers the point of view, of anyone on the winning side of the St. Louis votes. The story does not contain a single sentence that isn’t framed by United Methodists who are in favor of doctrinal change on these issues.
So what are United Methodists on the other side — the winning side — thinking? When will readers hear their point of view about the future? How about their thoughts on a UMC divorce? In other words, will Post readers be given an accurate, fair-minded story about the beliefs and plans of the winners in St. Louis?
Apparently, this is yet another story in which only one side is worthy of coverage.
I hope I am wrong. I hope that this is simply the first of two major stories and Post editors decided — since the majority of USA voters at the general conference were on the losing side — to cover the losing side first. If that is the plan, it would have been good to announce that with a postscript or some other editorial note. Surely the Post team plans to cover the other side of this global story?
Meanwhile, readers are given lots of valuable information about one half of this story.
The Rev. Adam Hamilton, who is the pastor of the largest Methodist church in the country, with 20,000 members in his Kansas City congregation, is organizing with Haupert-Johnson, Texas’s Bishop Michael McKee and a few others.
Their group has a methodical, political-organizing-style plan for drawing others into their fight: meetings this week and next week in Dallas and Atlanta, each with 30 handpicked clergy and leaders, including seven LGBT leaders. Then a meeting at Hamilton’s church in May for 500 leaders. Then another meeting in the fall, where they aim to draw 3,000 leaders of Methodist churches.
Here’s more from Hamilton:
Hamilton said that before his group’s first meetings in Atlanta and Dallas, he envisions two possibly viable paths: splitting and resistance.
If the group opts for resistance, it would probably be financial, he said. Numerous large American churches like his would stop contributing their customary funds to the denomination, in the hope that delegates from Africa and Russia — who led the successful push at last month’s meeting to block same-sex marriage and gay clergy — would agree to a new vote at the 2020 meeting on LGBT issues, to preserve funding for their mission projects.
You just have to love that reference to Russia — seeing as how the United Methodist church there is tiny and is not a major player in the winning coalition of Africans, Asians and American evangelicals. But, RUSSIA! RUSSIA! RUSSIA!
Back to Hamilton:
His second option would involve persuading all parts of the American church — both progressives and centrists who want same-sex marriage, as well as conservatives who want to separate and be done with the debate — to pool their voting power in favor of a split into separate denominations. American churches that favor same-sex marriage would opt into one denomination; most African and Russian churches as well as American churches that oppose same-sex marriage would be in the other one.
A vision for a new denomination will be a major topic at the under-the-radar meetings this week and next: both practical questions, like how a split church could share existing institutions such as schools and hospitals, and religious ones.
So what do American conservatives think of those plans? For example, isn’t it rather ironic that the losing side is now thinking about withholding funds from the denomination, after decades of urging evangelicals not to use that approach to pressuring the establishment?
One more angle that, hopefully, will be covered by a future Post story about this conflict: What are the prospects for a liberal victory? Why does the global United Methodist coalition keep winning?
You see, this Post report is silent on the Methodist math that is driving this story.
However, there are UMC progressives who are discussing those facts. Please take a look at this amazing essay by O. Wesley Allen, Jr., who teaches preaching at the Perkins School of Theology, at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
The headline: “Humpty Dumpty Can’t Be Put Back Together Again: Why the United Methodist Church Must Split.” Here is a key chunk of that:
Neither side can win this battle in the way they want. The moderates and progressives may be a vast majority in the context of the United States, but in a global denomination, they are a significant minority. Some centrist and progressive voices keep lamenting how close the vote was, but it actually was not close at all. In today’s cultural climate, any politician would love to have the kind of margin we saw at General Conference (especially given that a number of international delegates were denied visas and likely would have added to the margin of victory). Moreover, the number of international delegates to future General Conferences will continue to increase while U.S. delegates decrease. In no time in the near future will the numbers add up to the moderates and progressives having enough of a majority to change the denomination’s stance on homosexuality. This is why the possibility of the Judicial Council ruling in April that parts of the Traditional Plan are unconstitutional does not really diminish the victory the traditionalists won.
On the other hand, the conservatives do not have enough support to achieve the level of purity they seek either. They can keep the official language prohibiting homosexuality in place (and strengthen it or expand upon it) forever, but they do not have a wide enough majority to change the constitution to put in place the kinds of accountability and penalties they are calling for. Thus, in no foreseeable future will they be able to force the Western Jurisdiction to remove a lesbian bishop, Boards of Ordained Ministry to exclude homosexual candidates for ordination, or bishops to punish clergy for presiding at same-sex weddings.
We are left with the worst sort of stalemate: the Traditional Plan is in effect in denominational law while in parts of the denomination the One Church Plan (or the Simple Plan) is being practiced in different congregations, conferences, and jurisdictions of the church in parts of the U.S. and Europe. All the while each side demonizes the other. Ecclesial disobedience will more and more become the new norm for the progressives, and the conservatives will cry foul with louder and louder voices. Meanwhile, congregations and conferences that are moderate and/or divided will lose members and likely become existentially distant from both the left and the right.
We must split.
Why will the traditionalist side keep gaining votes in UMC general conferences? To be blunt: Churches in the global coalition are growing.
Surely that information — drawn from a voice on the left, in this case — is relevant? If so, then here is another question for the UMC left: Why do some United Methodists want to fight on, while others are ready to talk about a divorce that is as peaceful as possible?
Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to a Post story that addresses the other side of this debate.
However, think about this: Are there any UMC conservatives who would be willing to talk to the Post after reading this one-sided feature?