Lutherans

Mainline blues update: WPost offers sobering facts, lovely images about circuit-riding pastors

Mainline blues update: WPost offers sobering facts, lovely images about circuit-riding pastors

Talk to scholars that study American religion and most will say that the implosion of the “Seven Sisters” of old-line Protestantism has to be at the top of any list of big trends in the past half century.

For those who need to refresh their memories, the “Seven Sisters” are the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Many reporters, when dealing with mainline blues stories (think churches “for sale”) never pause to probe the “WHY?” factor in that old journalism formula “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why” and “how.”

Often, journalists don’t give readers key facts about the mainline decline at all. In recent years, I’ve seen more than a few stories suggesting that the slight (but important) declines in some conservative flocks have the same root causes as the 30-50% declines seen in mainline churches since the 1960s.

Thus, it’s important to praise a news feature that includes all the basic facts, when talking about this trend, and then goes the extra mile to include waves of poignant details offering readers a pew-level view of what this decline feels like to the remaining believers.

That brings me to a must-read Washington Post feature that just ran with this headline: “The circuit preacher was an idea of the frontier past. Now it’s the cutting-edge response to shrinking churches.”

The setting for this story is a dense, mountainous corner of West Virginia, which is home to a wife-and-husband team of pastors in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (the story even pauses to explain the term “evangelical” in this context). Linked to that, readers are also told that this particular Lutheran body holds “more-liberal positions on issues such as homosexuality and the role of women.”

How busy is this duo? Here is a crucial summary passage that includes many of the crucial facts:

[The Rev. Jess Felici], 36, and her husband, the Rev. Jason Felici, 33, serve together as the pastors of five churches in one of the most isolated pockets of America. Their weekly acrobatics of military-precision timing and long-distance driving are what it takes to make Sunday church services happen in a place where churchgoers are aging, pews are getting emptier and church budgets are getting smaller.

That makes Appalachia much like the rest of the country when it comes to mainline Protestant churches.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

How do today's woes on the mainstream religion beat compare with 1983 and 1994?

How do today's woes on the mainstream religion beat compare with 1983 and 1994?

Religion writers are buzzing about Prof. Charles Camosy’s Sept. 6 commentary on religion’s sagging cultural and journalistic status.

Decades ago, GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly, who analyzed Camosy in this post surveyed this same terrain in a classic 1983 article for Quill magazine, drawn from his research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. This is a journalism issue with legs.

There’s a little-known third such article, not available online. While cleaning out basement files, The Religion Guy unearthed a 1994 piece in the unfortunately short-lived Forbes Media Critic titled “Separation of Church & Press?” Writer Stephen Bates, then a senior fellow at the Annenberg Washington Program in Communications Policy Studies, now teaches media studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Both of these older articles were pretty glum.

Religion coverage suffers today as part a print industry on life support, in large part because of a digital advertising crisis. Radio and TV coverage of religion, then and now, is thin to non-existent and the Internet is a zoo of reporting, opinion and advocacy — often at the same time.

Those earlier times could fairly be looked back upon as the golden age of religion reporting. (Side comment: What a pleasure to read quotes in both articles from The Guy’s talented competitors and pals in that era.

Former Newsweek senior editor Edward Diamond (by then teaching journalism at New York University) told Bates that back in the 1960s the newsmagazine’s honchos had considered dropping the religion section entirely. If true, they were open to journalistic malparactice. In those years, competitors at Time, The New Yorker, the wires and newspapers were chock full of coverage from Catholicism’s Second Vatican Council and its tumultuous aftermath.

By the 1980s, Mattingly hoped for possible change in religion coverage’s “low-priority” status as journalism’s “best-kept secret.”

You want news? Let’s look back at that era.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Will everybody reach heaven? Are fights over hell about to grab some more headlines?

Will everybody reach heaven? Are fights over hell about to grab some more headlines?

Chances are churches frequented by your readers and listeners rarely if ever offer sermons about hell and damnation these days. And yet this rather unpleasant topic is eternally (so to speak) fascinating, and may be about to grab some headlines. That’s due to Eastern Orthodox lay theologian David Bentley Hart's acerbic Sep. 24 release from Yale University Press “That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, & Universal Salvation.”

Sample sentences: “No one, logically speaking, could merit eternal punishment.”

Also this: “If Christianity is in any way true, Christians dare not doubt the salvation of all,”

Yes, Hart is a Hitler-in-heaven sort of guy (see page 38), and your sources will have interesting responses. Lest Hart seem a rank heretic, the Very Rev. John Behr of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary blurbs that this book presents “the promise that, in the end, all will indeed be saved, and exposing the inadequacy — above all moral — of claims to the contrary.”

Heretofore Hart was better known for ridiculing non-belief, as in “Atheist Delusions.” The prolific author has held a succession of university appointments, most recently as a University of Notre Dame fellow. Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths (in the news when he resigned over Duke University’s “diversity” policy) proclaims Hart “the most eminent” theologian in the English-speaking world.

Terms Hart applies to centuries of traditional orthodox and Orthodox doctrines on hell and damnation include “absurd,” “ludicrous,” “nonsensical,” “incoherent,” “horrid,” “degrading,” “loathsome,” “diseased,” “perverse,” “cruel,” “wicked” and “morally repugnant.” He is mainly offended by the idea that punishment is everlasting, on grounds that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. Hart is open to some sort of cleansing to make sorry souls fit for heaven, but doesn’t spell out any version of Western Catholicism’s Purgatory.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Friday Five: El Paso and Dayton, RNS on scene, Liberty's J-school, whopper correction

Friday Five: El Paso and Dayton, RNS on scene, Liberty's J-school, whopper correction

Do we really need to know what makes a mass murderer tick?

It’s a question we’ve contemplated previously here at GetReligion. I’ve noted that I personally tire of reading about crazed killers who go on shooting rampages.

After Saturday’s massacre at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, the Dallas Morning News provided extensive coverage.

However, here’s what the Dallas newspaper didn’t do: mention the gunman’s name on the front page.

“Though the shooter’s name would be online and inside the paper, we would not identify him or show his photo on the front page,” Editor Mike Wilson said of the purposeful decision. “Even in the digital age, what we run on 1A is an important expression of our values.”

It’s a small, mainly symbolic gesture, but I like it. Kudos to Wilson and his team.

Meanwhile, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: The mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, dominated headlines this week, and rightly so.

In a post Thursday, I praised an emotional, heart-wrenching story on one victim’s family published by the Los Angeles Times. I declared that the front-page news-feature just might be “the best religion story you’ll read all year.”

Please respect our Commenting Policy

An issue that never goes away: What do U.S. religious groups teach about abortion?

An issue that never goes away: What do U.S. religious groups teach about abortion?

THE QUESTION:

What do U.S. religious groups teach about the contentious abortion issue?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Remarkably, the abortion issue is as contentious as when the U.S. Supreme Court liberalized law 46 years ago, with new state restrictions injecting it into courtrooms and the 2020 campaign. The following scans significant teachings by major religious denominations.

The Catholic Church, the largest religious body in the U.S. (and globally), opposes abortion, without exceptions. A Vatican Council II decree from the world’s bishops declares that “from the moment of its conception, life must be guarded with the greatest care,” and calls  abortions “abominable crimes.” The official Catechism says the same and dates this belief back to Christianity’s first century (Didache 2:2, Epistle of Barnabas 19:5).

Eastern Orthodox and Catholic leaders have jointly affirmed “our common teaching that life begins at the earliest moments of conception” and is “sacred” through all stages of development. However, America’s 53-member Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops acknowledges “rare but serious medical instances where mother and child may require extraordinary actions.”

A Southern Baptist Convention resolution before the Supreme Court ruling advocated permission in cases of “rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity” or damage to a mother’s “emotional, mental, and physical health.” The SBC later shifted toward strict conservatism on many matters. A 2018 resolution affirms “the full dignity of every unborn child” and denounces abortion “except to save the mother’s physical life.”

Two United Methodist Church agencies helped establish the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights (since renamed Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice) to champion women’s unimpeded choice. But the 2016 UMC conference directed the agencies to leave the coalition, and voted to withdraw endorsement, upheld since 1976, of the Supreme Court’s “legal right to abortion.” The UMC recognizes “tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify” abortion. It opposes late-term abortion except for danger to the mother’s “physical life” or “severe fetal anomalies incompatible with life.”

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Too late to patch things up? How to cover a schism, United Methodist Church edition

Too late to patch things up? How to cover a schism, United Methodist Church edition

Church splits are endemic with Protestantism, and in coming years a really messy example is almost certain to afflict the large (6,951,278 members, $6.3 billion annual  income) U.S. sector of the United Methodist Church.

At issue is biblical teaching and authority, especially regarding openly gay clergy and same-sex marriage, Protestants’ most divisive issues since slavery.

As reporters and other religion-watchers will know, the UMC’s highest tribunal ruled on April 26  that church law allows much of the “Traditional Plan” that global church delegates passed in February to reinforce existing moral prohibitions. The tribunal also approved a measure that allows dissenting congregations to leave the UMC and keep their buildings and assets (text here).               

Approval of this special “exit plan” is a huge local, regional and national story. This exit plan apparently lasts until New Year’s Eve 2023 and sidesteps the “trust clause” by which the denomination claims ownership of local church properties.

Withdrawal plans must be approved by two-thirds of a congregation’s professing members, but also by a simple majority of delegates to area meetings called “annual conferences.” Judging from past struggles in other denominations, one can imagine mischief with that second requirement.

Methodists who want to loosen church discipline and give congregations local option on gay policies will mount  a last-chance effort at next year’s General Conference (mark your calendars: May 5–15, Minneapolis Convention Center), but the traditionalists should be able to continue their unbroken 48-year winning streak.

Herewith a few pointers for covering future developments. 

Please respect our Commenting Policy

USA Today: So 100-plus Tennessee clergy oppose 'anti-gay' bills. How newsworthy is that?

USA Today: So 100-plus Tennessee clergy oppose 'anti-gay' bills. How newsworthy is that?

I realize that I told the following Colorado war story last year.

But I’m going to share it again, because it perfectly describes one of the concerns that a journalist/reader raised in an email the other day about a USA Today story that ran with this sweeping headline: “Clergy in Tennessee take a stand against slate of anti-LGBT legislation.”

Focus on the word’s “Clergy in Tennessee.” The lede then describes this group as 100-plus “religious leaders.” Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

OK, the setting for this mid-1980s war story is a press conference called by the Colorado Council of Churches, announcing its latest progressive pronouncement on this or that social issue. Here’s that flashback:

If you look at the current membership of this Colorado group, it's pretty much the same as it was then — with one big exception. Back then, the CCC was made up of the usual suspects, in terms of liberal Protestantism, but the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver was cooperating in many ways (although, if I remember correctly, without covenant/membership ties). …

So at this press conference, all of the religious leaders made their statements and most talked about diversity, stressing that they represented a wide range of churches.

In the question-and-answer session, I asked what I thought was a relevant question. I asked if — other than the Catholic archdiocese — any of them represented flocks that had more members in the 1980s than they did in the '60s or '70s. In other words, did they represent groups with a growing presence in the state (like the Assemblies of God, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)?

In other words, I asked (a) what percentage of the state’s clergy were actually involved in the religious bodies that had, allegedly, endorsed this political statement and (b) whether the churches involved were, statistically speaking, still the dominant pew-level powers in that rapidly changing state. Note: Colorado Springs was already beginning to emerge as a national headquarters for evangelicals.

I thought that I was asking a basic journalism question, in terms of assessing to potential impact of this CCC statement. I will, however, admit that I was questioning the accuracy of the group’s “diversity” claims.

This brings us to the current USA Today story here in Tennessee. Here is the lede:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Journalists may want to ask: When will United Methodist left decide that enough is enough?

Journalists may want to ask: When will United Methodist left decide that enough is enough?

Way back in the 1980s, as the sex wars in the Episcopal Church really began to heat up, I heard a conservative priest tell a joke that gently mocked many of his Anglo-Catholic colleagues on the doctrinal right.

The whole point of the joke is that it is really hard to cut the ties that bind, when people have invested decades of their lives in religious institutions and traditions. And then there are the all-too human, practical details that come into play. In the end, it may be easier to edit the Apostles Creed and modernize the prayer book than it is to split the clergy pension play or divide a denomination’s trust funds.

Which brings us back to that joke that I have shared once or twice in the past. I have left the time-element in the first line intact. Like I said, it’s an old joke.

The year is 2012 … and two Anglo-Catholic priests in the back of National Cathedral are watching the Episcopal presiding bishop and her incense-bearing lover process down the aisle behind a statue of the Buddha, while the faithful sing a hymn to Mother Earth.

"You know," one traditionalist whispers, "ONE more thing and I'm out the door."

Right now, in the multi-decade United Methodist Church civil war, things may be close to reaching that point for LGBTQ clergy and their supporters on the denomination’s doctrinal left. What will it take for these believers — who are sincerely convinced that 2,000 years of Christian doctrines on marriage and sex should be changed — to decide that enough is enough?

That’s the key question that I asked during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast. (Click here to tune that in, or head over the iTunes.) What would this old “ONE more thing” joke look like today, if you turned it around — doctrinally speaking — and looked at it from the point of view of United Methodists on the left?

Maybe you would have two United Methodist pastors from the Iliff School of Theology in Denver — long a safe haven for the left — standing at the back of a global General Conference that is being held in a United Methodist stronghold in Africa. They are watching an African bishop walk down the aisle with his wife with his hands in the air singing an evangelical praise song. The service ends with the Rev. Franklin Graham giving an altar call.

One more thing and I’m out the door?

Then what? That was the other half of the equation in this podcast. Follow me through a few “ifs” here.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Looking at this story internationally, what’s the status of modern church doctrines on gays?

Looking at this story internationally, what’s the status of modern church doctrines on gays?

THE QUESTION: 

Looked at internationally, what’s the status of churches’ policies on the same-sex issue in the wake of the United Methodists’ important decision on this February 26?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

You may have read that in late February the 12.6-million-member United Methodist Church held a special General Conference in St. Louis, seeking to settle its painful conflict over the gay-and-lesbian issue and avert a split. The delegates decided by 53 percent to support and strengthen the denomination’s longstanding ban against same-sex marriages and clergy living in such relationships.

Though U.S. bishops, officials, and academics had advocated leeway on gays, the vote was not a shock. A 2015 poll by the denomination found 54 percent of U.S. pastors and 54 percent of lay leaders (though only 41 percent of lay members over-all)  favored keeping the traditional policy. Another poll of U.S. members, released just before the St. Louis conference, showed 44 percent identify as conservative or traditional in belief, 28 percent as moderate or centrist, and only 20 percent as progressive or liberal.

Moreover, United Methodism is a multinational denomination whose U.S. component has declined and now claims only 55 percent of the global membership. The congregations in Africa and Asia are growing, and that buttresses the traditionalist side. Unlike the Methodists, most “mainline” Protestant groups in North America and western Europe that recently liberalized on the same-sex issue had no foreigners casting ballots.

International bonds have always been central in Christianity. Currently, conservative and evangelical Protestants in North America, including a faction within liberalizing “mainline” groups, are united in sexual traditionalism with most of the Protestant and indigenous churches in Africa, Asia, the Mideast, eastern Europe and Latin America. Add in Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and the vast majority of the world’s Christians belong to churches that have always opposed gay and lesbian relationships.

This broad Christian consensus results from thousands of years of scriptures, interpretations, and traditions. This is the context for the West’s serious clash of conscience — between believers in that heritage versus religious and secular gay-rights advocates — that confronts government, politicians, educators, judges, journalists, and ordinary citizens.

Please respect our Commenting Policy