Melvin Wheatley

Set the WABAC machine for when? Time for another trip into United Methodist polity!

Set the WABAC machine for when? Time for another trip into United Methodist polity!

As veteran journalists know, sometimes there are stories that seem really, really big when you read the press releases, but they turn out to be business as usual when you dig into the details.

That appears to be what happened with the Cincinnati Enquirer story (part of the USA Today network) offering on update on one of the many legal battles unfolding in the United Methodist Church about the status of LGBTQ ministers. The headline: "Gay Methodist minister David Meredith, church claim victory."

It's a very familiar story, part of a familiar ecclesiastical puzzle that has been in place since (wait for it) 1980. How many years ago was that? Let's put it this way: I wasn't even working full-time on the religion beat at that point.

We will return to the WABAC machine angle of this story in a moment. First, let's look at the story that the Enquirer thought it had, as opposed to what appears to have happened. The key question: Is this a local story, a regional story or a national/global story? Here is the public-relations release overture:

Claiming victory for LGBTQ members of the United Methodist Church nationwide, officials told The Enquirer on Wednesday that two of three charges against a Clifton congregation's openly gay pastor, David Meredith, were not certified
The Rev. Meredith appeared Sunday before the Methodist Committee on Investigation in Columbus, Ohio. Several complaints were filed against Meredith after his May 2016 marriage to his significant other of 29 years. Meredith and Jim Schlachter were married in a Methodist church by a Methodist minister.
Meredith was not charged with being a self-avowed practicing homosexual or with immorality.
Clifton United Methodist Church, whose membership overwhelmingly supports its pastor, said the case may be the first time in denominational history that a charge relating to homosexuality reached the investigative body and was dismissed. A charge of disobedience was certified. 

OK, readers, here is my question. Based on what you just read, at what level of United Methodist polity was this decision made?

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Correction please: The New York Times struggles with a fine detail in United Methodist law

Correction please: The New York Times struggles with a fine detail in United Methodist law

For decades, United Methodists managed to live together in semi-peace by using a simple plan -- they lived in different places. This allowed them to ordain pastors and elect bishops who took radically different approaches to doctrine and church law.

This was explained, back in the mid-1980s, in a prophetic study called "The Seven Churches of Methodism." The bottom line: It was hard to find the ties that could bind the declining flocks in the "Yankee Church," "Industrial Northeast Church," "Western Church" and "Midwest Church" with those in the "Church South" and the "Southwest Church."

The cutting-edge on the progressive future was found in Denver, in the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference and the Iliff School of Theology. If would-be United Methodist pastors disagreed with the church they could go West, and many did. In the late-1980s, a gay youth minister at Iliff told me (I was at The Rocky Mountain News) that she estimated 40 percent of the student body, perhaps even 50 percent, was gay.

This reality first hit the headlines in 1980 when Denver Bishop Melvin Wheatley, Jr., announced that he was openly rejecting church teachings that homosexual acts were “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Soon, he appointed an openly gay pastor to a Denver church. When challenged, Wheatley declared: “Homosexuality is a mysterious gift of God’s grace. I clearly do not believe homosexuality is a sin.”

All of this is highly relevant to understanding the tensions laid out in that New York Times piece that ran with this headline: "Methodist High Court Rejects First Openly Gay Bishop’s Consecration."

But before we get there, we need to look at one other detail in the early Denver cases that remains important for reporters who want to do accurate coverage of the UMC debates in the here and now.

That Denver pastor survived in ministry, in part, because the church law opposed the appointment of “self-avowed, practicing” homosexuals. Thus, when appearing before church officials, he simply declined to answer questions about his sexual history or practice. He was, therefore, not “self-avowed” -- at least not during official church meetings. Sympathetic leaders in the West declared that he was not in violation of the larger church’s doctrinal standards. It didn't matter what the man said in newspaper interviews.

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