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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. 

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CNN spotlights persecuted Chinese Christians who have fled to Kenya -- and Queens

CNN spotlights persecuted Chinese Christians who have fled to Kenya -- and Queens

Being a Christian in China these days is a dicey proposition at best and one that might lead to a prison sentence at the least. The country’s leaders seem intent on tearing down as many churches as possible, as if that will solve the problem.

Too bad they’ve not delved into church history, which shows how the early church kept their faith alive by meeting in the Roman catacombs.

There are some believers, however, who feel that anything within Chinese borders is just too dangerous, which is why it’s revival time in east Africa.

CNN has put together a very good story on how beleaguered Chinese believers have sought refuge in highly Christian Kenya where for the first time, they’re enjoying religious freedom.

Nairobi, Kenya (CNN) -- Every Sunday morning in an affluent suburb of Nairobi, Kenya, the soaring song of Chinese hymns fills the empty corridors of a Monday-to-Friday office block.

Inside a small makeshift chapel, a kaleidoscopic congregation of Chinese migrants gather to pray. Among them are underwear importers, health workers and operators of the controversial new $3.8 billion Chinese-built railway that slices through Kenya, the country's biggest infrastructure project since independence -- and a sign of China's growing investment and footprint on the continent.

Unfortunately there was no video to accompany this piece.

Some have married Kenyans, others have Chinese children who speak Swahili as well as they do Mandarin. But they all share two things. Each person here has re-rooted their life from Communist China to Kenya, a leading African economy where 80% of the nearly 50 million people are Christian. And they have all decided to openly embrace God.

Americans are used to reading about how people seeking religious freedom have ended up on our shores. But the Christianized portions of Africa are just as welcoming and the ever-resourceful Chinese are enjoying safe harbors there.

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Washington Post channels devastated United Methodist left. Who needs to talk to the right?

Washington Post channels devastated United Methodist left. Who needs to talk to the right?

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.

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When it comes to press coverage, why do some persecuted believers get more ink than others?

When it comes to press coverage, why do some persecuted believers get more ink than others?

When it comes to life inside the D.C. Beltway, veteran scribe Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard (RIP) has seen a thing or two — to say the least.

So when Barnes describes a political scene as one of his favorite Washington vignettes, that’s saying something. In this case, a classic Barnes anecdote is a great way to introduce readers to this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, which focuses on media coverage — or the lack of coverage — of the persecution of religious believers.

Click here to tune that in, or head over to iTunes and sign up to follow our podcasts.

It’s pretty clear that many journalists, perhaps following the lead of government officials, consider some stories about religious persecution to be more important than others. So why do some stories leap into A1 headlines or the top of evening newscasts, while others receive little or no digital ink at all (other than coverage by the religious press)?

So our symbolic mini-drama takes place in 1994, when President Bill Clinton and his political team was working to improve trade, and thus political ties, with the People’s Republic of China. The strategy was to focus less attention on human rights issues and more attention on communication and, well, bartering. I like the wording in this Slate article, noting that the “Clinton administration made a sudden about-face, declaring it would ‘delink’ Chinese trade policy from human rights.”

One would expect political liberals to protest this heresy. Correct? And one would expect that Republicans would welcome anything that improved the lives of American corporate leaders. Correct?

There was, however, a subject that changed the dynamics in this story — religion.

Many conservatives — that’s the Religious Right, in pressthink — opposed these Clinton moves because of rising concerns about the persecution of China’s growing underground churches (Catholic and Protestant). At the same time, many mainstream liberals were not comfortable clashing with a Democrat in the White House, especially if that meant standing next to religious fanatics.

However, there were still idealists on the cultural far left — think Hollywood, in particular — who stood their ground, due to their fury over China’s treatment of Tibetan Buddhists.

So the setting for this Barnes anecdote was a protest rally near the Clinton White House. On the rally stage, activist Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council approached another speaker — actor Richard “Pretty Woman” Gere.

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NBC News wins gold-medal prize for most over-the-top, biased report (so far) on United Methodists

NBC News wins gold-medal prize for most over-the-top, biased report (so far) on United Methodists

Four different GetReligion readers — two of them journalists — sent me notes about an NBC News feature that ran the other day about liberal reactions to that special General Conference that reaffirmed, and even strengthened, the United Methodist Church’s support for old-fashioned, traditional teachings on marriage, sex and the Bible.

One note simply said “wow,” over and over.

Two used the same word — “ridiculous.”

Another added, “Something seems to be missing.”

You get the idea. If you are looking for some kind of gold-standard when it comes to one-sided, biased news coverage of this event — this is the story for you. This is a shake-your-head classic when it comes to assuming that there is only one side in this argument that deserves serious attention and, yes, respect.

Let’s start with the report’s coverage of the conservative side of the story. Ready?

Well, actually, there isn’t anything to quote. Sorry about that.

The story does not include a single sentence of material drawn from African, Asian or American delegates or insiders who support the church’s teachings that sex outside of traditional marriage is sin. That’s a stance that would be affirmed by leaders of the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodoxy, the majority of the world’s Anglicans, almost all Baptists and, well, you get the idea.

Journalists do not, of course, have to agree with this approach to doctrine. However, there’s no way around the fact that this point of view is crucial, in this debate, and it would help if readers had a chance to understand why traditional religious believers defend this stance.In this case, it’s crucial to know that the growing regions of the global United Methodist Church back this doctrinal approach, while the liberal corners of the church — in the United States, primarily — are in numerical decline.

Try to find that fact anywhere in the NBC News report. The story opens with the voice of a gay pastor — the Rev. Mark Thompson — and everything else that follows affirms the same perspective. You can catch the tone in this passage:

Thompson is just one individual within an expansive, diverse group of LGBTQ United Methodist Church leaders who have made enormous personal sacrifices for their faith. He, and countless others, had previously hoped that a vote during a special session of the UMC’s general conference last month would change the course of the church’s relationship with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people.

The vote, however, not only strengthened the church’s ban on openly gay clergy and same-sex marriages, but also increased penalties for future violations. Thompson, and multitudes of United Methodists in attendance, were gutted.

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Bloodshed in the headlines: What is the current world situation with religious persecution?

Bloodshed in the headlines: What is the current world situation with religious persecution?

THE QUESTION:

What is the current world situation with religious persecution?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The slaughter of 50 Muslims and wounding of dozens more at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, provoked horror in that pacific nation, and sorrow and disgust worldwide. Why would anyone violate the religious freedom, indeed the very lives, of innocent people who had simply gathered to worship God?

Unfortunately, murders at religious sanctuaries are not a rare occurrence. In the U.S., recall the murders of six Sikh worshipers at Oak Creek, Wisconsin (2012); nine African Methodists at a prayer meeting in Charleston, S.C. (2015); 26 Southern Baptists in a Sunday morning church rampage at Sutherland Springs, Texas (2017); and 11 Jews observing the Sabbath at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue last October.

The Christchurch atrocity was unusual in that authorities identified a white nationalist as the assailant. Most mosque attacks are not carried out by a demented individual, but by radical Muslim movements that intend to kill fellow Muslims for sectarian political purposes. The most shocking example occurred in 1979. A well-armed force of messianic extremists assaulted the faith’s holiest site, the Grand Mosque in Mecca, during the annual pilgrimage (Hajj). The reported death toll was 117 attackers and 127 pilgrims and security guards, with 451 others wounded.

After Christchurch, The Associated Press culled its archives to list 879 deaths in mass murders at mosques during the past decade. (Data are lacking on sectarian attacks upon individual Muslims, also a serious problem for the faith). Such incidents get scant coverage in U.S. news media.

2010: Extremist Sunnis in the Jundallah sect bomb to death six people and themselves at a mosque in southeastern Iran. Then a second Jundallah suicide bombing at an Iranian Shiite mosque kills 27 and injures 270.

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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.

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Los Angeles Times LGBTQ-beat reporter weighs in on local gay-friendly Methodist churches

Los Angeles Times LGBTQ-beat reporter weighs in on local gay-friendly Methodist churches

Ever since Patrick Soon-Shiong, a billionaire biotech entrepreneur, bought the Los Angeles Times last July, the paper has been on a hiring spree. Check out this list of current openings.

Notice a gap?

Yep, despite all the 2020 political writers they’re hiring plus bureaus in Singapore and Seoul and increased staffing on entertainment and business beats, they’ve yet to hire one religion reporter. I’m losing track as to how many years it’s been since they’ve had one. And most beats on that paper have multiple reporters sharing the various beats.

But the religion beat will have to wait. And when there is important religion news, they bring in folks from other specialties — like an LGBTQ-beat reporter, who wrote the following piece on what the recent swing to the doctrinal right among United Methodists means for the locals. How do you think this approach worked?

Tim Baudler was taught that God doesn’t love gay people.

When he was about 10, he realized he liked other boys. So Baudler, who grew up in a conservative church in Iowa, made himself a promise: If he made it to 20 and still felt the same way, he was going to kill himself.

At 15, he was found to have a malignant brain tumor and was given days to live. He was relieved. God, he thought, was taking care of everything. He wouldn’t have to commit suicide, and he wouldn’t have to be gay.

But he made it to 20. Then 30. His family shunned him. He moved to California, where he found Hollywood United Methodist Church. The Rev. Kathy Cooper Ledesma told him, “We’re your family now.”…

But like so many gay Methodists, Baudler now feels betrayed by the United Methodist Church, which is fighting a civil war over homosexuality so acrimonious that it could split the denomination.

Actually, 40 years of fighting over the Bible, marriage and sexuality has already carved a painful divide in the United Methodist Church. Now if this was a conservative being covered, we’d see “betrayed” in quote marks, as if to suggest it really isn’t betrayal. But Baudler and this particular UMC congregation get the benefit of the doubt.

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New York Times weighs in, offering one side of bitter disputes inside United Methodist Church

New York Times weighs in, offering one side of bitter disputes inside United Methodist Church

If you’ve been following United Methodist Twitter, you know that this bitterly divided denomination has been in a behind-the-scenes uproar about a New York Times gotcha story that ran the other day. The headline: “Improper Voting Discovered at Methodist Vote on Gay Clergy.”

This is the rare case in which news consumers can find more information, and even a hint of balanced coverage, by reading official press releases from United Methodist News. Take this story, for example: “Denials, charges fly in GC2019 voting credentials review.” In this story — from the denominational press — there are actual interviews with people on the conservative side of this battle.

But back to the world’s most powerful newspaper.

Here’s a crucial question, a question that the Times story did ask and, to some degree, did answer: Did voting issues affect the crucial outcomes in the recent general conference in St. Louis? We are talking about the votes that defeated the One Church Plan favored by the United Methodist Church’s American establishment and the vote that passed some elements of the Traditionalist Plan favored by a coalition of American evangelicals and delegates from the Global South.

The Times piece played down, and avoided specifics, on another crucial issue: The fact that 30 overseas delegates were not able to attend, and thus were unable to vote, because of issues obtaining U.S. visas. In other words, the Global South coalition was stronger than it appeared in the final votes. The issue with visas also points to another issue in the Times report: Squabbles (and, potentially, translation issues) over the status of “reserve” delegates at the conference. Thus, the overture for the story:

It was a momentous vote for the United Methodist Church, as the future of the country’s second-largest Protestant church hung in the balance. In a former football stadium in St. Louis last month, church officials and lay leaders from around the world voted to strengthen their ban on same-sex marriage and gay clergy, a decision that could now split the church.

But at least four ballots were cast by individuals who were not authorized to vote, according to interviews and a review of the church’s records. The individuals were from African delegations whose votes were critical to restricting the church’s rules on homosexuality.

The final 54-vote margin against gay clergy and same-sex marriage exceeds the number of unauthorized votes discovered so far. But the voting irregularities raised questions about the process behind the divisive decision, which devastated progressive members. Some have discussed leaving the denomination and possibly creating a new alliance for gay-friendly churches.

The bottom line, of course, is whether American church officials can find a way to challenge the validity of the St. Louis votes and fight on, continuing decades of work to change the denomination’s teachings on sexuality, marriage and the ordination of clergy.

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