Saturday, December 11, 2004

Gays, God, and Journalists

I'm not a Christian, so I'm a sideline observer in the recent culture wars, such as the case of the lesbian associate pastor from Germantown, Pa., defrocked this month by the United Methodist Church. But of course I have an opinion.

It doesn't seem to me to matter much what a woman's sexual orientation is if her congregation respects her and wants her to lead them spiritually. Sexuality does matter, though, because a minister has to at times be very intimate with his or her charges when they are most vulnerable. So you don't want to have anyone in a position of power in that situation who would succumb to the temptation to take advantage. But the best way to prevent that is to have ministers whose personal sexuality, whatever its nature, is fully involved in a healthy, committed relationship.

One of the absurdities of Catholicism is to require prospective married couples to be counseled about marriage -- by a man sworn to celibacy for life. I'd go so far as to question the theology that says Christ became fully human so he could share entirely in the human condition, and suffer death with all its possible tragic consequences. By remaining unmarried and not having children, he did not partake in the human experience to the fullest possible degree. Nor did his death encompass the full suffering of one who knows he sacrifices not just his own life, but leaves helpless loved ones behind to endure his loss.

There seems more sense, and more religion, in the view of things expressed by the Rev. Beth Stroud, the recently defrocked lesbian Methodist associate pastor:

“Because of my relationship with [her lesbian lover],” said Stroud in a sermon, “I am a better, more faithful Christian. I am deeply grateful to her for the daily practice in loving and being loved and forgiving and being forgiven that constantly deepen who I am as a person of faith.”

That sounds about right. But, like I said, it's not my religion.

But gays and Christianity are crossing paths all over the place these days, and the local newspaper where I work is writing about it. And, once again, I am running into a wall of discommunication between myself and my co-workers.

This time, we're essentially on the same side of the issue. But I think they persist in writing, or editing, stories about it in ways that are misleading about the other side.

Despite a choking dose of subordinate clauses and a dropped word, the Philadelphia Gay City News gets it essentially right in its lede:

On December 2, 18 months after Rev. Beth Stroud, the 34-year-old associate pastor of Philadelphia’s First United Methodist Church of Germantown, sent a letter to her congregation announcing that [she] was “a lesbian living in a committed relationship with a partner,” a Methodist court of 13 clergy members voted 7 to 6 to withdraw her ministerial credentials.

Stroud was charged with violating Paragraph 2702.1(b) of the 2000 Book of Discipline by living as “a self-avowed practicing homosexual in a monogamous, committed relationship … while in the ordained ministry.”

[Emphasis added]

At the trial, Peter D. Weaver, bishop of the Philadelphia area at the time, testified that after Stroud came to him about her homosexuality, she was given the option of becoming celibate, which is required of single persons regardless of sexual orientation; or going into a ministry of laity.

But as our newspaper wrote the story (sorry, company policy forbids me to link directly to it, at risk of being fired), Stroud was defrocked simply for being a lesbian.

"The 13-member trial court, which functions like a jury, earlier Thursday ruled 12-1 that Stroud had violated church law barring homosexuals from the ministry. ... The verdicts split many onlookers and church officials, with some saying it was appropriate to uphold church law and others decrying the banishment of a minister based solely on her sexual orientation."

And so forth. Now, I think the Methodists are honestly trying to move progressively through a messy issue without detonating their unity in the process. I feel for all of them, and I'm glad it's not me having to make these choices.

The gay-bashers are wrong: Wherever it comes from, sexuality is not a choice. Furthermore, sexual desire and sexual activity are different realms. The one is the hand you've been dealt in the life, the other is how you play it. The first is nature, the second is character.

I think an intense and complicated sexuality is a high test from a god. I think a person who finds himself with, say, a sexual yearning to molest children -- and who lives a long life without ever acting on it, is more of a saint than someone of casual and conventional sexuality who lives a normal married life without temptation.

But it's wrong to say Beth Stroud was defrocked for being a lesbian. Yet that's what we wrote. She could have kept practicing, even if she made her orientation known, as long as she didn't live it out. I think that's a shitty choice, personally, but it was there. To pretend it wasn't is, frankly, a lie.

I tried to argue this when I saw the story laid out in the paper with this aspect missing -- and the headline and text suggesting something that simply wasn't true -- but was met with averted eyes and silence.

I can think of no point in omitting it but to make those who sat in judgment in this case look like a sanhedrin of the intollerant. Or else the brains involved overloaded at the notion of a Christian view of homosexuality being anything but black and white.


The other recent case involved the United Church of Christ television commercial touting that denomination's openness to gay couples. Most networks accepted it, but NBC and CBS did not.

Our lede on the most recent story was this:

A commercial airing today on ****-TV will be seen in few national television markets because of its welcoming stance toward gays and anyone else who might feel shunned elsewhere.

Which, again, misses the truth by several points. NBC's stated reason for passing up the commercial was this:

The decision not to air the commercial was made by NBC Universal, which released this statement:

The United Church of Christ approached us with two advertisements, one we accepted, and one we did not. The one we rejected violated our long-standing policy against accepting ads dealing with issues of public controversy. The issue of controversy stemmed from the ad's suggestion that other religions are not open to all people for a variety of reasons.

We have offered suggestions to the Church on how the ad could be changed to fit within our policy. If the changes are made we will gladly revisit the issue. In the meantime, the UCC ad that we approved can run as soon as the church gives us the go-ahead.

CBS, meanwhile, explained its decision like this:

"Because this commercial touches on the exclusion of gay couples and other minority groups by other individuals and organizations, and the fact the Executive Branch has recently proposed a Constitutional Amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, this spot is unacceptable for broadcast on the [CBS and UPN] networks."

I think it's likely that execs at both networks got a bad case of the vapors when they saw this ad coming in the front door. They hit the "eject" button and worried later about the explanation. Nonetheless, they did offer reasons. CBS's was borderline lunacy, but NBC's was either more thoughtful -- or craftier -- than that of its rival.

So the lede of the story we wrote was wrong on several levels. It's not true that the ad will be seen in "few national television markets" because of this decision, unless NBC and ABC are the only channels on the air in places that somehow can't get ABC, Fox, and the other cable networks who are going to run it. [I haven't watched TV for 10 years or so; but I don't think that's the case.]

It's also not true to say that the ad was rejected "because of its welcoming stance toward gays." That may be our suspicion, but in the case of NBC, that's clearly not the stated case. They said they turned down the ad because it implied a lack of toleration among other denominations.

But we said it. And I spent 10 minutes trying to explain to the editor in charge of the story why it was inaccurate, even referring to wire stories that got it right. No dice. Heels dig in, mental doors slam shut.

As an aside, it seems to me that the UCC ad, to the degree that it succeeds, could sap the congregations of Unitarians, or the openly gay Metropolitan Community Churches. I doubt it would do much damage to the local Bible-Thumping Church of the Angry Jesus. That is, no lifelong Pentecostals are going to have a sudden awakening over this and make a bee-line to the nearest UCC. The competition is among liberal denominations, not between them and their opposition. So, if I were a crafty, anti-gay, Christian conservative, I'd be delighted by this ad.