By Walter Fenton -
I generally enjoy watching the PBS program Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly. It’s the only secular TV program I am aware of — in a nation with millions of people affiliated with organized religion of one kind or another — that tries to cover religious news in some detail. So I was particularly interested when correspondent Betty Rollin took up the ongoing debate in The United Methodist Church regarding the practice of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. (The episode first aired September 21, 2013.)
Unfortunately, Ms. Rollin’s piece failed for a couple reasons. First, it lacked a sense of curiosity, and second, it lacked balance. While Ms. Rollin was able to find no less than five UM clergy and lay people who oppose the church’s stance on the issue, she could only find one who supported it — rather odd given that the UM Church has routinely and roundly rejected attempts to change its position.
The eight-minute segment centered on Thomas Ogletree, a retired clergy member and former dean for Yale Divinity School, who presided at his son’s 2012 same-sex ceremony. The Rev. Ogletree is facing a possible church trial in the New York Annual Conference.
During Rollin’s interview of Ogletree, he claimed that people who believe the Bible prohibits the practice of homosexuality (and thus same-sex marriage) fail to “read [the Bible] in context,” miss the “evolving traditions,” and so are guilty of “an over-simplified reading.”
Ogletree maintained that the UM position is essentially grounded in a kind of proof texting. “When you only select certain texts that support your prejudices,” he said, “then you’re not reading the Scriptures seriously.”
These are fairly strong indictments of a church that has wrestled with the issue for more than 40 years. Thousands of clergy and lay members to 10 General Conferences, at least one major blue ribbon panel, and numerous Judicial Council decisions have come to a different conclusion than Ogletree, but you would never know it from Rollin’s report.
Rollin dutifully notes Ogletree is a Christian scholar and ethicist, interviews him with the campus of Yale Divinity School as her back drop, and yet she evidently never pushes or prods him to defend his sweeping claims against Christian scholars who have reached different conclusions.
Ironically, Richard Hays, current dean of Duke Divinity School and a UM clergy member, wrote his magisterial The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics while teaching at Yale. In his book, Hays confronted the issue of homosexuality head on, and came down on the side of the church. Is Ogletree honestly suggesting someone like Hays is guilty of “an over-simplified reading” and is “not reading the Scriptures seriously”?
The same evidently goes for Robert Gagnon, professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. His book, The Bible and Homosexuality: Texts and Hermeneutics, is widely regarded as one of the most exhaustive studies of Scripture and homosexuality. Gagnon, who received his B.A. from Dartmouth, an M.T.S. from Harvard, and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, made the compelling case that it is actually scholars like Ogletree who are “not reading the Scriptures seriously.” But again, you get no indication that Rollin pressed Ogletree to defend his condescending indictments of those who disagree with him.
Unaware or not interested in other scholarly opinions, Rollin’s piece did find time to include portions of sermons from retired Bishop Melvin Talbert and Pastor Scott Somerville, both advocates of same-sex marriage and for overturning the church’s stand on the practice of homosexuality. She also found time to interview Dorthee Benz, director of Methodists in New Directions, a pro-gay caucus, and her partner, Carol Scott.
My colleague Rob Renfroe – pastor of discipleship at The Woodlands UM Church in The Woodlands, Texas, and president of Good News, an evangelical renewal ministry – was the only person Rollin interviewed who defended the church’s long-held teaching on the question. Renfroe noted that those arguing for the acceptance of same-sex marriage and the practice of homosexuality appear motivated by a desire to be culturally relevant and accommodative of secular morality. He pointed out, however, that in those regions of the country where church leaders are more inclined to advocate for change and openly flaunt the church’s prohibitions, membership and attendance have been plummeting for years. One did not get the sense Rollin was interested in pursuing these interesting observations.
Finally, Rollin made one very serious blunder in her report. When introducing Renfroe she stated, “[Renfroe is] one of many members of the Methodist clergy with a different view, a view that condemns the practice of homosexuality in general.” First, Rev. Renfroe said no such thing. Second, The United Methodist Church’s position never uses the word “condemn.” Its nuanced, balanced and gracious teaching states that the church “does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” And in fact it goes on to “implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends” (emphasis added).
Unfortunately, Rollin’s piece lacked balance and diversity, failing to seek out other scholarly voices, clergy and laity, who support the church’s teaching. And finally, it left the impression that “many member of the Methodist clergy” are more interested in condemnation than in helping members grow in their faith and live lives of earnest discipleship. It was a missed opportunity.
Walter B. Fenton is an ordained United Methodist clergyperson and director of development at Good News.