Fun with Facts, or, Yes Virginia, The UCC is still a Trinitarian Denomination

When Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today—perhaps the gentlest religion journalist working at a major publication today—dope-slaps you for an egregious error, you’re doing it wrong:

Contrary to Internet rumors, the tiny, liberal United Church of Christ denomination did not saw off one leg of Christianity’s Holy Trinity when it tweaked the language in its bylaws this week.

You might not have known from the furious headlines on Christian websites proclaiming that the 1 million-member UCC will rebuff Christ and God by slashing a reference to God as “Heavenly Father.”

Terry Mattingly at headlined his piece, “Adios to God the Father?” Mattingly, founder of the media critique site, thumped mainstream media for failing to notice a news release from a critic of the proposed change. Without calling UCC to find out exactly what was at stake, or recalling that the UCC has long advocated gender-neutral terms for God, Mattingly proclaims it’s a major news story…

Well, go read the rest of it for yourself. Contrary to what Mattingly says, the UCC didn’t “edit the ancient Christian creeds” a bit. Rather, the national church setting updated its bureaucratic language to comport with its commitment to inclusive language. Why emphasize national church in that last sentence? Because in the UCC, each level of the church operates more or less independently. The national church can’t tell my local congregation which gender to use when referring to the first person of the Trinity, and vice-versa.* What we can do is set the norms for our level. Critics of the national church’s liberalism can and regularly do call them dunderheads and refuse to go along with their theology. That’s the beauty of our system.

Mattingly should know better. This, after all, is someone who routinely rips other journalists for not grasping the subtleties of the Orthodox churches—not to mention Lutherans, Catholics, Episcopalians and on and on and on. If he doesn’t understand congregational polity—much less that President Obama is no longer a member of the UCC—he has no business chastising other reporters for not picking up on what is most emphatically a non-story.

That he does it anyway says something about his project at GetReligion, which isn’t about truth or media balance or any such thing. It’s about making tendentious arguments to bolster a conservative vision of religion, even when that vision is pretty weak on the facts. You can tell that by Mattingly’s source for the so-called story: David Runnion-Bareford, head of the Biblical Witness Fellowship, a group that would call the UCC Satanists if the national leaders claimed to see Jesus returning in his glory. They have a credibility problem, to put it mildly.

The truly egregious thing about it is that Mattingly passes on the BWF press release as true without bothering to do, as Grossman notes, any other kind of fact-checking. (As it happens, I know something about what happens when you do this. It ain’t pretty.) Any journalist worth his or her salt knows not to accept press releases as gospel. When Chuck Currie posted on the subject this morning, I actually dared him to put out a press release accusing Mattingly and Runnion-Bareford of living under bridges and attempting to eat the bones of children and little goats in service of a neo-fascist political agenda. Then I could write it up and ask why the mainstream media won’t cover the story. That is virtually the level of “proof” we have going here. Triune God, bless Cathy Lynn for handling this hypocrisy with tact and grace.

*In case, you’re wondering, we use gendered language in my congregation. I’m fairly conservative, theologically speaking.

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