Got news? One doomed Iranian pastor (ho hum)

Once again, we find ourselves in the parallel universe of alternative, advocacy, alternative, “conservative news.”

The only problem is that the story in question is worthy of actual mainstream news. There is nothing “conservative” about it, for old-fashioned liberals who are committed to religious liberty and human rights, as defined by the United Nations. Your GetReligionistas would argue that the public would be better served by mainstream coverage of this case.

So what’s the story? Here is an update from a “conservative” website, Independent Catholic News:

An Iranian pastor could be executed if he refuses to give up his faith. Rev Yousef Nadarkhani has twice refused to recant his Christian faith during two court hearings held in Rasht, Gilan Province on 25 and 26 September. Sources close to Christian Solidarity Worldwide indicate that recanting will again be demanded at sessions scheduled for 27 and 28 September, and that if he continues to refuse, he will be executed thereafter.

Pastor Nadarkhani was tried and found guilty of apostasy (abandoning Islam) in September 2010 by the court of appeals in Rasht. The verdict was delivered verbally in court, while written confirmation of the death sentence was received nearly two months later. At the appeal in June 2011, the Supreme Court of Iran upheld Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani’s sentence, but asked the court in Rasht, which issued the initial sentence, to re-examine whether or not he had been a practicing Muslim adult prior to converting to Christianity. The written verdict of the Supreme Court’s decision included provision for annulment of the death sentence if Pastor Nadarkhani recanted his faith.

Following investigation, the court in Rasht has ruled that Pastor Nadarkhani was not a practicing Muslim adult before becoming a Christian. However, the court has decided that he remains guilty of apostasy because he has Muslim ancestry.

Meanwhile, over at the “Religious Right Now” blog at the On Faith site at the Washington Post, we have this crisp piece of dialogue from one of the court proceedings in Iran:

When asked to “repent” by the judges, Youcef stated, “Repent means to return. What should I return to? To the blasphemy that I had before my faith in Christ?”

The judges replied , “To the religion of your ancestors, Islam.”

To which he replied, “I cannot.”

Sadly, this piece of hard news is found in the midst of a blog post that, while backed by numerous links to hard documentation, is written in a rather typical advocacy journalism style. That’s normal, at a conservative weblog — even one hosted by the Post.

My point, once again, is simple: Where is the actual news coverage by the mainstream press? This is a life-or-death issue in a land that is of great concern, these days, to the U.S. government.

The mainstream press is, obviously, highly sensitive about some human-rights issues in Iran. This is what happens — go ahead and click — if you run a Google News search right now for the terms “Iran,” “hikers” and “release.” You remember this story? Here’s a Los Angeles Times update:

In a no-holds-barred statement, two Americans who spent 781 days in an Iranian prison on spying charges called themselves hostages of sour U.S.-Iranian relations and described the screams of prisoners being beaten, the mental manipulation of their jailers, and how they lived in “a world of lies and false hope” until their sudden release last week.

Gone was the diplomacy and the words of gratitude to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that marked the statements from their fellow prisoner Sarah Shourd one year ago, when she was freed after 410 days in prison ahead of companions Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal.

Now, I realize that Americans being jailed in Iran is automatically more newsworthy to American readers than the looming death of a Protestant pastor who dared to leave Islam (even if he had never practiced the faith) and wanted to teach his Christian faith to his own children.

Some human-rights cases are more important than others, these days. I get that, sort of. However, this subject is vitally important for millions of Americans — secular and religious, liberal and conservative — who care about fundamental human rights. It also represents a major turn for the worse IN IRAN. According to the U.S. State Department, this would be the first execution for apostasy there since 1990.

I guess, although this is a painful metaphor, the mainstream press will simply cover Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani when he is dead.

If only he was an American who was hiking, not a blasphemer in Iran.

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A Southern Baptist by any other name …

From time to time here at GetReligion, we post “Got news?” items and wonder why the mainstream media haven’t tackled a particular issue or topic that we deem newsworthy.

Yesterday, denominational press links circulated among your friendly neighborhood GetReligionistas concerning a possible name change by the Southern Baptist Convention. (See one report from Baptist Press and another from the Associated Baptist Press.)

I woke up this morning ready to question why no one in the secular media picked up on this mildly important religion story.

But it turns out that there’s no reason for me to weep or gnash teeth today. Darn it!

In fact, the story made the front page (above the fold, no less) of The Tennessean. Perhaps we should all take a moment and pay homage to the writer, Bob Smietana, the Cornell Religion Reporter of the Year. (Smietana is a Red Sox fan, so he needs all the encouragement he can get these days. Go Rangers!)

Seriously, the top of Smietana’s report:

The nation’s largest Protestant denomination may be getting a new name.

The Southern Baptist Convention isn’t just for the South anymore, its president contends, and rebranding could open up other parts of the country to new churches. It’s a strategy other denominations are trying, and at least one is claiming success.

SBC President Bryant Wright announced Monday at an executive committee meeting in Nashville that he’s set up a study group to research changing the 166-year-old denomination’s name.

“There are not a lot of folks in New York City interested in going to a Southern Baptist church,” he said. “Or in Cheyenne, Wyoming, or Boise, Idaho.”

(I know Smietana was on deadline for a daily story, but it would have been interesting to contact a Southern Baptist pastor in Cheyenne or Boise and find out his thoughts on a possible name change.)

But Smietana was not alone in smelling mainstream news: The Houston Chronicle’s Kate Shellnut blogged about the proposed name change. And at Fox News, Todd Starnes (a former Baptist Press editor) developed the story for a national audience.

As the news reports indicate, this is not the first time Southern Baptists have contemplated a possible name change. In a 2004 interview for The Associated Press, I remember discussing the subject with the Rev. Jack Graham, then the convention’s president:

Q: And I understand that you have proposed studying whether even to change the name of the Southern Baptist Convention.

A: I have made that proposal and there will be a motion at this convention from the floor that a study be done and that we consider the possibility of a new name that would reflect this national and international presence of Southern Baptists.

Q: Any names that come to your mind?

A: No, that will be the challenge of this committee will be to find a name that would somehow better represent us. There are many Baptist groups and there are many names and we don’t want to confuse people as to who we are or our identity. There is a certain value of our current identity.

Concerning the latest discussion, it’ll be interesting to see if the story gains legs outside Southern Baptist strongholds (such as Houston and Nashville) and outside the conservative press (talking about you, Fox News).

Some thought-provoking angles, IMHO:

Possible names: How about American Baptist Association? National Baptist Convention? United Baptists? World Baptist Fellowship? Oops, all of those are taken. International Baptist Convention has been proposed — and rejected — in the past, according to the Associated Baptist Press article.

North vs. South: How far has the Southern Baptist Convention really come from its slave-era roots? How diverse is the convention? What do black Southern Baptists say about the proposed name change and the need for it?

From The Tennessean story:

The Rev. Michael Allen of Uptown Baptist Church in Chicago, a member of the name change study group, thinks the time is right for rebranding. He said the Southern Baptist Convention traces its roots to the Civil War — Baptists in the South wanted to appoint slaveholders as missionaries, and Baptists in the North disagreed.

Baptist or not?: In a post-denominational age, do the Southern Baptists want to drop just “Southern,” or will they consider chopping the “Baptist” too?

By the numbers: The Southern Baptist spin is that a name change may be needed because the denomination has a national and international reach. But what number of Southern Baptists really reside outside the South? It would be interesting to see a specific chart of membership by state and country. (GetReligion readers may remember the media confusion created last year by Southern Baptists from Idaho who got in trouble for trying to take orphans out of earthquake-ravaged Haiti.)

Marketing: What are the pros and cons of a name change? The costs? The legal ramifications?

Got news? It would appear so.

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Got news? Evangelicals snubbed by 9/11 service?

It could be that I’m losing my Google touch, but an intriguing religion story involving the Southern Baptist Convention seems to be drawing little media attention.

Unless you’re a consumer of Fox News, in fact, you may have missed this news:

A weekend of religious-themed observances at Washington National Cathedral marking the tenth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks will include a Buddhist nun and an Imam, but not an evangelical Christian, leading the head of the Southern Baptist Convention to ask President Obama to reconsider attending the event.

“A Call to Compassion” will include an interfaith prayer vigil on Sept. 11th. It will feature the dean of the Cathedral, the Bishop of Washington, a rabbi, Buddhist nun and incarnate lama, a Hindu priest, the president of the Islamic Society of North America and a Muslim musician.

To see a complete lineup of the event, click here.

However, Southern Baptists, representing the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, were not invited to participate – and neither were leaders from any evangelical Christian organization.

“It’s not surprising,” said Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee. “There is a tragic intolerance toward Protestants and particularly toward evangelicals and I wish the president would refuse to speak unless it was more representative.”

(Christianity Today notes that the Rev. Billy Graham spoke at a National Cathedral service in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.)

The Fox story goes on to quote a Cathedral representative:

“The goal was to have interfaith representation,” he told Fox News Radio. “The Cathedral itself is an Episcopal church and it stands to reason that our own clergy serve as Christian representatives.”

He said the Washington National Cathedral serves as the “spiritual home for the nation” and as such, he said that “diversity was first and foremost” a factor in the planning.

Later, there’s this:

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, told Fox News Radio the lineup was better suited for the United Nations than the United States.

“Three quarters of the American people identify as Christian and nearly a third of them are evangelical Christian,” Perkins said. “And yet, there is not a single evangelical on the program.”

The Daily Caller also picked up on the story:

Another day, another religious sensitivity concern, as the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks inches ever closer.

While New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has decided to exclude all religion from his city’s remembrance ceremonies, in our nation’s capital the Washington National Cathedral commemoration’s organizers have decided to exclude evangelical Christianity.

The Cathedral’s “A Call to Compassion” on September 11 will include a bishop, a rabbi, a Tibetan lama, a Buddhist nun, representatives of the Hindu and Jain faiths, an imam and an Islamic musician. Noticeably absent from the invitation list and “secular service” — at which President Obama will be speaking — is a leader to represent the evangelical community.

And evangelicals are crying foul.

Interestingly enough, both reports neglect to mention another major group apparently left off the program: Roman Catholics. The bishop mentioned in both pieces is the Rt. Rev. John Bryson Chane, the Episcopal bishop of Washington, not Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington.

In fact, Beliefnet seems to be confused about which bishop will attend:

The National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., has scheduled “A Call to Compassion” interfaith prayer vigil on Sept. 11 — however not a single protestant or evangelical has been invited to participate.

Who was invited? A Roman Catholic bishop, a Jewish rabbi, Buddhist nun, a Hindu priest, the president of the Islamic Society of North America and a Muslim musician.

Notably excluded are 16.6 million Southern Baptists, America’s largest protestant denomination. Completely left off the program was anybody represented by the National Association of Evangelicals: No Prebyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Congregationalists, Wesleyans or Mennonites. Nobody from the Church of Christ or the Assemblies of God.

(Not to be totally disagreeable, but shouldn’t Protestant be uppercased? My dictionary defines the lowercase version as “a person who protests.” Hmmmmm…)

For reporters tackling this story — and it would be nice if a few more would — a call to the Roman Catholic archdiocese might be appropriate. Was the cardinal invited to participate? Does the Catholic church feel snubbed by not having any of its clergy on the program? Or perhaps an Episcopal bishop on the program would be seen by Catholics as having someone on the program? I’m no expert on interfaith relations or Catholic-Episcopal relations, but these seem like relevant questions to explore. (I realize that evangelicals are the ones making a fuss, but if another major group is in the same situation and not making a fuss, shouldn’t the media explain why?)

Meanwhile, a Fox announcer’s description of those invited to participate in the service as “all these really sort of fringe groups” is drawing some editorial commentary on the left.

This seems like a legitimate news story, not a Fox-only kind of story. Why so little coverage?

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Got News? Iran Persecutes Christian Convert

The other night I came across an announcement from the U.S. State Department that began:

We are dismayed over reports that the Iranian courts are requiring Youcef Nadarkhani to recant his Christian faith or face the death penalty for apostasy – a charge based on his religious beliefs. If carried out, it would be the first execution for apostasy in Iran since 1990.

If this is a big enough story for the State Department to issue a warning, certainly it’s newsworthy, right? But apparently the “repent or die” sentence of a Christian convert in Iran is not that interesting to the media.

The Christian and human rights press is all over it. But the only mainstream treatment I saw was from Agence France Press.

Here’s their headline:

Iran ‘annuls death term’ for Christian pastor

So if a court told someone who was facing certain death that he only faced certain death if he refused to recant his faith, would you say that’s an “annulment” of the death sentence? I wouldn’t.

Here’s the story:

Iran’s supreme court has overturned a death sentence handed down to Yusef Nadarkhani, a Christian pastor accused of apostasy for having converted from Islam, his lawyer told AFP on Sunday.

“The supreme court has annuled the death sentence and sent the case back to the court in Rasht (his hometown), asking the accused to repent,” Mohammad Ali Dadkhah said.

Nadarkhani, now 32, converted from Islam to Christianity at the age of 19 and became a pastor of a small evangelical community called the Church of Iran.

He was arrested in October 2009 and condemned to death for apostasy under Iran’s Islamic Sharia laws, which however allow for such verdicts to be overturned if the convicted person “repents” and renounces his conversion.

The lawyer himself has been sentenced to nine years in jail and a 10-year ban on practicing law or teaching at the university for “actions and propaganda against the Islamic regime.”

I get that the lawyer is saying that all Nadarkhani, married father of two, has to do to avoid the death penalty is repent. But AFP should figure out that this is not a legal victory for Nadarkhani. And other media outlets might want to pay attention to Iran’s thinking on executing Christian converts and imprisoning leaders of Baha’i and flogging of Sufis.

Image via Present Truth Ministries.

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Pod people: Trinitarian editing 2.0

It was a simple little headline, dashed off for one of our “Got news?” posts, which is the catchphrase that we use when we see religion-beat stories that intrigue us, but have yet to make an appearance in the mainstream press (or have been downplayed, for some strange reason).

In the headline I asked, “Adios to God the Father?

Please note that the headline does not say, “Adios to God?” It says, “Adios to God the Father?” So I was not asking a question about, well, chopping off one corner of the Christian Trinity. I was asking a question about a Christian denomination voting to edit language concerning the Trinity, voting to move away from ancient, apostolic, orthodox language which speaks of the Trinity as revealed in the form of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Obviously, anyone who has followed trends in the world of liberal Protestantism in the last quarter of a century knows that there is nothing new about these bodies experimenting with gender-neutral language for humanity and God. What fascinated me was the decision by the trailblazing United Church of Christ to formally vote to drop a reference to God the Father from its constitution. In such a free-church, non-creedal, congregational body, I thought the constitution was a pretty symbolic document.

The point of my short post was not to express shock that this would happen, since it wasn’t shocking. I wrote this as a “God news?” piece to ask a real question: Would this action by the UCC really be “news” to anyone? Would it be interesting to the reading public? In my experience, readers are interested in this kind of symbolic event, especially about worship issues.

Apparently, this was not “news,” as much as it was a matter of “opinion,” since mainstream coverage of the topic was nil and the topic jumped straight to the new semi-opinion level of blogging. That answers my question, at the level of newsrooms. The whole topic did set off some sparks.

Thus, I brought this topic up for another round in the latest GetReligion podcast (click here to tune in), just to take another shot at saying clearly what I had briefly said in the original post. Besides, it’s always interesting to be accused of saying one thing, when you actually said something else.

Those looking for a sort-of-news summary of this affair will want to check out the work of Peter Smith at the Louisville Courier-Journal. He notes, accurately, that a small circle of conservatives left in the UCC protested this action, while the vote undoubtedly expresses the beliefs of the liberal denomination’s core leaders and churches. He added, however, another interesting note:

The United Church of Christ recorded 1.08 million members last year, down nearly 3 percent from the previous year and down by about half since its peak in the 1960s.

It was formed by a merger of the Evangelical and Reformed Church — itself formed by a merger of two historically German Protestant groups, with several congregations in the Louisville area — and the Congregational Christian Churches, whose organizational ancestors included the Puritans.

In the podcast, I list three reasons why this unsurprising UCC action still struck me as newsworthy. Smith’s comment raises another question: Is the editing of the Father God language a story inside this declining church body, a flock that — outside the Northeast core — still contains some rather conservative and independent thinking congregations? Even if this language remains somehow optional, how will the constitutional change play in the heartland?

Also, astute readers noted another interesting and newsworthy angle — the formal approval of a “Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism (.pdf)” between the UCC, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church.

However, that story gets complicated, too. UCC press materials noted:

The two primary roadblocks to the agreement centered on language used during the baptismal rite and the manner in which water is used. … Research found that nearly 20 percent of UCC churches were using alternative language for “the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” for baptismal formula. …

Ancient churches, you see, do not recognize the validity of baptisms that do not use the orthodox language of “the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

Thus, the new agreement is supposed to guarantee that this doctrinal formula will be used in all baptisms, to assure validity among these churches. However, it seems that in some corners of the UCC the operative idea is that “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” language may often be mixed with other references to God as Mother and/or a Trinity of gender-neutral descriptors of divine function, not personhood, such as “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.”

So, is a combo-language rite of this kind OK with Rome and others? That’s an interesting, and perhaps newsworthy, question.

Also, does this mean that highly independent UCC pastors and congregations are now required to use some gender-specific “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” Trinitarian language in their baptism rites in order to keep faith with Catholics and others in this agreement? That’s another interesting, and newsworthy, question.

After all, read this interesting item from the Rev. Chuck Currie, a UCC pastor in Portland. After covering some of this baptism language territory he notes:

I do not use the traditional language of “Father, Son and the Holy Spirit” during baptism as I try to refrain from using gender specific language for God in most cases. …

Actions taken by the General Synod of the United Church of Christ speak to but not for the local church. Therefore, as a minister in the UCC I am not bound by any agreement made regarding baptism and may (and will) continue to use the language that I currently do. Inclusive language is important in theology and a important trait of many UCC congregations and our denomination as a whole.

Now, that’s real life in the UCC — right there.

So what is the official UCC policy on this ancient, creedal issue in baptism? Is it up to the local pastor and her or his flock? That would seem to be the case. So do officials of the Church of Rome now need to deal with UCC baptisms on a case-by-case basis, to see if the terms of this important agreement were honored at the local level? It would appear so. So what did this breakthrough document accomplish?

Sounds like news to me. Enjoy the podcast.

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Got news? Pedophile Priest? Did Jefferts Schori Know?

A story that has been hotly discussed among my Episcopal and Anglican friends has received, near as I can tell, almost no mainstream media coverage. And I have no idea why. But it’s been going on long enough that it certainly deserves a “Got news?” post.

It all begins with a sad story in the Kansas City Star by Judy Thomas.

It seems that a former Roman Catholic monk, a Benedictine, who directed a boys choir in Missouri admitted he’d had “inappropriate” sexual relations with members of the group. I’m not really sure what would make for appropriate sexual relations, but there you go. One of the “five or six” members of the choir that Bede Parry admitted being involved with filed a lawsuit against Conception Abbey, alleging that the abbey knew that Parry had abused others but covered it up. The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.

Parry, not a target of the lawsuit, copped immediately and said he feels bad but that most of the “inappropriate sexual contact” was with adult males over 18 and only two were with males aged 16-18.

The twist is that Parry became an Episcopal priest in 2004 and has worked for the past 11 years at All Saints Episcopal Church in … Las Vegas. That’s a strong news hook because that would be in Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s old bishopric.

And so this story is not just about how the Catholic Church handles sex abusers in its midst but the Episcopal Church as well.

Parry resigned from his parish and is in the process of attempting to resign from the priesthood. The story in the Star, for what it’s worth, did a great job of explaining that distinction. Here’s an interesting section:

After the plaintiff reported the abuse in 1987, Parry was sent for three months of treatment at Servants of the Paraclete in New Mexico. Then he stayed in the Southwest, working at Lutheran and Catholic parishes.

In 2000, the lawsuit says, Parry underwent psychological testing because he was considering entering another Catholic monastery.

“The results of this testing revealed that Fr. Parry was a sexual abuser who had the proclivity to reoffend with minors,” the lawsuit says.

The results were provided to Conception Abbey, the Catholic Diocese of Las Vegas and the Episcopal bishop for the Diocese of Nevada, the lawsuit says. Yet from 2000 until Thursday, Parry was employed by All Saints Episcopal Church in Las Vegas.

So the lawsuit claims that “the Episcopal bishop for the Diocese of Nevada” was given information that Parry was a “sexual abuser who had the proclivity to reoffend with minors.” Parry tells the reporter he talked with Jefferts Schori about an incident of sexual misconduct he was engaged in. He says she told him “she’d have to check the canons, and she did.”

The reporter called up Jefferts Schori’s office but was told that her staff members wouldn’t comment on lawsuits or allegations.

I’ll say it again, this is a very solid and thorough initial report. However, it’s really surprising to me that the story hasn’t spread beyond the Kansas City Star, given the personal involvement of the head of a church that the media normally love reporting on. (Here’s another interesting story from a few weeks ago about how she lacked precision, shall we say, in her resume.)

Rest assured, however, that Episcopalians and Anglicans are discussing this case, though, and there’s even a bishop in Pennsylvania who says this is just the tip of the iceberg and that Jefferts Schori threatens bishops not to reveal multiple sexual abuse cover-ups. For those interested in that angle, there’s more on him here.

Meanwhile, there are other interesting news angles that have been unexplored outside of the blogosphere, too. Here someone explores how new disciplinary canons would come into play:

Today, July 1, the changes to ECUSA’s disciplinary canons (Title IV) go into effect at the national level. (The text of the new Title IV may be downloaded as a .pdf file.) Let us take the example of the violation of the ordination canons apparently committed by the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori as the Bishop of Nevada in 2004, and use that as a test case to see how the new process would work at the highest level.

So help me out here. What prevents this from being a mainstream news story? Why aren’t the major media outlets interested in this story about the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church’s role in a sex abuse scandal? Isn’t the Episcopal Church based in New York City?

That second picture is from Virtue Online and shows Parry (on the far right) taking part in a Mass after being received into the priesthood of the Episcopal Church by Jefferts Schori.

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Got news? Adios to God the Father?

Gentle readers, you would be amazed at the amount of public relations materials that, day after day, people send via email to your GetReligionistas. Almost all of this stuff comes from people who clearly have never even looked at this website or paid any attention to what we do here.

For example, publicists and writers constantly offer to send us religious-market books so that we can review them for our readers.

OK, raise your hand if you have ever read a book review on this weblog, a review written by a GetReligion scribe (let alone a book full of, let’s say, Bible commentaries or born-again testimonies).

There should be no hands up at this stage, because we don’t write book reviews. We have — I could probably count them on one hand — written a few posts about reviews of books that have been published in mainstream news publications. We do this if we think these books and reviews would be of interest to professional journalists who cover news linked to religion.

We also get waves of PR emails about denominational events and the activities — left and right — of groups that blend faith and political activism.

One of the most active public-relations groups in this field, on the religious right, holds itself up as a kind of religion-news agency — Christian Newswire. Many of these PR releases simply promote the views of this or that author of church leader, with the hopes that journalists will call them up and get a quotation or what not.

It seems that I spike about 100 emails from this group a day, most of them unopened.

However, one arrived today that caught my eye because — gasp — it contained a real, live news hook worth of mainstream coverage. The release proclaimed:

Meeting at General Synod 28 in Tampa, Florida this weekend — July 1-5, 2011 — the historic United Church of Christ will vote on an amendment to eliminate God the Father from Article 5, lines 9-10 of its constitution (pdf).

The Constitution of the denomination has remained unchanged in its theological core since the United Church of Christ’s founding in 1957, and remains the covenant connection with the basic truths of Christianity that keeps many churches affiliated who are otherwise alienated by the denominations very liberal agenda.

At this point, the organization behind this public-relations effort becomes perfectly clear:

According to renewal leader David Runnion-Bareford, “Rejecting God as Father in an age of fatherlessness is unthinkable. God acted toward us in amazing grace when He offered to be our Father through the sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ who offers us life in his name. This is not something we as humans made up in some other time. Rejecting our Father is act of arrogant rebellion in the name of cultural conformity that only further alienates members, churches, but more importantly God himself. We call the delegates to reject the change for God’s sake.”

You get the picture. This is a small, vocal conservative group that continues to struggle inside the boundaries of the super Congregationalist and freewheeling United Church of Christ, the small, declining, yet vocal denomination that represents the left edge of the old mainline Protestant world.

So is this a mainstream news story? I would say that it is, since editing the ancient Christian creeds is a highly symbolic act — even for flocks as hyper-Protestant as the UCC. Of course, this denomination also serves as the home base for a very articulate and important layperson — President Barack Obama.

But is this a mainstream news story? We will have to see if the event draws coverage. The proposed change has not, as I write these lines, been noted in an advance story of any kind in publications that show up in Google News. The denomination also is not calling attention to this debate (at least not that I can find) on its news website.

However, the Christian Wire release did contain a URL to the document and its proposed change at the heart of the Holy Trinity. It reads:


9 The basic unit of the life and organization of the United Church of Christ is the Local Church.

10 A Local Church is composed of persons who, believing in the triune God as heavenly Father, and accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and depending on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are organized for Christian worship, for the furtherance of Christian fellowship, and for the ongoing work of Christian witness.

11 In accordance with the custom and usage of a Local Church, persons become members by (a) baptism and either confirmation or profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior; (b) reaffirmation or re-profession of faith; or (c) letter of transfer or certification from other Christian churches.

So we ask, “Got news?” Is this a mainstream news story?

If the UCC matters, this is a major news story. We will see.

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Got news? Abbottabad priest holds breath

First let me note that, even as we justifiably debate some questions about the life, death and burial of Osama bin Laden, I am one of those guys who think that mainstream press coverage of the religious elements of this story has actually been quite solid — in some cases pushing past the early answers from the White House and into unexplored territory.

So, not perfect. Interesting. Solid. Better than expected. Journalistic?

With that in mind, let me move on to note an interesting report from a religious-news source that spotlights a potential source for news and commentary that the mainstream press often misses, during big, global news stories of this kind.

Flash back with me, if you will, about 20-plus years to the pre-Internet newsroom of the Rocky Mountain News (memory eternal). The editors had empowered some reporters and copy editors to start doing hard reporting on international news stories in an attempt to augment the wire copy. This was a trend in that era, even before the Web made it much easier to do that kind of work.

On several occasions I remember editors from the international news desk coming over to ask if I had any suggestions on how to make telephone contact with English-speaking people who were living in regions in which major news events were taking place. We’re talking Middle East, Africa, parts of Asia, etc. The goal was to call a voice or two in these locales to discuss what was happening, especially if the people had ties to the Rocky Mountain West or organizations with ties in the region.

If never took me long to get them some names and some numbers. Why? Religious groups and organizations are all over the place and, well, blessed be the ties that bind. In some cases missionaries of case workers could not speak on the record, but they almost always had good tips for sources of info, other unique voices, photography, etc. Some of the Southern Baptists had even been training in basic newswriting skills by Baptist Press.

That leads me to this short news report from an independent Catholic news agency on Asia, drawing on information and commentary from a perfectly logical source in Abbattabad, Pakistan. The lede?

The small Catholic parish in this northern city says it has limited its activities after the death of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 terror attacks killed by US special forces here.

“I couldn’t conduct pastoral visits to homes yesterday after security increased,” Father Akram Javed Gill told ”A healing prayer service scheduled today and upcoming Church feasts were cancelled. Also the four policemen posted guard for the church have been put on high alert.”

The priest has been in charge of the Saint Peter Canisius Catholic church since 2007 in Abbotabbad, the gateway city to the northern mountainous region. … Association of Churches of Hazara Division, a body of about five Churches including the Catholic Church, has called a meeting to formulate a future strategy in the area.

“It is crucial to maintain peace for the scattered minority communities in the area. We alter the venue at the last moment to avoid leaking the information about the gathering in a tense atmosphere,” said Father Javed.

So, on one level this is simply a story about human rights for minority faiths in Pakistan. Note, however, that this subject is already in the news due to a series of headline-making and, tragically, blood soaked events.

In other words, this is a real story that should be covered (if journalists are concerned about the safety and rights of religious minorities in Pakistan and elsewhere).

Oh, and what about the actual events linked to Osama?

The priest described the events as they unfolded during the raid.

“We never saw helicopters flying so low. Nobody knew what was going on and we thought it was a military exercise at first,” said the priest who also oversees the only Catholic school, St Peter’s, in the city. About 200 students, most of them Muslims, study there.

The priest faces difficulties in his work in Abbottabad, which is home to a large military establishment. He had to build higher walls to the church compound in 2009 after Muslims objected to the “open display” of the statue of Mary in a grotto in the grounds.

Go ahead. Read it. It’s another logical source of information about a big story — from the only Catholic source in Abbottabad.

Religion? It’s everywhere.

PHOTO: Saint Peter Canisius Catholic Church, as seen at the “Our Beautiful Abbottabad” website.

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