Litigation strains Episcopal diocese

moolahWashington Times reporter Julia Duin has written dozens of pieces on the big religion story happening in Virginia — the realignment of 11 Episcopal congregations from the Episcopal Church into the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), a missionary branch of the Anglican Church of Nigeria. We’ve read, if not highlighted, her various stories about the incremental updates in the lawsuits the Episcopal Church filed against the departing flocks. Her blog also makes for lively reading, helped along by her writeup of her failed dramatic stakeout of Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola.

Anyway, her latest story shows why it’s good to read denominational news. The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia revealed in a church publication that its attempt to keep the property of the departed congregations is costing a pretty penny and stretching their resources. They’re taking out a $2 million line of credit, among other things, to keep the fight going:

The diocese says it will sell off “non-strategic” diocesan properties to raise the money needed to win back $30 million to $40 million worth of real estate and assets.

The diocese has spent $1 million to date on the lawsuits, but instead of paying back the sum, is simply paying the interest — $80,000 — on the loan. The diocese borrowed from restricted endowment funds for the money, spokesman Patrick Getlein said. …

The diocese plans to sell surplus property — what Mr. Getlein termed as “unimproved, unconsecrated land” — to pay back what it borrowed from the endowments. Still, the $80,000 will appear as an item on the diocese’s 2008 budget, which must be approved during the annual diocesan convention Jan. 25 and 26 in Reston.

And there’s more. Half a dozen churches haven’t paid their 2007 pledges. Meanwhile, the national Episcopal Church isn’t revealing where it’s getting the funds for its legal efforts. Some retired bishops have requested the information because they’re worried the church might be violating federal pension fund laws. And there’s another issue lurking here that often pops up in religious conflicts. It’s crucial to find out if the national church — or anyone else for that matter — is spending endowment funds for purposes other than the purposes designated by the donors.

Duin follows the money on both sides of the legal battle:

The Anglican District of Virginia, representing the 11 churches, spent $1 million on legal fees last year and plans to spend another $1 million this year, Vice Chairman Jim Oakes said yesterday. Its members have pledged to raise $3 million.

“If people in the pews knew how much money was being spent on this stuff, there’d be pressure to put an end to this,” he said. “We just hate spending this money on lawyers.”

Just some great, straight forward reporting by Duin. And, again, the story shows why keeping up on denominations’ internal news pays off. I think that’s doubly true for the Episcopal Church.

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Jefferts Schori plays the England card

AnglicanBomb1 01That sound you heard the other day in England was nervous coughing. It seems that the leader of the U.S. Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, is determined not to let gays, lesbians and bisexuals in England sit on the sidelines while traditionalists in the rest of the world take shots at her troubled flock.

But her move raises real questions for reporters. More on that in a minute. Here is the top of a BBC report by Christopher Landau that shows you what is going on:

The head of the Anglicans in the United States has accused other churches, including the Church of England, of double standards over sexuality. The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katherine Jefferts Schori, told the BBC her church is paying the price for its honesty over sexuality. …

The US church elected an openly gay man Gene Robinson as a bishop in 2003.

Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori defended her ministry.

“He is certainly not alone in being a gay bishop, he’s certainly not alone in being a gay partnered bishop,” she said. “He is alone in being the only gay partnered bishop who’s open about that status.”

She said other Anglican churches also have gay bishops in committed partnerships and should be open about it.

“There’s certainly a double standard,” she told BBC Radio 4′s PM programme.

Jefferts Schori also stressed that many Anglicans — including clergy in the Church of England — are already performing rites to bless gay unions. Here is the crucial statement, when you view this as a matter of how people do basic journalism on this kind of topic:

“Those services are happening in various places, including in the Church of England, where my understanding is that there are far more of them happening than there are in the Episcopal Church,” she said.

Now try, for a moment, to ignore the theology and politics of all of this. What we have here is a kind of soft journalistic “outing,” in an attempt to pull the British left out and into the combat with the Anglican traditionalists in other parts of the world.

How would a reporter verify the presence of gay, partnered bishops in the Church of England, short of hostile investigative reporting? How would reporters verify her claim that there are more gay union rites taking place in England than in the U.S. church?

These are the kinds of claims that gay-rights groups in the church have been making for years, kind of like the statistics — some more substantial than others — about the percentage of gay men in the Roman Catholic priesthood in North America. These are fact claims made by powerful people and groups. Journalists tend to quote these claims, saying, “I cannot prove this is true, but I can quote this authority figure saying that this is true and that person is proven to be wrong, then they are wrong (not my reporting).”

I don’t know how reporters get around this. Any suggestions?

Note, again, that any reporter attempting to verify these facts with real reporting will be accused — by the left, ironically — of hostile, invasive actions. Ironic, isn’t it?

Meanwhile, it is clear that Jefferts Schori is threatening to play the England card in this high-stakes game of global ecclesiastical poker. We are, after all, talking about the Church of England. It will, ultimately, matter who is and who is not in Communion with Canterbury. Jefferts Schori is making sure that Canterbury knows that its leaders will, at some point, be expected to speak with candor.

Stay tuned. Lambeth approaches.

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Gambling pastor finds media redemption

gamblingA couple of days ago, The Des Moines Register ran a very long piece — just under 2,500-words — on a pastor and his incredible ability to overcome challenges and seek and receive forgiveness for his sins. The sins in this case would be gambling. In particular, the pastor’s sin was gambling (and losing big) with church money. Needless to say, this pastor was fired from his job.

The Rev. Dave Clark was the pastor of a 1,900-member United Methodist congregation in Indianola, Iowa, just south of Des Moines. The 1,900 figure is significant because a 2000 census listed the town’s population at 12,998. The town is also home to the United Methodist Church’s liberal arts college, Simpson College.

Clark seemed to have a lot going for him, as the story takes pains to tell us, but at some point, something went wrong:

Still, Clark never saw himself as a gambler. He played penny-ante poker and played the tables or slots infrequently. It was “a few cents here and there,” he says, “never a concern.”

The same could not be said of the church he led. The United Methodist Church Book of Discipline, a social behavior guide for the denomination, “opposes gambling in any form” and believes “gambling is a menace to personal character and social morality.”

Clark saw those maxims as a holdover from the old days of the church, when Methodists saw dancing as “adultery set to music,” as an old church saying goes.

The article never really addresses whether or not the church actually believes the rules prohibiting gambling have gone by the wayside. If that has indeed happened, then that is significant. As the story notes later on, was Clark’s sin that he gambled and lost a lot of money or that he gambled with church money?

After the news of Clark’s removal became public, the Indianola newspaper ran an article about the incident. The headline read, “Gambling Methodist reverend removed.” The article ran next to one about an Indianola man who hit a big Powerball jackpot.

When Kinkade saw the newspaper, she made copies and sent them to friends.

“The irony was just overwhelming,” she says. “In society, you gamble and win, and you’re praised. You gamble and lose, and you’re a bad person.”

A reader sent us notice of this story along with this helpful and insightful comment about the story:

Me thinks this is a thinly veiled PR piece to shine his tarnished image — sadly I am afraid that he still has a way to go regarding his gambling problem. Why did the paper seek the forgiveness angle? I don’t read any repentance on the side of the fallen pastor … and no opportunity to comment from the UM Annual Conference that he used to belong to.

Indeed, there is little to no comment from the church officials who banned him from teaching in a Methodist church. Perhaps they understandably did not want to comment on the issue? If so, reporters should inform the readers of that important aspect to the story.

Overall, the piece is very positive. As the “big city” newspaper seemingly swooping into Indianola to cover the pastor scandal, the redemption angle is not the only perspective the reporter could have taken. But it certainly works for the pastor and his new church.

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Incarnation? What Incarnation?

AnnunciationIn a day and age in which newspapers fail so miserably at answering the question “What does Christmas mean?” (apart from generic platitudes of goodwill and commercialism), I have to commend Tim Townsend and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a story that gives a completely theological response.

I know that this was an editorial, but the New York Times ran something about how the real meaning of Christmas is — sleep.

So an actual news story offering a religious angle to a religious holiday is important. Townsend takes the novel approach of dissecting the religious significance of this Christian holy day:

At some point during the holiday season, most Christians take a break from the cookie baking, card sending and gift wrapping to reflect on what Christmas really means.

One Hebrew word — Emmanuel — captures that meaning for many.

As the writer of the Gospel of Matthew explains in the Christmas story, Emmanuel means “God is with us.”

For nearly 2,000 years, Christians have found comfort in their belief in God’s omnipresence.

I find it intriguing that Townsend uses Christmas as an opportunity to discuss the Christian belief in God’s omnipresence. It seems to me that the Christian doctrine of the incarnation might be a better discussion point for the Christmas season — the belief that God’s Son took on flesh and was born of a virgin.

Of course, Townsend then uses his “meaning of Christmas” story to present a one-sided discussion that questions whether or not Jesus’ birth fulfilled an Old Testament prophecy.

When the Hebrew scriptures were translated from Hebrew into Greek, and later into Latin, the Hebrew word “almah,” or “young girl,” was translated as “virgin.”

A New Testament scholar, the Rev. Raymond Brown, has written that from as early as the second century, “… the variation between ‘young girl’ and ‘virgin’ has given rise to some of the most famous debates in the history of exegesis. …”

In 1952, when a new Bible translation, the Revised Standard Version, was published, some conservative Christians burned it because the translators used “young woman” instead of “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14.

Some rabbis note that if the author of Isaiah had wanted to use the word virgin, he could have. The more precise word for “virgin,” “bitulah,” is used in other books of the Hebrew Bible such as Exodus and Leviticus.

The charge — that the prophecy was merely of a young woman rather than a virgin — is left without a response.

It is true that with the dramatic rise of modern rationalism in the early 20th century, some scholars sought to explain Jesus Christ as the child of a completely normal pregnancy. (And indeed, with promiscuity the norm these days, the notion of virginity even apart from Christ’s birth is somewhat miraculous.) Anyway, some scholars — particularly those associated with mainline Christian denominations — began teaching that Christ’s birth was not miraculous, per se, and they began refuting not just this story but other accounts of Jesus fulfilling ancient prophecies or performing miracles.

This is not new. But I think it’s somewhat offensive to not let traditional Christians respond to this. This simple Catholic Q&A refutes several of the points in Townsend’s account:

The Hebrew word translated as virgin, almah, can also be translated as “young woman” but as Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon notes “there is no instance where it can be proved that almah designates a young woman who is not a virgin.”

Additional evidence that the correct translation is “virgin” is supplied by the Septuagint version of the Bible, a Greek translation of the Old Testament made several centuries before Christ. It was translated by Jewish scholars for use by Greek-speaking Jews, mainly in Alexandria.

The Septuagint translates the Hebrew almah into Greek as parthenos. This Greek term has the precise meaning of “virgin.” So several centuries before the birth of Christ, before there was any reason to attack his Church, the meaning of Isaiah 7:14 was clear: almah = parthenos = virgin.

The Townsend article has some good quotes from Archbishop Raymond Burke and Lutheran theologian Jeffrey Gibbs — but they aren’t responding to the diversion in Townsend’s Christmas story. I, for one, get tired of mainstream media rehashes that cast doubt — from 2,000 years away — on the story of Christ. But if you’re going to go with that angle, the least you can do is let those who believe in the divinity of Christ and his miraculous birth respond to those who don’t.

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Looking for diversity in real pews?

colors pews 01Loyal GetReligion readers will recall that, back in September, I sang the praises of a wonderful New York Times feature story by reporter Warren St. John that began like this:

When the Rev. Phil Kitchin steps into the pulpit of the Clarkston International Bible Church on Sunday mornings, he stands eye to eye with the changing face of America. In the pews before him, alongside white-haired Southern women in their Sunday best, sit immigrants from the Philippines and Togo, refugees from war-scarred Liberia, Ethiopia and Sudan, even a convert from Afghanistan.

“Jesus said heaven is a place for people of all nations,” Mr. Kitchin likes to say. “So if you don’t like Clarkston, you won’t like heaven.”

This story covered all kinds of issues, both inspiring and sobering. It offered a fine look at one of a major news story that rarely makes it into mainstream newspapers. If you are looking for racial diversity in pews, you really need to look in conservative churches — both evangelical and Catholic, but especially in those that are called either Pentecostal and/or “Bible believing.”

This may shatter the news templates of some reporters, but it’s true.

So I was happy to open up the Washington Post the other day and spot a story that, I think it is safe to say, may have been inspired by that earlier piece in the hallowed pages of the Times. The leaders of great newspapers have been known to keep an eye on each other, from time to time.

This A-1 piece, by reporter Karin Brulliard, ran under the headline: “Springfield Church Welcomes Many Nations Under God.” It is set in suburban Springfield, Va., and near the top readers were told:

On a recent Sunday morning at the Word of Life Assembly of God Church, pink-cheeked Virginia native David Gorman skipped in a conga line in Swahili Sunday school while a Kenyan preacher played an accordion and a Singaporean woman led jubilant hymns. Filipinos analyzed Bible passages in a classroom.

Later, as the Sierra Leonean choir prepared to perform in the sanctuary, D. Wendel Cover, the folksy white pastor, listed the nations of the world and asked worshipers to stand when they heard their homelands. He seemed a bit dismayed to find just 80 represented.

“Our country’s becoming more international,” Cover, 73, said in an interview. He has led the formerly majority-white Pentecostal church for three decades. “The next generation is going to be American. If the church doesn’t realize that, they’re going to lose a whole generation.”

The Springfield church, congregants often say, is a glimpse of heaven — a “multitude” of nations and tongues, as the Book of Revelation puts it.

This story wasn’t quite as hard-hitting as the Times report, but it focused on the same basic realities in American life and church demographics.

The bottom line: America’s liberal and progressive flocks may pride themselves on their work on behalf of racial reconciliation, but if you are looking for diversity in actual church pews on a typical Sunday morning, you are much more likely to find it in an Assemblies of God congregation than in the typical church in the “seven sisters” of the mainline world.

rainbow crossThere are exceptions on both sides, of course. The United Church of Christ, for example, does have some very diverse congregations. There are plenty of all-white evangelical megachurches, too. I am simply saying that — as a rule — there is more racial diversity in the actual pews on the conservative side of the spectrum — especially among charismatics and Pentecostals — than on the liberal side. This has been true for several decades, but you rarely see this reflected in the news.

So, once again, I was not surprised to pick up the Baltimore Sun the other day and see yet another report on diversity and racial reconciliation. At first, I thought this was another story following the example set by the Times and Post reports.

I was wrong. This story by Rona Kobell was inspiring, but in many ways it was the mirror image of the earlier reports. It described life in churches that are, sadly, still divided by race. Can you spot the key difference?

The distance between the two Methodist churches in this Eastern Shore village is little more than a mile. Yet for decades, it seemed as if a great gulf separated them.

One church was black. The other was white. Though the two communities in the watermen’s town got along fine, come Sunday, people went their own way. White families flocked to Nanticoke Road for prayers at the picturesque Nanticoke United Methodist Church. Black families followed the narrow roads east to the equally pretty Asbury United Methodist Church on Hickman Lane.

Then, about 10 years ago, after the two congregations held a Bible school together, a few parishioners decided that they should get together more often, maybe once a month for worship and a meal.

Like I said, this story has moments that are inspiring. But it is also rather sad. These two churches are one mile from each other, even though they are part of the same flock. What is the source of the divide? Read on, since the story covers some interesting terrain.

Still, I could not help but think that someone at the Sun needs to visit some Pentecostal and evangelical churches, in the booming and increasingly diverse suburbs and inner-ring communities of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. They may be surprised at what they find. If you doubt that, go back and read those stories in the Times and the Post again.

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A Christmas parable in the heartland

parable of the talentsThe Associated Press sent out a fairly solid story of religious and social significance Thursday, although one would not think so at first glance. A local pastor in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, gave members of his congregation $50 and told them to go see how they could multiple the money for charity. The story has been carried on several newspaper websites, but as best I can tell, the AP is the only news outlet to publish something on this.

The theological underpinnings of this pastor’s challenge did not slip by reporter Helen O’Neill:

First, he read from the Gospel of Matthew.

“And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his ability.”

Then, he explained the parable of the talents, which tells of the rich master who entrusts three servants with a sum of money — “talents” — and instructs them to go forth and do good. The master lavishes praise on the two servants who double their money. But he casts into the wilderness the one so afraid to take a risk that he buries his share.

Gazing down from the pulpit that Sunday, Throckmorton dropped his bombshell.

Like the master, he would entrust each adult with a sum of money — in this case, $50. Church members had seven weeks to find ways to double their money, the proceeds to go toward church missions.

The story proceeds to tell how various members of the congregation used the $50 to multiply the money — from making soup to flying airplanes to producing crafts and even offering rides on a 2006 Harley-Davidson Road King.

The only thing missing from this story is an example of someone who failed to make a return on the $50. Wasn’t there at least one person who “buried” their $50 for safekeeping?

I think including an example of a “failing church member,” while surely difficult to find, would have expanded the story’s perspective. Did everything in this $50 challenge really end up as rosy as the story tells us? O’Neill clearly spent a fair amount of time reporting this story, and shows an appreciation for the religious significance of the pastor’s challenge.

The story is also limited to the church’s experience with the $50 challenge. There are several places a reporter could take this story. First, the perspective of the story is that investment of money for the purpose of helping others is a gain for everyone. But what does it say about our society and culture when investments and financial returns are tied to charity giving? Whatever happened to giving for the sake of giving?

This local story reflects the larger movement of microfinance charitable giving, mostly in underdeveloped areas of the world. In some cases, people are advocating for replacing traditional aide with microfinance strategies. There is a moral and religious angle to this. The parable account of the talents is seen as an example of how Christians should seek to help others.

But there are critics of this type of charity, and a more comprehensive story on this trend ought to reflect these criticisms rather than portraying it as an entirely wonderful endeavor.

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Compass pointed toward good Catholics

04 simonmcburney lgIt’s kind of hard to kick a major movie when it’s down, but I still find the whole story of The Golden Compass quite fascinating.

But first, here is the hard news — after the openings of Will Smith and Alvin — from the always cheery Entertainment Weekly:

The success of the two new arrivals undermined New Line’s The Golden Compass in its second weekend, causing the PG-rated fantasy film to drop a steep 65 percent. The film, which cost more than $200 million to make, has grossed slightly less than $41 million in the U.S. since it bowed ten days ago. Enjoy this one, kids, ’cause at this rate there’s no way New Line is going to get behind a sequel.

In other words, Compass failed to find that Holidays sweet spot somewhere in between atheistic evangelism and the family market in middle America.

There is no way around the fact that the creators of the film edited out as much of Philip Pullman’s anti-Christian orthodoxy worldview as they could, which led to justified yowls on the religious and cultural left. But Pullman is what he believes that he is — the anti-C.S. Lewis. He’s brilliant at what he does and the movie tried to dumb him down.

So what was the most important religion story in the semi-flop of this very expensive attempt to create an anti-Christian movie franchise? After all, I have always thought that very expensive failures tell you more about their makers than the success stories.

So here is www.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/movies/news/bal-to.compass12dec12,0,5178851.story">my nomination for the most interesting religion-beat story linked to this movie, care of The Baltimore Sun:

Days after its publication, a largely positive review of The Golden Compass that appeared in Catholic newspapers across the country was retracted this week by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The bishops, who could not be reached for comment, offered no explanation for the decision. But Catholic groups, including the conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, have urged moviegoers to boycott the film, saying the film and the book on which it is based are anti-Catholic.

The pulled review in question — click here for a discussion of some of its contents — was written by Harry Forbes and John Mulderig, the director and staff reviewer of the bishops’ office on film. They gave the film an A-II, appropriate for adults and adolescents. The Sun noted:

In their review, Forbes and Mulderig praised the film as “lavish, well-acted and fast-paced,” and noted that the book’s anti-Catholic tone had been considerably watered down. “The good news is that the first book’s explicit references to this church have been completely excised with only the term Magisterium remaining.”

They also suggested the film could prompt some worthwhile discussions in Catholic households. “Rather than banning the movie or books,” they wrote, “parents might instead take the opportunity to talk through any thorny philosophical issues with their teens.”

GoldencompassThus, the bishops conference staff was, initially, more positive about the movie than the vast majority — Rotten Tomatoes here — of the nation’s mainstream critics. That is really interesting. Perhaps it was more important to send a message to Catholic traditionalists than to Hollywood.

The key is that Compass turned into another fault line between, to use James Davison Hunter language, the progressives and the orthodox. The movie, you see, was not an attack on Catholics. It was an attack on bad Catholics. It was not an anti-Christian movie, it was a pro-good Christianity movie. It was an attack on traditional Christianity, not the faith itself. Got that?

Early on, this was stated quite clearly in an excellent Washington Post interview with Chris Weitz, the film’s director — a self-proclaimed “lapsed Catholic crypto-Buddhist.”

… Weitz always knew that bringing “The Golden Compass” to theaters … would take extraordinary finesse. The book, published in 1995, is a parable that attacks the concept of organized religion — more specifically, any religion that rules by fiat and claims an exclusive pipeline to the truth. The book describes a world ruled by a pious, punitive outfit called the Magisterium. It doesn’t just dress its leaders in ominous frocks — it tries to repress knowledge in the name of protecting humanity. It also tortures children by trying to rob them of their daemons, the soul-mate pets that every human in this alternate universe needs in order to think and live. The point, it seems, is to crush curiosity and freethinking and tighten the Magisterium’s grip on power.

Weitz, who also wrote the screenplay, had to convey Pullman’s cosmology while slaloming between two very different and very important interest groups: the book’s fans, who would feel cheated if the movie didn’t stay true to its anticlerical spirit, and the movie’s backers, who would feel cheated if they infuriated religious people and the movie bombed. The grumbling has already started. On fan sites, such as Bridgetothestars.net, you’ll read a few complaints that Weitz soft-pedaled Pullman’s critique of religious dogma.

I am left with one question: What is the name of this acceptable version of Christian faith? Hollywood Buddhism? Unitarianism? New Oxford Anglicanism?

That’s a great story. But we can expect total silence from the U.S. Catholic bishops on that.

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Mighty mighty Methodists

methodist comics collageTime‘s Jay Newton-Small reports on presidential aspirant Fred Thompson’s work in Iowa. Though he’s trailing behind Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, Thompson is gaining some traction by offering himself up as the true conservative in the race:

Thompson firmly believes he can play well with Evangelicals, sapping votes from their current favorite, Huckabee. He has been on the attack — trying to show holes in Huckabee’s record both in press interviews and in a mailing that went out last week that accuses Huckabee of being weak on immigration. . . .

Thompson is also hoping endorsements from the National Right to Life Committee and the Wesleyan Center for Strategic Studies, an umbrella group for 40 million conservative Methodists across the U.S., will help him in Iowa.

I didn’t even know there were 40 million Methodists in the country, much less 40 million conservative ones. That’s pretty impressive. And wildly untrue. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette religion editor Frank Lockwood notes:

The news has got to cheer Thompson, who trails in the polls. But it will perplex statisticians. According to the New York Times Almanac, there are only 13 million Methodists in the entire country — and that includes the liberals …

It says something about how out of touch some reporters are when they can identify a group that’s not exactly a household name as representing such a large group. This whole religion landscape must really be a mystery to some reporters.

The art shows Methodist superheroes — including Superman (according to Adherents.com).

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