doctrine

Old fault lines can be seen in the 'seven churches' of divided Methodism (Part I)

Old fault lines can be seen in the 'seven churches' of divided Methodism (Part I)

It was one of those General Conference debates in which the regional accents of the United Methodists at the microphones were part of the drama.

Times were tough and national leaders had struggled to raise enough money to cover the Church World Services budget. Thus, a delegate from the Bible Belt requested a budget increase smaller than the one sought by agency leaders.

Then someone from the urban Northeast "rose and spoke against his motion in a fervent, angry plea for more commitment and compassion for the needs of the poor and downtrodden. Her enthusiasm carried the day," noted "The Seven Churches of Methodism," an influential report on regional divisions in the United Methodist Church.

"Later, the delegate whose motion was defeated noted that his opponent's enthusiasm for the poor would be better exerted in her own annual conference, which had paid only part of its World Service apportionment."

That was in the early 1980s, just before decades of acidic battles over the Bible, sex and marriage began making headlines.

Methodists were already struggling with this reality: There's no painless way to cut a smaller pie. And it already mattered that conferences in the most liberal parts of the United Methodist Church were shrinking, while numbers were relatively steady or rising in more conservative regions.

Cracks detailed in that 1985 report are even more relevant today after repeated General Conference wins by a coalition of U.S. evangelicals and growing UMC flocks in the Global South, especially Africa. The denomination's top court has approved parts of a recently passed "Traditional Plan" that would strengthen enforcement of existing church disciplines banning same-sex weddings and the ordination of "self-avowed practicing" LGBTQ clergy. It also approved an "exit plan" for congregations seeking a way out.

"The Seven Churches of Methodism" was written by the famous Duke University sociologist Robert L. Wilson, who died in 1991, and William Willimon, now a retired bishop. It focused on life in seven U.S. regions between 1970-82, including church-school statistics that suggested future problems with active members and the young.

Hey preachers: Can you spot the God-shaped hole at heart of the 'Avengers' universe?

Hey preachers: Can you spot the God-shaped hole at heart of the 'Avengers' universe?

As most occupants of Planet Earth know, last year's "Avengers: Infinity War" ended with the genocidal demigod Thanos using six "infinity stones" to erase half of all life in the universe.

It would have been logical to assume the sequel, "Avengers: Endgame" would start with lots of funerals, with pastors, priests, rabbis, imams and other shepherds working overtime to answer tough, ancient questions.

That assumption would be wrong.

"People are mourning, but they're going to therapy and support groups," said film critic Steven Greydanus of DecentFilms.com, also a permanent deacon in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark. "What we don't see are grieving people in church or even at funerals. … We don't hear anyone asking, 'Where is God in all of this?' "

It's rare to hear the theological term "theodicy" in movies, but people who frequent multiplexes often hear characters suffer tragic losses and then ask, "Why did God let this happen?" The American Heritage Dictionary defines "theodicy" as a "vindication of God's goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil."

This God-shaped hole at a pivotal moment in the "Avengers" series offers a window into the soul of the Marvel Comics universe and the minds of executives who shaped most of the 22 movies in this giant pop-culture mythology, said Greydanus.

"We are talking about a major fail, and not just from an artistic point of view," he said. "This shows a stunted view of how most people on Earth live their lives. Even people who are not religious tend to cry out and ask the big spiritual questions when faced with tragedy and loss. That's part of what it means to be human."

Not that many consumers are complaining. In it's first 11 days, "Avengers: Endgame" pulled in $2.19 billion at the global box office -- the fastest a film has reached $2 billion. Many insiders now assume it will eventually break the $3 billion barrier, passing the current No. 1 movie, the environmental-fantasy epic "Avatar," at $2.78 billion.

Truth is, global-market realities now affect how many blockbusters handle explicitly religious and even vaguely spiritual questions.

Painful question for Catholic bishops: Why assume that parishes will decline and die?

Painful question for Catholic bishops: Why assume that parishes will decline and die?

The headlines keep appearing in Catholic newspapers, before the news migrates into the real-estate coverage in mainstream media.

The bottom line is the bottom line. Catholic shepherds decide that they have to pull the plug and close parishes in which declining and aging flocks of believers have struggled to pay their bills. These aging sanctuaries are often located on valuable pieces of urban real estate.

Some parishes vanish. Others are merged into one facility to make efficient use of space, as well as the crowded schedules of a steadily declining number of priests.

"On one level, it makes sense. You close a parish -- I understand that many parishes are in financial trouble -- and then in a few years you get to tear it down and someone moves in and builds condos," said Philip F. Lawler, editor of Catholic World News, an independent online news service.

"The questions that I think we have to ask our bishops are, 'Why is defeat inevitable? Why do we assume that all of these parishes are going to decline and close? … What if you put someone in there who offered a brand of Catholic faith that had some evangelical zeal? What if we still believed that Catholic churches could grow?' "

Do the math, he said. Growing urban flocks would need places to worship. But once these historic Catholic sanctuaries are gone -- they're gone. The cost of building replacements would be astronomical.

All of these real-estate decisions, he said, hinge on management assumptions that are profoundly spiritual.

Once upon a time, "American cities are dotted with magnificent church structures, built with the nickels and dimes that hard-pressed immigrant families could barely afford to donate," wrote Lawler, in his new book, "The Smoke of Satan," addressing several interlinking scandals in Catholic life. "Today the affluent grandchildren of those immigrants are unwilling to keep current with the parish fuel bills and, more to the point, to encourage their sons to consider a life of priestly ministry."

Yes, there are cases in which parishes serving different ethnic groups were built within blocks of each other. But Lawler is convinced that the typical church that is being closed and sold is "located in a comfortable, populous neighborhood, with no other Catholic church particularly close at hand and no special reason why the community that supported a thriving parish in 1960 cannot maintain the same parish now. … No reason, that is, except the decline of the Catholic faith. Parishes close because Catholic families don't care enough about the faith to keep them open."

After wars over Bible, marriage and sex: Union possible for Episcopalians, Methodists on left?

After wars over Bible, marriage and sex: Union possible for Episcopalians, Methodists on left?

Next year, delegates at the United Methodist Church's General Conference are supposed to consider a full-communion plan with the U.S. Episcopal Church.

"We seek to draw closer in mission and ministry, grounded in sufficient agreement in the essentials of Christian faith and order and assisted by interchangeability of ordained ministries," states the current text for "A Gift to the World: Co-Laborers for the Healing of Brokenness."

This is not a merger proposal, but: "We see this relationship of full communion as a step on the journey. … We are blessed in that neither of our churches, or their predecessor bodies, have officially condemned one another, nor have they formally called into question the faith, the ministerial orders, or the sacraments of the other church."

However, events in the United Methodist Church have given some members of that flock -- especially LGBTQ clergy and laity -- a strong incentive to go ahead and investigate nearby Episcopal parishes.

A special General Conference recently voted to reaffirm current doctrine that marriage is the "union of one man and one woman" and "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." The historic gathering also passed pieces of a "Traditionalist Plan" requiring UMC clergy to follow those laws in their Book of Discipline.

So far, leaders on the United Methodist left haven't announced plans to leave. But that doesn't mean that Episcopal clergy and other liberal Protestant leaders shouldn't be prepared to help United Methodists who come their way, said the Rev. David Simmons of St. Matthias Episcopal Church in Waukesha, Wis., a leader in several regional and national ecumenical efforts.

"We have to start with the fact that lots of United Methodists are really hurting," he said, in a telephone interview. "What we should be doing is providing a safe harbor. Our primary motivation shouldn't be to grab members from other churches. … If we do that then we're not being a safe harbor. We can't go around saying, 'United Methodists hare having trouble, so let's recruit them.' "

Thus, Simmons recently posted an online essay entitled, "How to Deal With Methodists at your Red Church Doors" -- referring to the front doors at most Episcopal parishes. His subtitle was even more blunt: "Don't be a Jerk."

Striving to build the Kingdom of Heaven with timber, stucco, brick and iron

Striving to build the Kingdom of Heaven with timber, stucco, brick and iron

When Andrew Gould began designing a sanctuary for Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Charleston, S.C., he started by creating an imaginary backstory for the parish.

Instead of beginning with a circle of Orthodox families and converts in 1996, the art historian and architect imagined that a community of Russian immigrants had moved to Charleston in the mid-19th century. They looked at the city's famous mix of Southern warmth, Colonial style and coastal, Mediterranean influences and then built a church that was thoroughly Orthodox -- but fit into Charleston.

Working with local materials as much as possible, Gould designed a Byzantine church, but with a copper roof, plenty of exposed Heart Pine wood and stucco masonry painted in a gold-yellow tint common in historic Charleston. Then he included a unique saw-tooth cornice design, using local brownish-red brick, a pattern that had the added advantage of resembling traditions in Russia.

"I kept asking myself, 'What parts of Charleston's architecture could be baptized into Orthodoxy? What if this church had been built by Russians long ago and it's been here ever since and it looks totally at home in Charleston?", he said, describing the 2004 project that opened a new stage of his career.

"I have a kind of romanticized fantasy about the history of these churches and I have used this technique in other places. Keeping this kind of story in mind keeps me focused on what I'm trying to accomplish."

This goal shapes the work that Gould and other artisans do with his New World Byzantine Studios in Charleston, whether it's designing an entire church, one of his massive, circular ironwork chandeliers or other forms of liturgical art and church supplies. The goal is to maintain ancient forms and traditions, while blending in cultural, historical influences seen in life in a specific region.

For example, what would a Pueblo-style monastery in New Mexico look like if it were Orthodox, instead of Catholic, and featured altar cloths, carvings and icon-stand decorations influenced by Native American culture?

Doing the United Methodist math: Is the future in the Global South or American pews?

Doing the United Methodist math: Is the future in the Global South or American pews?

For more than 30 years, the Reconciling Ministries Network has openly opposed United Methodist teachings that marriage is the "union of one man and one woman" and that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."

Now, a special meeting of their denomination's General Conference has affirmed those doctrines and passed laws requiring clergy to follow them -- even in sanctuaries in which they have long been ignored.

Reconciling Ministries leaders were blunt: "The Traditionalist Plan was passed by the efforts of organized opponents to gospel inclusion who … have dared to call out a white nationalist strain of Christianity."

Leaders in Africa's booming United Methodist churches -- key players in efforts to defend ancient doctrines on marriage and sex -- find it "farfetched" to link them to white nationalism, said the Rev. Jerry P. Kulah, dean of the Gbarnga School of Theology in Liberia.

It's understandable that many United Methodists are "angry, bitter, discouraged and frustrated," said Kulah, after the St. Louis conference. After all, they invested years of money and work to pass the One Church Plan favored by most bishops, UMC agencies and academic leaders. It would have removed current Book of Discipline teachings on homosexuality and allowed local and regional leaders to settle controversial marriage and ordination issues.

Kulah said United Methodists in Africa and the Global South believe they have centuries of church history on their side.

"For us it is a foregone conclusion that marriage is a sacred relationship between a man and a woman -- as taught throughout scripture and as the missionaries from America and Europe taught our parents -- not between two persons of the same sex," he said. "No argument. No compromise."

At the heart of this clash is evolving United Methodist math. Unlike other Protestant bodies, the UMC is truly global, with 12.5 million members worldwide -- a number that is growing. However, there are only 6.9 million in the United States, where key statistics are declining -- especially in the more liberal North and West.

The more converts, the more members, the more votes in General Conference.

The Vatican sexual-abuse summit: Sister Veronica of Nigeria faces the men in black

The Vatican sexual-abuse summit: Sister Veronica of Nigeria faces the men in black

At the end of the movie "Spotlight," the screen went black before a message appeared noting that The Boston Globe's investigative reporting team published nearly 600 stories, in 2002 alone, about sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

 The next screen noted, "249 priests and brothers were publicly accused of sexual abuse within the Boston Archdiocese."

 But there was more. The first time Sister Veronica Openibo of Nigeria saw this film -- which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2016 -- she was stunned to see four screens packed with the names of 223 American dioceses and nations in which major abuse scandals had been uncovered.

 "Tears of sorrow flowed," she said, speaking at the Vatican's global summit on clergy sexual abuse. "How could the clerical church have kept silent, covering these atrocities? The silence, the carrying of the secrets in the hearts of the perpetrators, the length of the abuses and the constant transfers of perpetrators are unimaginable."

Didn't any of these priests and bishops, she asked, go to confession? Didn't they wrestle with their sins while talking with the spiritual directors who guide their lives? Later, she went further, asking why these clergy were allowed to remain in ministry after committing these atrocities. Why weren't they defrocked?

"We proclaim the Ten Commandments and parade ourselves as being the custodians of moral standards, values and good behavior in society," said Openibo, who on several occasions turned to speak to Pope Francis, seated nearby. She is the first African to lead the Society of the Holy Child Jesus and one of three women who addressed the nearly 200 bishops at the recent summit. Openibo was the only person from Africa's booming churches chosen to speak.

"Hypocrites at times? Yes," she asked. "Why did we keep silent for so long? How can we turn this around for a time to evangelize, catechize and educate all the members of the church, including clergy and religious? Is it true that most bishops did nothing about the sexual abuse of children? Some did and some did not, out of fear or cover-up."

At March for Life, embracing ancient doctrines reveals modern tensions

At March for Life, embracing ancient doctrines reveals modern tensions

Just over a century ago, a Methodist leader on the church's Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public morals noticed an empty lot facing the U.S. Capitol and thought it would be a fine place to do some lobbying.

The Methodist Building was finished in 1923 and 100 Maryland Ave., N.E., soon became an even more strategic address when the Supreme Court moved next door. The prohibition cause faded, however, and in recent decades the five-story limestone building has housed liberal Protestant activists of all kinds, as well as Kids 4 Peace, the Islamic Society of America, Creation Justice Ministries and others.

It's an unusual site for a March for Life prayer meeting. But, year after year, the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality meets there to mark the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade.

Defending life means "walking in a way that is out of step with the world," said retired Bishop Timothy Whitaker, former president of the denomination's Board of Discipleship. While there are secular people who oppose abortion, he focused his Jan. 18 sermon on why this issue has become so crucial to modern Christians who strive to affirm ancient Christian doctrines.

"Unless a part of the church is compromised by being conformed to the world," said Whitaker, "becoming a Christian profoundly changes one's perception of reality and one's behavior. … That is why the church is loved by many, as well as hated by many."

When the March for Life makes headlines, it is almost always for political reasons, such as this year's remarks by Vice President Mike Pence and a video-chat from President Donald Trump.

The massive march also serves as a hub for dozens of smaller events, with groups ranging from Episcopalians for Life to Feminists for Life, from Pro-Life Humanists to the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians. Almost all mainstream religious groups -- including progressive flocks -- include a pro-life caucus of some kind.

For decades, United Methodists were powerful supporters of the interfaith Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, ties that were cut by delegates at the denomination's 2016 General Conference. That same conference defeated a motion to retain an old affirmation of Roe v. Wade.

Funerals for Bush 41 pulled strong images of heaven into America's public square

Funerals for Bush 41 pulled strong images of heaven into America's public square

During 60 years of friendship, George H.W. Bush went on countless trips with James Baker III, his secretary of state and a confidant so close that America's 41st president liked to call him his "little brother."

On the last day of Bush's life, Baker checked on his friend. The result was an exchange Baker shared several times, including on CNN's "State of the Union."

"Hey, Bake, where are we going today?", asked Bush, alert after days of struggle.

"Well, Jefe, we're going to heaven," Baker replied.

"Good. That's where I want to go," said Bush.

Bush died about 12 hours later, surrounded by family and friends, including his pastor, the Rev. Russell J. Levenson Jr. It was a time for prayers and good-byes, and the priest shared some details in sermons during both the state funeral in Washington, D.C., and the final rites at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston, the Bush family's home parish for 50 years.

"It was a beautiful end. It was a beautiful beginning. … The president so loved his church -- he loved the Episcopal Church. He so loved our great nation. He so loved you, his friends. He so loved every member of his family," said Levenson, at Washington National Cathedral.

"But he was so ready to go to heaven. … My hunch is heaven, as perfect as it must be, just got a bit kinder and gentler." The priest turned and addressed the coffin, blending faith with language from Bush's days as a Navy pilot: "Mr. President, mission complete. Well done, good and faithful servant. Welcome to your eternal home, where ceiling and visibility are unlimited and life goes on forever."

There is nothing unusual about priests discussing heaven during funerals. After all, the Pew Research Center's massive "religious landscape" study a few years ago indicated that 72 percent of Americans believe in a place "where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded," and the number is 82 percent for those affiliated with a religious tradition.