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."

Spiritual journeys: Phil Keaggy and Jeff Johnson's instrumental art on strings and keys

Spiritual journeys: Phil Keaggy and Jeff Johnson's instrumental art on strings and keys

While recording his "Beyond Nature" album, Phil Keaggy spent many hours doing three things -- playing acoustic guitar, taking long walks in the woods and reading books by C.S. "Jack" Lewis.

"I took all that in and it influenced the music, which was quiet and contemplative and that fit with that moment in my life," said Keaggy, in a recent interview. "All of that was connected. … I think you can feel a spirit behind that music."

So it isn't surprising that this 1991 classic included song titles such as "Brother Jack," "Fragile Forest" and "Addison's Walk," referring to a Magdalen College footpath that Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Oxford friends often walked while discussing literature, faith and life.

While "Beyond Nature" was an instrumental recording, the liner notes included this Lewis quote: "Nature is mortal; we shall out-live her. … Nature is only the image, the symbol; but it is the symbol Scripture invites me to use. We are summoned to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendor which she fitfully reflects. And in there, and beyond Nature, we shall eat of the tree of life."

So this was a "Christian" album, one inspired by the apologetics of Lewis? That's the kind of question musicians often hear after recording instrumental music during an era in which "Christian music" debates almost always focus on lyrics.

"I just play," said Keaggy. "I don't try to analyze all that."

In recent years, Keaggy has recorded a series of instrumental albums with keyboardist Jeff Johnson, who -- like the guitarist -- has for decades mixed folk, rock, jazz, classical and Celtic music into a style that writers struggle to label. Both record most of their music in home studios on their own terms. Both draw the attention of critics outside the "contemporary Christian music" niche.

The duo's latest work, for Johnson's Ark label, is "Cappadocia" -- taking its name from an arid, volcanic region in what is now Turkey. Early Christians hid in this isolated haven during persecutions and the Apostle Peter addressed his first epistle to "exiles" in several places, including Cappadocia.

Johnson visited this region in 2017 and was stuck by remnants of Christian life, from pieces of frescos and engravings to a rose-shaped window in a sanctuary carved into a hillside. Thus, the disc includes song titles like "Chapel of Stone," "Parousia (A Presence)" and "That Which is Hidden."

Modern-day Coptic martyrs: The truly ancient faith of 'The 21' beheaded in Libya by ISIS

Modern-day Coptic martyrs: The truly ancient faith of 'The 21' beheaded in Libya by ISIS

After one trip into Libya as a migrant worker, Tawadros Youssef Tawadros reported that he had been warned that his Christian name -- "Theodore," in English -- might anger Muslim radicals.

His widow, Maleka Ayad, recalled him saying: "Anyone who starts changing his name will end up changing his faith."

Malak Ibrahim Seniut was more blunt, in a final talk with his priest. Told that Christians could be witnesses by living a long, faithful life, the young man replied: "That's not enough for me. I want to do it through death."

On Feb. 15, 2015, both were among the men beheaded by Islamic State soldiers on a beach in Libya. All 21 -- 20 Egyptian Copts and a Ghanan who professed his Christian faith -- were soon declared martyrs by the Coptic Orthodox Church. This is the latest chapter in a long drama, detailed by writer Martin Mosebach, of the German Academy of Arts.

"The Coptic Church, founded by St. Mark the Evangelist, is among the earliest manifestations of Christianity. In 1,400 years of suppression after the Islamic conquest, it has still preserved its original form and it has proven to have the most amazing vitality," he said, at an event this week in New York City, marking the release of the English edition of his book, "The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs."

"The faith found in this church was and is stronger than all of the economic and social disadvantages Christians have to suffer. The Coptic Church has never been broken by political oppression. The Christianity of the first millennium is still to be found there and is … a living reality."

After immersing himself in the village culture surrounding these new saints, the Catholic author reached this conclusion: For these men, liturgy and martyrdom were "two sides of one and the same coin."

There was something truly iconic about those 21 men in orange jumpsuits kneeling on that beach, said Coptic Archbishop Angaelos of London.

It's hard to avoid religion when fighting about 'fourth-trimester' abortions

It's hard to avoid religion when fighting about 'fourth-trimester' abortions

Before "Game of Thrones" infighting rocked Virginia Democrats, before the Michael Jackson moonwalk press conference, before a KKK and blackface photo surfaced from his Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook, Gov. Ralph Northam made some candid remarks about abortion on WTOP's "Ask the Governor" radio show.

The now embattled governor's words raised many religious, scientific and philosophical questions and he all but guaranteed that what his critics are calling "fourth-trimester abortion" will remain a hot-button issue in American public life.

A proposed Virginia bill on late-term abortions, he said, would allow termination in cases where an unborn child is "not viable" outside the womb.

"In this particular example, if a mother's in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen," said Northam, a former pediatric neurologist. "The infant would be delivered, the infant would be kept comfortable, the infant would be resuscitated if that's what the mother and the family desired. And then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother."

Northam is "greatly misinformed about what this bill would do. … It is infanticide," Democrats for Life leader Kristen Day told EWTN News.

Concerning bills of this kind in Virginia (tabled on a 5-3 vote in committee) and New York, she added: "I'm hearing from more people who say that they can't vote for Democrats if they continue to push this. … This abortion extremism is continuing to push Democrats out the party." She predicted large numbers of Democrats at Virginia's March for Life on April 3, sending this message: "We want to be a state that protects women, supports women and provides support for women to carry their pregnancies to term. That's what we stand for as Democrats."

To no one's surprise, President Donald Trump used Twitter to jump into this controversy, attacking Northam for making the "most horrible statement on 'super' late term abortion. Unforgivable!"

Beyond tweets and text messages: Many young believers evolve into accidental hermits

Beyond tweets and text messages: Many young believers evolve into accidental hermits

It was the feast of St. Mary, Mother of the Church, so writer Leah Libresco and some friends decided to have a traditional procession through their neighborhood, while praying the Rosary out loud.

"I live in New York City, where this was still not the weirdest thing that anyone would see that day," said Libresco, speaking earlier this winter at the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C.

The procession received some puzzled looks along Broadway, near Lincoln Center. Their images of St. Mary sure didn't match the vision of womanhood seen in advertisements they passed.

This wasn't a public statement. All these New Yorkers were doing was celebrating the feast together, creating a face-to-face community with faith, food and fellowship. There's more to life than sitting at home, firing tweets and text messages at the world.

Long ago, Libresco explained, ascetic monks called "stylites" believed they should spend their lives fasting and praying while living atop pillars. This kind of solitude, obviously, was not for the average believer.

Today, many Americans have become "accidental stylites," she said. They are isolated from one another by jammed schedules, job demands and all those digital devices that were supposed to aid communication.

"A lot of folks wind up living hermetic lives, living their faith alone -- nakedly before God -- without the assistance of a monastic superior, or a community or anything else," she said. While monks carefully choose lives of solitude, that path would be "a terrible idea for the rest of us."

Once known as a popular atheist blogger, Libresco began exploring spiritual disciplines after converting to Catholicism in 2012. Her new book is called "Building the Benedict Option: A Guide to Gathering Two or Three Together in His Name." The title is a reference to journalist Rod Dreher's bestseller "The Benedict Option," which challenged modern believers to build local support networks -- involving education, the arts, even small businesses -- in an increasingly post-Christian America. Dreher (a friend of mine for 20 years) wrote the foreword for Libresco's book.

Building on Dreher's manifesto, Libresco wants to encourage Christian hospitality in settings more intense than young-adult gatherings offering shallow chitchat over wine and cheese.

"My goal, always, in building the Benedict Option, is not to turn away from the world," she wrote. "Feeling the need for the thicker community of the Benedict Option … isn't the same as rejecting the world or fearing it. … A claustrophobic feeling can creep into your spiritual life when you practice it alone."

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.

Separation of church and life: Many pastors struggle to handle issues of sex and technology

Separation of church and life: Many pastors struggle to handle issues of sex and technology

If Daniel Weiss has learned anything about the small towns of east-central Wisconsin, it's that folks in the region he calls home care about what they eat.

Say buzzwords like "organic," "natural" and "superfoods" and -- snap -- people will organize fairs, farmers markets, farm-to-table workshops and debates about whether local free-range chickens have healthy social lives.

"You can talk about fresh veggies and how important food issues are for their families," said Weiss, leader of the Brushfires Foundation, a sexual-integrity ministry based in Omro, Wisc. "People in a secular society will bond together to talk about food and good health. That's real. That's safe. …

"It's totally different -- even in our churches -- if you try to get people to talk about pornography, smartphones, videogame addiction and all the stuff that's filling up their hearts and minds."

When asked about these issues, many pastors say things like, "I don't want to be negative," "That's a parents thing," "Tech issues are so complex" or "I'm afraid to offend people and run them off." Many pastors think silence is the safest option.

That's a naive attitude in modern America, according to Barna Group research commissioned by Brushfires, and supported by 24 national and state groups, such as Focus on the Family and Enough is Enough. Researchers contacted 410 senior ministers in 29 evangelical and mainline Protestant denominations, along with non-denominational congregations. Pastors were asked about 18 issues, including marital infidelity, premarital sex, same-sex relationships, sexting, gender dysphoria and the use of pornography by husbands, wives, teens and young children. Among the findings:

* Eighty percent of these Protestant pastors said they had been approached during the past year by church members or staff dealing with infidelity issues and 73 percent had faced issues linked to pornography.

* Seventy percent of the pastors said they dealt with serious "sexual brokenness" issues in their flock several times a year, with 22 percent saying this took place once a month or more.

*Only a third of the pastors said they felt "very qualified" to address the sexual issues being raised by their staff and church members.

Persecution of Christians is 'old news'? Prince Charles begs to differ

Persecution of Christians is 'old news'? Prince Charles begs to differ

Once again, Coptic Christians faced bloody bodies in the sands of Egypt, as terrorists killed seven pilgrims who had just prayed at the Monastery of St. Samuel.

No one was surprised when the Islamic State took credit for that November attack south of Cairo. After all, 28 pilgrims were massacred near the same spot in 2017.

In Syria, Orthodox believers marked the fifth anniversary of the kidnapping of Metropolitan Paul Yazigi of the Antiochian Orthodox Church and Metropolitan Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church -- who were trying to negotiate the release of priests seized weeks earlier. Today, their followers know less about the identity of the attackers than they did in 2013.

In the Nineveh plains of Iraq, Christians slowly returned to communities in which their ancestors had worshipped since the first century after Christ. Zero Christians remained in Mosul after ISIS demanded that they convert to Islam or pay the jizya head tax, while living with brutal persecution.

But nothing remained of the 1400-year-old Dair Mar-Elia (Saint Elijah's Monastery), after invaders blew it up twice and then bulldozed the rubble.

Try to imagine the faith it requires for believers to carry on after all this has taken place, said the Prince of Wales, speaking at a Westminster Abbey service last month celebrating the lives of Christians who endure persecution in the Middle East.

"Time and again I have been deeply humbled and profoundly moved by the extraordinary grace and capacity for forgiveness that I have seen in those who have suffered so much," said Prince Charles, who has worked to build contacts in the ancient Christian East.

"Forgiveness, as many of you know far better than I, is not a passive act, or submission. Rather, it is an act of supreme courage, of a refusal to be defined by the sin against you. … It is one thing to believe in God who forgives. It is quite another to take that example to heart and actually to forgive, with the whole heart, 'those who trespass against you' so grievously."

The persecution of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East was not one of 2018's big news stories. Instead, this parade of horrors became a kind of "old news" that rarely reached the prime headlines offered by elite newsrooms.