doctrine

Has there really been a 'truce' in all those bitter Protestant worship wars?

Has there really been a 'truce' in all those bitter Protestant worship wars?

If newcomers walk into a Protestant church on Sunday and hear an organ playing, and see hymnals, the odds are good that between 50 and 250 people will be in the pews.

If a church's attendance is larger than 250 -- especially if it's 1,000-plus -- visitors will usually see pop-rock "praise musicians" on stage, including a drummer. The hall will feature concert-level lighting and video screens displaying song lyrics. 

But here's a news flash from the front lines of what church leaders have, for several decades, called the "worship wars." According to a LifeWay Research survey, there's evidence of a "truce" between the "contemporary" and "traditional" worship forces. Then again, it's possible that church leaders have made up their minds and old debates inside many congregations have calmed down.

"We're not really talking about two enemies negotiating a cease fire," said Mike Harland, director of the LifeWay Worship team. "What I've seen happen in the 20 years that I've been part of this story is that the distance between the traditional and the contemporary churches has narrowed a bit. … People on each side of the divide have become more willing to compromise with the other."

This survey (.pdf here) was built on random telephone surveys of clergy in a variety of Protestant traditions during 2018, with the results weighted by church size and region, seeking balance.

A key finding was that only 15% of these American clergy said the biggest challenge they face linked to music and ministry was "navigating the varying preferences of members." A higher percentage (21%) said it was a bigger challenge to find vocalists and musicians to handle essential roles in worship.

When talking with individual pastors and worship leaders, Harland said he frequently hears them admit that their flocks simply don't contain members with the talents necessary to create a pop-rock band or "praise team" that can, week after week, perform contemporary Christian music at semi-professional levels. Thus, in many Protestant settings, individual talents -- not church tradition -- help shape a local congregation's worship "style."

Many pastors voice variations on this theme, he said. "We would love to sing all those new songs, but we don't have anyone who is talented on guitar and we don't have a drummer."

There is no question that, in addition to denominational worship traditions, some musical "style" questions are linked to church size.

Jeffrey Epstein meets Dante: Eternal questions about hell that refuse to fade away

Jeffrey Epstein meets Dante: Eternal questions about hell that refuse to fade away

So, what is Jeffrey Epstein up to these days?

When beloved public figures pass away, cartoonists picture them sitting on clouds playing harps or chatting up St. Peter at heaven's Pearly Gates. The deaths of notorious individuals like Jeffrey Dahmer, Timothy McVeigh, Osama bin Laden and Epstein tend to inspire a different kind of response.

"The world is now a safer place," one victim of the disgraced New York financier and convicted sex offender told The Daily Mirror. "Jeffrey lived his life on his terms and now he's ended it on his terms too. Justice was not served before, and it will not be served now. I hope he rots in hell."

Social-media judgments were frequent and fiery. After all, this man's personal-contacts file -- politicians, entertainers, Ivy League intellectuals and others -- was both famous and infamous. Epstein knew people who knew people.

"That Jeffrey Epstein was allowed to take the coward's way out & deny justice to his victims is a DISGRACE," tweeted Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. "Pedophiles deserve the Ninth Circle of Hell, but not before a full accounting."

The rush to consign Epstein to hell is interesting, since many Americans no longer believe in a place of eternal damnation -- a trend seen in polls in recent decades.

In 1990, a Gallup poll found that 60% of Americans believed in hell and only 4% of respondents thought there was a chance they would go to hell. In 2014, The Pew Research Center's Religious Landscape Study said 58% of American adults believed in hell, defined as a place where "people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished."

The bottom line: For many Americans, hell is for people who have already been damned in the court of public opinion -- since everyone agrees they are extraordinarily bad. This view of eternal life doesn't point to a reality that has anything to do with how normal people make choices and go about their lives. Hell is a vague, majority-vote concept that applies only to mass murderers and sickos involved in sex-abuse scandals.

Many modern people want eternal justice on their own terms. This desire may have little or nothing to do with God.

A 'disruptive' new leader takes a powerful job in the Southern Baptist Convention

A 'disruptive' new leader takes a powerful job in the Southern Baptist Convention

It's a long way from Storyline Fellowship in Denver's western suburbs to downtown Nashville and a publishing-and-ministry operation the locals have long called the "Baptist Vatican."

That's 1,165 miles, on a map. The cultural gap between the Colorado Rockies and Tennessee seems bigger than that.

Storyline Fellowship is the congregation that the Rev. Ben Mandrell and his wife, Lynley, started in their living room in 2014, helping it grow into a modern evangelical flock with 1,600 members in a revamped Walmart facility. That's the kind of challenge church planters accept when working as missionaries outside the Southern Baptist Convention's heartland in the Bible Belt.

Now the 42-year-old Mandrell has jumped from the SBC frontier into one of the most high-profile jobs in America's largest Protestant flock -- serving as the new president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. That's the complex publishing, research and media company, with about 4,000 employees, that in simpler times as called the Sunday School Board.

Bible classes remain on the agenda, stressed Mandrell. But so are many other ministries that symbolize a new reality that all religious leaders will have grasp, one way are the other: The good old days of safe, predictable church work are gone.

"Not that we're not doing what we used to do" in terms of publishing materials used for Sunday Bible classes and other familiar forms of outreach, said Mandrell, in a telephone interview.

"But we're have to do so much more because America is getting so complex and diverse. … We have to keep asking our church leaders, 'What do you need us to provide for your tool boxes to do the work that you now know that you have to do?' "

This era of rapid change led to obvious changes -- including the series of explosions on January 6, 2018, that leveled the 12-story LifeWay tower, with its iconic giant stone crosses, that loomed over one corner of downtown Nashville. LifeWay moved to smaller, modernized facilities close to the Tennessee State Capitol.

Another year, another wave of headlines about 'gay Catholics' losing their teaching jobs

Another year, another wave of headlines about 'gay Catholics' losing their teaching jobs

School years close with graduation ceremonies, which are now followed by a painful rite for Catholic educators and some bishops -- headlines about teachers losing their jobs after celebrating same-sex marriages.

Catholic school leaders in Indianapolis recently refused to extend a teacher's contract after people saw social-media notes about his marriage. A nearby Jesuit school's leaders, however, refused to remove that same teacher's husband from its faculty.

A CNN headline said this teacher was fired for "being gay." Reports at The New York Times and National Public Radio referred to a "fired gay teacher." A Washington Post headline was more specific, stating that the teacher was "fired for his same-sex marriage."

At issue are canon laws requiring Catholic schools to offer education "based on the principles of Catholic doctrine," taught by teachers "outstanding in true doctrine." Church leaders, usually local bishops, are charged with finding teachers who are "outstanding … in the witness of their Christian life," including "non-Catholic ones."

It's hard to have constructive discussions of these cases since they are surrounded by so much scandal, secrecy and confusion, with standards varying greatly across the country, said Eve Tushnet, a gay Catholic writer who accepts the church's teachings on sex and marriage. Most of the "gay celibate Christians I know have lost or been denied" jobs in Christian institutions, she said.

The Catholic Catechism, citing scripture and centuries of tradition, states that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered" and contrary to "natural law." However, it also says those "who experience "deep-seated homosexual tendencies," must be "accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity."

Far too often, argued Tushnet, "gay sins are treated as serious sins in a way that heresy or other non-gay sins aren't. I can think of reasons you might, as a Catholic school, hire Protestants, but fire someone in a same-sex marriage. But … when one already-marginalized group is so often singled out for penalties it seems more like targeting than like prudence." Far too many church leaders, she added, will "fire you if you marry," but they "otherwise look the other way."

One thing is clear: the term "gay Catholic" -- as used in news reports -- is too simplistic, if the goal is to understand the doctrinal issues driving these debates.

Wars down under: Sacking of rugby star ignites debates on religion, free speech, sex and race

Wars down under: Sacking of rugby star ignites debates on religion, free speech, sex and race

Rugby fans in Australia were getting used to superstar Israel Folau talking about his evangelical faith.

Then he posted a warning from St. Paul, from his Epistle to the Galatians: "Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God."

For Rugby Australia officials, the problem was that Folau jammed that into Instagram lingo: "WARNING. Drunks, Homosexuals, Adulterers, Liars, Fornicators, Thieves, Atheists, Idolaters. HELL AWAITS YOU! Repent!" Folau added: "Jesus Christ loves you and is giving you time to turn away from your sin and come to him."

A Code of Conduct Tribunal in May determined that Folau had violated this Rugby Union Players Association rule: "Treat everyone equally, fairly and with dignity regardless of gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, cultural or religious background, age or disability. Any form of bullying, harassment or discrimination has no place in Rugby."

Folau was sacked, ending his new 4-year contract worth $4 million (Australian) dollars. This was not what fans wanted to hear with the Rugby World Cup looming in September.

The result was an Aussie firestorm about rugby, religious freedom, race, sexuality and free speech -- in roughly that order.

Former Wallabies coach Alan Jones took this shot, in the press, at Rugby Australia leaders: "They've destroyed his employment and internationally destroyed his name for quoting a passage from the bible for God's sake."

Rugby Australia Chief Executive Officer Raelene Castle released this statement: "I've communicated directly with the players to make it clear that Rugby Australia fully supports their right to their own beliefs and nothing that has happened changes that. But when we are talking about inclusiveness in our game, we're talking about respecting differences as well. When we say rugby is a game for all, we mean it."

But there's the rub, according to many Australians. By firing Folau for alleged hate speech, rugby's principalities and powers may have attacked his "religious background," as well as his Polynesian heritage.

The ordination of married men as Catholic priests: Is this change now inevitable?

The ordination of married men as Catholic priests: Is this change now inevitable?

American Catholics may not know all the latest statistics, but they've been talking about the altar-level realities for decades.

Half a century ago, there were nearly 60,000 U.S. priests and about 90 percent of them were in active ministry -- serving about 54 million self-identified Catholics.

The number of priests was down to 36,580 by 2018 -- while the U.S. Catholic population rose to 76.3 million -- and only 66 percent of diocesan priests remained in active ministry. According to a study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, half of America's priests hoped to retire before 2020. Meanwhile, 3,363 parishes didn't have a resident priest in 2018.

It's understandable that concerned Catholics are doing the math. Thus, activists on both sides of the priestly celibacy issue jumped on an intriguing passage in the "Instrumentum Laboris" for next October's special Vatican assembly of the Synod of Bishops in the Pan-Amazonian region.

"Stating that celibacy is a gift for the Church, we ask that, for more remote areas in the region, study of the possibility of priestly ordination of elders, preferably indigenous," stated this preliminary document. These married men "can already have an established and stable family, in order to ensure the sacraments that they accompany and support the Christian life."

The text's key term is "viri probati" -- mature, married men.

"Celibacy is not dogma; it is a legal requirement that can be changed," noted Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit journalist best known as editor of America magazine. He left that post in 2005 after years of conflict with the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

While Pope Francis has praised celibacy, "he is also a pragmatist who recognizes that indigenous communities are being denied the Eucharist and the sacraments because they don't have priests. After all, which is more important, a celibate priesthood or the Eucharist? At the Last Supper, Jesus said, 'Do this in memory of me' not 'have a celibate priesthood'," argued Reese, in a Religion News Service commentary.

Survey results have shown that many American Catholics are ready for married priests, noted Reese, reached by email.

Karen Swallow Prior reflects on patience, suffering and books -- after being hit by a bus

Karen Swallow Prior reflects on patience, suffering and books -- after being hit by a bus

While finishing her book, "On Reading Well," Karen Swallow Prior wrote a reflection on patience, suffering and the virtues of one of literature's less celebrated heroines -- Anne Elliot of Jane Austen's final novel, "Persuasion."

The link between patience and suffering, she noted, can be seen in the word "patient," as in someone who is under medical care.

"Suffering is not something that we do well in the modern age," wrote Prior. "It's certainly not something I do well. … Since suffering is inevitable in this world, it might seem silly to consider the willingness to endure it as a virtue. But while suffering is inevitable, we can choose how we bear it. Patient character has everything to do with our will, as opposed to our circumstances."

Days after finishing that book, the Liberty University English professor visited Nashville for work on another project. At the same time, she was involved in a national news story, speaking out as a Southern Baptist on #ChurchToo controversies swirling around Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

Walking to an editorial meeting, Prior stepped into a Nashville crosswalk and was hit by a bus. That was a year ago.

This wasn't a story about a fictional character, with mental images and lessons that could be filed away. This suffering was real, with stabbing pains and scars linked to fractures in her spine, shoulder, ribs and pelvis -- now steadied by a large titanium screw.

But the point of "On Reading Well" -- including her meditation on patience and suffering -- is that great books soak deep into readers, providing wisdom and strength during life's twists and turns. In that book, Prior linked specific books to specific virtues. Prudence, temperance, justice and courage are "cardinal" virtues, while faith, hope and love are "theological" virtues. Finally, there are the seven "heavenly" virtues -- charity, temperance, chastity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility.

"Reading well adds to our life -- not in the way a tool from the hardware store adds to our life," she wrote, but "in the way a friendship adds to our life, altering us forever."

This is why Prior remains convinced that -- in an age of noise, confusion and intolerance -- it's more important than ever for families and congregations to help believers learn to enjoy and absorb great stories from great books.

A Pentecost season rant channels the anger swirling out in Catholic pews

A Pentecost season rant channels the anger swirling out in Catholic pews

Elizabeth Scalia woke up furious, thinking about scandals in the Church of Rome, Pentecost and a famous courtroom rant in the movie "… And Justice for All."

"It was like Al Pacino was inside my head screaming, 'You're out of order! You're all out of order! The whole church is out of order!' … I knew I had to write something," said Scalia, long known for online epistles using the pen name "The Anchoress."

At Pentecost, she noted, the Holy Spirit descended like fire on the apostles. "I thought: Dear God, why can't some fire fall on our bishops? What's it going to take to wake up some of these guys?"

Pentecost fell on June 9 this year, following months of news about clergy sexual abuse and the drumbeat of scandals tied to the fall of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, one of the most powerful church princes in American history.

 Then The Washington Post published a June 5 report about a lurid litany of accusations against retired West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield, whose career was linked to that of McCarrick. Investigators found that Bransfield -- in a poverty-wracked region -- spent millions of dollars on his own comforts, while handing financial gifts to various American members of the College of Cardinals and strategic church leaders. While there were no specific accusations of abuse, the church report cited a "consistent pattern of sexual innuendo, and overt suggestions and actions toward those over whom the former bishop exercised authority."

This was McCarrick 2.0, a sucker-punch that inspired Scalia to pound out a personal letter to Jesus that was published by America, a Jesuit publication. Scalia currently serves as editor at large for Word on Fire, a Catholic evangelism organization.

"Well, Lord, here we are again. This crap just never stops coming, and God, I'm getting so disgusted with it all, and if I could not find you in the Holy Eucharist, I wonder if I would find you anywhere else within this church," she wrote, in her fiery overture.