Africa

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."

Old Time Religion -- Meeting the woman who could become St. Thea of Mississippi

Old Time Religion -- Meeting the woman who could become St. Thea of Mississippi

The whispers began before Sister Thea Bowman reached Colorado for one of the final mission trips she would make before dying in 1990 at the age of 52.

The only African-American in the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, Bowman was a charismatic teacher, singer and evangelist and her ministry continued after cancer put her in a wheel chair.

Behind the scenes, folks at Our Queen of Peace parish near Denver were asking this question: Would this woman someday be hailed as St. Thea of Mississippi?

After her arrival, a local priest watched as Sister Thea led an interracial youth choir, rehearsing a gospel hymn, "Give Me That Old Time Religion," as well as the children's song she included in each service -- "This Little Light of Mine (I'm Gonna Let It Shine)."

Yes, people were talking about Sister Thea and sainthood, said Father William Breslin, pastor of this Aurora parish in 1989.

"Sometimes you have that sneaking suspicion," he said. "It's neat to be able to meet a person and experience. … It's neat to be able to put your finger on that special quality we can only call 'holiness.' "

Three decades later the U.S. Catholic bishops paused in Baltimore for a "canonical consultation," considering requests for a Vatican tribunal to begin investigating whether to declare Sister Thea a saint. On Nov. 14 the bishops said, "yes."

"The faithful in, and well beyond, the Diocese of Jackson" have made this request, Bishop Joseph Kopacz told the bishops. "Well before I arrived in Jackson" in 2014, "the requests were coming in. …The church embraced Sister Thea from her early years, but there were times when she felt like a motherless child."

During her 1989 "Sharing the Good News" mission -- which I covered for The Rocky Mountain News -- Sister Thea smiled, but shook her head, when asked about the whispers. She would talk about the word "saint," as long as she could define the term.

"People who really know me, they know all about my struggles," said an exhausted Bowman, leaning on the arm of her wheelchair after one service.

"You see, I'm black," she added, with a quiet laugh. "I guess the word 'saint' has a different meaning for me. I was raised in a community where … we were always saying things like, 'The saints would be coming in to church today' or 'The saints will really be dancing and singing this Sunday.' "

Philip Jenkins on giant, global leaps of faith in 1918, 1968 and 2018?

Philip Jenkins on giant, global leaps of faith in 1918, 1968 and 2018?

One of the most famous tales of World War I began when a fantasy fiction writer wrote a story in 1914 about British soldiers crying for help while facing overwhelming German forces near Mons, in France.

Their prayers summoned heavenly hosts of archers attacking the "heathen horde."

Soon, veterans started claiming that they saw these "angels" with their own eyes. Images of the Angel of Mons began appearing -- as fact -- in posters, paintings and popular songs.

It's hard to imagine a world in which nations led by rational, scientific elites could embrace these claims, said historian Philip Jenkins, in recent lectures at King University in Bristol, Tenn. That world is impossible to imagine because it was swept away a century ago by waves of change that few saw coming.

"What happened in the victory? 'Oh, angels appeared. The dead arose to fight for us.' When the Germans launched their great offensive in 1918, of course, what else could it be called? It's Operation Michael, after the leading archangel -- who by this point has become something like a German war god," said Jenkins, a distinguished professor at Baylor University and author of 27 books.

"If you look at the propaganda of the time, the assumption is that Christ is absolutely with US -- whoever WE are, the Germans, the Americans, whatever."

Before World War I, most global leaders followed a radically different set of assumptions, with ironclad ties between their governments and major religious institutions, he said. Many soldiers believed that St. Michael the Archangel, the Virgin Mary, even Joan of Arc, would fight by their side. As the war began, Germany experienced fervor many called a "New Pentecost," with Martin Luther as a messianic figure.

While it's common to believe that religion evolves slowly over time, in a linear manner, the evidence suggests that history lurches through periods of "extreme, rapid, revolutionary change, when everything is shaken and thrown up into the air," said Jenkins. Ever 50 years or so, new patterns and cultural norms seem to appear that never could have been predicted.

Pope Francis and Cardinal Sarah look at European Catholicism and do the math

Pope Francis and Cardinal Sarah look at European Catholicism and do the math

When it comes to Catholicism's future in Europe, it appears that Pope Francis has started to do the math.

In a recent speech to Italy's bishops, Francis offered a sobering sound bite: "How many seminaries, churches, monasteries and convents will be closed in the next few years? God only knows."

Europe is "hemorrhaging" priests and nuns, he added, because of a "crisis in vocations" in which few Catholics are willing to take vows and serve the church. Once, Europe was the heart of Christendom and sent waves of missionaries around the world. Now Europe is suffering from "vocational sterility," in part because of a "dictatorship of money" that is seducing the young, said the pope, in his May 21 remarks.

The demographic trends behind this anguish are familiar. In the most recent set of statistics, the number of Catholic priests continued to fall, while the worldwide Catholic population went up. Among priests, the rate of decline was greatest in Europe -- while in Africa and Asia, the number of priests is rising.

Demographic realities are clearly part of the problem, said Francis. Like what? A recent report from the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies noted that -- with a birth rate of 1.88 and falling, below the 2.1 replacement rate -- France is the European Union's most fertile nation, with Ireland in second place. Irish voters just voted to repeal their nation's constitutional ban on abortion.

The day after Pope Francis faced the Italian bishops, a crucial African voice in Vatican debates -- Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea -- addressed the current state of Catholic faith in Europe.

Like the pope, Cardinal Sarah was blunt, as he addressed pilgrims gathered at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres.

"Pilgrims of France, look upon this cathedral! Your ancestors built it to proclaim their faith. Everything, in its architecture, its sculpture, its windows, proclaims the joy of being saved and loved by God," said Sarah, leader of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

"Your ancestors were not perfect, they were not without sins. But they wanted to let the light of faith illuminate their darkness! Today, you too, People of France, wake up! Choose the light! Renounce the darkness!"


Life after Sexual Revolution: United Methodists still waiting for final shoe to drop

Life after Sexual Revolution: United Methodists still waiting for final shoe to drop

After decades of fighting about sex and marriage, the world's 12.5 million United Methodists are still waiting for a final shoe to drop.

Now, it's less than a year until a special General Conference that has been empowered to choose a model for United Methodist life after the Sexual Revolution -- some path to unity, rather than schism.

As the faithful watch and wait, Boston-area Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar composed a prayer for use among United Methodists in New England, on of the church's most liberal regions.

"God help us! Help us … to take the next faithful step forward not based on doctrine, tradition or theology; judgments, fears or convictions; notions of who are the righteous and unrighteous," wrote Devadhar. "God help us! Help us … to take the next small faithful step forward that is neither … right or wrong; good or bad; for or against; left or right; pro or con."

The problem is that ongoing battles among United Methodists have demonstrated that any realistic unity plan has to address this global church's doctrinal fractures, said the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president of the conservative Good News organization. He is a member of the Commission on a Way Forward that will make recommendations to the historic Feb. 23-26, 2019, General Conference in St. Louis.

If United Methodists had a "quick and easy way" forward that managed to ignore "doctrine, tradition and theology" they would have tried it already, he added. Meanwhile, many of the church's leaders still have "a dream that there are millions of evangelicals who are willing to live in a United Methodist Church that doesn't defend the authority of scripture and our church's own teachings."

Meanwhile, on the left, many United Methodists fear the growing flocks of evangelicals in their denomination -- especially overseas.

A powerful Catholic voice from Africa judges America on sex and marriage

When United Methodists argue about sex and marriage, these doctrinal struggles usually evolve into clashes between progressives in America and conservatives in the growing churches of the Global South, especially Africa.

When Anglicans knock heads over the same issues, the loudest voices on the doctrinal left are from America and Europe, while most of the conservatives are from Africa and Asia.

It's safe to call this an ecclesiastical trend, especially in light of recent debates about marriage, family and sexuality in the largest Christian flock of all -- the Roman Catholic Church. Consider, for example, the salvos delivered by Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea at the recent National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C.

Catholics are now witnessing, he argued, the consummation of "efforts to build a utopian paradise on earth without God. … Good becomes evil, beauty is ugly, love becomes the satisfaction of sexual primal instincts and truths are all relative. So all manner of immorality is not only accepted and tolerated today in advanced societies, but even promoted as a social good. The result is hostility to Christians, and, increasingly, religious persecution.

"Nowhere is this clearer than in the threat that societies are visiting on the family through a demonic 'gender ideology,' a deadly impulse that is being experienced in a world increasingly cut off from God through ideological colonialism."

Cardinal Sarah is not the first prelate from the Global South to use "demonic" language in a public-square battle over marriage.

'Conscience' became a key fighting word at Vatican synod on family

Want to start a fight? Just ask this question: How many Protestant denominations are there in the world?

Estimates start as high as 40,000 and most sources put the number above 20,000, citing the United Nations, the World Christian Encyclopedia or some other authority. The key is that various Protestant groups have their own concepts of biblical authority and the role played by the conscience of each believer. Fights often cause splits and new flocks.

Meanwhile, the Church of Rome has the Throne of St. Peter and the Catechism. This is why eyebrows were raised when progressive theologian Daniel Maguire of Marquette, amid tense debates about marriage, divorce and gay rights, wrote to The New York Times to argue that Catholicism is "going the way of its parent, Judaism" and dividing into three streams.

"In Judaism there are Reform as well as Conservative and Orthodox communities. This arrangement is not yet formalized in Catholicism, but the outlines of a similar broadening are in place," said Maguire. While the Vatican may tweak some procedures, such as streamlining the annulment process, "reform Catholics don't need it. Theirconsciences are their Vatican."

The tricky word "conscience" crept into news about the 2015 Synod of Bishops in Rome -- focusing on marriage and family life -- when the leader of the giant Archdiocese of Chicago told reporters that he thought many Catholics who under current teachings cannot take Holy Communion should be able to do so, if guided by their consciences.

Europe on ice, Africa on fire: Doing the global Catholic math in 2015

As economists like to say, when America sneezes Europe catches a cold. 

When it comes to culture the equation often works the other way around, with European trends infecting America. If that's the case, then American Catholic leaders must be doing the math after reading a sobering new study -- "Global Catholicism: Trends & Forecasts" (.pdf) -- by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. 

"These are the Vatican numbers and nothing in here will surprise the bishops," said Mark Gray, director of CARA Catholic Polls and coauthor of the report. "They are aware of their sacramental numbers and their Mass attendance numbers. … They know that they face issues right now, and in the future, that are very serious." 

When it comes to church statistics, experts study life's symbolic events -- births, marriages and deaths. It also helps to note how often believers go to Mass and whether there are enough priests to perform all these rites. 

If so, the European numbers in the CARA report are serious business. While Vatican statistics claim Europe's Catholic population rose 6 percent between 1980 and 2012, infant baptisms fell by 1.5 million and marriages between two Catholics collapsed from roughly 1.4 million to 585,000. The number of priests fell 32 percent and weekly Mass attendance kept declining, from 37 percent in the 1980s to 20 percent since 2010. 

But the past lingers in brick and mortar.