Not a typical Sunday Mass: Listening to voices in the digital Catholic pews

Not a typical Sunday Mass: Listening to voices in the digital Catholic pews

It wasn't a normal Sunday in Catholic pulpits across America, as priests faced flocks touched by sorrow and rage after a sickening grand-jury report packed with X-rated details about decades of sexual abuse by clergy.

At St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Decatur, Ga., Father Mark Horak said he half expected empty pews, but was thankful that the faithful came to Mass. He openly addressed the crisis and urged the laity to speak out.

"We should not be afraid to demand, of our leadership, fundamental reform," he said, wrapping up his homily, which was posted online. "Don't be afraid to demand it. But do it with love. Do it with love. Maybe with some anger mixed in -- but do it with love. Please."

But something extraordinary happened in another Mass that day, according to a wrenching series of Twitter posts by Susan B. Reynolds, a Catholic studies professor at the nearby Candler School of Theology. One of her research topics: Religious rites in the context of suffering.

Something happened down front at St. Thomas More after a similar sermon, with the same appeal for the laity to act.

"A dad stood up. 'HOW?' he pleaded. 'TELL US HOW.' His voice was shaking and determined and terrified. His collared shirt was matted to his back with sweat," wrote Reynolds. "Jaws dropped. My eyes filled with tears. … This is a big, middle of the road parish in a wealthyish Southeast college town. In such contexts it's hard to imagine a more subversive act than doing what that dad just did."

One parishioner muttered, "Sit down." But the priest listened, and this unusual dialogue continued for several minutes.

"I have a son," said the dad. "He's going to make his first communion. What am I supposed to tell him?"

The sad, sobering sermon of the DUI bishop in Maryland

The bishop was candid with the small flock at All Saint's Episcopal Church, just outside of Baltimore: She had a sobering sermon for them.

"There are things that happen in life that we can't control, that we didn't predict, that perhaps we don't welcome at all," said Bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook of the Diocese of Maryland.

Believers must be prepared for the worst, including wrestling with bad habits that can lead to destruction, she said in a Nov. 9 sermon that was posted online.

"If we routinely drive 55 in a 30-mile-an-hour zone, we won't be able to stop on a dime if driving conditions get dangerous or if an animal or, God forbid, a human being should step out in front of us," said Cook. "Things happen suddenly, and we're either prepared in the moment or we're not, and we face the consequences.

"We can't go back. We can't do it over. In real life there are no instant replays."

This sermon was delivered weeks before the accident -- two days after Christmas -- in which police report that Cook's car veered into a wide bike lane and hit a 41-year-old father of two, sending the cyclist crashing onto her hood and windshield. A breath test after she returned to the crash scene, and after she had been taken to a police station, found a blood-alcohol level of 0.22. The legal limit in Maryland is 0.08.

Behind the Catholic flight from pews

Early in Father William Byron's research into why millions of Americans are leaving Catholic pews, he heard about one woman's tense encounter with a parish receptionist and he's been sharing the horror story ever since. The woman wanted to tell a priest about her feelings that she had lost "the Catholic church I grew up with." However, she wasn't sure she wanted to share the details with the woman who answered the parish telephone -- who kept pushing for specifics.

The petitioner finally said, "I'd rather not discuss that."

The receptionist responded: "Well look, when you figure out what your problem is, call us back and we'll give you an appointment."

The audience groaned during a recent Catholic University of America forum to discuss findings from the "Empty Pews" study conducted in the Diocese of Trenton, N.J.

"I'm not making this stuff up," stressed Byron, a Jesuit who teaches business at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.

The Trenton study, he explained, grew out of his contacts with a corporate leader who, as a Catholic layman, thought it would be constructive for priests and bishops to start doing "exit interviews" with former Catholics. Someone, Byron said, needed to ask why Catholics drop out or take their spiritual business elsewhere.

The numbers are hard to avoid. A 2009 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that one-in-10 American adults are former Catholics, with four exiting for every one that converts into the church. Meanwhile, weekly Mass attendance has fallen from 75 percent or higher in the 1950s to about 25 percent today.

Researchers know that roughly 70 percent of Catholics who leave simply drift away, while others follow their convictions into liberal mainline Protestantism or into various evangelical flocks. The goal in the Trenton study was to find -- through advertisements in secular and church media -- former Catholics who would volunteer to answer a detailed "exit interview" survey.

"These folks didn't drift away. They gave us reasons why they left," said researcher Charles Zech of Villanova University's Center for the Study of Church Management, which conducted the study.

The result was what Zech and Byron called a non-random "convenience survey" built on 298 usable surveys collected from Catholics who said they had left their local parishes, the Catholic faith or both. The typical respondent was a 53-year-old woman.

"This is a very critical demography for the church," said Zech. "If we are losing 53-year-old women, we are at risk of losing their children and their grandchildren. I think that it makes a lot of sense to listen to what they have to say."

No one was surprised, said Byron, that many of ex-Catholics -- when asked to cite church doctrines that troubled them -- complained about issues such as birth control, celibacy for priests, "conservative haranguing" about homosexuality and the ban on female priests. Several respondents said they had separated themselves from "the hierarchy," but not the church.

Some complaints were harder to label, said Byron. Many complained that the church had hidden clergy who were guilty of sexually abusing young children and teen-agers. Some wanted to see local bishops make public apologies. Others said they wished they had a chance to personally tell their bishop to "go to hell."

Others simply complained about lousy music, inadequate youth programs, shallow Christian education classes, rude receptionists and frequent pulpit appeals for money. Some respondents said they wanted to find churches with better preaching and more enthusiastic worship services.

The researchers were surprised that just as many participants praised their priests as complained about them. Nevertheless, any bishop would flinch when reading the words of an ex-Catholic who was convinced that the local priest had "crowned himself king and looks down on all." Another simply requested that the diocese "give us an outwardly loving, kind, Christian Catholic pastor."

The research team hopes, in the near future, to be invited to so similar "exit interview" work in other dioceses. Two bishops have already submitted requests.

It will be tempting for priests and bishops to glance at these results and simply said, "There's nothing new here," said Byron.

"There is a lot that's new here and there's a lot that should be paid attention to. You can't let what is an internal denial crop up and say, 'We've already heard it.' You've got to listen. You've got to respect it."

Orthodox bishop on hot spot

When an Orthodox bishop enters a sanctuary, he is traditionally greeted with the following words chanted in Greek -- "eis polla eti, despota."

In English this means, "Many years to you, Master." Witty bishops in the Orthodox Church in America have started using this sentiment as the punch line in a joke about the impact the episcopate can have on their egos.

"What happens to a guy?", said Bishop Jonah, during the church's All American Council in Pittsburgh. "You put him on a stand in the middle of the church, you dress him up like the Byzantine emperor and you tell him to live forever. You know?"

The audience of clergy and lay leaders laughed, but it was nervous laughter. The atmosphere in the recent gathering was so tense, Bishop Jonah said later, that some of the bishops were afraid that "everything was about to unravel."

Only 10 days earlier, the 49-year-old monk had been consecrated as assistant bishop of Dallas. Now, he was facing the clergy and lay leaders of a flock that was reeling after years of bitter scandal -- including the disappearance of $4 million -- that had forced the church's last two leaders out of office.

The new and, thus, unstained bishop volunteered to face the assembly and answer hard questions about reform. The bottom line, he said, was that investigators found a "fundamentally sick," corrupt culture inside the national headquarters that was rooted in fear and intimidation.

"Yes, we were betrayed. Yes, we were raped. It's over. It's over," said Bishop Jonah. In fact, whenever church members seek healing, "we have to confront the anger and the bitterness and the hurts and the pain and the resentment that we have born within us as reactions against the people who have hurt us.

"By forgiving, we're not excusing the actions. ? We're not justifying anything. What we're saying is, 'My reaction is destroying me and I need to stop it. If I value Jesus Christ and the Gospel and communion with God, I need to stop it and move on.' "

The audience responded with a standing ovation.

Then, 11 days after he became a bishop, the assembly -- in a move that shocked young and old -- elected Jonah as the new Metropolitan of All America and Canada. Current plans call for his enthronement at on Dec. 28th at St. Nicholas Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

The new leader of the Orthodox Church in America, which has its roots in Russia, was born James Paffhausen in Chicago and raised as an Episcopalian. He converted to Orthodoxy during his college years in California, went to seminary and, while studying in Russia in 1993, became a novice at the famous Valaam Monastery. After returning to America, he was ordained and spent 12 years building several missions and the Monastery of St. John of San Francisco in northern California.

Becoming a bishop turned his once secluded life upside down, explained Jonah. Now it's hard to even discuss his stunning election as primate on Nov. 12.

"They talk about 'his beatitude' and I wonder who that is," he said. "Your beatitude? Who? Where?"

On his 12th day as a bishop, he found himself delivering an address on his "vision for the church." The new Metropolitan Jonah stressed college ministry, calling for Orthodox housing facilities and evangelistic ministries near as many campuses as possible, to help students living in "Animal House" conditions rooted in "sex, drugs, alcohol and despair."

It's also time for leaders in the church's many ethnic U.S. jurisdictions to work together on charitable projects whenever and wherever they can, grassroots projects that he said will eventually produce Orthodox unity at the national, hierarchical level. Where are the Orthodox hospitals, schools and nursing homes?

If nationwide change is going to happen, said Jonah, it will have to grow out of respect and cooperation at all levels of the church.

"Hierarchy is only about responsibility, it's not all of this imperial nonsense," he said. "Thank God that we're Americans and we have cast that off. We don't need foreign despots. We are the only non-state Orthodox church. In other words, we are the only Orthodox church that does not exist under the thumb of a state -- either friendly or hostile.

"So the church is our responsibility, personally and collectively, individually and corporately. What are you going to do with it?"

Hiding behind altars

If you want to cause trouble for American bishops, stick them in a vise between Rome and the armies of dissenters employed on Catholic campuses.

But the bishops had to vote on Ex Corde Ecclesiae ("From the Heart of the Church"). After all, they had been arguing about this papal document throughout the 1990s, trying to square the doctrinal vision of Pope John Paul II with their American reality. Rome said their first response was too weak, when it came to insisting that Catholic schools remain openly Catholic. Finally, the bishops approved a tougher document on a 223-to-31 vote.

Soon after that 1999 showdown, someone "with a good reason for wanting to know" emailed a simple question to Russell Shaw of the United States Catholic Conference. Who voted against the statement?

"There was no way to know. In fact, the Vatican doesn't know -- for sure -- who those 31 bishops where," said Shaw, discussing one of the many mysteries in his book, "Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication and Communion in the Catholic Church.

"The secret ballots were destroyed," he noted. "These days the voting process is even more secret, since the bishops just push a button and they've voted. Even if you wanted to know how your bishop voted, or you wanted the Vatican to know how your bishop voted, there's no way to do that."

Professionals have learned to read between the lines of debates held in the open sessions that the U.S. bishops choose to schedule. Outside those doors, insiders talk and spread rumors. Some bishops spin the press and others, usually those sending messages to Rome, hold press conferences, publish editorials or preach sermons. But many of the crucial facts remain cloaked in secrecy.

Of course, noted Shaw, few leaders of powerful institutions enjoy discussing their crucial decisions -- let alone corporate or personal sins -- in public. When Catholic insiders complain about "clericalism" they are confronting a problem that affects all hierarchies, from government to academia, from the Pentagon to Wall Street.

"It's a kind of elitism, a way of thinking and behaving that assigns to the managerial class a superior status," he said. "They are chiefs and everyone else is an Indian. They set the agenda. They always make the final decisions. They get to tell everyone else what to do."

Of course, there's truth in the old image that puts the pope at the top of an ecclesiastical pyramid, with ranks of clergy cascading down to the pews. Catholicism is not a democracy and there are times when leaders must keep secrets. That's "a truth," said Shaw, but it is "not the only truth," since the whole church is meant to be knit together in a Communion built on a "radical equality of dignity and rights."

Part of what is happening, he explained, is that some bishops are protecting a "facade of unity" that hides their doctrinal disagreements with the Vatican. While Shaw believes the bishops are more united with Rome now than they where were about 25 years ago, some bishops may be pushing for more and more closed "executive" sessions as a subconscious way to protect themselves.

Take, for example, the brutal waves of scandal caused by the sexual abuse of children and teens by clergy. For several decades, argued Shaw, the bishops have been afraid to openly discuss "the causes of the dreadful mess -- nasty things like homosexuality among priests, theological rationalizing on the subject of sex and the entrenched self-protectiveness of the old clericalist culture."

That's the kind of scandal that creates global headlines. But, for most Catholics, more commonplace forms of secrecy shape their lives at the local level, said Shaw.

Consider another story reported in Shaw's book, about a woman who quietly confronted a priest after a Mass in which he omitted the creed. When he failed to acknowledge the error, she said, "Father, you teach your people to be disobedient when you disobey the Church."

The offended priest was silent. Then he leaned forward and whispered, "You know what honey? You're full of it." The priest walked away, giving the woman and her husband what appeared to be "the single-digit salute."

Truth is, said Shaw, "clericalism is often alive and well at the local level. That's the kind of secrecy and dishonesty that really cuts the heart of many local parishes, destroying any hope for real Communion there."

Beyond Orthodox folk dancing

These were the sad, sobering conversations that priests have when no one else is listening.

Father John Peck kept hearing other priests pour out their frustrations on the telephone. Some, like Peck, were part of the Orthodox Church in America, a church with Russian roots that has been rocked by years of high-level scandals. But others were active in churches with "old country" ties back to other Eastern Orthodox lands.

"These men really felt that their churches weren't getting anywhere," he said. "They kept saying, 'What am I giving my life for? What have I accomplished?' I kept trying to cheer them up, telling them to look 20 years down the road. ... I told them to try to see the bigger picture."

Eventually, the 46-year-old priest wrote an article about the positive Orthodox trends in America, as well as offering candid talk about the problems faced by some of his friends. He finished "The Orthodox Church of Tomorrow" soon after arriving at the Greek Orthodox mission in Prescott, Ariz., and sent it to the American Orthodox Institute -- which published the article in late September on its website.

Bishops, priests and laypeople -- some pleased, some furious -- immediately began forwarding Peck's article from one end of Orthodox cyberspace to the other. I received some of these urgent emails, since I am an Orthodox convert whose name is on several public websites.

After a few days, Peck asked that his article be pulled offline. Now the question is whether, after a scheduled Oct. 16 conference with his bishop, he will still have a job.

While his article addressed several hot-button topics -- from fundraising to sexual ethics -- Peck said it was clear which theme caused the firestorm.

"The notion that traditionally Orthodox ethnic groups (the group of 'our people' we hear so much about from our primates and hierarchs) are going to populate the ranks of the clergy, and therefore, the Church in the future is, frankly, a pipe dream," he wrote. The reality is that many American clergy and laity -- some converts, but many ethnic leaders as well -- refuse to "accept the Church as a club of any kind, or closed circle kaffeeklatsch. No old world embassies will be tolerated for much longer. ...

"The passing away of the Orthodox Church as ethnic club is already taking place. It will come to fruition in a short 10 years, 15 years in larger parishes."

Church statistics are, as a rule, almost impossible to verify. However, experts think there are 250 million Orthodox believers worldwide -- the second largest Christian flock -- and somewhere between 1.2 and 5 million worshipping in the 22 ethnic jurisdictions in North America. That huge statistical gap is crucial.

The problem is that Orthodoxy is experiencing two conflicting trends in America. Some parishes and missions are growing, primarily due to an influx of converts -- especially evangelicals -- from other churches. Meanwhile, many larger congregations are getting older, while watching the children and grandchildren of their ethnic founders assimilate into the American mainstream.

Thus, many Orthodox leaders are excited about the future. Others are just as frustrated about their problems in the here and now.

Thriving American parishes, said Peck, are finding ways to blend some of the traditions of the old world with strong efforts to build churches that welcome newcomers, whether they are converts or the so-called ethnic "reverts" who rediscover the church traditions of earlier generations.

The best place to see the big picture, he said, is in America's Orthodox seminaries. One study found that nearly half of the future priests are converts and that percentage is sure to be higher in the evangelistic churches that emphasize worship and education in English.

"When I talk about the churches of the future, I'm not talking about churches without ethnic roots," said Peck. "What I'm talking about are churches in which there are no barriers to prevent people from working and living and worshipping together. It doesn't matter whether the people inside are Greek or Hispanic or Arab or Asian or Russian or Polynesian or anything else.

"All of these people are supposed to be in our churches, together, if we are going to get serious about building Orthodoxy in America. It's no longer enough to have folk dancing and big ethnic festivals. Those days are over."

Catholic South shall rise

Catholics in the urban Northeast are getting used to the headlines.

Parishioners in East Harlem have decided to conduct a vigil in a beloved old sanctuary because church leaders plan to lock the doors -- forever. The Archdiocese of New York recently said it would close or merge 21 churches in order to gather more people in fewer pews to be served by a declining number of priests.

A parishioner at Our Lady Queen of Angels told the New York Times: "People have been baptized here and married here, received first communion here. ... When they close the church, we are going to stay inside."

This is one image of American Catholic life today.

However, it's only part of a bigger picture, said Steven Wagner of QEV Analytics in Washington, D.C. While parishes are closing in regions long known as Catholic strongholds, more missions are opening in regions where the Catholic flock is small -- but vital.

For every Boston, there is a Knoxville, Tenn. For every Philadelphia, there is a Savannah, Ga.

"The church is closing parishes in the Northeast, but Catholics are building them in the South and the Southwest," said Wagner. "We know that a lot of that is driven by immigration and population trends. ? So if you really want to know where Catholicism is alive and where it's struggling, you can't just look at membership statistics. You have to ask other questions."

That's what Wagner and co-writer Father Rodger Hunter-Hall have tried to do in a study entitled "The State of the Catholic Church in America, Diocese by Diocese," conducted for the conservative Crisis magazine. Using statistics from the Official Catholic Directory they ranked the 176 Latin Rite dioceses in three crucial areas. Their goal was to study the role played by local bishops between 1995 and 2005.

In an attempt to gauge clergy morale, they determined if the number of active priests in a diocese was rising or falling. Five dioceses stayed the same, 29 experienced growth and 141 suffered deceases.

Then Wagner and Hunter-Hall counted the number of priests being ordained, using a scale that did not discriminate against small dioceses. On the negative end of the scale, 48 dioceses had zero ordinations in 2005 -- including large Sunbelt dioceses in Dallas and Houston.

"All kinds of factors can affect morale and the number of ordinations," said Hunter-Hall, who teaches at Christendom College in Front Royal, Va. "But these statistics at least provide insights into whether a bishop is attracting new priests and whether or not he has created a climate that makes men want to serve in his diocese."

To gauge the effectiveness of evangelism efforts, they charted the number of adult converts in each diocese. Once again, Wagner and Hunter-Hall stressed that Catholicism is experiencing rapid growth in some regions due to immigration and, as always, many people enter the church through intermarriage.

However, that kind of growth "isn't the same thing as people making decisions to convert because of the faith itself," said Hunter-Hall. "If you see converts streaming into the church, that almost always tells you something about the spiritual climate in a diocese. That usually has something to do with the bishop."

Finally, the researchers combined these three factors and determined which dioceses that they thought had improved and declined the most during the past decade. The top 20 list was dominated by small dioceses -- including a stunning number in the Bible Belt. The sharpest declines were in the Northeast, especially New England.

Thus, Wagner and Hunter-Hall noted: "The church is ... most healthy in that region that is traditionally the least hospitable to it, and is least healthy in that region where it has the longest history, and in which are found the greatest concentration of Catholics (as a percentage of the population) and the largest number of Catholics."

Size is not always a virtue and, it seems, the first may become the last. Small dioceses -- especially in "missionary" regions -- consistently attracted more converts and more new priests.

"It sounds strange, but if you're a Catholic and you want to go where the action is you need to go to places like Alexandria (La.) Tyler (Texas) and Biloxi (Miss.)," said Wagner. "Catholics all over America are facing unique challenges. It seems that some people are handling them better than others."

Cliffs notes for confession

It's time for the Catholic bishops to go to confession.

It's time for all of the Catholic priests to go to confession.

Actually, with Easter a few weeks away, this is a time when all Catholics are supposed to go to confession.

But most of America's 65 million Catholics no longer know or no longer care that their church requires them to go to confession at least once a year in order to receive Holy Communion. Confession is especially important during this season of Lent.

If bishops and priests want Catholics to go to confession, they must demonstrate that the Sacrament of Penance still matters, said Msgr. James Moroney, who leads the U.S. bishops' liturgy office. The shepherds could, for example, start leading public rites that end with opportunities for private confession -- including their own.

"Our bishops and our priests have to preach the practice of penance," he said. "But they are also have to participate in the practice of penance. Then they have to make the practice of penance available to their people in a variety of ways. ...

"We know that our people need this. Everybody in our culture is bleeding from the eyes. Everybody has pain they need to get rid of and wounds that need to be healed. Well, we know how to do that. We have the tools and we need to use them."

Thus, the U.S. liturgy office has published a new brochure to teach Catholics how to do something that once was as familiar as breathing -- confess their sins to a priest. The back page is perforated, so penitents can tear off an eight-step "How to Go to Confession" list and carry it with them.

Catholics used to line up for confession on Saturdays. But by the mid-1970s, surveys found that monthly confession among American Catholics had fallen from 38 to 17 percent in a decade, while those who never or rarely went rose from 18 to 38 percent. In the mid-1980s, a University of Notre Dame study found that 26 percent of active, "core Catholics" never went to confession and another 35 percent went once a year.

It's hard to know how many confessions priests hear these days, said Moroney. Confession is a private matter. No one likes to discuss statistics.

But bishops and priests know that more Catholics need to go to confession. They know "The Catechism of the Catholic Church" still teaches "having attained the age of discretion, each of the faithful is bound by an obligation faithfully to confess serious sins at least once a year."

This may come as news to millions of Catholics.

"This Easter will mark my 10th year as a Catholic," noted one convert, in an online discussion. "I have very rarely missed Sunday mass or a holy day of obligation. Sometimes I've even gone to daily mass. Point is, I've heard well over 500 sermons. Not once -- not once -- do I recall having heard confession mentioned. ... For most American Catholics today, confession is almost as rare and exotic a devotional practice as donning a hair shirt."

Sadly, these words ring true, said Moroney. Many priests feel overwhelmed and have fallen silent. Many doubt their parishioners will accept the need for confession. But clergy must grasp that there is no shortage of sin and guilt in the pews. The problem is that Catholics are "surrounded 24/7 by a culture that teaches them to either deny their pain or to wallow in it as victims," he said.

Someone must take the time -- Sunday after Sunday -- to remind Catholics of the teachings of their church. Silence will not work.

"In some of our parishes there are enormous numbers of people who are going to confession. ... Then there are many parishes where we're talking about four or five people on a typical Saturday afternoon," said Moroney.

"So what's the difference? It's like that movie says, 'If you build it, they will come.' If priests constantly preach this and if they offer a variety of times and ways for people to celebrate the sacrament, then you're going to see people come to confession. But you have to give people a chance. You have to help them get over their fears."

Those Anglican Hitlers in Africa

An Episcopal bishop could not find a more natural place to preach than on National Public Radio.

Long ago, witty commentators called the Episcopal Church the "Republican Party at prayer." Today, "NPR at prayer" would be more like it.

So Bishop Charles Bennison of Philadelphia picked a great place to air his views about current tensions between his church's hierarchy and Third World Anglicans, especially Africans. While it's true that African churches are much larger than the Episcopal Church, he told NPR that numbers are not everything when it comes to faith.

The bishop was quoted saying that "just because there are millions of conservative Christians who rally around issues like homosexuality, that doesn't mean they're right." Adolf Hitler, he noted, had many followers as well.

Bennison immediately tried to clarify what he was saying about conservative Episcopalians and their Third World allies.

"Please, I'm not saying the people in this country or my colleagues in the episcopate in Africa are necessarily gathering people around something as dastardly as Adolf Hitler," he told NPR. "I am trying to make the point, however, that growth and truth are two different things."

Outraged conservatives noted the use of "necessarily" in this clarification.

Either way, this was clearly the most candid quote by a First World Anglican since the Rt. Rev. Richard Holloway of Scotland said he felt "lynched" when bishops gathered in Canterbury overwhelmingly passed a 1998 resolution affirming ancient doctrines that all sex outside of marriage is sin. He blamed African and Asian bishops.

"They live in Islamic countries and, therefore, Islamify Christianity, making it more severe, Protestant and legalistic," he said.

This kind of angry language is especially shocking since Episcopal bishops and other mainline leaders have long proclaimed the need for racial harmony and dialogue with other cultures. But today the politics of sex, money, evangelism and power have created a painful dilemma for First World elites.

"The liberals basically spent the last 40 years saying, 'Let's hear the voice of the Third World,' " said historian Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University, addressing a recent Anglican Mission in America conference. "And now they've heard it and they'd like the Third World to shut up for several decades."

Episcopal leaders are livid that African bishops are backing the Anglican Mission in America, an evangelical network that is building -- without permission from local bishops -- scores of new U.S. parishes and providing a haven for disenfranchised traditionalists. This network has even begun consecrating its own bishops.

Meanwhile, African and Asian bishops are shocked that their brothers and sisters in America are poised to approve formal rites to bless homosexual unions, a step that could take place next summer at the church's General Convention in Minneapolis.

While these events grab the headlines, Jenkins believes this split is rooted in an emerging global reality -- the explosive growth of Christianity in the Southern hemisphere and the decline of more liberal Christian churches in the North.

A few stunning numbers show the big picture, argues Jenkins, in his book "The Next Christendom."

By 2050, there will be 3 billion Christians in the world and only one in five will be a "non-Latino white." In 1900 there were 10 million Christians in Africa and, today, there are 360 million -- nearly 50 percent of the continent. There are between 40 and 50 million Anglicans in Africa.

There are 25 million Anglicans in England, but 800,000 frequent the pews. The Episcopal Church claims 2 million members.

In a few decades, said Jenkins, the heart of Christendom will be Africa, not Europe or North America. So it is understandable if leaders in these lands are experiencing shock and denial. They are losing control.

"If Christianity is going to be centered in Africa," he said, "what that means is that in 50 or 100 years Christianity will be defined according to its relationship with that culture. If might be that Americans will point to it and say, 'But that's not the Christianity that we know. That's not what we are used to. It's not what it's meant to be.' "

Christians in Europe and North America may want to cry out, "It's OUR Christianity," he said. "But it isn't anymore. You lost it."