mainline Protestantism

Canadian researchers find that doctrine really does matter, in terms of church growth

Canadian researchers find that doctrine really does matter, in terms of church growth

When they set out to find growing mainline churches, sociologist David Haskell and historian Kevin Flatt did the logical thing -- they asked leaders of four key Canadian denominations to list their successful congregations.

It didn't take long, however, to spot a major problem as the researchers contacted these Anglican, United Church, Presbyterian and Evangelical Lutheran parishes.

"Few, if any, of the congregations these denomination's leaders named were actually growing," said Haskell, who teaches at Wilfrid Laurier University in Branford, Ontario. "A few had experienced a little bit of growth in one or two years in the past, but for the most part they were holding steady, at best, or actually in steady declines."

To find thriving congregations in these historic denominations, Haskell and Flatt, who teaches at Redeemer University College in Hamilton, had to hunt on their own. By word of mouth, they followed tips from pastors and lay leaders to other growing mainline churches.

The bottom line: The faith proclaimed in growing churches was more orthodox -- especially on matters of salvation, biblical authority and the supernatural -- than in typical mainline congregations. These churches were thriving on the doctrinal fringes of shrinking institutions.

"The people running these old, established denominations didn't actually know much about their own growing churches," said Haskell, reached by telephone. "Either that or they didn't want to admit which churches were growing."

The researchers stated their conclusions in the title -- "Theology Matters" -- of a peer-reviewed article in the current Review of Religious Research. In all, they plan five academic papers build on their studies of clergy and laypeople in nine growing and 13 declining congregations in southern Ontario, a region Haskell called church friendly, in the context of modern Canada.

Faith in that Barack Obama brand

Here's good news for President Barack Obama: The slice of Americans who believe he is a Muslim is down to 11 percent, according to a new Gallup Poll. That number was up to 18 percent two years ago, in a Pew Research Center survey, after hitting 11 percent in 2009.

This time around, 52 percent of Democrats knew the president is a Protestant Christian, as opposed to 24 percent of Republicans. Only 3 percent of Democrats said Obama is a Muslim, while 18 percent of Republicans thought so. The number of Gallup respondents who answered "none/no religion" was fairly even -- 10 percent of independents, 7 percent of Republicans and 6 percent of Democrats.

In many ways, the most remarkable number in these polls is that -- after years of public professions by Obama -- nearly 137 million Americans answer "don't know" when asked to name his faith. That's 44 percent of those polled in this recent Gallup effort.

"It's clear most Democrats recognize that he is a liberal Christian or they just don't care," said Mark Edward Taylor, author of "Branding Obama: The Rise of an American Idol." Meanwhile, on the other side, Republicans are "much more likely to say that they are confused about his faith or that they doubt he is really a Christian.

"That could be what some people really mean when they say they don't know Obama's religion."

Meanwhile, there are liberals who think Obama is lying when he says he is a believer. HBO comedian Bill Maher spoke for this flock when he said: "If you woke him up in the middle of the night, or if you gave him sodium pentothal, I think (Obama would say) he's a centrist the way he is a Christian -- not really."

From this perspective, it's crucial that the president's father was a skeptical Muslim and that Obama has, at various times, described his mother as "an agnostic" and "a lonely witness for secular humanism," as well as "a Christian from Kansas," noted Taylor. Young Obama grew up with Joseph Campbell's "The Power of Myth," as well as the Bible and the Koran.

Still, there's plenty of evidence the rising politico paid attention during his years at Trinity United Church of Christ.

One thing's for sure: Obama didn't learn his call-and-response pulpit skills at Harvard Law School. He plugged into a liberal African-American congregation in order to build his South Chicago credibility, while hitting the golf links to learn how to reach into executive suites.

By the time he went national, these lessons had been fused into a powerful advertising formula driven by the words "change," "hope" and "believe." In his book, Taylor says the key is that the "believe" component centered on Obama's image, talent and personal story -- not a creed. The candidate offered "himself to America," rather than political or religious specifics.

"At no time did Obama declare, 'I am the Messiah.' Every time he stepped into the spotlight, though, he talked and acted like one," argued Taylor. "Obama created a messianic personality by being messianic. ... He preached justice, righteousness and compassion. He proclaimed the end of war and peace among nations. He prophesied the healing of the planet. Obama never told the American people that he was their Savior. He showed them his plan for redemption."

This take on faith rings true for millions of Americans. Yet millions of other Americans balk at Obama's privatized definition of "sin" as "being out of alignment with my values." In that same 2004 interview with journalist Cathleen Falsani, Obama said he was unsure about heaven and hell, but that "whether the reward is in the here and now or in the hereafter, the aligning myself to my faith and my values is a good thing."

Taylor is convinced this division -- between two very different views of faith -- is what keeps showing up in poll results about Obama and religion.

"All I know is that Obama recently played his 100th round of golf on a Sunday morning. I don't know if he went to church that Sunday morning or not," he said. "When we look at these poll numbers, perhaps what we are really seeing is the result of what these Americans think about religious faith. What they say about Obama may tell us as much or more about them as it does about Obama."

Obama and Allah, past and present

In the spring of 2007, candidate Barack Hussein Obama met with a New York Times columnist and discussed his days as a "little Jakarta street kid" who once got in trouble for making faces during Koran classes. Obama proceeded to recite the opening lines of the Muslim call to prayer in Arabic, with what Nicholas D. Kristof called a "first-rate accent." Obama described this chant as "one of the prettiest sounds on Earth at sunset."

This text, in one English translation, proclaims: "Allah is Supreme! Allah is Supreme! ... I testify that there is no god but Allah! ... I testify that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah." These lines are known as the Shahada -- from the Arabic verb, "to testify" -- and reciting them, in public, with the intent of becoming a Muslim, is a crucial act in entering and then practicing the faith.

This is the kind of biographical detail that keeps complicating matters for journalists who try to make sense of the poll from the Pew Research Center and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life indicating that 18 percent of Americans think Obama is a Muslim, as opposed to 11 percent in March 2009.

Only 34 percent of those polled said Obama is a Christian and a stunning 43 percent did not know his current religion. Among his strongest supporters, 43 percent of blacks and 46 percent of Democrats said he is a Christian.

These numbers are strange in light of Obama's public testimonies about his conversion to Christianity, after years of spiritual struggle.

In his memoir, "The Audacity of Hope," Obama confessed that as a young social activist he realized, "Rich, poor, sinner, saved, you needed to embrace Christ precisely because you had sins to wash away -- because you were human. ... I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ one day and be baptized. ... Kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth."

This was an open confession of faith, even if many conservative Christians choose to reject the liberal beliefs he has articulated through the years. During the campaign, the Rev. Franklin Graham asked Obama if Jesus was the only way to heaven. "Jesus is the only way for me," he responded.

Meanwhile, the Obama team has had difficulty communicating a clear message about his faith history. Campaign aides, at first, said he had never been a Muslim, but later stressed that he had never been "a practicing Muslim."

Obama's family history is hard to describe. His father was a Muslim from Kenya who became an atheist. His stepfather was a Muslim who, in Obama's words, was raised in an era in which Indonesia offered a tolerant approach to Islam that blended with "remnants of Hinduism, Buddhism, and ancient animist traditions." His mother was raised as a Christian, but adopted her own mix of secularism and spirituality.

While in Indonesia, Obama attended what he has called a "Muslim" public school and also a Catholic school. At both schools, according to educators interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, his faith was listed as "Muslim." School friends recalled that they often went to the mosque together.

Nevertheless, there is no single, definitive Islamic approach to questions about the role of birth and upbringing in establishing a person's religious identity.

Franklin Graham was only partially right when he told CNN: "The president's problem is that he was born a Muslim. His father was a Muslim. The seed of Islam is passed through the father. ... His father gave him an Islamic name." Graham added that Obama has "renounced Islam and he has accepted Jesus Christ. That's what he says he has done. I cannot say that he hasn't."

This view of Islamic tradition is much too simplistic, said Stephen Prothero of Boston University, author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World." There is more to this debate about faith and identity than DNA, he stressed.

"As a matter of jurisprudence, however, there is a presumption that a child born to a Muslim father is Muslim," said Prothero, in an email exchange. "This needs to be followed up with ACTION, however. ...

"Like Christianity, Islam is a matter of choice, not inheritance."

Pew gap continues on abortion

If researchers want to uncover the roots of America's bitter divisions on abortion, the first thing they should do is ask millions of citizens this question: How often do you attend worship services? This has been a consistent pattern in recent surveys and it can be seen in most pews, from conservative evangelicals to liberal mainline Protestants, said Greg Smith, senior researcher at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. This pattern is especially clear among American Catholics.

"The people who attend worship services more often are going to be opposed to abortion and those who rarely or never attend are going to support legalized abortion," he said. "You go once a week? It's going to be about two-thirds against. Rarely if ever? It's about two-thirds in favor. ...

"That division is still there. But the big news is that both of these groups have been moving in the same direction for the past year or so. We're seeing support for abortion rights weakening across the board."

A new Pew Forum survey found that the percentage of Americans saying they believe abortion should be "legal in all/most cases" fell from 54 to 47 percent during a single year. Meanwhile, the percentage of people who said they believe abortion should be "illegal in all/most cases" rose from 40 to 44 percent. The "undecided" camp grew from 6 to 9 percent of those polled.

"The nation remains pretty evenly divided," said Smith. "However, what we can see is that support for legalized abortion is weakening in many groups and it's stalled in others. ... How much people practice their faith is a crucial factor in this."

Support for abortion rights remains high among American Jews, but the latest Pew survey showed a drop from 86 percent in favor a year ago to 76 percent now. Support among Americans with no religious affiliation at all fell from 71 percent in favor of legalized abortion to 68 percent.

One of the most dramatic shifts came among members of white mainline Protestants -- liberal churches that have consistently supported abortion rights. The numbers were especially dramatic when church attendance was factored into the equation, noted Smith.

Support for abortion rights among mainliners who attended church once a week fell from 54 to 42 percent, while support among those who said they attended less often than that fell from 68 to 60 percent.

To no one's surprise, opposition to abortion rights among evangelical Protestants remains high, but the numbers have risen even higher in the past year. Church attendance is a major factor, with 79 percent of white evangelicals who worship once a week saying abortion should be "illegal in all/most cases." A year ago, 73 percent took that stance. Among white evangelicals who go to church less often, opposition to abortion rose a dramatic 12 percent -- from 47 to 58 percent.

The contrast between regular and occasional worshippers was also dramatic among white Catholics. Opposition to abortion rights rose from 57 to 67 percent among Catholics who reported going to Mass once a week. Among those who said they attended Mass less often, support for legalized abortion declined slightly during the past year, from 65 to 62 percent.

These numbers are logical because Catholics who are active in the church are exposed more often to sermons, prayers and ministries that incarnate church teachings on the sanctity of human life, said Deirdre McQuade of the pro-life office at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"Those who are less invested in the sacraments -- attending church, receiving the Eucharist and going to confession -- may have less access to the truth about life, and fewer resources to believe and accept it," she said.

In the end, stressed Smith, this survey underlines two realities. First, there is little evidence that America's debates about abortion are fading. Second, it's clear that religious faith and practice remains one of the most crucial dividing lines on this issue.

"It's important to realize that millions of Americans see themselves as caught in the middle" on abortion issues, he said. "Take those mainline Protestants, for example. Even though it seems that their support for legalized abortion is weakening, they probably see themselves as moving from one position in the middle to another position in the middle. They may be changing what they believe, but not very much."

Walking in St. Tikhon's footsteps

It didn't take long for controversy to spread about the photograph taken after the consecration rites in 1900 for a new bishop in Wisconsin. Low-church Episcopalians called it the "Fond du Lac Circus" because of all the ornate vestments. Not only was Bishop Charles Chapman Grafton, who presided, wearing a cope and mitre, but so were the other bishops. Then there were was the exotic visitor on the edge of the photograph -- Bishop Tikhon of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Imagine the outrage if Tikhon had, as discussed beforehand, decided to take part in the laying on of hands at the moment of consecration. After years of service in America, the missionary later hailed as St. Tikhon of Moscow returned home and became patriarch, dying in 1925 after years of tensions with the new Communist regime.

St. Tikhon had "a vision, a vision of unity," said Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America, during recent events marking the birth of an alternative, conservative Anglican province in America. Early in the 20th century, some Orthodox leaders were willing to accept the "validity of Anglican orders," meaning they believed that Anglican clergy were truly priests and bishops in the ancient, traditional meanings of those words.

"It fell apart. It fell apart on the Anglican side, with the affirmation more of a Protestant identity than a Catholic identity," said Jonah, at the inaugural assembly of the Anglican Church in North America, held in Bedford, Texas.

"We need to pick up where they left off. The question has been: Does that Anglican church, which came so close to being declared by the other Orthodox churches a fellow Orthodox church, does that still exist?"

A voice in the crowd shouted, "It does!"

"Here, it does," agreed Metropolitan Jonah, stressing the word "here."

Thus, the Orthodox leader announced that he is willing to walk in St. Tikhon's footsteps by opening an ecumenical dialogue with this new body of conservative Anglicans, years after similar talks collapsed after the decision by Episcopalians to ordain women as priests and then as bishops.

The Orthodox and modern Episcopalians disagree on many other issues, from the authority of scripture to the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals as priests and bishops. These are the same issues that caused the creation of the conservative Anglican Church in North America, which has been recognized by many Anglican traditionalists in the Third World, but not by the hierarchy of the Church of England.

However, Jonah also focused attention on doctrinal issues that continue to cause tensions among the very conservatives he faced in Texas.

"I'm afraid my talk will have something to offend just about everybody," said the former Episcopalian, who was raised in an Anglo-Catholic parish before converting to Orthodoxy.

For example, "Calvinism is a condemned heresy," he said, and there are "other heresies that came in through the Reformation which have to be rejected" -- words that strike at the heart of the vital, growing Protestant wing of global Anglicanism. Jonah also stressed that, "For a full restoration and intercommunion of the Anglican Church with the Orthodox Church, the issue of ordination of women has to be resolved." The Anglican Church in North America has agreed to allow its dioceses to reach their own conclusions on this issue.

The tension in the room was real, but so was the appreciation for this gesture by the man who, literally, is the successor of St. Tikhon, said the Rev. George Conger, a Calvinist Anglican and correspondent for The Church of England Newspaper.

"What made much of what Metropolitan Jonah said palatable to the ACNA convocation was his transparent good will, and wry sense of humor," said Conger. "The phrase 'hard words said in love' is often trite, but Jonah's remarks ... were given and heard in this vein."

One the other side of this dialogue, Orthodox leaders are more than aware of the obstacles created by decades of tumultuous change in the Anglican Communion, said Father Alexander Golubov, academic dean of St. Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Seminary in South Canaan, Pa.

"Metropolitan Jonah will be trying to walk a thin line, but it is the same line that St. Tikhon tried to walk long ago," said Golubov. "Some of the issues he will face are the same. But there are issues he will face today that I do not believe anyone could have ever anticipated. We live in strange times."

Searching for gray on abortion

When it comes to abortion, the vast majority of Americans know what they want and what they want isn't going to please Planned Parenthood or the Vatican. What they want is compromise. What they want are shades of gray.

In a new Harris Interactive survey, only 9 percent participants agreed that the abortion should be legal for any reason at any point during a pregnancy. On the other side, only 11 percent wanted a total ban.

In between were plenty of citizens who back legalized abortion but, to one degree or another, want to see restrictions. The sponsors of the national survey were amazed.

"We remain opposed to abortion, which means we oppose any procedure that seeks to destroy the life of an unborn child. That isn't going to change," said Deidre McQuade, speaking for the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. "But what we are seeing is growing evidence that most Americans do want to see abortion restricted and limited."

That's why the USCCB is hailing these results, even though most of the numbers point toward compromises that fall short of the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Looking at the extremes, the survey asked if abortion should be "illegal in all circumstances" or "legal for any reason at any time during pregnancy." But in between, participants could say that abortion should remain legal to "save the life of the mother" or legal in cases involving rape or incest. They could also say that abortion should be legal "for any reason" during the first three months or the first six months" of pregnancy.

In addition to the 11 percent who wanted a total ban, 38 percent backed efforts to restrict abortion to cases of rape, incest or a threat to the mother's life. Another 33 percent endorsed limiting abortion to the first three or six months of pregnancy.

When asked if they opposed or supported specific policies restricting abortion, 88 percent of those who stated opinions backed "informed consent" laws requiring abortion providers to "inform women of potential risks to their physical and psychological health and about alternatives to abortion." Also, 76 percent of those expressing opinions favored laws that "protect doctors and nurses from being forced to perform or refer for abortions against their will" and 73 supported laws that "require giving parents the chance to be involved in their minor daughter's abortion decision."

These numbers resemble those in a 2006 survey on politics, faith and social issues produced by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. It found that "majorities of Republicans (62%), Democrats (70%) and political independents (66%)" favored some form of compromise on abortion, as did more than 60 percent of both white evangelicals and white, non-Hispanic Catholics.

Digging deeper, that Pew survey even found that 37 percent of liberal Democrats and 71 percent of moderate or conservative Democrats supported some compromise, backing abortion restrictions that would not be allowed under current interpretations of Roe v. Wade and other U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

Still, it's hard to seek middle ground in an era in which both major political parties have been defined by strict, black-and-white stances on this life-and-death issue.

Tensions will also rise if President-elect Barack Obama keeps a campaign pledge he made on July 17, 2007, when he told Planned Parenthood leaders: "The first thing I'd do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act." Obama is a co-sponsor of this bill, which, according to the National Organization for Women, would "sweep away hundreds of anti-abortion laws (and) policies" that are already in effect.

In response, abortion opponents will argue that there is broad support in the middle of the political landscape for policies that restrict an absolute right to abortion, including laws that are on the books and others that have been proposed by many Republicans and some Democrats.

This can be seen in the new Harris survey data, said McQuade, and in other polls in recent years -- especially those charting the beliefs of young Americans.

"There is political capital there and we must stress that," she said. "We will have to seek the changes that we can make, while being realistic. We will also have to defend the laws that we already have that protect the right to life. This issue will not go away."

Presbyterian alphabet soup, again

To follow Presbyterian news updates, outsiders need to learn a few key facts.

The Presbyterian Church in America is not the same thing as the American Presbyterian Church. Also, Orthodox Presbyterians are not to be confused with Bible Presbyterians, Cumberland Presbyterians, Reformed Presbyterians, Associate Reformed Presbyterians or Evangelical Presbyterians.

This Presbyterian alphabet soup became less complicated in 1983, when the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. joined with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., the so-called Southern branch. This created the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which today has about 2.3 million members.

Is that clear? If so, take a deep breath because Presbyterian affairs are about to get more complicated as new divisions and unions reshape the churches that trace their roots to John Calvin and his Reformed branch of Protestantism.

"While we're seeing churches fly away from the core doctrines that once held them together, we're also seeing new bonds being formed that are truly interesting," said the Rev. Parker Williamson, whose work in the conservative Presbyterian Layman newspaper has made him a mainline Protestant lightning rod.

"We're seeing a realignment across the boundaries between our churches. This unity will be doctrinal -- not legal. There may not be a formal structure that forms out of all of this. We don't need a big new denominational headquarters to replace the old denominational headquarters."

These are, of course, fighting words at the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which has been forced to downsize its Louisville staff several times in the past 15 years. Membership statistics and donations have declined in an era of conflict about biblical authority, ordination standards, sexual ethics and a host of ancient doctrines, especially the belief that salvation is found only through faith in Jesus Christ.

Meanwhile, these riptides of change have also affected the Layman, a newspaper born in 1965 when the old United Presbyterian Church began work on a modernized confession of faith. That fight reopened wounds from a 1924 battle, when its General Assembly decided that literal views of key doctrines -- such as the virgin birth, deity and resurrection of Jesus -- did not have to be used as a test for ordinations.

After decades of focusing on what has become the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Layman's August issue included several pages of coverage of events in the smaller Evangelical Presbyterian Church. In the future, said Williamson, it will include news about the Presbyterian Church in America and other conservative Reformed bodies.

This will get complicated because "lots of things are happening at once" as church leaders try to plan for the future, he said.

Some congregations have decided to stay in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), but their leaders are loosening their national ties. Williamson noted that leaders of the Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta have voted to try to stop their per-capita financial contributions from going to the national offices in Louisville. Instead, they want this money to back a new network called the Presbyterian Global Fellowship.

"So they're staying in the PCUSA, but they're doing what I call 'leaving, in place.' They're staying ... but they've made it clear that this isn't business as usual," he said. "Now that's the largest church in the denomination, so when it does something like that it gives cover for smaller churches and their pastors who have been afraid to take a stand."

Some churches are openly attempting to cut their mainline ties and join the New Wineskins/Evangelical Presbyterian Church Transitional Presbytery. Other congregations are revising legal documents that bind them to their regional Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) presbyteries, in case they want to exit in the future.

Leaders on both sides know it may take a U.S. Supreme Court decision to tie up the many loose ends in this legal fight -- affecting millions of dollars worth of pensions, endowments and church properties nationwide. Similar conflicts are shaking the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and other oldline Protestant bodies.

There will be unity in the future, said Williamson, but it will not look like the unity of the past.

"There isn't going to be a central, merged denominational office somewhere," he said. "The new church unity will be in new networks of people with common beliefs. It's going to look more like the World Wide Web, not the old industrial model."

So who is Dan Brown?

There was no way to film "The Lord of the Rings" without dealing with the author and producer Peter Jackson knew it.

Who was J.R.R. Tolkien? Luckily, the Oxford don left behind letters and essays about his Catholic faith and its impact on his heart, mind and soul.

"What we tried to do was honor the things that were important to Tolkien," said Jackson, after screening "The Two Towers" for the press. "We didn't want to make it a religious film. But he was very religious and some of the messages and some of the themes are based on his beliefs."

When artists turn a novel into a movie, they need to understand the author and it helps if he has, in the past, been candid about his beliefs and values. It helps to know something about the worldview that shaped the fiction.

So who is novelist Dan Brown? How will his beliefs affect "The Da Vinci Code" movie that will roll -- tsunami style -- into thousands of theaters next weekend?

It's hard to answer these questions, because Brown rarely agrees to serious interviews. Entertainment Weekly recently resorted to running a feature entitled "10 Things We Learned About Dan Brown From His Recent Trial."

Who is Dan Brown? He grew up in the Episcopal Church and was a regular at church camps. His mother was a church musician. His father taught mathematics at Phillips Exeter Academy, so Brown lived and studied there before going to Amherst College. During his college years, as often happens, Brown veered away from faith.

We know that he tried teaching English, failed as a songwriter and, early on, struggled as a writer. His wife, Blythe, is a painter who has played a major role in his work with her research skills and anger at traditional Catholicism. We know that Brown says he outlined "The Da Vinci Code" before he -- or his wife -- read the conspiracy theory classic "Holy Blood, Holy Grail." We know that Brown beat claims of plagiarism in that recent trial in London.

Interviewing himself at DanBrown.com, he argues that his book is a godsend for those open to debating religious questions and a challenge to anyone clinging to ancient doctrines. In other words, anyone who thinks his book is an attack on his or her faith is probably the kind of person whose faith deserves to be attacked.

"This book is not anti-anything. It's a novel," said Brown. "I wrote this story in an effort to explore certain aspects of Christian history that interest me. The vast majority of devout Christians understand this fact and consider 'The Da Vinci Code' an entertaining story that promotes spiritual discussion and debate. Even so, a small but vocal group of individuals has proclaimed the story dangerous, heretical and anti-Christian."

The problem is the novel's opening statement: "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate." After that, Brown proceeds to argue that Jesus was a charismatic man who married, had a child and created a goddess-friendly faith. The early church, however, twisted his teachings. Thus, as a brilliant skeptic says in the novel, "almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false."

Still, it's crucial to note that Brown is not opposed to Christianity, per se. In the online interview he stresses that he considers himself a Christian, but one who is seeking his own path of enlightenment. Brown sees himself as someone who is searching for a crossroads where science, sacred sex and all the world religions meet and work out their differences in the embrace of an all-embracing goddess, god or pantheon of gods to be negotiated at some point in the future.

"If you ask three people what it means to be Christian, you will get three different answers," he said. "Some feel being baptized is sufficient. Others feel you must accept the Bible as absolute historical fact. Still others require a belief that all those who do not accept Christ as their personal savior are doomed to hell. Faith is a continuum, and we each fall on that line where we may."

Who is Dan Brown? He is an evangelist proclaiming the message that there is no orthodoxy other than his liberating orthodoxy that says traditional Christianity is heresy. His goal is to liberate Jesus from all those picky ancient creeds.

Antioch exits National Council of Churches

Summer is the season for church conventions that talk about hot issues.

Last week's 47th convention of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America passed a resolution that addressed both sexuality and the Iraqi war. But this time the lofty words led to an historic change.

The assembly voted to oppose "divisive and dangerous" positions taken by "left-wing" and "right-wing" groups. To be specific, it rejected "support for same-sex marriage, support for abortion, support for ordination of women to Holy Orders, support for the concept of war that is 'pre-emptive' or 'justifiable' and the labeling of other faiths and their leaders with hateful terminology."

The archdiocese -- a blend of Arab-Americans and many converts -- vowed to avoid groups that "promulgate these extreme positions" and renewed its commitment to seek Orthodox unity in North America.

Then the delegates cheered as Metropolitan Philip Saliba announced his decision to withdraw from the National Council of Churches USA.

The archdiocese joined the old Federated Council of Churches in the 1940s and had been active in the ecumenical movement ever since, said Father Olof Scott, of the church's interfaith relations office. But recent decades have been tough.

The Orthodox believe "we're getting further and further away from the primary goal of looking to bring Christianity back into a unified fold," he told AncientFaithRadio.com. Now, the "churches of the mainline Protestant world really don't want to hear our message. It is with that frustration that we felt that we can put our efforts to better use elsewhere."

The national council has not responded to the departure of one of its 36 churches, said the Rev. Leslie Thune, its spokesperson in Washington. General Secretary Bob Edgar -- a former Democratic congressman -- is currently out of the office, but has promised to meet with Metropolitan Philip as soon as possible to discuss his concerns.

"We did not even know that this was in the works," said Thune.

However, she noted the council's oft-repeated stance that it does not take stands on divisive doctrinal issues, since many of its member churches have clashing beliefs on such matters.

Nevertheless, Scott said the Antiochian archdiocese quit the council, in large part, because of what he called an "almost a politicized agenda" under Edgar -- with a strong emphasis on sexual liberation and opposition to conservative Christianity.

A turning point came in 2000 when Edgar removed his signature from "A Christian Declaration on Marriage," a statement signed by representatives of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Association of Evangelicals. The text defined marriage as between man and a woman.

After speaking at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Breakfast during an NCC general assembly, Edgar issued an apology and affirmed his support for same-sex unions. He told Presbyterian News Service: "I support marriage, and I support more than marriage the love between two people, and I don't differentiate whether it is between a man and a woman or a woman and a woman or a man and a man or whatever. We need fidelity and care in relationships."

There have been many signs of tension. Two years ago, the Russian Orthodox Church cut all ties with the U.S. Episcopal Church following the consecration of the openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Russian Patriarch Alexy II recently said he was worried about the leadership role that churches offering a "free interpretation" of sexual morality hold in the World Council of Churches.

Last month, the Orthodox Church in America -- which has Russian roots -- studied a document that said the "most advisable course" for its ecumenical work "would be eventually to withdraw from the NCC and the WCC." After all, said this "Orthodox Relations" text, there are more Protestant and Pentecostal Christians outside of these councils than there are inside and neither includes the Roman Catholic Church.

The Antiochian archdiocese agrees. Decades ago, said Scott, Orthodoxy needed a seat in the National Council of Churches in order to "put a face" on its often mysterious rites and parishes. But now the momentum is toward work with more conservative believers.

"We don't need the NCC," he said, "for the identity of Orthodoxy in the new world. People know who we are. We are strong. We are vibrant. We are growing."