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Notebook Religion


Religion Notes

Mainliners sink to a new low

Officials from the National Council of Churches and the Presbyterian Church (USA) joined business leaders and senators in endorsing a proposed law that would provide employment protection for homosexuals. At an Oct. 23 hearing before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, Oliver Thomas of the NCC and Herbert Valentine of the PCUSA expressed their organizations' support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The bill would establish homosexuality, under the category of "sexual orientation," as a classification deserving protection in the same way race, ethnicity, gender, age, national origin, religion, and disability now have protected status in the workplace. It failed to gain passage in the Senate last year by only one vote, 50-49. A procedural move cut short the hearing before Mr. Thomas and Mr. Valentine could testify, but they explained the NCC and PCUSA positions in written testimony. Mr. Thomas, NCC counsel, said because federal civil rights laws presently don't cover discrimination based on sexual orientation, "gay and lesbian people are currently deprived of basic human rights." Mr. Valentine, chief executive of the Baltimore Presbytery, said passage of ENDA is "the Christian thing to do." He said homosexuality is not a prominent biblical concern, and Jesus did not express an opinion on the issue. In voicing support for the measure, committee chairman James Jeffords (R-Vt.) said his staff had scoured the country for witnesses with differing opinions, but to no avail. However, leaders of at least four Washington-based organizations that oppose the bill said their groups were not contacted about testifying: Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), Family Research Council, Christian Coalition, and Concerned Women for America. Will Dodson, ERLC's public policy director, told Baptist Press he left the hearing "angry" and "disgusted" that church leaders supported a bill that legitimizes homosexual practice. "It is inexcusable for Christians to defend life-styles which are contrary to Scripture."

Oregon-based evangelist Luis Palau had the support of nearly 500 churches for a crusade last month in Kansas City, Mo. Some 41,000 people attended crusade events, aides said, and Nielsen TV ratings indicated more than 50,000 watched a five-night live call-in show Mr. Palau hosted.

Sanctification and immunity

People over 65 who go to church or synagogue at least once a week are healthier in body and mind than those who don't. And part of the proof is in their immune systems. So say Duke University researchers Harold Koenig, a psychiatrist, and Harvey Cohen, who directs a Duke center on aging. Their findings, part of the largest national survey ever conducted on aging, were published in the October issue of the International Journal of Psychiatry. Blood samples of the 1,718 participants showed that religious-service attenders were twice as likely to have strong, stable immune systems. Among other things, their blood levels of the undesirable immune system protein Interleukin-6 (IL-6) were lower, Dr. Koenig said. "This is the first study I know that tried to look at the pathways to translate religiosity to medical outcome," said Marcia Ory, chief of social science research at the National Institute on Aging, which helped fund the project. The results support a similar link between religion and good health that Dr. Koenig found last year in interviews with 4,000 randomly selected elderly people.

Hell? Yes.

Fifty-two percent of American adults are certain there is a Hell, and 27 percent think there might be, according to a poll published by USA Today. Those who believe in Hell are almost evenly split on whether it is a real place where people suffer eternal fiery torment (48 percent), or whether it is an anguished state of existence (46 percent).

Anglican leaders: Gay agenda "not acceptable"

Anglican leaders abroad are increasingly concerned about the U.S. Episcopal Church and views and practices of sexuality condoned by some of its clergy. Some 50 Anglican archbishops and bishops from 16 countries attended a recent Anglican Life and Witness conference in Dallas. Of that number, 37-many of them from Africa-signed a letter addressed to each American bishop demanding to know why so many of them are ordaining priests who are sexually active outside of marriage, and why they are permitting their clergy to perform same-sex union rites. They asked for a response in writing or in face-to-face meetings by the first of the year. Their letter warned that failure to repent could lead to a rupture in the worldwide Anglican Communion. "It is not acceptable for a pro-gay agenda to be smuggled into the church's program or foisted upon our people, and we will not permit it," they said. Indeed, in earlier meetings abroad, some prelates suggested that the American church has drifted so far from theological and moral standards, it should be excluded from the Lambeth Conference next July in Canterbury. The once-a-decade Lambeth meetings bring together hundreds of bishops representing the churches to which the world's 70 million Anglicans belong. However, religion columnist Terry Mattingly points out, although 75 percent of Anglicans attend largely conservative churches in the "Two-Thirds World," most of the bishops who can afford to attend Lambeth will come from the First World. One-fourth of them will come from the Episcopal Church alone, he predicts. Also, he adds, Lambeth planners have not included any plenary sessions; participants will be scattered among small-group sessions and have little opportunity to organize large-group actions, such as protests.

Lending a hand

Churches have come to the aid of public schools in Prince William County, Virginia. School Superintendent Edward L. Kelly told The Washington Post he saw a host of problems when he looked at his schools. Parents seemed less involved than a generation ago. Student expulsions and suspensions were on the rise. More kids were turning to gangs and drugs. More families were abandoning public education in favor of homeschooling or private schools. The schools needed help, and they needed it quickly. Mr. Kelly laid out a plan for his principals: Each school should forge a partnership with nearby churches. (Such alliances, common in black communities, are relatively new in predominantly white communities and almost always attract close scrutiny from church-state separation extremists.) So far, about two-thirds of Prince William's 66 schools have found one or more church partners; some have 10 or more. The help comes in different forms. Some churches are sending volunteer tutors into the schools. Others are donating supplies or letting students use church computers after school or helping with fundraising projects. Ministerial staffers drop by school cafeterias to chat with students. Church activities for youth can be publicized on campus. The volunteers are under orders by Mr. Kelly and his principals not to promote their religious beliefs on school property. That's okay, says youth pastor Frank Jenkins of First Baptist Church of Woodbridge, which fields dozens of volunteers for several schools. Going to a school translates to students as, "I care about you. Tell me about your day." He said students talk about classes, problems, teachers, relationships. "We would like every teen-ager to have a relationship with Jesus. That's our ultimate goal. But I don't preach that at the schools." He told WORLD that as a result of contacts at school, some non-churched students are showing up at church meetings and events "to find out what we're about." Mr. Kelly, a member of a Catholic parish with strong evangelical leanings, says he understands the concerns of critics. (A local rabbi complains of misgivings about having unsupervised adults conversing with students.) But, Mr. Kelly adds, church help is essential to ease the strain on teachers and to compensate for lack of parental involvement. Michael Farris, president of Virginia-based Home School Legal Defense Association, says the partnership between churches and schools can be a "good thing." Churches should take the opportunity to minister to anybody they can, he says, because "Christian adults need to be penetrating every segment of public life, including public schools." However, he adds, the churches need to be careful "not to give a signal that such an arrangement is a substitute for Christian education." (Mr. Farris estimates 1.25 million children across the nation are being schooled at home, many of them because parents see little hope of their getting a proper education in public schools.)

China bound

As part of the U.S.-China summit , Beijing agreed to host discussions with three American religious leaders. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced that communist government officials had agreed to a meeting in Beijing with Donald Argue, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; Catholic archbishop Thomas McCarrick of Newark; and Rabbi Arthur Schneier, who heads the Appeal of Conscience Foundation. No details were available regarding the purpose and agenda of the Beijing talks, to take place sometime this winter, but Ms. Albright said the discussions would include religious-freedom issues. Mr. Argue was the only religious leader at the White House state dinner honoring Chinese dictator Jiang Zemin. Following a meeting in the oval office in early 1996, where Mr. Argue discussed persecution of believers, Mr. Clinton appointed him to the State department's Advisory Committee on Religious Liberty. Billy Graham's wife Ruth and son Ned, who heads a ministry to China, were guests at a State Department luncheon for Mr. Jiang hosted by Vice President and Mrs. Gore on Oct.29. Toward the end of Mr. Jiang's U.S. visit, Billy Graham met privately with him in Los Angeles. A curiously worded press release from the Graham organization said that details of the half-hour Graham-Jiang meeting were "not disclosed." The release also said the evangelist "acknowledged" the two had "discussed the issue of human rights in China, and especially religious freedom."

Church: "Your spiritual home"

More than 200 self-identified male and female homosexuals attended the first Mass for homosexuals in the Richmond (Va.) diocese. "You know you belong here. It's about time somebody says that to you.... This is your spiritual home," Bishop Walter F. Sullivan said during the sermon at Sacred Heart Cathedral. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that homosexual behavior is immoral, as is any extramarital or premarital sex. But in recent years some Catholic leaders have been emphasizing that homosexual orientation itself is not sinful because, they believe, it is not freely chosen. As a result, critics contend, many of the outreach ministries to homosexuals in some 30 Catholic dioceses across the country are virtually silent on the immorality issue.

Prison ban lifted

Under pressure from Congress and religious groups, the federal Bureau of Prisons lifted a short-lived ban on donations of prayer books and other religious materials. The ban was imposed in September under a narrow interpretation of a new ethics rule at the Justice Department signed by Attorney General Janet Reno. The rule said no Justice employee "may solicit gifts or encourage the solicitation of gifts to the department" without Miss Reno's approval in advance. The measure was intended to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, a spokesman explained. However, federal prison officials interpreted the order to include religious donations intended for inmates. A week before the beginning of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, chaplains telephoned a Jewish prison outreach group. They said they had to return prayer books and ritual items they had previously ordered for Jewish inmate use during the holy days. Prison wardens now can accept donations worth up to $250. Beyond that, the assistant attorney general must review the donation.

Evangelist Billy Graham, who turns 79 this month, is still filling stadiums. Overflow crowds packed San Francisco's Cow Palace last month to hear him, and over 40,000 were on hand for each of two nights at the Oakland Coliseum. Earlier, record throngs greeted him at a stadium in San Jose. Aides described the more than 60 percent public response among young people from 12 to 18 in Oakland to Mr. Graham's appeal to turn to Christ as the highest in his 50 years of crusade evangelism. Over 1,400 churches from about 100 denominations joined in the three-city, eight-rally outreach crusade in the San Francisco Bay area.

PCUSA gay man allowed to keep office of elder

The Presbyterian Church (USA) regional Synod of the Covenant in Ohio ruled a homosexual holding the office of elder at Knox Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati may retain his ordination and office. The ruling reversed a decision by a Cincinnati presbytery judicial review commission. A Knox member had complained to the presbytery that the man admitted his homosexuality to a church group, and the church's directory lists him as living at the same address with another man. PCUSA law prohibits any "self-affirming, practicing homosexual person" from holding an ordained leadership position. As is customary with ordination candidates, Knox's leaders had asked the man if there was anything in his life that might prevent him from fulfilling his duty with integrity. He replied "no" and was ordained. In explaining its decision, the synod appeals court said Knox's leaders at no time were "able to conclude that a declaration of sexual orientation had been made."

Signed, sealed, and delivered

Bishops of the state Lutheran church in Denmark unanimously approved homosexual marriages but declined to permit separate wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples. Instead, homosexuals can have their marriages "sealed" as part of regular church services. Clergy in the church have been deeply divided over the issue since 1989, when Denmark became the first country to legalize civil marriages for homosexuals.

Golden Gate Baptist seminary will begin offering a master of theology degree via the Internet next fall. It may be the first such graduate school in the nation to do so, if the Southern Baptist school's accrediting agencies allow it. Under the three-year pilot plan approved by trustees last month, the degree program will consist of courses totaling 28 semester hours, a thesis, and weekly on-line dialogs among students and faculty on selected seminar topics. The course is designed to be completed in two to four years, Golden Gate officials said. More than 1,600 students are enrolled at the seminary's main campus in the hills north of San Francisco. The school also operates satellite campuses in southern California, Washington State, Arizona, and Colorado. The Washington, D.C.-based Coalition for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) recently established the Christian Distance Learning Institute as a resource center for member schools exploring ways to offer courses via the Internet. The ideal educational environment is on a Christian campus, "but distance learning is here to stay," CCCU president Robert Andringa said.

Texan Gary L. Bishop, a former Navy aviator with a career in corporate management, was named president of Mission Aviation Fellowship, based in Redlands, Calif. He succeeds Max Meyers, who led the group for 12 years. MAF, founded in 1946 by former World War II pilots, says it serves more than 500 Christian and humanitarian agencies with a fleet of 81 aircraft.

Heritage USA, the former PTL ministry headquarters and Christian theme resort founded by disgraced TV personality Jim Bakker, will close at the end of this month, officials said. Signature Hospitality Resources, the Malaysian corporation that bought the 600-acre complex in 1992 for $42.6 million, said it could not find an investor with deep enough pockets to continue operating the 501-room hotel and conference center. Mr. Bakker, convicted in 1987 of defrauding his followers, was paroled from prison in 1994. At its zenith, Heritage USA employed 2,000 people and hosted 6 million visitors a year.