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Notebook Religion


Religion Notes

Canadian rift

Bitter debate is raging in Canada's largest Protestant denomination, the United Church of Canada, over remarks by its moderator, Bill Phipps, one of the UCC's pastors. He said in an October newspaper interview that he did not believe Jesus Christ was God, was bodily resurrected, or was the only way to God. Last month, the UCC's 70-member general council of lay and clergy members voiced unanimous support of him and said his comments fall "well within the spectrum of the United Church." The council also suggested Mr. Phipps's freedom of expression should be "tempered" in accordance with UCC policy. Church sources said hundreds of letters and calls have been pouring into UCC headquarters. Some said they were appalled that someone who questions such basic tenets of the Christian faith can call himself a Christian, much less lead a national Christian church. Mr. Phipps apologized for any pain his comments may have caused members, but reiterated his beliefs. (The UCC was formed in 1925 by the union of Methodist, Congregational, and most of the country's Presbyterian churches. A rift occurred a decade ago when the church approved ordination of homosexuals.)

Distorted copy

The Washington National Cathedral and a prominent sculptor have sued Warner Bros. They claim a sexually graphic image in the Al Pacino movie Devil's Advocate is a distorted and unauthorized copy of a sculpture that graces the cathedral's main entrance. The sculpture, Ex Nihilo, depicts the creation of mankind, with male and female nudes emerging from a roiled background. The movie portrays a similar sculpture, with the characters appearing to come to life and engage in a variety of sexual acts, the suit alleges. Moviegoers could mistakenly think the cathedral allowed the use of its artwork, produced by Christian sculptor Frederick Hart in 1983, it says. The suit seeks an end to further distribution of the movie, posters, and other promotional material that depicts the sculpture. (A copy of the church art appears on Warner Bros.' Web site promoting the movie.) It also asks for unspecified damages and a share of the movie's profits. Warner Bros. had no immediate comment on the suit but acknowledged producers had seen a photo of the church sculpture during preparation of the movie. However, the sculpture in the movie is a different one, a spokesman said.

Only on Sunday

Pastor David Worth of Malibu (Calif.) Presbyterian Church had only 10 minutes' notice that President Clinton would be attending the 9:30 a.m. service one Sunday in November. There wasn't time to draft a customized sermon for the occasion, Mr. Worth told reporters later, so he went ahead and preached the one he had prepared on religious persecution. Mr. Clinton was ushered to a pew near the front shortly after the service started, while a four-piece contemporary-music band was leading a song, "As High as the Heavens." Many of the 360 worshippers were unaware the president was among them until after the singing ended and the pastor welcomed him, the Los Angeles Times reported. Late-comer Frances Forbes climbed over a startled Secret Service agent in the pew behind the president. "Excuse me, there's an empty seat there," she said. Only later, when Mr. Clinton turned sideways, did she recognize him, she told a Times reporter. Back home in Washington, the pastor was prepared for Mr. Clinton's December visit. The president joined congregants singing "Joy to the World" as he walked down the aisle and took a seat at the District of Columbia's largest black church. He was there to deliver 10 minutes of remarks about race and faith. He got an earful in return, according to media reports. Pastor H. Beecher Hicks Jr. of Metropolitan Baptist Church urged the president and other leaders not to forget their roots. "Some folks, when they get to the pinnacle of power, they forget how they got there," the minister said. "It is not because you are so smart. Mr. Clinton didn't do it. God did it." Amid loud applause and "amens," he added that black voters also helped him get there, and they deserve better in return. He called for full D.C. voting representation in Congress and for home rule for the district. Under the direction of Congress, Mr. Clinton in 1995 appointed a financial control board to run the city government, which was and continues to be bogged down in debt, inefficiency, and charges of corruption. Mr. Clinton told the congregation he hoped for greater independence and better conditions for the city's 530,000 residents in the days ahead.

Mormons grow to 10 million; Carter says they are not cultists

Mormon officials announced the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has grown to 10 million members, nearly 4.9 million of them in the United States. The group, founded in 1830, reported one million members 50 years ago. Last month, Jimmy Carter reportedly told a conference of religion news writers that Mormons should be considered part of the Christian community. A Southern Baptist, Mr. Carter said leaders of his denomination were wrong to imply the church is a non-Christian cult, the Deseret News reported.

Atheist holy war

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear arguments in a San Diego case involving Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the Austin, Texas-based atheist who led the 1963 court battle to ban school prayer. Ms. O'Hair has been missing for several years, and some published accounts suggest she may have died. Meanwhile, her followers have been feuding. At issue in the San Diego case was control of The Truth Seeker magazine, a once prominent atheist publication that has fallen on hard economic times. Lower court rulings left the O'Hair forces in control.

...nor the time of Jesus' return

Two-thirds of American adults believe that Jesus someday will return to Earth, according to a new survey published this month by U.S. News and World Report. Also, 67 percent believe the world will come to an end or be destroyed. The survey showed that fully 60 percent of the most educated and 58 percent of all senior citizens are likely to believe the world will come to an end. USN&WR also observed that belief in a second coming has risen 5 percent since the last such poll three years ago. However, most who believe in the apocalypse placed it well beyond their lifetime, with 33.8 percent saying it will happen more than "a few hundred years" from now.

Bad karma

A federal judge shortened the prison sentence of Swami Bhaktipada from 20 years to 12 years. He said he did so because the former Hare Krishna leader is in failing health. Mr. Bhaktipada was sentenced in 1996 after pleading guilty to a racketeering charge that accused him of amassing millions through fund-raising scams and conspiring to murder two followers in 1983 and 1986. The followers allegedly threatened to cause his downfall with rumors that he was a homosexual and a child molester. Despite his plea, he denied involvement in the slayings. At one time, his hilltop community of about 700 devotees in northwestern West Virginia, replete with a Palace of Gold, was the nation's largest Krishna community. It was expelled from the International Society of Krishna Consciousness in 1987.


Homosexuals and their supporters in the 8.5 million member United Methodist Church (UMC) continue to score points, despite the denomination's official reaffirmations of church teachings on sexuality and marriage. Many Methodists are calling for tougher measures to counter the tide. It is now time to "move beyond statements of moral principles and begin the process of disciplining church leaders who disregard essential church teachings," declared chairman Helen Rhea Stumbo of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank and advocacy group promoting renewal in the mainline denominations. A UMC lay leader in Georgia, she warned that failure to do so could not only threaten the church's "traditional understanding of holiness and grace," but also splinter the denomination. She cited several recent developments: Trustees of UMC-affiliated Emory University in Atlanta recently ruled that same-sex weddings can occur in campus chapels if they involve clergy, faculty, and students from denominations that approve. Emory chaplain Susan Henry-Crowe told reporters that of the two dozen faith groups represented on campus, only the United Church of Christ and the Reform Jewish synagogue now perform such ceremonies. Eight UMC bishops are trustees, and the school's charter places it under the jurisdiction of the denomination. Pastor Jimmy Creech of 1,900-member First United Methodist Church, Omaha, Neb., was placed on 60 days' suspension with full pay and benefits last month by Nebraska Area Bishop Joel Martinez and a regional ministerial board. Mr. Creech had conducted a lesbian wedding at the church earlier, prompting an outcry among many members and official complaints to the bishop. The United Methodist Book of Discipline prohibits clergy from holding services of union for homosexual couples. Bishop Martinez said he hoped First Church's congregation "will use this time for continuing prayer, thoughtful reflection, and respectful dialogue about its current and future mission in Omaha." At Princeton University, UMC chaplain Sue Ann Morrow conducted a wedding ceremony at a campus chapel for two homosexuals who are professing atheists. Her bishop, Pittsburgh-based George Bashore, has spoken with her but has taken no administrative action against her. Ms. Morrow has said publicly that she plans to conduct future same-sex ceremonies. A new caucus group, "Covenant Relationships Network (CORNET)," has formed to lobby for same-sex marriage in the UMC. It has called on churches to open their facilities to same-sex couples and called on clergy to officiate at same-sex ceremonies as an "essential form of pastoral support."

Man knows not his time...

Prayer, peace with God, and reconciliation with others at the end of life are important to at least half of American adults, but only one-third expect a member of the clergy to provide their greatest comfort in their final days, according to a Gallup poll. Among the most trusted sources of comfort and support are family members (cited by 81 percent of respondents in a multiple-selection process) and close friends (61 percent). Pastoral care counselor Rosemary Marmouget of Springfield, Mo., who helped prepare the survey, said that in actual practice, "when people know they're approaching death, most of them do seek a clergyman or chaplain." Other experts said the poll shows the hunger people have for spirituality when facing sickness and death, and the need for clergy to be better prepared and more involved.

Gays in court

The U.S. Supreme Court let stand two rulings that clarify when homosexuals may act to restrict public critics. Justices declined to interfere in the 1993 firing of Baptist minister Eugene Lumpkin from San Francisco's Human Rights Commission. Mayor Frank Jordan axed Mr. Lumpkin, who had a "pro-gay" voting record in discrimination cases, after the clergyman in a TV interview professed literal belief in the Bible, including passages dealing with homosexuality. Homosexual activists claimed this put him on record as favoring the stoning of homosexuals, which Mr. Lumpkin denied. The high court also declined to hear a civil-rights charge against the El Dorado, Calif., Republican Central Committee for ousting a homosexual couple accused of being Democrats. Observers said the case did not involve a government entity and was more about politics than sexual preference.

Try as he might, Judge Grinch still cannot steal Christmas in Alabama

The Christmas show-including a nativity scene-went ahead as it has for the past 50 years at Swift school in Bon Secour, Ala. But many Alabama school systems canceled their traditional Christmas pageants or removed religious elements following an injunction and orders by federal judge Ira DeMent in October restricting religious activities in DeKalb County schools (WORLD, Nov. 8). His actions were widely interpreted as applying to all public schools in the state since he had eight months earlier declared unconstitutional the state's 1993 law permitting prayer in public schools. Initially, school officials scrapped plans for Swift's Christmas program, too. In past years it had featured a manger scene and children dressed as biblical characters, with carol singing by the audience. Swift's parents, however, voted to go ahead with the play anyway. Baldwin County school superintendent Larry Newton edited the script with an eye to passing court muster. The nativity scene remained, with secular themes receiving equal emphasis. Educators and lawyers agreed it met federal guidelines. "This has been in the Lord's hands from the beginning," an ecstatic Karen Nelson, vice president of the school's Parent-Teacher Organization, told the Mobile Register. At Dothan (Ala.) High School, the principal and school board on the advice of counsel ordered that two religious songs be stricken from the choir's annual Christmas concert. Some choir members complained their rights were being violated. Their parents secured the help of Christian Birmingham attorney A. Eric Johnston. He threatened the school board with a suit, The Huntsville Times reported. He pointed out there is widespread dissatisfaction with Judge DeMent's actions in the DeKalb County case. Pending a judgment by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, Dothan city schools should not accept the DeKalb County order as binding on them, Mr. Johnston insisted. School officials agreed to allow the songs. Elsewhere, Etowah County Circuit Judge Roy Moore, who is enmeshed in his own First Amendment battle (WORLD, Sept. 13), issued a temporary restraining order in his jurisdiction against Judge DeMent's injunction. Alabama newspapers reported students at some schools were staging outdoor prayer meetings and circulating religious literature. At some football games, students and parents knelt in prayer prior to kickoff. Such activities are permissible under Judge DeMent's guidelines. However, at a high school in Pell City, more than two dozen students were suspended for three days for leaving class to stage a prayer protest of the judge's actions. Judge DeMent's injunction and related orders came in response to an inquiry by DeKalb County school officials as to what is and is not permissible. He prohibited teachers and other school employees, as well as outsiders, from doing anything that could be interpreted as promoting religion in the classroom and at school-sponsored functions. But he approved teaching objectively about religion in class studies. Judge DeMent ordered monitors into the schools this month to measure compliance with his injunction. News accounts said many students and teachers have dubbed them "the prayer police."

New NCC head

Episcopal bishop Craig B. Anderson, 55, a former marketing executive at Proctor and Gamble, began a two-year term as president of the National Council of Churches last month in Washington, D.C. Andrew Young, a United Church of Christ minister and former UN Ambassador, was unanimously chosen by 350 delegates as president-elect to succeed Bishop Anderson. The new president said he will work at trimming the NCC agenda to three to six issues. The New York-based NCC, formed in 1949, has 34 Protestant and Orthodox member denominations which claim to represent 52 million people.