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Notebook Religion


Religion Notes

New renewalists

By some accounts, the Episcopal Church has lost more than one-third of its members during the last 20 years, with some dioceses declining by as much as 40 percent. Conservatives in the 2.4-million-member church blame much of the loss on the failure of its leadership to uphold the authority of Scripture. Several renewal groups have emerged over the years to try to counter the trend. The latest such group to arrive on the scene bears the church's original name: The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, Inc. (PECUSA). Based in Pawley's Island, S.C., the group says it wants to help move the denomination back to its moorings. More than 150 clergy, including 15 active and retired bishops and representing over 60,000 communicants, many of them in the denomination's largest and fastest growing parishes, have signed its "First Promise" document, spokesman Jon Shuler says. The document's name refers to the first vow taken by Episcopal clergy pledging loyalty to the "doctrine, discipline, and worship of Jesus Christ as the church has received them." Although PECUSA's leaders say they want to emphasize "positive steps" the Episcopal Church must take to recover its spiritual heritage, they served notice they already are on a collision course with the church's newly installed presiding bishop, Frank T. Griswold. "Bishop Griswold's reinterpretation of Scripture and his willingness to compromise the church's historic teaching on moral issues is not the direction we believe God wants the Episcopal Church to take," Mr. Shuler asserted. In his installation sermon at Washington National Cathedral early this month, Bishop Griswold spoke of the "diversity" in the church and suggested there are "different dimensions of truth." In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine that appeared just prior to his installation, he said he believes "the mind of Christ operative in the church over time ... has led the church to in effect contradict the words of the gospel." In a Washington Post interview, he called for less strident debate in the church but hinted controversy would mark his tenure. He is a strong backer of ordination of women as priests, and he was one of the 100 bishops who signed a 1994 statement saying sexual orientation is "morally neutral" and commending "committed" homosexual relationships as worthy of honor. Bishop Griswold, 60, was bishop of the Diocese of Chicago for 12 years. He succeeds Bishop Edmond L. Browning for a nine-year term as the church's chief executive officer and chair of its House of Bishops. Why another renewal group? Privately, PECUSA's leaders say the other groups haven't accomplished much, and new blood is needed. They indicate PECUSA will be aggressive in promoting its agenda. "We are not asking anyone to leave the church they love. We are asking them to help us build the church for the next generation," Mr. Shuler says. Todd Wetzel, executive officer of a larger renewal group, Chicago-based Episcopalians United, is hoping for reinforcements. Many who left the Episcopal Church to seek spiritual nurture and to raise their families in Bible-believing churches now find themselves in the empty-nest stage of life, he observed. They should consider returning to the Episcopal Church as "missionaries" to help reform it, he says.

Crossley convicted

Florida TV preacher George Crossley was convicted last month of trying to hire a hit man to kill his former lover's estranged husband because he threatened to go public with the affair. The person Mr. Crossley chose to look for a hit man turned out to be a police informant. Mr. Crossley maintained he was entrapped by the informant, but a jury found him guilty after viewing a videotape of him negotiating with the informant.

Captive congregations

Sixteen inmates at maximum-security Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La., received a degree from New Orleans Baptist Seminary, an accredited Southern Baptist school that set up an extension center there two years ago. The 16 were the first group to complete the associate in pastoral ministries degree program, Baptist Press reported. The center is at capacity with 50 students, and many more are on the waiting list, BP noted. Nearly 20 congregations are functioning inside the prison, officials said. Of the some 5,000 inmates at Angola, 83 percent will never be released, officials estimated. Many ministers are needed to work among their fellow inmates and offer hope, Warden Burl Cain told a reporter. True rehabilitation, he said, comes from within. "Even if I were an atheist, I would want a strong religious program in prison," he said.

Pew poll

In 1997, "strong religious faith soared" in America from levels 10 years earlier, according to a survey released last month by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Among the findings: More Americans believe in miracles (61 percent) and rely on prayer "as an important part of my daily life" than at any time in the past decade (53 percent) compared to 47 percent and 41 percent, respectively, in 1987. Of those surveyed, 71 percent said they "completely agree" with the statement: "I never doubt the existence of God." In 1987, only 60 percent said they completely agreed. Sixty-four percent of respondents said they agreed completely with the statement: "We all will be called before God at the Judgment Day to answer for our sins." Only 52 percent completely agreed a decade ago.

Broadcasters targeted

Religious radio and TV broadcasters are seven times more likely to be audited by the Internal Revenue Service than is the general public, according to a survey by Bruce Bates, former publications director of the National Religious Broadcasters. His findings were reported by Religion Today, a Web-based news service. Mr. Bates, who runs a marketing and communications firm in West Palm Beach, Fla., said religious broadcasters had a 1-in-20 chance of being audited in 1997. Individuals and businesses in general stood a 1-in-146 chance of being audited, former IRS commissioner Margaret Richardson said. Mr. Bates' study was based on a random sample of 10 percent of the nation's some 5,400 religious broadcasters. Mr. Bates found that most of those audited are relatively small businesses, with 57 percent having nine or fewer employees, and 71 percent having revenues under $500,000 in 1996. Just over 4 in 10 are non-profits. The IRS placed liens against the assets of 14 percent of the audited organizations. Mr. Bates says he believes the government's executive branch "has been using the IRS to go after their political adversaries, particularly certain religious organizations and their leadership, for the past several decades." Religious broadcasters tend to be more conservative and critical of President Clinton's ethics and policies than their secular brethren.

Mel White: Spooking former clients

The ACLU last month bestowed its National Civil Liberties Award on Mel White, a well-known evangelical author and film-maker who broke with his past in the early 1990s and became a homosexual activist. He was given the award for his application of the principles of nonviolence "to the struggle for justice for sexual minorities," the ACLU said. Mr. White's past included ghostwriting books for Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, D. James Kennedy, Pat Robertson, and Ollie North. After years of therapy for sexual orientation problems, he left his wife in the early 1990s, settled in the Dallas area with a boyfriend, Gary Nixon, and in 1993 was installed as dean of the 14,000-congregant Cathedral of Hope Metropolitan Community Church in Dallas, reputedly the nation's largest predominantly homosexual congregation. Three years ago, Mr. White also was named to an unsalaried position as national Minister of Justice for the 300-church Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches. Shortly afterward, he was arrested for trespassing at Pat Robertson's CBN Center in Virginia Beach, Va., during a pro-gay demonstration. He spent 22 days in a jailhouse fast that attracted national media attention and embarrassed some of his former ghostwriting clients. He and Mr. Nixon also were arrested during a demonstration on the White House sidewalk in 1996.

Pay or pray ends

Dallas justice of the peace Bruce McDougal used to offer teens guilty of misdemeanors a choice: Pay a $200 fine or attend eight weeks of church and Sunday school. That was before the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit on behalf of a 14-year-old youth. The teen was charged with fighting in school under the school system's zero-tolerance policy. He argued the non-fine alternative was unfair because he was an atheist and hadn't been raised as a churchgoer. Judge McDougal, up for retirement within a year, told reporters he would quit offering the choice rather than fight. In return, the ACLU agreed to drop its lawsuit.

Boom in Brazil

Catholic charismatics in Brazil are multiplying rapidly and will soon account for the majority in the church there, according to a cover story published by the national weekly IstoE and summarized by several U.S. news services. Their number has doubled in the last three years alone, with some 8 million meeting in 60,000 prayer groups, the article said. It noted that charismatics dominate broadcasting on the church's 181 radio stations and own three TV studios as well as engage in publishing.

Questioning infallibility

Influential units of national associations of Catholic theologians are questioning the basis for their church's official teaching on women's ordination. This month the governing board of the College Theology Society (CTS) endorsed the conclusions of a Catholic Theological Society of America task force. The task force questioned whether the church's ban on ordination of women as priests is infallible. Therefore, the issue cannot be seen as finally closed, said CTS president Terence W. Tilley, dean of religious studies at the University of Dayton. He emphasized that neither society directly addressed the issue of whether women can or should be ordained priests.

On auditing: IRS can't, but Scientologists can

The Church of Scientology paid the Internal Revenue Service $12.5 million in a 1993 "closure agreement" that established its tax-exempt status. This revelation, which was among previously undisclosed details of the settlement, was first published by The Wall Street Journal late last month. The agreement ended a struggle that began in 1967, when the IRS ruled that the Los Angeles-based main Scientology church should lose its tax-exempt status because it was a for-profit business that enriched church officials. The church fought back, filing more than 2,000 lawsuits against the IRS. Under the agreement, the Church of Scientology agreed to drop its lawsuits, to stop assisting others in filing suits based on claims prior to Oct. 1, 1993, and to pay $12.5 million to settle any tax assessments prior to 1993. The original amount sought by the agency is unknown, the Journal said. The church also agreed to set up a tax-compliance committee of ranking church officials to monitor its adherence to the settlement and to laws governing tax-exempt organizations. The committee was required to give the IRS annual reports for 1993 through 1995 disclosing how much the church paid its 20 top-compensated officials, as well as revealing the finances of 23 member churches, businesses, and organizations. Failure to file the reports could result in penalties up to $75,000 for each committee member. Also, the IRS can impose as much as $50 million in penalties on certain church entities if the agency finds that they spend funds for non-charitable purposes, including self-enrichment. In return, the IRS agreed to drop its audits of 13 Scientology organizations, including the mother church, the Church of Scientology International. It agreed not to audit the church for any year prior to 1993. It also agreed to grant tax-exempt status to the church and several affiliated units. Liens and levies filed against several Scientology organizations and leaders were dropped. The IRS also agreed to allow Scientology members to count as tax deductions fees paid for what Scientologists say is another form of "auditing." The auditing, or counseling, process uses a device known as an e-meter, which Scientologists say can help identify hangups known as "engrams" inherited from an earlier incarnation. The purging process can take years of auditing, involve several layers of consciousness, and cost many thousands of dollars. IRS officials refused to discuss the settlement, citing confidentiality rules, the Journal said. It quoted a spokesman as saying the IRS granted Scientology tax-exempt status "because the church provided adequate documentation and information" to enable the agency to determine the church had met legal standards and was entitled to tax exemption.

Suspension extended

The 60-day suspension of Pastor Jimmy Creech of Omaha's First United Methodist Church, who performed a same-sex "marriage" ceremony involving two women Sept. 14 (World, Dec. 20, 1997), was extended indefinitely by Nebraska Bishop Joel N. Martinez. The bishop said he acted upon recommendation of an investigative committee of the denomination's regional governing body. Mr. Creech objected, saying the church's pastoral relations committee made clear it wanted him back in the pulpit. Bishop Martinez said more time is needed in light of "continuing volatility" in both First Methodist and throughout the state conference over Mr. Creech's action. He also said committee members need more time to decide whether what Mr. Creech did is a "chargeable offense" under church law. If they decide it is, it could result in a church trial and appeals to the Judicial Council, the denomination's supreme court, according to a United Methodist News Service story. A key issue for that nine-member panel to decide would be whether the Social Principles of the church are enforceable law or simply guidance for conduct and decision making. The church's top legislative body in 1996 decreed that "ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches." The edict was placed in the Social Principles, part of the church's Book of Discipline.

Healthy practices

Even HMO executives believe spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation can have a beneficial effect on one's health, a recent Yankelovich survey found. Of the 300 HMO professionals polled, 94 percent said they believed spiritual practices could aid medical treatment and hasten the healing process. Also, 74 percent agreed the positive effects of spirituality on medical treatment could reduce health-care costs. The findings were reported at the American Association of Health Plans' 1997 meeting.