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Notebook Religion


Cutting back

Money woes continue to dog the mainline denominations

Money woes continue to dog the mainline denominations. For example, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) must chop $9.15 million from its budget for the next two years and lay off as much as one-fourth of its 600-member national staff. Main reason: decline in giving to the PCUSA by congregations and presbyteries.

In Philadelphia, angry delegates to the five-county Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania in a specially called convention set a $4.15 million budget, nearly $800,000 less than originally proposed by Bishop Charles Bennison and diocesan officials. It calls for cutting staff by 10 percent, reducing the diocese's contribution to the national Episcopal Church, and gutting a controversial conference center-a Bennison pet project.

The delegates also called for an audit of past expenses and forbade officials from making revisions and dipping into reserves to fund a deficit. Earlier, diocesan officials had accused the liberal bishop of fiscal mismanagement and questionable dealings, and urged him to retire or resign. He has refused, and the denomination's pastoral relations committee declined to arbitrate the dispute. He is known for his aggressive hostility toward conservative churches and clergy in the diocese.

Bad choice?

Some conservative leaders are having second thoughts about "channel choice"-the proposal to allow consumers to buy just the cable TV channels they choose, an à la carte alternative to the bundled packages most cable operators offer today.

Pro-family groups have been calling for channel choice as a way to help protect children from undesirable programs. They cheered the recent elevation of Kevin Martin, who has led the Federal Communications Commission's crackdown on indecency and has been an advocate of channel choice, as FCC chair.

Many evangelical broadcasters now believe channel choice will threaten the existence of religious channels. They've organized the Faith and Family Broadcasting Coalition to oppose the change. It has been airing anti-choice ads on TV nationwide.

Pay-per-channel pricing "would have a devastating effect on the inspirational programming we currently provide" and "decimate both the audience and financial support for religious broadcasting," the coalition contends.

Under channel choice, they believe, many people won't buy faith channels but instead will choose a few prominent and special personal-interest ones.

Jerry Rose, president of the evangelical Total Living Network, said a large part of the religious TV audience comes from people who inadvertently discover religious programs while flipping through the channel lineup in their cable package.

Bulletin Board

Another sign of possible deep trouble ahead for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.): the important Presbytery of San Diego voted 114-3 to ask the denomination's general assembly in June to eliminate a key section from a controversial proposal. That section would in effect establish a "conscience" exception to biblically based sexuality standards in the church's constitution. Under it, regional presbyteries could approve same-sex partnerships and the ordination of noncelibate homosexual clergy. A denominational task force recommended the provision as a way to help achieve peace and unity in the PCUSA.

Clergy in the mainline denominations are aging, while fewer young people under 35 are in the ministry. A Wesley Seminary survey reported United Methodist Church clergy under 35 accounted for 15 percent of UMC ministers 20 years ago but only 4.7 percent in 2005. The under-35 clergy population in other denominations: American Baptist Churches and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), 5.5 percent each; the Episcopal Church, 4.1 percent; Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 4.9 percent; Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 7.1 percent; the Catholic Church, 3.1 percent.

James Tonkowich is the new president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative Washington-based think tank known for its critiques of liberal mainline denominations. The Presbyterian Church in America minister and former editor at Prison Fellowship's Breakpoint ministry succeeds the late Diane Knippers.