United Methodist Church shrinking at home, growing in Africa

Membership in the Northeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church — which includes New York — dropped from 1.82 million in 1985 to 1.43 million in 2005.

Church membership increased only in the Southeast during that period, according to a new “UMC report”:http://www.umc.org/site/c.lwL4KnN1LtH/b.2733523/k.258/State_of_the_Church.htm on the state of the denomination.

The UMC is still the country’s largest mainline Protestant denomination, with about 8 million members. But it’s been slowly shrinking in the U.S. for decades.

As I wrote in a feature about New York Bishop Jeremiah Park a few months back, 41 percent of the nearly 500 churches in the New York Conference (NYC, Lower Hudson, Long Island, western Connecticut) did not add a single new member in 2004. Many NY churches face financial difficulties.

According to a summary of the report, “At one point in the history of the United States, one in four persons was a Methodist. Today it is one in 400.”

Things are much better, interestingly enough, overseas.

The new report stresses that overall UMC membership increased by 34 percent between 1995 and 2005, thanks mainly to a 236 percent increase in Africa (960,000 members to 3.2 million).

Chances are, United Methodists in Africa are not doing battle over basic beliefs and social issues like homosexuality, as they are in the U.S.

Regarding the UMC’s position that it “does not condone homosexuality,” United Methodists in the Northeast are quite divided: 45 percent of clergy and 48 percent laity “agree strongly or somewhat” with the church’s position; while 48 percent of clergy and 34 percent of laity “disagree strongly.”

How hopeful are United Methodists about the future of their church? In Africa, 88 percent are “extremely hopeful.” In the U.S., 54 percent. In Europe, 42 percent.

Does God expect United Methodists to welcome all into the body of Christ? In Africa, 98 percent say yes. In the U.S., 81 %. In Europe, 54%.

Two conclusions in the report stand out to me:

“The United Methodist Church is too much like other denominations. It needs something to make it stand out in this new era.”

And…

“The church must find ways to feed a wide-ranging hunger for spiritual growth.”

Most mainline denominations face the same identity crisis and the same challenge.

For Catholic bishops, the ‘Rudy’ question awaits

With the presidential contenders in the news everyday (is the election really 17 months away?), the nation’s Catholic bishops are again in the position of having to decide what to say about Catholic candidates who support abortion rights

Last time, it was Kerry. This time, it could be Rudy.

Cardinal Egan, by the way, has not been inclined to touch this stuff. Will he still be archbishop when the parties choose their candidates? Or will he be retired?

The AP’s Eric Gorski wrote this update on where the bishops stand:

By ERIC GORSKI<P>
AP Religion Writer<P>
Three years after a few outspoken U.S. Roman Catholic bishops tied together presidential politics, abortion and the Communion rail, leaders of the nation’s largest denomination are starting to speak out again.
Only this time, the political climate is much different.
The Catholic presidential hopeful under criticism for championing abortion rights is a Republican instead of a Democrat, the general election might pit two candidates who believe abortion should remain legal, Democrats control both chambers of Congress and immigration reform has surfaced as a major issue.
As most of the nation’s 268 active Catholic bishops met for a private retreat this week in New Mexico, questions were building about how prominent their voices will be in the 2008 race.
Will some follow the example of Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., who last month called the pro-abortion rights position of Catholic GOP candidate Rudy Giuliani, “pathetic and confusing?� Will abortion dominate the bishops’ statements on the election, or will immigration and poverty?
Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput said in an interview with The Associated Press that official Catholic involvement depends on which candidates and issues emerge from primary season. A vocal proponent of calling on Catholic politicians and voters to follow church teachings, Chaput also made it clear he thinks the time for behind-the-scenes diplomacy with politicians is over. Continue reading

AME Zion Church opens gathering in Tarrytown

I just got back from the opening of the annual gathering of the New York Conference of the AME Zion Church. About 200 ministers and 200 lay leaders are meeting through the week at the Westchester Marriott in Tarrytown.

bishop_battle_picture-117×153.pngBishop George E. Battle Jr., presiding prelate for a big region that includes NY, started the day with a “fireside chat” with his clergy.

Battle is a charismatic guy with an informal, somewhat gruff, manner. He thanked his ministers for their service, saying he prays for them every night. He added that he also prays for his “enemies.”

“The Bible says you have to pray for them — and I do,” he said, as his ministers murmured their agreement.

Battle is head of the Northeastern Episcopal District, one of 12 districts that make up the nearly 200-year-old African American denomination. His district stretches from NYC all the way up to Maine toward the east and Buffalo toward the west.

He’s also in charge of the Virgin Islands. And he lives in North Carolina.

He does a lot of traveling.

“We have to leave here better than we came,” he said.

Study: Black women lose weight with religious message

Someone is bound to call it the Jesus Diet.

Researchers at the University of Connecticut Health Center have found that a faith-based message can help black women lose weight — when combined with nutritional information and social support.

Twelve Hartford-area black churches participated in a weight-loss study for a UConn professor named Judith Fifield. She says that standard weight-loss programs do not mesh with the economic and cultural realities facing many black women.

Obesity and its many related health hazards are crippling the black community. More and more black churches are getting involving in promoting health programs.

In this case, support group meetings opened with video-taped sermons by pastors that linked a biblical message to health goals.

According to the “Hartford Courant:”:http://www.religionandsocialpolicy.org/newsletters/article.cfm?id=6627

Women who participated in the program were 2.5 times more likely to lose weight than those whose churches were on the waiting list. More than half of the women who attended Sister Talk sessions lost weight and another 8 percent maintained their starting weight. Thirty-seven percent gained weight during the program.

A year after the formal study ended, 66 percent of participants have maintained their weight or continued to lose…

Vatican statement not only about driving

Everyone is talking about the Vatican this morning issuing a “10 commandments” for driving safety.

It’s a grabber, no doubt.

You have to love number 2:

The road shall be for you a means of communion between people and not of mortal harm.

Interestingly, the Vatican’s office for migrants and itinerant people issued the driving guidelines as part of a larger statement that also deals with prostitution and homeless children. These apparently unrelated subjects all fall under “Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road.”

So what at first appears to be a quirky story about controlling road rage, with closer inspection, turns much darker. It will be a difficult story for the media to cover because it’s awkward to include the driving rules, prostitution and homelessness in one “lead.”

Cardinal Renato Martino, who heads the office for migrants, said this about prostitution:

The Church has the pastoral responsibility to defend and promote the human dignity of those exploited by prostitution, and to work towards their liberation, providing economic, educational and formative support to this end. She … must also prophetically denounce the injustices and violence perpetrated against street women and invite people of good will to commit themselves to the defense of their human dignity, … putting an end to sexual exploitation.

And on street children:

Generally speaking, street dwellers are considered with diffidence and suspicion, and the fact of not having a house becomes the start of a progressive loss of rights. Thus they become a multitude without a name and without a voice, incapable of defending themselves or of finding the resources to improve their future.

For the record, here are the driving commandments:

1. You shall not kill.
2. The road shall be for you a means of communion between people and not of mortal harm.
3. Courtesy, uprightness and prudence will help you deal with unforeseen events.
4. Be charitable and help your neighbor in need, especially victims of accidents.
5. Cars shall not be for you an expression of power and domination, and an occasion of sin.
6. Charitably convince the young and not so young not to drive when they are not in a fitting condition to do so.
7. Support the families of accident victims.
8. Bring guilty motorists and their victims together, at the appropriate time, so that they can undergo the liberating experience of forgiveness.
9. On the road, protect the more vulnerable party.
10. Feel responsible toward others.

Is ‘Evan Almighty’ a religious movie?

So, Noah’s Ark II sets sail on Friday. With Steven Carell as the captain in “Evan Almighty.”:http://www.evanalmighty.com/

I sat down yesterday with the latest issue of Christianity Today — the nation’s most mainstream and influential evangelical magazine — and saw a cover photo of Carell with a long white beard, standing in front of an ark and surrounded by animals.

The headline read: “Evan Help Us/How a movie — and a movement — are partnering with the church to change the world”

evan_almighty.jpgFair enough. It seems that every movie these days, even Spider-Man, is squeezed for spiritual content. A film about God (Morgan Freeman) asking a man to build an ark, despite the certainty that he will be ridiculed by the masses, is a natural for religious analysis.

I flipped through the magazine for the story and couldn’t find it. Went to the table of contents. Nothing. So I took a closer look at the cover. On the top, I saw one word I had missed: “Advertisement.” I had to turn the fake cover to get to the real cover of the “annual book issue.”

So Universal Pictures thought they could market this film to believers, evangelical Christians in particular. Will it work?

In an interview with “Newsday,”:http://www.newsday.com/entertainment/movies/ny-ffmov5254604jun17,0,1129268.story?coll=ny-moviereview-headlines Carell says that the movie “is really not about religion.”

People do, and should feel free to, believe what they do and worship what they do, or not, but for me to single out what I do, I don’t know, it seems to put a spin on the movie it doesn’t need. I want it to be available to anybody. And I think it is.

Okay.

The first review I’ve been able to find, from the Orlando Sentinel, says:

It’s a gentle, warm, “big tent� big-budget comedy with all the rough edges rubbed off. Not an edge to be found. You’d be hard pressed to find something in “Evan� that would offend, unless you’re racially, politically, religiously or environmentally narrow-minded.

Reviewer Roger Moore also says:

Rather than giving supernatural powers to a jerk and having him reform, a la “Bruce Almighty,� this Almighty takes a conservative TV anchor and congressman and makes him walk the walk and not just talk the talk. His faith is put through a Job-like series of tests.
That’s actually a clever conceit, as are all the things they borrow from “Field of Dreams� (Graham has her “Don’t you dare tear down this ballfield, er, ark� moment.). God’s message, about practicing random kindness and preserving Creation, is a sweet one.
You don’t have to be a Christian, past or present, to warm up to “Evan Almighty,� but it helps. God’s zingers about “I haven’t done the pillar of salt thing in a while� and his little intervention with Evan’s wife are as positive an exploration of his “mysterious ways� as the movies have ever had. Credit Freeman for this. The flinty actor is channeling his adorable “Electric Company� past.

Moore gives Ark II 3 stars out of 5.

Sir Salman too much for Pakistan

Can the Salman Rushdie vs. Islam thing still be going?

Years after Rushdie was finally able to come out of hiding, Britain’s decision to award him knighthood has stirred the whole thing up again.

images1.jpegPakistan’s parliament is particularly perturbed. Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Sher Afgan Khan Niazi said this:

The ’sir’ title from Britain for blasphemer Salman Rushdie has hurt the sentiments of the Muslims across the world. Every religion should be respected. I demand the British government immediately withdraw the title as it is creating religious hatred.

Only weeks ago, a committee of Pakistan’s National Assembly began considering a bill that would require the death penalty for men who convert from Islam and life in prison for women who do the same.

Here’s the AP story on today’s developments:

By MATTHEW PENNINGTON<P>
Associated Press Writer<P>
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistan on Monday condemned Britain’s award of a knighthood to author Salman Rushdie as an affront to Muslim sentiments, and a Cabinet minister said the honor provided a justification for suicide attacks.
“This is an occasion for the (world’s) 1.5 billion Muslims to look at the seriousness of this decision,� Mohammed Ijaz ul-Haq, religious affairs minister, said in parliament.
“The West is accusing Muslims of extremism and terrorism. If someone exploded a bomb on his body, he would be right to do so unless the British government apologizes and withdraws the ’sir’ title,� ul-Haq said.
Iran’s late spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a 1989 fatwa, or religious edict, ordering Muslims to kill the author because his book, “The Satanic Verses,� allegedly insulted Islam. The threat forced Rushdie to live in hiding for a decade.
Britain’s envoy defended the decision to honor Rushdie, one of the most prominent novelists of the late 20th century whose 13 books have won numerous awards, including the Booker Prize for “Midnight’s Children� in 1981. Britain on Saturday announced the knighthood in an honors list timed for the official celebration of the queen’s 81st birthday.
In the eastern city of Multan, hard-line Muslim students burned effigies of Queen Elizabeth II and Rushdie. About 100 students carrying banners condemning the author also chanted, “Kill him! Kill him!�
Lawmakers in Pakistan’s lower house of parliament on Monday passed a resolution proposed by Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Sher Afgan Khan Niazi who branded Rushdie — who was born in India into a Muslim family — a “blasphemer.�
“The ’sir’ title from Britain for blasphemer Salman Rushdie has hurt the sentiments of the Muslims across the world. Every religion should be respected. I demand the British government immediately withdraw the title as it is creating religious hatred,� Niazi told the National Assembly.
Lawmakers voted unanimously for the resolution although one opposition member, Khwaja Asif, said it exposed a contradiction in the government’s policy as an ally of Britain in the international war on terrorism.
Robert Brinkley, Britain’s high commissioner to Pakistan, defended the decision to honor Rushdie for his contributions to literature.
“It is simply untrue to suggest that this in anyway is an insult to Islam or the Prophet Muhammed, and we have enormous respect for Islam as a religion and for its intellectual and cultural achievements,� Brinkley said.
Asked if he was concerned it could provoke unrest in Pakistan, Brinkley said, “We will just have to see where it goes from here. There’s certainly no reason for that.�
At the Multan protest, Asim Dahr, a student leader from the group Jamiat Turaba Arabia, demanded Rushdie face Islamic justice.
“This queen has made a mockery of Muslims by giving him a title of ’sir.’ Salman Rushdie was condemned by Imam Khomeini and he issued a decree about his death. He should be handed over to the Muslims so they can try him according to Islamic laws,� he said.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said Rushdie’s knighthood would hamper interfaith understanding and that Islamabad would protest to London.
“We deplore the decision of the British government to knight him. This we feel is insensitive and we would convey our sentiments to the British government.�
Iran on Sunday also condemned the knighthood for Rushdie.
“Sir Salman’s honor is richly deserved and the reasons for it are self-explanatory,� said spokesman Aidan Liddle.

The Catholic opposition to quicker divorces

The NYS Catholic Conference doesn’t want to see faster divorces.

State legislators in Albany this week are considering a bill that would speed up the time for uncontested divorces from a year to only three months.

But the Catholic Conference, which is led by Cardinal Egan and NYS’s other bishops, opposes the change, the NY Daily News “reports”:http://www.nydailynews.com/news/2007/06/18/2007-06-18_egan_looks_to_dash_speedy_divorce_bill.html today.

In a “position paper,”:http://www.nyscatholic.org/pages/our_agenda/show_issueDetails.asp?id=149 the Catholic Conference explains its opposition to “no-fault divorce:”

Importantly, the Domestic Relations Law already allows for divorce where husband and wife have lived apart pursuant to a separation judgment, decree or written agreement for a period of one or more years. See N.Y. CLS. Dom. Rel. Law § 170 (5)(6). Thus, statutory “faultless� divorce provisions already exist in the law, as does a one-year “cooling-off� period for couples, a period of reflection time which would be lost under the provisions of the legislation now under consideration. There is no need to adopt “irreconcilable differences� as a new divorce ground in New York, or to decrease the required separation time to three months, as some bills propose.

Significantly, divorcing couples have often reported being unsure of their decision to end their marriage. Many later believe that their divorce may have been a mistake, and wish they had tried harder to work out their differences with their ex-spouse. A no-fault divorce law in New York would only increase these second thoughts and regretted divorces.

The Catholic Conference calls for initiatives that strengthen marriage, such as premarital and marital education programs, marriage counseling, mentoring programs and divorce education/mediation programs.

It contends:

A growing consensus confirms that children raised outside of intact marriages are at higher risk for experiencing higher rates of poverty, welfare dependency, crime, school failure, substance abuse, juvenile delinquency and adult criminality, mental illness and emotional distress, domestic violence, unwed teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, poor quality family relationships, and child abuse.

Adults, too, benefit from marriage. Married people live longer, healthier lives with higher levels of emotional well-being and lower rates of mental illness and emotional distress, and they make more money than otherwise similar singles. Many social, economic and psychological benefits of strong marriages flow to government and society as well.

The United Church of Christ is not the Church of Christ

Not long after I started on the religion beat, I wrote something about the United Church of Christ. I don’t remember what it was. But on second or third reference, I referred simply to the Church of Christ.

An editor who knew much more than I about the distinctions among Protestant denominations whispered that it was not a wise thing to do. The Church of Christ, she told me, was a distinct denomination.

The Church of Christ, which has a very small presence in NY, was quite conservative. The UNITED Church of Christ, on the other hand, was (and remains) an anchor of the Protestant left.

So I had to laugh when I read Andrea Useem’s primer on Fred Thompson’s faith on her blog, religionwriter.com.

She starts:

When James Dobson told U.S. News & World Reports’ Dan Gilgoff he didn’t think GOP presidential hopeful Fred Thompson was “Christian,� that sparked a have-you-seen-Fred-Thompson-at-church contest and other blogosphere debates over Thompson’s religious beliefs. Though the former Tennessee senator was baptized in the Church of Christ, he married his second wife, Jeri Kehn, at a United Church of Christ, which, confusingly enough, has no relation to the Church of Christ.

So what is the Church of Christ?

Read the rest “here.”:http://religionwriter.com/?p=74

UCC: Rupert Murdoch too loud in NY

The United Church of Christ is going after Rupert Murdoch. It’s a real David vs. Goliath affair, some might say.

A few weeks ago, the liberal, mainline Protestant denomination filed petitions with the FCC to deny license renewals for two Murdoch-owned TV stations in New York — WNYW-TV and WWOR-TV.

The UCC, along with Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, says that Murdoch should not have both stations and the New York Post.

“Fox’s common ownership of The New York Post, WNYW-TV and WWOR-TV harms me by sharply reducing the number of independent voices available to me,” wrote the Rev. Sherry M. Taylor, from UCC’s Central Atlantic Conference in New Jersey, in the petition. “Unless the licenses are denied, my right to access diverse programming will continue to be harmed.”

The UCC has a long history of fighting for the “public interest” in the media world. In 1964, the denomination helped establish a legal precedent that TV stations must serve the interests of their communities.

“Everett Parker”:http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/P/htmlP/parkerevere/parkerevere.htm of White Plains served as director of the UCC’s national communications office from 1954 to 1983. In this role, he had a huge influence on the broadcasting world. In fact, the trade publication Broadcasting Magazine named him one of the most influential people in broadcasting near the time of his retirement.

The 1.2-million-member UCC, by the way, is having its 50th anniversary celebration in Hartford, starting next Friday. Barack Obama, a UCCer, is scheduled to address more than 10,000 people on Saturday.