Is your denomination growing?

Only three of the largest Christian denominations in the U.S. are now “mainline Protestant.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is now the nation’s fourth-largest denomination.

And the (Pentecostal) Church of God in Christ is fifth.

Six of the 15 largest denominations are African American church groups.

The Roman Catholic Church, of course, remains far and away the nation’s largest religious group with some 67.5 million people in the U.S. The second largest group, the Southern Baptist Convention, is way back with 16.3 million.

2008yearbookcoverbeveled.jpgThese are some of the interesting findings in the 2008 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, published by the National Council of Churches. It’s probably the most credible source of basic church info — histories, leadership, the latest stats — for 224 denominations.

Among the 25 largest denominations, the Episcopal Church lost the highest percentage of members, 4.15%. Presbyterian Church (USA) was next, down 2.36%.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses, in the 25th spot, had the largest growth, 2.25%. The Latter-day Saints were next, up 1.56%.

The yearbook also includes a survey of health-care ministries. The survey was sent to 6,000 congregations. About 70% of responding churches provide direct health-care services.

The Rev. Eileen W. Lindner, editor of the yearbook, who supervised the survey, said:

It is not surprising to find that churches see health care as a part of their faith mission and mandate. The results of this survey confirm a higher energy for health care than we might have thought, however, and show that effective health care ministries are being developed by congregations of all sizes to meet the urgent needs of their communities.

Oh those papal preparations

It’s all pope, all the time.

Yes, Benedict XVI is not coming for another two months. But I’m busy getting the Journal News/LoHud.com coverage in order.

Just got back from NYC, where I had a nice chat with Mark Ackermann, who is executive director of the Archdiocese’s Office of the Papal Visit. Yes, preparing for the pope’s visit to New York is his full-time job.

He’s involved in everything from working on security with the Secret Service to choosing the color of tickets.

4266331664c64-65-11.jpgYesterday, I spent several hours at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, talking to Bishop Gerald Walsh and others about how the pope’s youth rally there will shape up.

I mean, you know that there has to be a lot of planning for a papal visit to New York. He’s the pope and all. But it’s hard to believe how much legwork is going into this.

And it’s still two months away.

I’ll be writing about my visit with Mr. Ackermann within a few days. And we’re close to introducing a (drum roll please) Papal Webpage to LoHud, which will include several videos, including an introduction to St. Joseph’s Seminary.

More discussion on the prayer few will hear

I’ve heard a lot of discussion in recent days about Pope Benedict XVI’s revision of the Good Friday prayer for the conversion of the Jewish people.

The prayer, you probably know by now, is part of the Latin liturgy that Benedict loosened restrictions on last year.

Few Catholics will actually attend Good Friday services using the old liturgy. But Benedict’s revisions are seen by some as some sort of a measuring stick for progress on Catholic-Jewish relations.

The revision removes “for the faithless Jews: that almighty God may remove the veil from their hearts…” But it continues to ask God to “enlighten (Jewish) hearts so that they may acknowledge Jesus Christ, the savior of all men…”

Many Catholics insist that despite new attitudes toward Judaism in recent decades, the church must pray for conversion for everyone. The Jewish people included. Period.

But Jewish leaders (and some liberal Catholics I’ve heard from) think that the Jews must be treated differently since their covenant with God still stands (Pope John Paul II said so).

irwinkula.jpgRabbi Irwin Kula, a Conservative rabbi and president of The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, sent out some talking points on the subject. They probably include something for everyone (and there are a few points that may upset a few people, too). Here they are:

— In a post-Vatican II world, Jews should not overreact to the Pope’s revision of the Good Friday prayer that leaves a call for Jews “to acknowledge Jesus Christ the Savior of all men,â€? though it would have been wise and comforting if the Pope had recalled that historically this prayer led to violence on Good Friday.

–The Catholic Church, unlike some religions in the world, has come through its murderous period and is neither violent nor dangerous, so Jews should chill out.

–There is something sad about a profound world religion with more than a billion people feeling so insecure about its own truth that it needs to put in its prayers on one of its holiest days a call for another people, one barely 15 million strong, to see the light.

–I appreciate the Pope‘s honesty. The truth is all people who believe something strongly whether traditional, liberal, secular or religious, believe somewhere deep inside that their truth is superior. Look at Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Both think their truth is superior, as do liberal Christians and Jews, so the complaints about the Pope’s pronouncement are not exactly in good faith.

–The Pope’s revision invites each of us to ask how we handle the beliefs to which we are most committed. Can we passionately stake our life on what we believe, honestly say that we hope others come to see our truth, and even offer it to them without any disrespect, condescension or coercion? Is there a place between two polarized understandings of the truth ─ a fierce fundamentalist one on one side, and a sloppy relativistic one on the other?

–How using this revised prayer affects the way Catholics think about and behave towards Jews will ultimately be the only measure of whether this revision was Godly or demonic.

Pope ticket info on the way to parishes

Catholic parishes in the Archdiocese of New York should be receiving information within days — possibly today — about their ticket allotments for the papal Mass at Yankee Stadium.

Larger parishes will get more tickets. Still, there won’t be nearly enough for everyone who wants to go. Yankee Stadium will only seat about 58,000 people.

I understand that some parishes will use lotteries to determine who gets the tickets. Some pastors will want to set up other systems.

One pastor mentioned to me the other day that people have to understand what a commitment they’ll be making to attend the Mass. Because of the travel time involved and the heavy security that will be in place, attending the April 20 Mass will be an all-day affair.

Ticket information for the Youth Rally at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers on April 19 has been received by schools and religious ed offices. About 20,000 youth will fit on the seminary grounds.

Additionally, the archdiocese is now accepting applications from those who would like to volunteer for the papal events in New York.

Have a happy Darwin Day

It’s not a religious holiday, but…

Tomorrow is Darwin Day, when Darwinists celebrate the birthday of Mr. Natural Selection. Non-Darwinists, of course, may feel differently.

charles_darwin.pngDarwin was born on Feb. 12, 1809, and died on April 19, 1882.

According to the DarwinDay website:

Darwin Day is an international celebration of science and humanity held on or around February 12, the day that Charles Darwin was born on in 1809. Specifically, it celebrates the discoveries and life of Charles Darwin — the man who first described biological evolution via natural selection with scientific rigor. More generally, Darwin Day expresses gratitude for the enormous benefits that scientific knowledge, acquired through human curiosity and ingenuity, has contributed to the advancement of humanity.

The website has a link to the Continuum of Humanist Education, where you can take a course on evolution.

This link, it seems to me, will only foster the common belief that all people who accept the theory of evolution are humanists and not religious (which is not the case).

I can’t do math either

And the best faith-based line of the presidential campaign (so far) goes to (predictably) Mike Huckabee.

Asked Saturday about John McCain’s big lead in delegates, the Baptist minister said:

I know the pundits and I know what they say, the math doesn’t work out. Well I didn’t major in math, I majored in miracles. And I still believe in those, too.

tjndc5-5ioduxie8×212ym1oine_layout.jpgI didn’t major in math, I majored in miracles. How great is that?

Still, lines like that will make it harder for Huckabee to complain that he’s asked too many questions about his faith and too few about his politics, as he sometimes does.

Meanwhile, the outfit Faith in Public Life continues to insist that there are plenty of Democratic evangelicals out there.

The group, which seeks to counter the influence of the “Religious Right,” has been complaining that exit polls do not ask Democrats whether they are “born again” or “evangelical.” So Faith in Public Life did their own Super Tuesday polls of Republicans and Democrats in Missouri and Tennessee.

Their findings, in their words:

· Large numbers of evangelicals participated in the Missouri and Tennessee Republican and Democratic primaries. While exit polls in both states identified all Republican white evangelical voters, the Missouri exit polls failed to identify 159,000 white evangelical Democratic voters – a figure greater than all voters under 30, equal to all voters over age 65, and equal to all voters who said the Iraq war is the most important issue facing the country, according to the Missouri Democratic exit polls. The Tennessee exit polls failed to identify 179,000 white evangelical Democratic voters – a figure equal to all African-American voters, greater than all voters over 60, and greater than all voters who said the Iraq war is the most important issue facing the country, according to the Tennessee Democratic exit polls.

· Majorities of both Democratic and Republicans evangelical voters want a broader agenda that goes beyond abortion and same-sex marriage to include ending poverty, protecting the environment, and tacking HIV/AIDS. Sixty-two percent of white evangelical voters in Missouri embrace a broader agenda (75 percent of Democratic voters and 56 percent of Republican voters). In Tennessee, 56 percent of white evangelical voters embrace a broader agenda (60 percent of Democratic voters and 54 percent of Republican voters).

· In both Missouri and Tennessee, white evangelicals who ranked jobs and economy as the most important issue area in deciding how to vote far outnumbered those who considered abortion and same-sex marriage most important.

Anglican chief: Give Islamic law a chance

It’s not every day that a big-name Christian leader endorses an application of Islamic law.

But that’s what Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams did in Britain, as the AP’s Gregory Katz explains:

LONDON (AP) — The archbishop of Canterbury on Thursday called for a limited application of Islamic law in Britain. Muslims praised the proposal but the government rejected it.
The unusual suggestion from Britain’s highest ranking Christian leader would, if adopted, allow British Muslims to choose to resolve marital and financial disputes under Islamic law, known as Shariah, rather than through British courts.
tjndc5-5in1rysrcaqcefepi45_layout.jpg Archbishop Rowan Williams said in a radio interview with British Broadcasting Corp. that incorporating Islamic law could help improve Britain’s flagging social cohesion.
“Certain provisions of Shariah are already recognized in our society and under our law, so it’s not as if we’re bringing in an alien and rival system,� said Williams, who gave a speech on the topic Thursday night.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s spokesman immediately rejected Williams’ proposal.
“The prime minister believes British law should apply in this country, based on British values,� said Michael Ellam.
The idea was also rejected by Sayeed Warsi, an opposition spokeswoman for social affairs. She said all British citizens had to be subject to the same laws developed by Parliament.
Williams said he was not advocating that Britain allow extreme aspects of Shariah, which has been associated with harsh punishments meted out by Islamic courts in Saudi Arabia and some other countries and has been used to undermine the rights of women.
“Nobody in their right mind� would want to see that, he said. He called for “a clear eye� when discussing Islamic law.
Mohammed Shafiq, director of the Ramadhan Foundation, said the use of Shariah would help lower tensions in British society.
“It would make Muslims more proud of being British,� he said. “It would give Muslims the sense that the British respect our faith.�
Shafiq said it was important that non-Muslims in Britain understand that Williams is not suggesting Shariah be adopted for resolving criminal charges, but only civil disputes.
Shafiq and Williams noted that Britain already allows Orthodox Jews to resolve disputes under traditional Jewish law.
Rodney Barker, a political science professor at the London School of Economics, said Williams’ decision to address such a controversial issue was not surprising.
“He’s not a cautious, conservative priest,� Barker said. “He recognizes we live in a society where there is not one dominant religion. He doesn’t say, ’I have the truth and the rest of you are wicked and deluded.�’
But there are dangers involved in letting one community apply one type of justice while another uses a different system, said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle East studies at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, who has written extensively about militant Islam.
“It’s a minefield,� he said. “Britain is a nation of laws, once you say to a community that they can apply their own laws, you are establishing a dangerous precedent.�

ELCA leader coming to Ridgefield

Bishop Mark Hanson, the presiding bishop — or national boss — of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, will take part in a program Saturday (Feb. 9) afternoon at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in nearby Ridgefield, Conn.

The program, from 1 to 5 p.m., will focus on the “Role of the Public Church,” or as the church website says, “the work we do together in serving God and our communities.”

mshinrobe_sm.jpgHanson was bishop of the St. Paul Area Syond (a Lutheran stronghold) before getting the denomination’s top job in 2001.

He is also president of the Lutheran World Federation, a global network of 140 denominations in 78 countries that represent about 66 million Christians.

Hanson was among several religious leaders recently featured on a CBS documentary called In God’s Name.

For information: pastorbarker@standrewselca.com or 203-438-0606.

The conversion question for Jews

Cardinal Walter Kasper, who basically oversees the Vatican’s relations with the Jewish people, had this to say about Pope Benedict XVI’s reworking of a prayer for the conversion of Jews:

This difference cannot be hidden. The Holy Father wanted to say, yes, Jesus Christ is the savior of men, even the Jews. He says this in his prayer.

But if this prayer, today, speaks of the conversion of the Jews, that doesn’t mean we intend to carry out a mission.

tjndc5-5b3u8uz0uo759uzw6m5_layout.jpgThe Good Friday prayer is included in the 1962 Roman Missal (the Latin Mass), which of course the pope said a few months ago should be more widely available.

Kasper (that’s him a few years back at Graymoor) told Vatican Radio that the pope took out wording that spoke of the “blindness” of the Jews. That’s “a little offensive,” Kasper said.

The Holy Father wanted to remove this point, but he also wanted to underline the specific difference that exists between us and Judaism.

Some high-profile Jewish leaders wish the pope had gone further.

The American Jewish Committee’s Rabbi David Rosen:

While we appreciate that the text avoids any derogatory language towards Jews, its regretful that the prayer explicitly calls for Jews to accept Christianity. This differs greatly from the text in the current universal liturgy that prays for the salvation of the Jews in general term.

ADD: Thanks to NCR’s John Allen, here are English translations of the original prayer and the revised version:

Original: Let us also pray for the Jews: that our Lord and God take away the veil from their hearts; that they too may acknowledge Jesus Christ to be our Lord. Almighty eternal God, who also does not repel the Jews from your mercy: graciously hear our prayers on behalf of the blindness of that people; so that once the light of your truth has been recognized, which is Christ, they may be rescued from their darkness.

Revised: Let us also pray for the Jews. May the Lord our God illuminate their hearts so that they may recognize Jesus Christ as savior of all men. Almighty and everlasting God, you who want all men to be saved and to gain knowledge of the truth, kindly allow that, as all peoples enter into your Church, all of Israel may be saved.

Mrs. Positive Thinking

Think about the incredible numbers of spiritual guides and “how to” books out there today.

You might say that it all started with Norman Vincent Peale and his wife Ruth Stafford Peale.

bio_images_01.jpgHe published The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952. Together, they founded Guideposts — books, magazines, outreach ministries — in 1945.

Norman Vincent Peale died on Christmas Eve 1993. But his wife continued on, active until well into her 90s.

She died yesterday at 101 at her home in Pawling, up in Dutchess County.

Guideposts’ headquarters have been in Carmel since 1953. The organization has set up a terrific website on the life and legacy of Ruth Peale. Included are prayers of thanks for her life, such as this one from Richard Hopple, president and CEO of Guideposts:

Lord,

As we grieve the passing of your servant Ruth Stafford Peale, we are comforted by the certainty that she is with you and is reunited with her beloved husband Norman in paradise.

We are thankful for the many years you shared her with us. Through you, her strength and belief in the power of prayer was an example to thousands and an inspiration to millions.

Help those she touched and loved live by the principles she espoused and help each of us take strength in the power of prayer and the knowledge that she was a living example of your love for us.

In the name of Jesus we ask this –

I just got this statement from Rev. Dr. Paul Irwin, president of the American Bible Society (Ruth Peale was a member of the Bible Society’s board for more than 50 years):

I knew Mrs. Peale for many years when we were American Bible Society board members. She was a profoundly dedicated Christian leader, wife and mother. Her life greatly influenced countless people around the world and here in the United States. Ruth Peale always was interested in reaching the world for Jesus Christ and her influence was powerful in encouraging and guiding the work of the American Bible Society. One of my fondest memories is attending her 100th birthday celebration where I was captivated by her ongoing energy and enthusiasm.

During the tenure of Ruth Peale with the American Bible Society, millions upon millions of Bibles were put into the hands of people whose lives were changed as a result. I believe her fingerprints were on every one of those Bibles! Her emphasis on Bible engagement was epitomized by her passion for sharing God’s Word and by her warm smile and generous spirit. Ruth was 101 years old and she lived each of her days with a vibrancy of faith that all should commend.