Fifth Avenue Presbyterian to celebrate 200th

Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church — New York’s flagship PCUSA church — will celebrate its 200th anniversary this Sunday (Nov. 16) at both its 9:30 and 11:15 a.m. services.

The denomination’s top elected official, the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), will preach at the services.

Fifth Avenue has a membership of 3,375.

In a few weeks, on Dec. 7, the church will install its 17th senior pastor, the Rev. Scott Black Johnston. A New Jersey native, he was most recently the senior pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Atlanta.

Fifth Avenue Presbyterian, by the way, is that big church on 55th Street…

Humanists strike blow vs. Christmas

Around Halloween, I started waiting for the first volley in what has become the annual “War on Christmas” (or “War Over Christmas”).

Generally, the war begins when a Christian group — or conservative TV personality — notices some reference to the “Holiday Season” and perceives it as a slight against the Christian celebration of the birth of Christ.

Sometimes, public officials quash or curtail holiday displays because they’re afraid of offending someone or doing something they perceive as unconstitutional.

But this year the humanists are to blame.

The American Humanist Association has launched an ad campaign, clearly timed to the Christmas season, that features this warm-hearted line: “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.”

They already put the ad in the NYT and Washington Post and plan to plaster it inside some 200 Washington, D.C., buses.

“We expect these bus signs to generate a lot of public interest,” Fred Edwords, spokesman for the American Humanist Association, explains. “Some folks may be offended but that isn’t our purpose. We just want to reach those open to this message but unaware how widespread their views are.”

Well, the Christian Coalition of America is offended.

In a release, their president, Robert Combs, says: “Although a number of humanists and atheists continue to attempt to rid God and Christmas from the public square, the American people are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts.”

And the war is on. With Christmas still six weeks away…

St. Vladimir’s Seminary grad to head Orthodox denomination

A graduate of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood was elected today Archbishop of Washington and New York and Metropolitan of All America and Canada — the boss — of the Orthodox Church in America.

Bishop Jonah (Paffhausen), now to be known as His Beatitude, Metropolitan Jonah, will be installed on Dec. 28 at St. Nicholas Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

He was raised Episcopalian and will be the first convert to Orthodoxy to lead the OCA, a national denomination that became independent from its mother church, the Russian Orthodox Church, in 1970.

Metropolitan Jonah attended St. Vladimir’s during the mid-to-late 1980s, graduating with a Master of Divinity degree and a Master of Theology in Dogmatics.

In an email, the Very Rev. Chad Hatfield, chancellor of St. Vladimir’s, writes: “The election of Metropolitan Jonah has energized the Orthodox Church in America. It also re-enforces the prominent role that St Vladimir’s Seminary plays in the life of American Orthodoxy.”

The seminary’s dean, the Very Rev. John Behr, adds: “I am thrilled with the election of our new Metropolitan, Jonah. He has a deep love of Christ and his people, a profound understanding of the Church, embodies authority through humility, and holds a forward-looking vision for Orthodoxy in this country. The sense of renewal, renewed possibilities, and genuinely new horizons, are palpable here at this 15th All-American Council, and will stimulate all dimensions of our ecclesial and spiritual life in the days and years to come. Both I as Dean and Fr. Chad Hatfield, as seminary Chancellor, commit ourselves to working as closely as possible with Metropolitan Jonah for the building up of the whole Orthodox Church in this country.”

Interestingly, Metropolitan Jonah was made a bishop only 11 days ago — on Nov. 1. He was consecrated Bishop of Forth Worth (Texas) and Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of the South at St. Seraphim Cathedral in Dallas.

But now he’s leaving the post! He’ll reside at the OCA Chancery in Syosset, Long Island.

As archbishop/metropolitan, he’ll also serve as president of St. Vladimir’s and chairman of its Board of Trustees.

Today’s election took place in Pittsburgh at the 15th All-American Council of the Orthodox Church in America. The OCA has about 450 parishes and 40,000 full members.

What’s the most liberal land of all?

Covering religion in the Lower Hudson Valley — as I do — means writing a lot about theologically liberal religious traditions, liberal congregations, liberal believers.

This is a pretty liberal place, you know.

In recent weeks alone, I’ve written about: Kerry Kennedy’s very liberal take on Catholicism (about which I’ve received as many positive comments as negative); one of the nation’s first female Presbyterian ministers, who was quite proud of taking part in a recent “ordination” ceremony for female Catholic “priests” (unrecognized by the Vatican, of course); one of New York’s best-known Methodist ministers, whose long ministry has translated into decades of liberal political causes; and an Episcopal church that is trying to draw new members, in part, by offering a religious message that could appeal to almost anyone.

More traditional folks (mostly Catholics, some evangelicals and Orthodox Jews) often tell me how hard it can be to live and worship in such a liberal (or unbelieving) part of a generally God-fearing country.

But New York is not the most liberal part of the U.S. when it comes to faith.

That distinction belongs to the Pacific Northwest.

That land far, far away has the most “unchurched” people of any region and the most folks who experiment with spirituality in all sorts of ways.

Douglas Todd, religion writer for the Vancouver Sun (and a fine fellow who I’ve chatted with at several gatherings of religion scribes) has a new book called Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia, that examines life in Washington state, Oregon and British Columbia.

A description includes this:


Envied by people around the world, Cascadia – as it is known – is remarkable for its famed mountains, evergreens, eagles, beaches and livable cities. Most people, however, do not realize that Cascadia, named after the region’s “cascading” waterfalls, is also home to the least institutionally religious people on the continent. Despite their unusual resistance to old ways of doing religion, Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia argues that most of the 14 million residents of this rugged land are eclectically, informally, often deeply “spiritual.” They gain their sense of the sacred through the land, which in Cascadia, unlike in most parts of North America, is untamed and spectacular. Many find it overwhelming, humbling. In this original book, 15 leading writers, historians, bio-regionalists, pollsters, scholars, economists, philosophers, eco-theologians, literary analysts and poets explain how the Pacific Northwest is nurturing a unique “spirituality of place,” which could become a model for the planet.


I hope to get a copy. Everyone wants to know what it means to be “spiritual, but not religious.” Maybe Cascadia has the answer.

What could I call a similar book about this region: How about “The Lower Hudson Valley: Expensive, Crowded Utopia.”

Connecticut clerk issues first marriage license to gay couple

Of interest to people across the religious spectrum:


Associated Press Writer

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) _ A judge cleared the way Wednesday for gay marriage in Connecticut, a victory for advocates stung by California’s referendum that banned same-sex unions in that state.

Minutes after a judge entered a final ruling, the New Haven city clerk’s office issued its first marriage license to a gay couple. It went to Barbara and Robin Levine-Ritterman of New Haven, one of the eight couples who successfully challenged a state law prohibiting gay.

(NOTE: The picture shows gay couples walking this morning to Superior Court in New Haven.)

“It’s a great day for Connecticut,” Robin Levine-Ritterman said after a brief hearing in court.

Others couples planned to celebrate by immediately marching to New Haven City Hall to get marriage licenses. At least one ceremony was scheduled Wednesday morning on the New Haven green.

The judge’s order marks “the end of a very long journey toward equality,” plaintiffs’ attorney, Bennett Klein, said earlier. “Each of the plaintiffs asked me to convey to the court how proud they are to be citizens of this state.”

The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled 4-3 on Oct. 10 that same-sex couples have the right to wed rather than accept a civil union law designed to give them the same rights as married couples.

Peg Oliveira, 36, a yoga teacher and educational consultant, and Jennifer Vickery, a 44-year-old lawyer, planned to wed on the New Haven green Wednesday. They have a 3-month-old baby.

“We’re thrilled and we don’t want to wait one minute,” she said earlier. “I want to show the folks who worked so hard to make this possible that we are very grateful and we don’t want to wait any longer to be able to say the words ‘We are married.'”

Manchester Town Clerk Joseph Camposeo, president of the Connecticut Town Clerks Association, said clerks were advised by e-mail shortly after 9:30 a.m. they could start issuing the licenses.

“The feedback I’m getting from other clerks is that we’re all at the ready, but no one really has a sense yet of what kind of volume we’re going to get,” he said.

According to the state public health department, 2,032 civil union licenses were issued in Connecticut between Oct. 2005 and July 2008.

The health department had new marriage applications printed that reflect the change. Instead of putting one name under “bride” and the other under “groom,” couples will see two boxes marked “bride/groom/spouse.”

Only Connecticut and Massachusetts have legalized gay. The unions were legal in California until a statewide referendum to ban gay marriage narrowly passed last week. The vote has sparked protests and several lawsuits asking that state’s Supreme Court to overturn the prohibition.

Constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage also passed last week in Arizona and Florida, and Arkansas voters approved a measure banning unmarried couples from serving as adoptive or foster parents.

However, Connecticut voters last week rejected the idea of a constitutional convention to amend the state’s constitution, a major blow to opponents of same-sex marriage.

The Family Institute of Connecticut, a political action group that opposes gay marriage, condemned the high court’s decision as undemocratic. Peter Wolfgang, the group’s executive director, acknowledged banning gay marriage in Connecticut would be difficult but vowed not to give up.

“Unlike California, we did not have a remedy,” Wolfgang said. “It must be overturned with patience, determination and fortitude.”

The state’s 2005 civil union law will remain on the books, at least for now. Same-sex couples can continue to enter civil unions, which give them the same legal rights and privileges in Connecticut as married couples without the status of being married.

State Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, co-chairman of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said lawmakers will have to decide the fate of the civil union law.

“We’ll definitely be taking this up,” he said. The new legislative session opens in January.


Cardinal Egan: Say it with ‘punch’

This quotation from Cardinal Egan is flying around the blogosphere today:

“We have a very important thing to say. I think we should say it clearly and with a punch.”


Egan was referring to a statement that the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference — now meeting in Baltimore — is preparing that will ask/tell/warn President-elect Obama not to expand abortion rights. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the conference, is working on it.

Some of the statements coming out of Baltimore are increasingly aggressive.

Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City said this of Catholic politicians who support abortion rights (including Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius): “They cannot call themselves Catholic when they violate such a core belief as the dignity of the unborn.”

The bishops must be a bit anxious over the fact that 54% of Catholics voted for Obama, according to exit polls. But I get the feeling they are more perturbed over their inability to construct a clear message on politics and abortion.

Not that it’s easy.

But they probably want to do better than: “Catholics are not single-issue voters, but abortion is really the only issue that matters, so Catholic politicians can’t support abortion rights, but we’re not sure what to say to those who do, and most of us won’t say anything about withholding Communion, and we’d much prefer that Catholic Democrats not run for president or vice president or really any public office at all!”

Cardinal Egan, by the way, continues to draw praise from anti-abortion activists for his recent column that compares the “deceit” of abortion to the deceit of Hitler and Stalin. But he is also taking heat from many bloggers for hanging with Obama at the Al Smith Dinner and thereby sending mixed messages on abortion.

Bishops approve blessing for ‘child in the womb’

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops today approved an Order for the Blessing of a Child in the Womb, intended for use in American dioceses.

The vote was 223-1, but the release from the bishops doesn’t say who voted “nay.”

Catholic News Service says that the blessing includes: “May almighty God, who has created new life, now bless the child in your womb. The Lord has brought you the joy of motherhood: May he bless you with a safe and healthy pregnancy. You thank the Lord today for the gift of your child: May he bring you and your child one day to share in the unending joys of heaven.”

Here’s the full statement:


BALTIMORE—The U.S. bishops approved the Order for the Blessing of a Child in the Womb for use in the dioceses of the United States with a 223-1 vote November 11, at their General Assembly in Baltimore. The bishops also approved a Spanish version of the blessing with a 224-0 vote.
The Blessing of a Child in the Womb was prepared by the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities after receiving requests from dioceses for such a blessing and not finding an existing blessing for a newly conceived child. In March, 2008 a blessing was prepared and submitted to the Committee on Divine Worship. The proposed blessing is distinct from the Blessing of Parents before Childbirth found in the Book of Blessings.
The Blessing of a Child in the Womb Within Mass and Outside Mass, in English and in Spanish, upon recognitio by the Congregation on Divine Worship and the Sacraments in Rome for use in the dioceses of the United States of America, will be included in future editions of the Book of Blessings (de Benedictionibus) when the text is revised.

Catholic bishops confront election results

How are the nation’s Catholic bishops reacting to a majority of Catholics voting for Barack Obama, despite his pro-choice stance on abortion?

Here’s the AP’s Rachel Zoll from the big bishops gathering in Baltimore:


AP Religion Writer

BALTIMORE (AP) _ U.S. Roman Catholic bishops, meeting a week after the election, are re-examining how they explain church teaching after President-elect Obama, who supports abortion rights, won a majority of Catholic votes.

During the campaign, many bishops had spoken out on abortion more forcefully than they had in 2004, telling Catholic politicians and voters that abortion should be the most important consideration in setting policy and deciding which candidate to back.

Yet, according to exit polls, 54 percent of Catholics chose Obama, who is Protestant, and Vice President-elect Biden, who is Catholic. Biden also thinks abortion should be legal.

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, of New York City, said that chairmen of the bishops’ national committees met privately Monday morning to begin looking at the issue. A public discussion was set for Tuesday afternoon, the final open session of the bishops’ fall meeting.

DiMarzio oversaw drafting of the bishops’ presidential election-year guide, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” The statement explained Catholic views on poverty, health care and other social issues, but also said that fighting abortion should be paramount.

Bishops posted the document on Web sites and circulated it in parishes. Church staff produced “Faithful Citizenship” podcasts and, for the first time, leaders wrote special election-eve prayers that touched on abortion and other issues.

Still, many church leaders were angered to see several prominent Catholics back Obama, citing a Democratic commitment to reduce abortion. Obama supporters said that GOP leaders had failed to reduce abortion rates and overturn Roe v. Wade.

DiMarzio said many Catholics misinterpreted or misused “Faithful Citizenship.”

“We spoke in very clear but difficult language about moral choices,” said DiMarzio. He said just aiming to reduce abortion, instead of ending it, was morally unacceptable. “Would it be OK if we just tried to reduce slavery?” he said.

Church leaders have been struggling for decades to persuade an often uninvolved flock to incorporate Catholic teaching in their daily lives. This year, as the economy sank, the prelates faced an even greater challenge gaining voters’ attention.

“People vote for lots of reasons. As we’re hearing, the overriding issue is the economy,” said Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C.

The bishops’ frustration is compounded by their task ahead: working with other religious leaders to fight what they expect will be Obama’s policies on some key issues.

John Podesta, Obama’s transition chief, has said the president-elect is considering reversing President Bush’s limit on federal spending for embryonic stem cell research.

Catholic leaders are among those who consider destroying embryos akin to killing a fetus. Obama, along with many moderate Republicans, has supported the research in an effort to find cures for diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Chicago Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said expanding embryonic stem cell research would “alienate tens of millions of people, not just Catholics, and militates against the type of unity the administration hopes to achieve.”

He said, “the common good can never be adequately incarnated in any society when those waiting to be born can be legally killed at choice.”

While the bishops agree on the goal of ending abortion, they differ on how they should persuade lawmakers — of Catholic and other faiths — to agree.

A few bishops have said Biden should not receive Holy Communion.

But Bishop W. Francis Malooly of Wilmington, Del., Biden’s home diocese, said the Democrat had called him in September, the night before Malooly was installed as bishop.

Malooly said the two agreed they would meet when scheduling allows to discuss Catholic teaching. The bishop said he did not advise Biden to refrain from Communion.

“I won’t politicize the Eucharist,” Malooly said. “I don’t want to alienate people. I want to change their hearts and minds.”

Putting God on trial

I was clicking around the dial the other night (an expression from an earlier time, I realize) when I came across “God on Trial” on PBS.

My initial reaction was that I did not have the strength at that moment to watch a film based on Elie Wiesel’s book “The Trial of God,” in which Jewish prisoners of Auschwitz put God on trial for breaking his covenant with the Jewish people.

But once I started watching, I couldn’t turn it off.

poster_godontrial.jpgIt’s intense stuff, as you might imagine. A few dozen prisoners in tattered, striped uniforms — looking too weary to be afraid of their imminent deaths — arguing about God’s role in their suffering.

Their arguments are pointed, concise and passionate. I could imagine people who go through terrible things actually saying what they say.

If you want to watch it, channel 13 in NY will replay it on Thursday (Nov. 13) at 1 a.m. I hope you have a DVR…

Or you can watch it ONLINE here.

Maryknoll Sisters choose new leaders

The Ossining-based Maryknoll Sisters recently elected a new leadership team for the next six years.

And you’re looking at them.

The new president of the community is Sister Janice McLaughlin (far right), from Pittsburgh, who entered the Maryknoll Sisters in 1961. Check out her very interesting background, from Maryknoll:

Sister Janice was assigned to Africa where she has worked for more than 30 years. She was first Communications Coordinator of the Catholic church in Kenya training journalists and broadcasters. In 1977 she was sent to what was then Rhodesia to serve as Press Secretary for the Catholic Commission of Justice and Peace. After only three months, she was arrested, detained and deported for documenting the war crimes of the government of Ian Smith. After her deportation in Sept. 1977, she worked with the Washington Office on Africa, (WOA), a church based lobby group that helped to educate the American public and Congress about African affairs. In 1979 she became the Projects Officer for the Zimbabwe Project, a new initiative set up by a consortium of Catholic donors to assist refugees from the war in Rhodesia; she was based in Mozambique, visiting refugee camps and raising funds for them.

After Independence in 1980, Sister Janice was invited by the independent government of Zimbabwe to work as education consultant in the President’s Office. She helped to build nine schools for former refugees and war veterans and to develop a new system of education which linked academic subjects with technical training. In 1985, she helped to establish the Zimbabwe Mozambique Friendship Association (ZIMOFA), which assisted displaced people in Mozambique who were caught in the civic war.

Between 1992 and ‘97, she became the Communications Coordinator for the Maryknoll Sisters in New York and served as liaison with Maryknoll Magazine and Orbis Books. Returning to Zimbabwe in 1997, she became the training coordinator for Silveira House, a leadership training and development education center run by the Jesuits for the poor and marginalized. Sister Janice is the author of several books on her work and the situation in Africa and numerous articles in various publications.

The other members of the leadership team are: Sister Rebecca Macugay, (second from right), who was elected vice president; and Sisters Anne Hayden (left) and Bitrina Kirway.

You can read more about them on the Maryknoll Sisters’ Website.