NY’s mainline Protestant leaders support proposed downtown Islamic center

It’s taken a while, but New York’s mainline Protestant leaders have issued statements about the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero.

No great surprises here. The NY bishops of the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church all gently support the project, while acknowledging the pain still felt by so many.

I’ll paste their full statements below.

United Methodist Bishop Jeremiah Park declares his support for the project, writing that “denying the fundamental right of a religious community, as long as it fulfills the same legal requirements applied to all other religious communities, by singling it out for the wrong reasons, compromises the integrity of who we are at our core.”

He also writes: “Our hearts break over the sacrifice of the dead from 9/11 and the pains and sufferings of their loved ones and our country. However, to truly honor them, to truly preserve the historic significance of the Ground Zero, and to truly triumph over the evil force of 9/11, it is necessary to stand firm on what America believes in and be willing to pay whatever the price to protect and preserve freedom and equality for all.”

ELCA Bishop Robert Rimbo doesn’t offer the same outright pledge of support, but concludes with this: “There is much pain very near the surface of our emotions with regard to the tragic events of September 11, 2001. But how will preventing this center from being constructed help us to deal with that pain? There is great fear driving our lives today. How do persons of faith respond to that fear? We commend ourselves to the reliable and merciful arms of the God of Abraham, the God whom Jesus calls Abba, the God whom Muslims and Christians in various parts of the world call Allah. This God promises a reign in which all shall be well. Our faith is bigger and stronger than all our fears.”

Italics mine. Sure sounds like he is in favor getting beyond the fear and building the place.

Finally, Episcopal Bishop Mark Sisk, as I noted last week, wrote a public letter supporting the Islamic center. It includes this: “The plan to build this center is, without doubt, an emotionally highly-charged issue. But as a nation with tolerance and religious freedom at its very foundation, we must not let our emotions lead us into the error of persecuting or condemning an entire religion for the sins of its most misguided adherents.”

Of course, Archbishop Tim Dolan has offered to be a conciliatory voice, but has stopped short of taking a position. In a recent blog post, he wrote: “Although I have no strong sentiment about what should be decided about the eventual where of the Islamic Center, I do have strong convictions about how such a discussion should be reached: civilly and charitably.  The hot-heads on either side must not dominate.”

Here are the full UMC, ELCA and Episcopal Church statements… Continue reading

Denomination wins appeal in ‘divorce’ case with dissident church

In 2005, I wrote about a low-profile court case involving a Presbyterian church in Orange County that could have far-reaching ramifications.

The First Presbyterian Church of Ridgebury had decided to leave its denomination, Presbyterian Church (USA), because its few remaining members did not like the denomination’s tolerant stance toward gays and lesbians nor its general leftward drift.

The congregation renamed itself the Church at Ridgebury and decided to take its stuff — its church building and property — with it.

hudsonriverpresbytery_logoAs you might expect, the Hudson River Presbytery, the regional body of PCUSA, objected. The Presbytery went to court.

A 2006 ruling went in favor of the Church at Ridgebury, saying that the congregation was not obligated to listen to the mother church.

The decision was a big blow for the presbytery. Once insider told me that several churches would probably leave if they could keep their real estate.

The issue has been coming up for years in all the mainline Protestant denominations, where conservative or traditional congregations increasingly find themselves at odds with their denominations over “Culture War” issues.

The Presbytery appealed. And, this time, won.

Last month, the Appellate Division of NYS Supreme Court reversed the earlier ruling.

The court ruled that the congregation failed to provide evidence that it owned the property in question:

*****

With respect to the real property, the defendants submitted the deeds conveying the subject real property to them, which did not contain any express reversionary or trust provisions. They also submitted a title search listing Ridgebury Church as the record owners of the subject real property. However, the defendants acknowledge that the Book Of Order, a component of the constitution of PCUSA, contains language specifying that all property held by a particular church is held in trust for the national denomination. The neutral principles approach requires the courts to “look to the constitution of the general church concerning the ownership and control of church property'” (Episcopal Diocese of Rochester v Harnish, 11 NY3d 340, 351, quoting First Presbyt. Church of Schenectady v United Presbyt. Church in U.S. of Am., 62 NY2d 110, 122, cert denied 469 US 1037). The express trust provision contained in the Book of Order defeats the defendants’ efforts to demonstrate their entitlement to summary judgment because the enactment of such a trust provision is one way in which the national denomination or Presbytery may ensure that church property is retained by the faction loyal to the national denomination and Presbytery upon secession of any particular church (see Jones v Wolf, 443 US 595).

*****

The court further held that several provisions of PCUSA’s Book of Order “are further proof that the PCUSA’s constitution expressly provided that all church property in the possession of local churches remained under the ultimate care and control of the Presbytery of Hudson River.”

According to the Presbyterian Layman, a generally conservative publication/website that covers these issues with great interest, the Church at Ridgebury has few options: request permission from the NYS Court of Appeals to appeal; go find a new church; or reach a settlement with the presbytery.

This is a much-needed reprieve for the Hudson River Presbytery.

But we’ll be hearing more about these property issues.

In fact, the conservative Washington Times just ran an article about traditional congregations in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American wanting to leave their denomination, but encountering opposition, even “bullying.”

ELCA bishop: Tears of ‘joy and sorrow’ over gay-clergy vote

Bishop Robert Rimbo, leader of the ELCA’s Metro NY Synod, reflected this week on his denomination’s much-publicized recent decision to allow people who live in committed, monogomous same-sex relationships to serve as ministers.

He writes, in part:

*****

I fully expect that our call process will fundamentally remain the same, with congregations finally determining whom to call as their pastor in a process guided by the Holy Spirit. I am grateful for the spirit of communal discernment in our church and at our Churchwide Assembly. Through it all we have come to recognize the deep love people have for this church, even as our views might vary about how best to live this out. This love was evident in the tears in the eyes of many in the Assembly hall upon the announcement of all of the critical votes. There were tears of joy and tears of sorrow and I found the tears in my own eyes to be a mixture of the two.

When difficult decisions are made, trust levels are often shaken. So let me offer some thoughts on why I believe there is reason for trust in our church to be affirmed:

The process was consistently open and democratic, sometimes to the dismay of those who wanted the authorities in our church to dictate what could or could not be. Debate was robust and outcomes were not known until announced. The 1,045 voting members made these decisions.

There was impressive respect for the deep feelings of others as votes were announced. Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson reminded us that given the gravity of all of these decisions, the announcement of results should be followed by respectful silence and prayer rather than clapping or outbursts. And that’s exactly what happened: response was always restrained and prayerful. I think these are important signs of our care for each other and the growing maturity of our church.

The depth of people’s engagement on the floor of the Assembly and in many gatherings throughout our time before and during the days in Minneapolis is a clear sign of people’s great love for this church. I find hope in that, and I trust that we can continue to listen attentively to one another.

*****

When I interviewed Rimbo a year ago, shortly before he became bishop, he told me: “After years of personal struggle, of study, of conversations, I believe that people who are gay are created that way. Who am I to deny something that God has created?”

Playing catch up

Catching up with some stuff from when I was away:

1. Locally, Ramapo’s first “ultra-Orthodox” police officer has filed a bias claim against the town and some officers, claiming that she was discriminated against because of her religion.

Baile J. Glauber, 31, who was raised in the Satmar Hasidic community, says in her complaint that she has been repeatedly questioned about her religion by police brass.

Glauber is often referred to as “Hasidic” or “ultra-Orthodox,” but we really know little about her since she has not talked publically since becoming a cop last year.

Anything having to do with Hasidic or ultra-Orthodox Jews in Rockland County draws a tremendous amount of interest. Judging by the comments at the end of my colleague Steve Lieberman’s article, this holds true when it comes to Officer Glauber.

2. After years of study and deliberation, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America decided to allow gays and lesbians who live in committed, same-sex relationships to serve as clergy.

The move is no great surprise, but another step toward the gradual acceptance of gays and lesbians in the mainline Protestant world.

“We’re going to be living in tension and ambiguity for a longer time, partly because the culture has shifted,” David Steinmetz, a Duke Divinity School professor of Christian history, told the AP.

So what happens now? Will the ELCA, which has seen its membership drop from 5.3 million to 4.7 million, get smaller, thrive, break up or what?

Columnist Rod Dreher of the Dallas Morning News outlines three possible scenarios, but favors this one:

*****

The ELCA will continue to decline, while more conservative churches will probably prosper in the short run. But the demographic wave on homosexuality is real, and it’s going to impact conservative churches in a big way over the coming decades. But secularism — that is, being unchurched and happy with it — is also a rising trend among younger Americans. Liberalization on the gay issue ought to in theory help more tolerant congregations attract people, but in practice, it’s going to be a wash because significantly fewer of these people are going to care about belonging to any church at all in the future.

*****

3. Much more quietly, the Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA voted to enter into a “full communion” agreement with the United Methodist Church (which already did so).

What does this mean? It means that each mainline denomination recognizes the other’s baptism, Eucharist, and ministry.

It’s not a merger by any stretch, but does say that there is not much that divides the two Christians camps.

At the local level, mainline churches already work closely in many communities. Most have much in common in terms of theology and their basic world views, so the denominations are really catching up with their local communities.

That’s ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson on the left, hugging it out with United Methodist Bishop Gregory Palmer.

Davey & Goliath: The LOST episodes

You have to love any news related to “Davey and Goliath,” the goofy but lovable, claymation children’s TV series produced by the Lutheran church during the ’50s and ’60s.

For the last decade or so, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has trying to pump up the D&G legacy with bobble-heads, a TV documentary and more.

Now the ELCA is releasing “The Lost Episodes,” a DVD with 10 episodes that have never been seen.

According to the website:

*****

Some of the episodes were pulled from broadcast stations over 40 years ago, and some have never even been distributed on television or video.  Content issues, political incorrectness or unapproved visuals kept these episodes in the vault.  Now re-edited to acceptable video standards for young children, we hope you and your family enjoy these Lost Episodes of the beloved Davey and Goliath television series.

*****

Huh?

Content issues? Political incorrectness? Unapproved visuals?

What exactly were Davey & Goliath doing and saying back in the day?

Now that these shows have been edited to “acceptable video standards,” we’ll probably never know.

What a mystery.

Pumping up those ELCA churches

The Rev. Jack Horner has got a tough job now. And he knows it.

He is the new Assistant to the Bishop for Evangelical Mission in the Metropolitan New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

His job is to travel around the vast synod — we’re talking about 200 churches from NYC up to Sullivan and Ulster — and help congregations develop mission strategies and strengthen their congregational outreach.

In other words, stand up straight and get their spiritual act together.

I talked to Horner recently at the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Mount Kisco, where he was the pastor for a decade. Until two weeks ago.

Only days after his final service as pastor, he returned in his new role. He jokingly introduced himself to his “old” congregants and handed out his new business cards.

Horner, a tall minister with a red goatee and a lot of energy, has to pump up congregations with stagnant or shrinking memberships in a synod that has been — ministers say — somewhat stagnant.

And shrinking.

But Horner told me that his new job is not about counting members.

“I’s not just about numbers,” he said. “It’s about thinking as missional churches and missional people, understanding themselves as people sent by God to do his work in the world. You can have a vibrant church with 75 people on Sunday, if there is great outreach and mission, loving God and love each other.”

He does believe, he told me, that great things can happen.

“When I read the Book of Acts, a lot of amazing things occur,” he said, laughing.

Horner is still living in Mount Kisco and his wife, Linda, remains outreach coordinator at the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, a vibrant place where a sign facing those leaving the church reads: “You are now entering the Mission Field.”

“All churches have to be the Lutheran church of the resurrection,” Horner said. “I believe that to my core.”

And back where the Reformation began…

There are few Lutherans these days in the land of Martin Luther.

It’s no surprise, really.

As the Washington Post reports, decades of communism in East Germany, followed by the secularism that has swept through Europe, has greatly diminished the role and profile of Christianity in Wittenberg, Germany. Yeah, that’s the place where Lutheran nailed his list of grievances on the door of the church.

The Post reports that the two main Lutheran denominations in the U.S. — the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod — are trying to revive Lutheranism in Wittenberg. But it’s not easy.

In September, Wittenberg began celebrating the 500th anniversary of Luther’s arrival in the city.

And “Luther tourism” is good for the place, with some 200,000 people visiting the Castle Church each year.

But, as Wilhelm Torgerson, the Missouri Synod’s representative in Wittenberg, told the Post: “In east Germany, you actually have to go up to people and tell them who Jesus was. They say, ‘Oh yes, Christ. Didn’t he have something to do with Luther?’ “

Two ELCA pastors get top synod posts

I’ve been slow in getting to the recent Synod Assembly of the Metropolitan New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

I’ll write more about it soon.

But I wanted to note some staff changes affecting two highly regarded ELCA pastors from here in the LoHud.

First, the Rev. Kathleen Koran, pastor of Trinity Lutheran in Brewster since 2002, has been named assistant to the bishop for congregations. She will assist Bishop Robert Rimbo, head of the NY Synod, to develop healthy congregations. She starts July 1.

Second, the Rev. Jack Horner, pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Mount Kisco for 10 years, has been named assistant to the bishop for evangelical mission. He’ll be dealing with outreach and evangelical efforts, particularly at congregations that are receiving financial support from the synod or the national denomination. Interestingly, he’ll be working for both Rimbo and Bishop Stephen Bouman, the past bishop of New York who is now heading the ELCA’s Division for Evangelical Outreach and Congregational Mission out of Chicago. Horner gets going June 16.

Analyzing the ELCA’s attendance free-fall

I’ve written a lot over the years about the struggles of mainline Protestant denominations to maintain membership and church attendance.

The ELCA (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) is now reporting that average church attendance on Sunday at its 10,448 congregations has fallen from 144 people to 131 — since 2002.

That’s bad.

The Lutheran — an ELCA national publication — quotes New York’s former ELCA bishop, Stephen Bouman, who is now national director of evangelical outreach for the denomination: “We’ve also lost our evangelizing power [and] that effort to instill the faith and practices of discipleship in our children and today’s emerging generation.”

Bouman also said: “There is a particular connection between vitality and attendance at worship and the connection a congregation has in mission to its community.”

Bouman and other mainline leaders have cited these problems for many years. The problem if figuring out how to fix them.

The current head of the ELCA’s New York Synod, Bishop Robert Rimbo, in his weekly message, notes the attendance free-fall:

*****

What’s up?

This study is alarming. Why would people not come together regularly to worship? Whatever our personal spiritual lives may be, worship for Lutherans is essential, nourishing, connecting. Simply being missed should draw us back together, attract the young to their friends, the old to lifelong comrades, the lonely to kinship, the kids to a new family.

I think demographics play a part. The next generation is largely unchurched, families with children are overextended, retirees move to the shore in summer and the south in winter, the faithful grandparent generation is dying.

The culprit may be our leisure society. And, believe me, I know what you are facing: working hard all week makes us feel we’ve fulfilled our obligations, need to connect with family, and enjoy that blessed reprieve of a weekend at the beach or mountains or maybe just sipping an unhurried cup of coffee while reading the Times. We want to play with the toys we worked hard to buy.

When did God’s gift of the Sabbath become a weekend away from our Lord and from each other? Without getting into worship wars, poor preaching, church disputes, or bad music, we must ask more fundamental questions. How important, how powerful is our need simply to be together? The early Christians obviously felt the presence of Christ in their gatherings but they experienced a kind of rare community, koinonia, they called it (Acts 2.42). Is there a way we can be accountable to each other as sisters and brothers in Christ? Would a pastor or deacon, a council member or a friend simply call Sunday afternoon and say “We missed you”?

Pastors tell me it starts when people join, and I have experienced the same reality. Many new members don’t intend to worship weekly. Do they need other options to be together? Could the standard for membership be two gatherings each week? How else could one hope to sustain any relationship? Let us start from the truth that we are members of a Body, not names in a directory. Let us all speak lovingly: we miss each other, we enjoy each other, we long to be together. Then we will depart strengthened, and I’m guessing we will return to be strengthened again.

More on the ELCA’s ‘gay ordination’ struggles

More on the never-ending “gay debate” in mainline denominations…

I mentioned last week the latest ELCA move on the question of ordaining gay clergy: a task force has recommended that a national assembly this summer decide whether congregations and synods (regional bodies) should have the flexibility to choose clergy in monogamous, same-sex relationships.

The task force recommendations are hard to absorb. Here is a summation from Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo, head of the Metro NY Synod of the ELCA:

*****

“In brief, the Churchwide Assembly this coming August will decide whether to create “space” for congregations and synods to publically recognize and hold accountable the relationship of same-gendered couples (step one), and (step two) whether our Church ought to find ways to allow the rostered ministry of such persons. The task force acknowledges that conscience-bound faithful Christians find themselves on different sides of this issue. The task force also acknowledges that we are bound not only in our own consciences but in love to the conscience of the other. Because of the lack of consensus in the church, the task force believes that we need to respect our differences and accept the different places in which the baptized find themselves. The recommendation affirms that our distinctive positions on this issue should not be church-dividing. No congregation or institution will be forced to call a leader they do not wish to call.”

*****

Rimbo also writes in a message to the NY synod:

*****

“There has been a range of emotions – from anticipation to anxiety – surrounding the release of the Social Statement on Human Sexuality. Now that it is here, it is important to familiarize ourselves with its contents. Most of the statement is a non-controversial, comprehensive, Biblically-based understanding of human sexuality. As mentioned above, theological themes like trust, hope, joy, grace and faith are extraordinarily helpful in our efforts to reflect on healthy human sexual response and behavior.”

*****

Also, the head of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod — a somewhat smaller and more conservative national Lutheran denomination — has released a statement lamenting the step taken by the ELCA task force.

Gerald B. Kieschnick, president of the LC-MS, writes that the ELCA move would “constitute a radical departure from the 2,000-year-long teaching of the Christian tradition that homosexual activity, whether inside or outside of a committed relationship, is contrary to Holy Scripture.”