A tale of how Mormon leaders came to a papal prayer service in NYC

On April 18, 2008, I attended Pope Benedict XVI’s prayer service in New York City with more than 250 Christian leaders from just about every Christian tradition around.

I didn’t know, and I don’t remember reading anywhere, that two leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were there. In the second row.

There is a extremely interesting tale of the “behind the scenes” decision-making process that led to the seating of two Mormon leaders in the summer edition of Ecumenical Trends, published by the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement in Garrison. It was written by Father James Massa, head of ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Here’s the thing: Mormons consider themselves to be Christians. But the Catholic Church — and most mainstream Christian denominations — disagree.

For one thing, Mormons do not accept the Trinity. They believe the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to be three Gods who are “one in purpose,” but NOT one God in three persons.

So when the LDS church asked to be included in a papal event, the question facing Massa was: Which one?

Should he include them in the prayer service for Christians or a second meeting with representatives of non-Christian religions?

What a religious quandary!

Massa writes that the LDS leadership has been much more visible in recent years, working with other faiths on social and cultural issues. And Catholics and Mormons have a lot in common when it comes to issues of public morality, he notes.

The Bishops Conference asked the Vatican for advice, but was told that they were in a “better position than the Holy See to make the decision,” Massa writes.

He also writes:

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One member of my staff wisely counseled that I speak with the offices of key Orthodox and Evangelical leaders who might register the most discomfort knowing that they would be participating in the April 18 prayer service with Mormons. Such are the ironies of today’s ecumenical engagements: Officers for Catholic Bishops calling Orthodox hierarchs and Evangelical megapastors to make sure they have no strong objections to Mormons being invited to a prayer service with the Pope! The answer came back: “Yes, they can come. But don’t make them too prominent!”

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And so two members of the Quorum of the Twelve — the second-highest leadership body in the LDS church — were invited to the ecumenical prayer service for Christians.

Elder Quentin L. Cook and Elder M. Russell Ballard sat in the second row at St. Joseph’s Church.

Massa concludes his engaging piece (Ecumenical Trends is not on-line, so you can’t read it) with this:

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Heaven may yet hold surprises even greater than was evident back in April 2008, when the Bishop of Rome called an assembly of Christians to prayer with the words: “Grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all”; and two Mormon elders, representing the first world religion to have arisen since Islam, responded: “And also with you.”

An evangelical Presbyterian in New York

I continue to be fascinated by how New Yorkers see all those evangelical Christians out there and by how Christians of the Heartland look at all those heathen New Yorkers.

It’s a staredown of sorts, based on some real truths, assumptions and myths on both sides.

The June issue of Christianity Today has a cover story on Tim Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, which is widely known outside of New York for bringing a lot of New Yorkers to…you won’t believe it… church.

The article explains that Keller was teaching and preaching in Philadelphia — not exactly cow country — when he wound up accepting a call to start a new church in the Ungodly Apple.

He got started 20 years ago, in 1989.

The article explains:

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Tim found Manhattan non-Christians amazingly, sometimes naïvely, curious. Though the borough’s 1.6 million people were used to religious diversity, many had never talked to an evangelical. Tim’s interest in art and music was an indispensable gift in communicating. His omnivorous reading also helped. New York is a city of high achievers to whom, Keller says, it made sense that a minister should be a scholar of ancient texts, exposing them to ideas and information beyond their experience. They needed someone who spoke their language, though, and Keller was a quick learner.

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Today, Redeemer sees about 5,000 people on Sundays at five services at three locations.

And Redeemer is planting churches around the New York area — including Trinity Presbyterian in Rye.

Keller insists that for 20 years, he has tried to preach to non-Christians. The idea is that many New Yorkers who come to his church, maybe with a friend, are not Christians. So he needs to meet them where they are, spiritually:

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The Kellers (note: meaning Time and wife Kathy) stick to a few rules. They never talk about politics. Tim always preaches with a non-Christian audience in mind, not merely avoiding offense, but exploring the text to find its good news for unbelievers as well as believers. The church emphasizes excellence in music and art, to the point of paying their musicians well (though not union scale). And it calls people to love and bless the city. It isn’t an appeal based on guilt toward a poor, lost community.

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The article makes a case that Keller changed the way that Christians look at New York and even cities in general. In fact, a Christianity Today editor named Andy Crouch is quoted as saying “Redeemer was the first to lead this change of posture to the city.”

A Redeemer elder named Charles Osewalt, a high school principal in the Bronx, explains why a change in viewpoint was needed: “Most churches look at New York as a cesspool.”

Watch out for random acts of kindness

I mentioned recently that the United Methodist Church is starting a new national ministry called RETHINK CHURCH,  which begins Wednesday, May 6 with a major advertising campaign.

As the denomination explains it: “RETHINK CHURCH seeks to redefine the church experience beyond the church doors and invite people to become engaged in the world. The campaign aims to spark a global conversation around the rhetorical question, “What if church were a verb?””

They say the idea is to inspire church members AND the unchurched to become more engaged in their communities and the world.

Here in the New York Conference of the UMC, the campaign will begin on Wednesday with YouTube, iPod and other digital media aimed at people 18-36. RETHINK CHURCH ads will also appear in subways, train stations and on taxis.

And then there is this: 200 volunteers will spread out across Manhattan and perform random acts of kindness.

How will New Yorkers respond to random acts of kindness? I hope to find out.

Budget crisis extends to death

From the Associated Press:

NEW YORK (AP) — New York City’s medical examiner warns that proposed budget cuts could threaten Jewish and Muslim burial rites.

Dr. Charles Hirsch says the cuts could hamper his office in its efforts to expedite the burials of observant Jews and Muslims, whose religions call for burials within 24 hours of death.

The city has ordered the medical examiner’s proposed operating budget of about $80 million for the fiscal year beginning in July cut by $7 million. And the state has threatened to withhold about $18 million in reimbursements.

Hirsch told a City Council committee hearing Wednesday the budget cuts could delay the issuing of death certificates needed for burials and force his bureaus outside Manhattan to close.

The city’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner opened in 1918 and was the first such governmental agency in the United States.