Former Methodist bishop of N.Y. Ernest Lyght to retire

When I started covering religion, way back when, one of the first stories I wrote was a profile of Bishop Ernest Lyght, then the head of the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

The truth is that I was trying to get the lay of the land — to figure out who was who — and Lyght’s office was right up the road from my office. So I made an appointment to stop by and chat (probably after reading up a bit on Methodists). I don’t believe that Lyght had ever been mentioned in my paper.

We had a long and often fascinating interview. Bishop Lyght was at the time one of only 10 African-American bishops in the United Methodist Church. His father, he told me, had been a Methodist minister during the years when the Methodist church was, well, officially racist. The denomination had had a special diocese for its black members. This segregated diocese wasn’t dissolved until 1968.

I remember asking Lyght why his father hadn’t left the Methodist church for the AME or AME Zion denominations, which were formed by black Methodists who had broken away. He told me that his father was committed to staying put and seeing change.

And I was sitting across from the result. His son was the United Methodist Bishop of New York.

Bishop Lyght was a gracious and fine man, tall and soft-spoken. When his second, four-year term in New York was over in 2004, he was elected bishop of West Virginia.

I mention this now because I received an email blast today from the current United Methodist bishop of New York, Jeremiah Park, announcing that Bishop Lyght is retiring next month because of health problems.

I’m sure that a lot of Methodists around here — and others — miss him and wish him well.



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

Former Mamaroneck pastor co-led Chelsea’s big wedding

One more note on the Chelsea Clinton wedding (yes, I’m sick of hearing about it, too).

It turns out that the minister who co-officiated the wedding with a rabbi was the Rev. Bill Shillady, former pastor of Mamaroneck United Methodist Church.

Lots of Mamaroneck folks probably recall Shillady, who was a very visible figure during his years as pastor (1988-2000). I got to interview him a few times — including about a “Sunday night live” service aimed at teens — and found him to a real engaging clergyman.

I wasn’t surprised when he was chosen to lead Park Avenue United Methodist Church on the Upper East Side, a flagship United Methodist church in New York.

It’s well known that Hillary Clinton is a United Methodist. Chelsea, apparently, is one as well, according to the United Methodist News Service. They say that Chelsea has occasionally attended Shillady’s church in NYC.

The wedding was co-officiated by a rabbi, as the groom, Mark Mezvinsky, is Jewish. The rabbi was James Ponet, the Jewish chaplain at Yale.

The wedding was held two hours before sundown on Saturday — during the Jewish Sabbath — which goes against Jewish tradition. Many Jewish blogs have been filled with Oy Veys about the wedding.

I was on Bob Dunning’s show yesterday on the Catholic Channel on satellite radio, talking about, among other things, Chelsea’s wedding. He wondered why Jenna Bush’s wedding in 2008 didn’t get nearly as much attention. A good question, I think.

UMNS file photo by John C. Goodwin

Pastor photos a nice touch

The New York Conference of the United Methodist Church has been improving its website of late and now includes easy-to-use listings of each church.

Each church has its own page with basic contact info and links to the church’s own website.

But the NY Conference has added a feature I haven’t seen before: pictures of pastors.

It’s nothing revolutionary, but strikes me as a nice touch, no?

For instance, you get this smiling shot of the Rev. Richard E. Allen, Jr., pastor of Mamaroneck United Methodist Church:


And this one of the Rev. Denise Smartt Sears, pastor of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in New Rochelle:


United Methodist ‘Vision’ now online only

I’ve written some recently about pressures facing the newspaper industry and my transition from a full-time religion reporter to general assignments.

Interestingly (at least to me), the longtime newspaper of the New York Conference of the United Methodist Church has just announced that it is suspending publication and moving entirely to the Web.

This is significant because so many dioceses and conferences have depended for so long on their weekly or monthly newspapers to get the word out. The United Methodist Church, at least in New York, gets virtually no coverage in the mainstream media (except from me, of course).

So what does it mean that “The Vision” is going online?

Certainly, a large proportion of United Methodists in New York are seniors. Many of them, you have to figure, are online at this point. But some are not. They will lose The Vision.

I should mention, though, that the online Vision is available in a large-type version for “pastors to download and print for their parishioners who have a harder time reading the paper.”

Good thinking, there.

Religious denominations have to become more tech-savvy if they are going to connect with younger folks. We all know that mainline Protestant denominations, in general, are struggling to do so in New York.

The Sept. 18 version of the online Vision, in fact, includes an article about getting the word out to youth. It says: “I’m here to confirm what you already suspect: kids don’t check their email. To them, email is old technology, only good for formal communications with teachers, bosses, and other adults. For high schoolers, it’s all about texting and Facebook.”

True. It’s probably a good sign that United Methodists realize this kind of stuff.

Otherwise, the online Vision has the same sort of content as you’ve seen in many religious publications: a calendar page, a piece about Bishop Jeremiah Park running to raise awareness for a charity, a couple of shorts about of church anniversaries, and notices of several retreats, including one to Oberammergau, Germany, for the famous Passion Play.

There’s a box about three upcoming lunches on Long Island to talk about the Great Immigration Debate. I hope The Vision reports on what people have to say.

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.

How about reordering church life, while you’re at it?

Here’s a big job: Reordering the life of the United Methodist Church.

This is the task facing an 18-member steering committee that got going this month in Chicago. They plan to make “a fresh assessment of the church’s life.”

We’re talking about an 8-million-member denomination, the second largest Protestant group after the Southern Baptist Convention. Fortunately, according to a release, “a consulting firm experienced in organizational change management is assisting the committee in its work.”

That should help.

Bishop Larry Goodpaster, project director and president-elect of the UMC’s Council of Bishops, explains: “We have a vision of a church that is vital, growing, diverse, relevant, appealing to youth and young adults, and engaged in effective, life-changing ministry–but we’re limited by an outdated organizational structure.”

If they can come up with a new organizational structure that will help the denomination accomplish all those goals, they’ll have to trademark it fast.

Times Square ads invite young adults to “rethink church” (Methodist style)

If you’re in Times Square this summer, you may see ads for the United Methodist Church‘s “Rethink Church” campaign on the CBS “Super Screen.”

That’s the 26-by-20-foot screen on 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues.

Two 15-second ads per hour will appear 18 hours a day through Sept. 30.

The Rethink Church campaign is designed to appeal to 18- to 34-year-olds who seek “spiritual fulfillment” but have their doubts about church as they’ve known it.

This month, the spots ask “What if church was a literacy program for homeless children? Would you come?” and “What if church considered ecology part of theology?”

The spots refer people to the UMC’s new website,

The Rev. Larry Hollon, head of United Methodist Communications, says about Times Square: “Times Square is an ideal fit for our Rethink Church campaign. You’ll find people of all ages, backgrounds, and ethnicities in Times Square, and we want to tell each of them, ‘There’s a place for you in The United Methodist Church.’”

No money for United Methodist hymnal

Another blow from the Great Recession:

The United Methodist Church has had big plans for a new hymnal.

But the project has been halted because the United Methodist Publishing House doesn’t have the $2 million needed to make it happen.

“The resources required to sustain a dedicated staff and pay for the planned activities are simply not available at this time,” said Bishop Ernest S. Lyght, chair of the hymnal revision committee and the immediate past bishop of the New York Conference (that’s him).

The current hymnal was published in 1989.

He’s not really overweight, is he?

The house was rocking — so to speak — at St. Francis of Assisi in West Nyack last night.

I don’t want to overstate Archbishop Tim Dolan’s appeal only weeks after he got to town. But, boy, people were excited.

There were more than 1,000 people there, with hundreds sitting in folding chairs and people lined up along the walls. And people seemed to be excited about the excitement that Dolan brings.

Everyone I talked to said something about a fresh start for the Catholic Church in New York. It’s like a big, slow exhale…

Dolan was funny, of course. He made quite a few cracks about food and his expanding waistline (which really isn’t that large, now, is it?).

And he emphasized that all the fuss is not about him. It’s about Jesus.

Dolan said that when he was in Milwaukee, a fellow from out of town said he wanted to become a Milwaukee priest because he wanted to serve with Dolan. But Dolan claims he told the guy that he was only a hamburger away from a heart attack and that the fellow needed to serve the church and not Tim Dolan.

A telling story in the midst of Dolan mania.

By the way, quite a few people came up to me to tell me that they liked my blog or my overall work covering religion. It was quite surprising and means a lot. So thanks.

In a bit, I’m heading to the Big City to watch a bunch of United Methodists perform random acts of kindness.

They’re doing it as part of a new national initiative called RETHINK CHURCH.

What exactly does it mean to perform random acts of kindness in New York City. ? I’ll find out.

Photos by Vincent DiSalvio / The Journal News