It wasn’t surprising that Heaven’s Gate made it to the top of most reviews of religion in 1997.
Yet the mass suicides last April had few repercussions on religion and society as compared to several less sensational news events that took place last year. To start off the year, we provide this review of news and trends that will likely carry significant implications for religion in 1998 and beyond.
01: The revoking of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act by the Supreme Court last year is likely to impact the tumultuous church-state landscape in various ways.
The act, established by a broad range of religious leaders in 1993, was struck down by the Supreme Court. Many in the religious community fear the removal of the act could jeopardize the freedom of religious minorities. By striking down the law, the Supreme Court highlighted its authority, rather than Congress or state legislatures, in protecting First Amendment freedom of religious liberties.
The decision, plus many others, has already solidified a new coalition of religious conservatives protesting against what they see as judicial activism by the Court (see July-August RW).
02: The ecumenical decisions made during the summer of `97 will not likely reshape church relations, but they did reveal new patterns and strategies for achieving unity among mainline churches.
The proposal for “full communion” between the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and three mainline Reformed bodies was accepted while the ELCA refused to enter into relations with the Episcopal Church. The ELCA-Reformed agreement did not ecessitate a change in structure to have inter-church relations, while the Episcopal concordat would eventually stipulate that the Lutherans accept the historic episcopate or apostolic succession of bishops.
The Reformed agreement is more wary of top-down, structural changes and allows ecumenical action to to be decided at the local level. Even if it is called “full communion,” such relations are likely to be selective and partial, traveling along the faultlines and fissures of post-denominational American religion (September RW).
03: The new restrictions against “foreign” religions in Russia and the legal establishment of the Russian Orthodox Church brought protests from a wide range of religions, including dissenting Orthodox groups.
The restrictions are mainly aimed at Western new religious movements and evangelical groups, but any religious group that is independent of centralized and registered religious organizations, such as the Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists and Catholics, can be targeted with restrictions. While it is widely doubted that it will be fully enforced, the legislation can easily be used by politicians intent on harnessing Orthodoxy for political purposes and limiting dissenting voices.
04: There are also signs of growing Eastern Orthodox revivalist or traditionalist movements, not always related to the political establishment of Orthodoxy noted above.
The withdrawal of the Georgian Orthodox Church from the World Council of Churches, and the prospect of the Serbian Orthodox Church doing likewise, signals the growing independence and isolation of Orthodoxy from other churches (October RW).
05: The freeze on ecumenical relations between Eastern Orthodoxy and other churches is most clearly seen in the declining state of Catholic-Orthodox relations during the past year.
Despite Pope John Paul II’s frequent calls for closer relations between the two traditions — even offering the possibility of restructuring the papacy to accommodate the Orthodox — there are growing conflicts between Eastern-Rite Catholic churches and Orthodox over the ownership of parishes in Eastern Europe (not to mention the new restrictions in Russia largely carried out by the Russian Orthodox Church).
The U.S. visit of Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople–the leader of a large segment of world Orthodoxy — last September added to the dampened mood by dismissing any easy reconciliation with Rome.
— Erling Jorstad contributed to this review