The dawn of the new millennium has brought on an onslaught of predictions and forecasts.
While we’re not averse to venturing forecasts on the shape of religion in the new millennium, we thought we would stay with tradition and focus on the religious developments emerging from the news events of last year — those that show the most promise of influencing religion in the year 2000 and beyond.
When pertinent, we cite the issues of Religion Watch where these trends and events were first reported after each item.
01: Much of the talk of sensational millennial crises turned out to be a bust by New Year’s Day.
Many of those who saw the Y2K bug as a potential cleanser of ungodly influences in society through a prophesied attack on technology will be busy backtracking or revamping their predictions to apply to the “true” third millennium, 2001, or other possible dates. In response to the peaceful passing into 2000, members of religious groups that hunkered down in fear of Y2K chaos, may decide to leave such groups, particularly marginal members who joined only recently.
Others prone to religious inspired terrorism will not necessarily forsake their desire to instigate the breakdown of Western society in order to create a more godly culture and to strike against God’s enemies.
[December, 1999 RW]
02: The Christian Right was reported as faltering in the wake of the 1998 elections, and last year did not show things getting any brighter. The failure to impeach President Bill Clinton and the appearance of manifestos from religious right leaders sharply criticizing Christian involvement in politics gave the impression that the entire Christian right was on the downturn.
Whether this is actually the case will be seen by next November. In the meantime, religious politics is on an upsurge. Presidential candidates across the spectrum are increasingly outspoken about their faith and how it shapes their political views.
[December `98 and May `99 RW]
03: Ecumenism was more in the news in 1999 than in previous years.
The acceptance of a concordat between the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America by the latter denomination (after it was earlier rejected) was hailed by some observers as a shot in the arm for the tired ecumenical movement The agreement entails that Lutherans will eventually adopt the historic episcopate (practice of consecrating bishops in an unbroken line of succession from Apostolic times). Observers note that this is the first time a non-episcopal denomination in the U.S. has adopted the historic episcopate and even claim that it may be a model for future ecumenical efforts.
But as often happens in ecumenism, the “full communion” agreement has intensified internal divisions within the ELCA. A reform group called the Word Alone Network has formed to protest the agreement, viewing it as creating a more hierarchical church structure in conflict with the Lutheran confessions.
04: Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the long awaited document on Catholic universities and their relation to the official church, is likely to have repercussions years beyond its late 1999 release.
The document calls for bishops to give their approval to the theology faculties of Catholic colleges and universities. The debate now is about what such approval means for academic freedom and the attempt to strengthen Catholic identity. Since the process of episcopal oversight and collaboration will be determined by local bishops, the results will be far from monolithic.
The conflicts will likely arise between aggressively conservative bishops — not all are aggressive in maintaining orthodoxy — and liberal theology departments under their jurisdiction.
05: The Columbine tragedy and then the shootings of members at a Baptist church in Texas months later were viewed with alarm and, in the long run, awe by many evangelical believers in 1999.
Martyrdom, a term frequently used more from the mission field and church history, found fresh currency among evangelicals in the aftermath of these events. Some evangelicals referred to these events as signaling a new trend of anti-Christian violence, although it has not been established how much these sentiments motivated the perpetrators.
The reports of heroic involvement of young people in these shootings led to a new outspokenness and spiritual concern among Christian youth, a trend that is worth watching in 2000.
06: Last year also saw the successful attempt by the laity and clergy, particularly a reform group known as GOAL, to force the resignation of Archbishop Spyridon of the Greek Orthodox Church in the U.S.
Spyridon was widely viewed as a hard-liner who was out of touch with American church procedures. What was most unique and revealing about the event was how the Internet was put to use by dissidents to energize protests across the whole church. (see the in-depth article on this subject in the fall issue of Religion in the News (available at: www.trincoll.edu/depts/csrpl/)
— By RW’s editor and contributing editors