In This Issue
- Findings & Footnotes: June 1998
- Japan’s new funeral rituals suggest loss of faith
- Egypt’s Christians question religious freedom crusade
- Pope John Paul’s ministry key to trend of Catholic democracies
- Canadian Evangelical leaders seek Anglican roots
- Current Research: June 1998
- Reorganized church losing identity and membership?
- Ethnicity, marital status diversifying Mormon wards
- Conservatives look beyond Episcopal church’s authority
- New Black Pentecostal movement spreads widely
- Spiritual counselors find criticism and wide interest
- Media market challenging religious television
- Schism ahead for United Methodists?
Findings & Footnotes: June 1998
01: Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X (Jossey-Bass Publishers, $22) by Tom Beaudoin, shows how popular culture drives much of the spiritual concerns of the baby analyzes everything from fashions (tattoos and baggy clothes) to rock music to show how Generation X spirituality is shaped by four themes: a suspicion of institutions; an emphasis on personal experience, suffering, and ambiguity.
It seems that the last two themes (the theme of suffering is often related to the broken homes of baby busters) that distinguishes the younger generation from baby boomers. Readers may feel that baby busters are too diverse for any close theological connections to be drawn between popular lyrics (as in “Losing My Religion”) and other cultural icons and their spiritual lives. Nevertheless, Beaudoin provides interesting ideas about how religious groups can tap into Gen X spirituality (from using computers to renewing tradition and rituals).
02: Readers might want to take a look at RW‘s new web site: http://www.religionwatch.com.
Some parts of the site are still under construction, but when it is complete we will feature a sample issue, information about the newsletter, and a yearly subject index. The site will mainly serve as an introduction to RW, and we request that subscribers pass our address along to friends and colleagues who might be interested in the newsletter.
However, in the next few months we are planning to add an archive of past articles that will be searchable by subject — creating a helpful research tool for students of contemporary religion.
Japan’s new funeral rituals suggest loss of faith
The growth of unorthodox rituals surrounding death in Japan show a significant loss of belief in the afterlife and ancestor veneration, writes anthropologist Hikaru Suzuki in the Journal of Contemporary Religion (May).
The practices of “live funerals,” that is, funerals held while the recipient is still alive, non-religious funerals, and cremation and the spreading of ashes, have all experienced growth since the early 1990s in Japanese society. The concern to have one’s funeral while still alive and healthy expresses a growing uncertainty about life after death.
In the past, death meant becoming an ancestor of one’s household and assured one’s own continuance into the future. The importance attached to one’s ancestors has decreased with the large scale migration to the cities, the predominance of nuclear families, and the financial independence of descendants without depending on ancestral land, Suzuki adds.
The growth of non-religious funerals mirrors the alienation of many from ancestor veneration, since the Buddhist priest is important in creating such a link. The high fees Buddhist priests now charge is another reason for such alienation. The practice of scattering ashes of the dead in requested sites is another indication of how fostering personal memories of loved ones rather than ancestral veneration is taking hold among the Japanese.
The traditional concept of the impurity of the dead (dealt with by elaborate burial rites) has also fallen upon disfavor. Suzuki concludes that these new funeral rites render the traditional practice of “praying for” and “praying to” ancestors both difficult and unpopular.
(Journal of Contemporary Religion, Centre for New Religions, Dept. of Theology, King’s College, Univ. of London, Strand, London WC2R 2LS)
Egypt’s Christians question religious freedom crusade
In Egypt, at least, the U.S.-based movement to extend religious human rights worldwide is running into resistance among the very group of Christians that it is claiming to help.
The Economist (May 23) reports that recent American legislation seeking to impose automatic sanctions against states America deems to have abetted or tolerated religious persecution is viewed negatively by Egyptian Muslim and Christian alike. Aside from the fear of losing $2.1 billion of American aid, Egyptian Coptic Christians fear that singling them out “for superpower intervention could have the effect of intensifying Egypt’s pervasive — though generally mild — discrimination against Christians.”
Suspicions about American motives cuts across the Christian-Muslim religious divide, with many see the recent bill as seeking to punish poor countries and maintain a “pro-Israel” prejudice in the Middle East.
The large Coptic emigrant community in the West takes a more critical position on Muslim discrimination against Christians in Egypt, and even Copts still living in the country admit there is “petty discrimination” in most sectors of Egyptian society. Yet such Egyptian Christians also point out that Coptic church is generally flourishing, with the government particularly eager to project a “conciliatory image.”
The success of the church and the growth of militant Islam (which has ignited cases of documented violence against Christians) may have led to the growth of a more religious and separatist Christian community among their Muslims neighbors. Just as Muslims turned against Christians in the face of “foreign meddling” during the crusades, Copts believe that Christian-Islamic antagonism could become inflamed with new forms of foreign intervention.
Pope John Paul’s ministry key to trend of Catholic democracies
Despite the belief in the United States that Pope John Paul II is an aged man with values out of touch with most Catholics, he is acutally “the world’s most important and effective advocate of freedom and democracy,” writes Adrian Karatnycky in the National Review (May 4).
Karatnycky, head of Freedom House, writes that the record at century’s end shows that dictatorship has been virtually eliminated in countries with a Catholic majority. When he became Pope in 1978, 22 of 42 countries with a Catholic majority were tyrannies. All but two of these have now collapsed.
These now-democratic countries include Argentina, Chile, The Czech Republic, Guatemala, Hungary, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Poland, the Philippines and Lithuania. Mexico is also nearing the completion of its transformation to democracy, as is Croatia. Only two Catholic countries remain dictatorships: Equatorial Guinea and Cuba.
The underlying reasons for this revolve around the Pope who with his personal understanding of dictatorship in Poland, set the pro-democracy agenda for his ministry. His travels were planned to advance freedom at strategic moments in the host country’s history. In such travels, and from Rome, John Paul has accented the need for more protection of human rights and democratic procedures in government.
To the Pope, totalitarian regimes violate Christian teachings because they control the sacred rights of individuals. Alongside that has been the high priority for legal protection of the right of association for all citizens. The author acknowledges the impact of Papal visits and writings “is never immediate.”
Other decisive elements have encouraged the gains for democracy; these include the improving transparency of borders, technological changes and improved access to information, and the gradual emergence of more affluent “robust middle and working classes . . .”
(National Review, 150 E. 35th St., New York, NY 10016)
— By Erling Jorstad
Canadian Evangelical leaders seek Anglican roots
Evangelical leaders are moving to the Anglican Church to gain a sense of tradition as well to gain cultural influence, reports Faith Today magazine (May/June).
The Canadian evangelical magazine notes that evangelicals are finding the symbolism, rich liturgy, and sacramentalism of Anglicanism what they have missed in their own low church backgrounds. While denominational switching is not new among evangelicals, “what is new, though, is the growing number of evangelical leaders who remain evangelical in their convictions while making the switch to mainline churches, and the ease with which their decisions are being accepted in the evangelical world,” writes Bob Harvey. While the move to liturgical Christianity is evident among American evangelicals, the Canadian phenomenon seems more class-driven.
“Those who move tend to be leaders: academics, journalists, politicians, civil servants, educators, those whose work brings them into contact with the idea class, or the cultural elite,” says church historian John Stackhouse. The transition to Anglicanism includes leaders from such influential evangelical groups as World Vision Canada and Campus Crusade for Christ. He adds that the “cosmopolitan nature” of Anglicanism in Canada carries appeal for evangelicals wanting a church “that engages culture, instead of separating from it.”
The movement to Anglicanism is suggested in the estimate that 35-50 percent of Anglican clergy in the diocese of Toronto were brought up in other denominations, many of them evangelical. There are contingents of new Anglicans at several Canadian evangelical colleges.
(Faith Today, MIP Box 3745, Markham, ON L3R 0Y4 Canada)
Current Research: June 1998
01: It is assumed that immigration changes congregations in the U.S., but the same patterns of departure and arrival also affect the religious life of these newcomers’ “host” countries, according to recent research among Dominican immigrants.
Harvard University sociologist Peggy Levitt studied the ties Dominican immigrants have to the Catholic church both in the U.S. and back in their native country, to which many return. The increasing tendency for migrants to keep feet in both worlds (for instance, in the Dominican Republic and the U.S.)., as well as the new “ease of transport, new technology, sending-state policies, and increasing economic and political interdependence means that some immigrants communicate [religious] practices back to their homelands,” Levitt writes in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (March).
In studying Dominicans as they move between the Dominican Republic and Boston, Levitt found that those returning to their home country from the U.S. brought back such religious ideas and practices to their Catholic parishes as more lay leadership, organized hospitality to parishioners, and greater freedom for women in various ministries. More significantly, the style of Catholicism these migrants brought back the Dominican Republic was more formal, “official” and bureaucratic.
Popular home-based, folk practices were replaced by official ceremonies; returnees and others they influenced went to Mass more frequently and joined Catholic renewal groups. As church involvement was often seen as a stepping stone to emigration, there was more participation to further non-religious goals, with such sacraments as baptism (in order to obtain birth records for emigration) being “commercialized.”
(Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1365 Stone Hall, Sociology Dept., Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN 47907-1365).
02: New studies in church attendance not only show lower rates than usually reported but also suggest that a pattern of over-reporting such activity takes place among people with strong ties to churches, according to researchers C. Kirk Hadaway and Penny Long Marler.
The past several years has witnessed a sharp debate among pollsters and sociologists about how many Americans actually attend church services. Pollsters, such as the Gallup Organization, maintain that there is a stable 40 percent of Americans who attend church in a given week, while Hadaway, Marler and other sociologists hold that over-reporting is taking place, with only about half that rate actually attending church.
Writing in the Christian Century (May 6), Hadaway and Marler claim that they have updated their research and still come up with low attendance rates. They recently made head counts (their method of surveying) of Catholics added to their previous count of Protestants in Ashtabula County, Ohio and found that 24 percent of Catholics attended Mass during an average week. This is in contrast to a recent poll of Ashtabula County residents where 51 percent of Catholics had reported attending Mass during the past week.
Marler and Hadaway also conducted a new study of church attendance in Oxford County in southern Ontario. The results confirm that a large attendance gap also exists north of the U.S. border. Hadaway and Marler hold that people are overreporting their attendance to pollsters because they consider themselves to be churchgoers, even if they miss services. Most people report what they “usually do” or what they think someone like them ought to do.
By telling poll takers they did not attend church in the previous week (which is how most such survey questions are phrased), they would be “identified symbolically as nonchurchgoers.” As long as this self-perception of many Americans as active churchgoers holds strong, the proportion claiming weekly attendance will hold strong. But such rates may drop if the perception that being a committed Christian or religious person is no longer linked to regular church attendance.
(Christian Century, 407 S. Dearborn, Chicago, IL 60605)
03: Presbyterians, both clergy and laity, spend little time on evangelism and many are unsure what is meant by the term, according to a study of members of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
The survey, conducted among church members by the denominational polling group, Presbyterian Panel during 1996, found that Presbyterians don’t spend much time in evangelism. Clergy themselves devote little time to outreach activities–about four hours a month or an hour a week. Interestingly, pastors tended to think it was the laity’s task to increase membership and evangelize, while laypeople viewed the pastor in this role.
Evangelistic resources produced by the denomination were not well-known among clergy and members. The best known evangelism resource, the periodical Net Results, is produced by an independent organization and has an ecumenical audience.
(Presbyterian Panel, 100 Witherspoon St., Louisville, KY 40202)
04: Seventy-five percent of scientists around the world believe in God, according to a poll conducted by the Italian magazine Class.
The National Catholic Register (May 10-16) cites the survey as showing that the scientists cite various reasons for their belief in God: only seven percent looked to scientific proof for such belief; 31 percent acknowledge that their belief is due to cultural factors; an additional five percent found their faith through study, while 50 percent say their belief is purely by faith. Seven percent said they arrived at their religious convictions through other means.
(National Catholic Reporter, 33 Rosotto Dr., Hamden, CT 06514)
Reorganized church losing identity and membership?
The sister denomination of the Mormons, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS), is undergoing a serious decline and loss of identity that its leaders have yet to fully address, writes Roger Launius in the Mormon journal Dialogue (Spring).
The RLDS has recently been reported as moving away from its Mormon heritage toward a mainstream Christian identity, particularly stressing world peace and community. A closer look at RLDS figures show a steady if unacknowledged decline: North American baptism rates show a steady decline from over three percent in 1960 to just under one percent in 1995.
The membership decline, going from 173,000 in 1982 to about 156,000 today, may even be more serious, since officials tend not to remove inactive members from the rolls nor do “traditionalist” schismatic groups want to be dropped as they hope to influence the wider church. In the last few years, there have been a growing number of RLDS congregations closed or taken over by traditionalist groups.
The contributions and offerings given to the church show the extent of decline. Adjusting for inflation, the contributions have declined by almost 50 percent since 1978. Launius writes that the RLDS’ move away from its Mormon heritage and the liberalization of church doctrines and the failure to create another identity — aside from a mainline Protestant one — is leading to a “major crisis.”
For all the moves to become mainline, the RLDS’ remaining Mormon traditions–such as use of the Book of Mormon– will most likely never convince fellow Protestants that the church belongs to the Christian mainstream. Launius adds that the church can best flourish — as it did in the past — as a movement creating a unique middle ground between Mormonism and Protestantism.
(Dialogue, P.O. Box 658, Salt Lake City, UT 84110-0658)
Ethnicity, marital status diversifying Mormon wards
The influx of immigrants, singles, and other non-traditional believers into Mormonism is challenging the religion’s structures and methods of outreach, reports the independent Mormon Sunstone magazine (March/April).
Mormon leaders have allowed the existence of ethnic and single wards (or congregations) on a temporary basis, with the expectation that such members would eventually be integrated into the “mainstream” wards. This attitude was evident in a controversial 1997 directive from Mormon leaders in California (where Mormon diversity is especially strong) which called for the closing of 205 ethnic Mormon wards in the state.
Local LDS leaders and their ethnic members resisted the move, causing enough protest that church leaders backed away from the plan. The turnabout by church leaders was also partly due to their discovery that ethnic wards — which use foreign languages — are often more successful than English-speaking ones, and that ethnic members are more loyal to the church than others.
At the same time, the younger more Americanized generations in these ethnic wards often chafe against the exclusive use of foreign languages. The ethnic wards that work are those permitting members more flexibility in such matters as language. Bishop Ignacio Garcia says that even outside of multiethnic California, Mormonism is changing. “The old idea of nondiversified, English-dominant wards will one day be a thing of the past.”
The same conflicts are taking place among wards ministering to singles. Like the ethnic wards, it was assumed that wards ministering to singles were transitional, leading to the mainstream, family-oriented wards. Karen Southwick writes that Mormon leaders have sought to send older single members from these single-based wards to the mainstream ones — a proposal that has been resisted by members. In the strongly family-based Mormon culture, these wards may suggest that singleness may no longer be a temporary phase among all members, Southwick adds.
In urban areas like San Francisco, where the wards minister to both heterosexual and homosexual members, these single ministries have become increasingly popular. But, as with ethnic wards, these congregations show the new pluralism in Mormonism and raise questions about whether assimilation is the best method of drawing and keeping members.
(Sunstone, 343 N. Third West, Salt Lake City, UT 84103-1215)
Conservatives look beyond Episcopal church’s authority
The conservative forces in the Episcopal Church seem to be shifting to a “post-denominational” strategy, reflecting a national mood that de-emphasizes the importance of denominations.
The conservative caucuses in the church in the past were mainly concerned with fighting liberal tendencies and extending orthodox influence (such as by electing bishops) within the denominational structure. The traditionalist Christian Challenge magazine (May) reports on three fledgling groups that are taking the new approach of challenging the traditional hierarchy and structure of the Episcopal Church. A “First Promise” movement, made up of about 200 clergy and their parishes of the evangelical wing of the denomination are actively resisting liberal church authorities and policies.
Such resistance is seen in two parishes stepping outside their own dioceses and seeking the oversight of foreign bishops. Rev. Thomas Johnston of St. Andrew’s Church in Little Rock, Ark., is in the center of such protests, as he seeks episcopal oversight by Rwandan Archbishop Emmanuel Kolini, while another South Carolinian priest is now under the oversight of Archbishop Moses Tay of South East Asia.
Such a step of seeking authority outside of the Episcopal Church was once considered radical even by traditionalists; now many conservatives as well as some leaders in other Anglican provinces (especially in the conservative Third World churches) are supportive of such an action, since they believe the Episcopal Church is moving in increasingly liberal directions. The recent formation of the North American Missionary Society is now under the oversight of Archbishop Tay. The group plans to bypass denominational missions as well as plant “orthodox” parishes in the U.S.
The most ambitious and controversial project is the formation of a “shadow” denomination known as the Protestant Episcopal Church (PEC). The PEC was the former name of the Episcopal Church. Conservatives plan to regroup under the PEC if the denomination becomes too liberal on such issues as homosexuality.
The move to become a possible “separate orthodox province” under the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury is also the goal of yet another organization, the Episcopal Synod of America, a large group of Anglo-Catholics protesting the forced acceptance of women’s ordination and other liberal measures.
(Christian Challenge, 1215 Independence Ave. S.E., Washington, D.C. 20003)
New Black Pentecostal movement spreads widely
Starting two years ago at the 18,000 member St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church in New Orleans, a new Black Pentecostal movement is now spreading across the nation.
Headed by the dynamic leadership of Bishop Paul S. Morton, the loosely aligned Full Gospel Baptist Fellowship now claims membership of over l,000 churches coast to coast. Each congregation pays $120 a month to be “covenant partners”; 4,000 individual participants contribute $120 annually, according to the Washington Post (May 16). Morton states he is not creating another denomination, and remains within the 5 million member National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc.
However, his popular weekly program on the Black Entertainment Television network has given him a visibility that church goers find attractive. He also speaks frequently at regional gatherings and is often heard on call in radio talk shows. To reporters he points out his mission is to bring like minded believers together for ministry which meets their needs on a local level.
He welcomes non-Black participation. Observers suggest this form of Full Gospel ministry is a clear indication that the older denominational structures are disappearing, being replaced by more informal alliances which respect local autonomy and hands on local ministry.
— By RW contributing editor Erling Jorstad
Spiritual counselors find criticism and wide interest
Spiritual counselors are finding a following for their blend of self-help and generic spirituality, much to the consternation of clergy and psychotherapists.
Newsday (May 26) reports that an increasing number of people are paying high fees to “receive guidance from self-proclaimed spiritual advisers, medical intuitives or psychics. These unusual counselors say they are able to guide people to the right path in life without regard to their personal history, unlike the traditional psychologist.” The unregulated nature of such counseling — with practitioners claiming no recognized training — is alarming clergy and mental health professionals and social workers, as they claim that intuition alone could leave serious mental problems untreated.
Intuitive spiritual counselors deny that they are doing any psychological work with their clients, and claim that their use of intuition adds a missing dimension to most forms of therapy. Other practitioners says they do not accept cases if they sense clients have serious emotional problems. Charles Simpkinson, a specialist in the psychotherapy-spirituality field, traces the spiritual counseling movement to Norman Vincent Peale and his book, “The Power of Positive Thinking.”
Intuitive counselors often stress finding “clarity” in the face of bewildering situations and experiences. The generic quality of such counseling could be seen in the way that intuition is raised to a spiritual value in itself. One counselor advises her client to let go a little and let things happen . . . “the universe will bring you what you need if you’re open and receptive.”
Media market challenging religious television
Christian television is in a state of upheaval with several broadcasters selling their network to secular companies and rethinking the nature of their ministries, reports Charisma magazine (June).
The Christian broadcasters presence on prime-time TV is decreasing because of a growing number of sellouts to secular networks. Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network (renamed the Family Channel in 1990) was sold to media tycoon Rupert Murdoch last year. With the sale, Robertson’s flagship program, The 700 Club, was moved to an obscure time slot, reports J. Lee Grady. Since 1994, Lowell Paxson, founder of the Home Shopping Network, has been “gobbling up Christian stations” in order to build Pax Net, a family entertainment network based on reruns of such shows as Touched by an Angel and Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman.
One of the largest Christian stations, WCFC TV-38 in Chicago, was sold to Paxson earlier this year for $120 million. Also involved in the shakeup is the advent of new technologies, such as digital television, forcing both secular and religious broadcasters to acquire new avenues for distribution. Some observers fear that religious broadcasters will react too slowly to such new technologies as the Internet in the same way they did when television emerged in the 1940s.
There is the concern that even such remaining powerhouses as the Trinity Broadcasting Network — with 381 stations in 66 countries — are being sidelined into a Christian ghetto and preaching to the evangelical choir rather than “invading secular culture,” Grady adds. The dominant language on the popular Christian shows is “Christianese”; the subject matter isn’t aimed at the unchurched. It may take a “new wave of creative Christians” who may be currently working at Disney, Fox, or Warner Bros. who will “take the gospel mainstream.”
Things are not much better for mainline, ecumenical television broadcasting. The National Catholic Reporter (May 8) notes that while the ecumenical Odyssey channel is celebrating its 10th anniversary, it is finding increased competition and is “just getting by,” says its interim president Fr.. Bob Bonnot. The network, which is owned and operated by a consortium of 65 different faith traditions, is in the black and is reported to be gaining viewers — it added 400,000 viewers in the first quarter of 1998.
But to compete with the new cable ventures that have “broken out quickly” in recent months, Odyssey will need fresh programming. Part of the problem is Odyssey’s emphasis on being non-offensive — because of its inter-faith approach. Patt Shea of Catholics in the Media, says the network may “need to do something controversial.”
(Charisma, 600 Rhinehart Rd., Lake Mary, FL 32746; National Catholic Reporter, P.O. Box 419281, Kansas City, MO 64141)
Schism ahead for United Methodists?
Recent events have brought up the specter of a major split in the United Methodist Church, the second largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.
The talk of schism came to a head last month when a United Methodist Church court failed to discipline a Nebraska pastor, the Rev. Jimmy Creech, for performing a marriage ceremony for two lesbians. The clearest sign of a possible split was seen in Northern California where 22 conservative UM pastors threatened to pull out of the denomination and take their parishes with them. The San Francisco Chronicle (May 1) reports that although the evangelical-liberal rift is decades in the making, the church decision in April convinced them that the battle for the denomination may be lost.
Such large-scale defections would be unprecedented in the church, although smaller protests are breaking out in New England and Georgia. Although official church policy rules against the practice of homosexuality, conservative critics claim that liberal ministers regularly ignore national church policy with impunity, reports Don Lattin. Other observers also seem to be of the opinion that the church is at a theological crossroads.
In the journal First Things (June-July), theologian William Abraham writes that United Methodist have been less prone to schism because they have been able to create their own organizations (such as Good News), and also because they have concentrated on their local congregations (often building very successful parishes). Until now, the denomination has been committed to a liberal pluralism that allowed the different parties enough breathing space.
But today such pluralism is breaking down because of the emergence of a new breed of conservative pressing for the church to adopt a definite body of doctrine. There is also the growing influence of the “radicals” or “revisionists” who claim that the UM tradition is dominated by patriarchy and racial and sexual forms of exclusion, and they are the most active in pressing for acceptance of gay rights in the denomination. This group would also use the UM denominational machinery to carry out their agenda.
Abraham concludes that whether or not there will be a major schism over these issues depends on three groups in the UM: the “institutionalists” are committed to the denomination’s future and they may have to face breaking ranks with revisionists in order to keep church unity; conservatives, who seem split between moderates and activists (as seen in Northern California); ethnic minorities have sided with the liberals on many social issues, but they may change sides in the current battle, since they are theologically and liturgically conservative.
(First Things, 156 Fifth Ave., Suite 400, New York, NY 10010)