In This Issue
- On/File: September 2003
- Findings & Footnotes: September 2003
- Conflict, suspicion grows over Christian missionaries in Iraq
- Secular Quebec, Sweden revise death rituals
- Reversing secularization in Europe, France?
- Current Research: September 2003
- Church planting regaining favor among mainline
- Prospect of schism in post-establishment Episcopal church
01: The Free Monks, the first Orthodox rock band in Greece, have gained a national following as they mix modern and traditional messages and styles.
The group of black-robed monks from the Brothers of St. Augustine is criticized by some traditional elements of the Greek Orthodox Church for its use of rock music, MTV style clips and promotion over the media and Internet. But much of the group’s message reflects current religious and political trends and concerns within Greek Orthodoxy. Their songs’ lyrics range from Christian messages to addressing social and personal problems, as well as expressing nationalist sentiments linking Orthodoxy and Greece together.
There is also a use of anti-globalization language, which links globalization and technology to the intrusion of European religious and political influence in to Greece.
(Source: paper presented by Lina Molokotos-Liederman at the recent Association for the Sociology of Religion conference. The Free Monk’s website is:http://www.freemonks.gr)
01: RW’s editor has recently edited the book, Lutherans Today: American Lutheran Identity in the 21st Century (Eerdmans Publishing, $20).
The paperback examines the sociological and historical dimensions of American Lutheranism and is based on the research of 12 contributors. The first part of the book maps the various movements and changes emerging in American Lutheran churches today: the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Lutheran left, charismatic Lutherans, the liturgical evangelical catholics, the Word Alone movement, and megachurches in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
The second part deals with specific issues and trends concerning the question of Lutheran identity: the clergy and politics, new ethnic Lutherans; multiculturalism, higher education and Lutheran youth. Non-Lutheran readers may find that the book’s discussion of these topics are pertinent to the situation in other churches. RW is offering the book for a discount price of $18 (including postage and handling).
Please make out payments to Religion Watch and send to: P.O. Box 652, North Bellmore, NY 11710.
02: Dana Kaplan provides an in-depth examination of trends in the largest U.S. Jewish denomination in his book, American Reform Judaism (Rutgers University Press, $22).
The book offers a readable overview of developments and innovations that have long set Reform apart from the other Jewish branches: it’s adoption of patrillienal descent (conferring Jewish identity to the children of Jewish fathers), acceptance of gay rabbis and same-sex unions (with little of the conflict found in mainline churches), and its increasing strain with Israel.
At the same time, the denomination has introduced traditional practices, rituals and observances — to the consternation of some of its older members. Using rational choice theory, Kaplan argues that Reform will have to walk a tightrope between increasing demands and commitment for members while retaining its inclusive and pluralistic niche in American Judaism.
03: In 2000, Gary R. Bunt, lecturer at the University of Wales (UK), published Virtually Islamic, which made him a pioneer in research on Islam and the Internet.
Three years later — and with 9/11 taking place in the meantime — Bunt is back with, Islam in the Digital Age: E-Jihad, Online Fatwas and Cyber Islamic Environments (Pluto Press, $24.95). This is to a large extent a descriptive volume based on material from a variety of Muslim websites. It focuses on Muslim activism and decision-making on the Web — an important issue for any discussion on Islam in the digital age, since the Internet could pose a growing challenge to traditional sources of authority in Islam.
Individuals can proclaim themselves as “authorities” on Islam and make pronouncements online, issuing fatwas (opinions by Islamic authorities on varied issues. Counseling and advice-seeking online is not peculiar to Islam, but it is nevertheless impressive to see how some websites now offer several thousands fatwas on a wide range of topics.
The use of the web itself raises new questions: Can a Muslim father use spying software in order to monitor his daughter’s online activities? How far is it permissible for men and women to “mix” on the Internet? There is also considerable differences of opinion on these sites. For instance, Bunt found the most contradictory statements on suicide bombings.
He also draws the readers’ attention to burgeoning Islamic websites outside of the Arab world and the Muslim diaspora in the West. While English content played a significant role in the first stage of web development, since 2001 there has been “a profusion of new Arabic and other language content.” The growth of Islamic materials in languages other than English might “shift the current emphasis away from Muslim sites emerging from ‘western’ contexts back to the traditional centres of Islamic learning.” It remains however difficult to quantify the influence Muslim websites have on the lives of believers.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer
Media reports from several Muslim countries continue to express suspicion toward alleged US Christian designs to evangelize the Middle East. For instance, the Egyptian opposition daily Al-Ahrar (Aug. 7) quotes unnamed “prominent sources” in Ankara, claiming that there is an “American plan to Christianize thousands of Iraqis in the North of Iraq.”
The editor appears convinced that the American troops are doing their best to help the work of Christian missionaries there. In the Arab-West Report, which offers English summaries of religion-related items in the Egyptian media, the editor writes that there is obviously no indication of such an American conspiracy, while it is indeed accurate that individual American groups have become very active in Iraq and are not hindered in their efforts.
Such activities do not only cause irritation to Muslims, but also to leaders of local mainstream churches as well: Archbishop Jean Benjamin Sleiman, Latin-rite Catholic archbishop of Baghdad, told the Missionary Services News Agency, his concerns about “Christian preachers who want to convert the Muslims.” According to the Archbishop, such missionary activities are fanning Muslim fundamentalism: “They don’t realize that they are creating an impossible atmosphere which, by offending the sensibility of the people, fosters the development of Shiite extremism.”
More generally, the Archbishop is afraid that Iraq’s ongoing problems may lead to trouble for Christians, more or less identified with Westerners and, therefore, with the Americans.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer
A series of articles by Geneviève Otis-Dionne in the daily Le Devoir (Aug. 23-26, ) examines changes taking place in Quebec in the ways of confronting death in recent years.
Baby boomers are increasingly looking for new rituals associated with death and fewer celebrate funerals in churches. Since the 1960s, the previously dominant Roman Catholic Church in the French-speaking population of Québec has lost much of its strength. Adjusting to those new realities, an official representative of the Catholic diocese of Québec stated that priests increasingly show a willingness to lead services at funeral parlors instead of churches.
According to the representative, if people are no longer willing to go to churches, priests should make an effort to reach them where they are. He also said parishes should also be open to the possibility of allowing non-Catholic funerals to be celebrated in church buildings. Not only parishes, but cemeteries too feel the need to adopt new rituals: due to the spread of cremation. They have to take into account the demands of a growing number of people to have a place for ashes to be dispersed, which involves changes in the role and functioning of cemeteries.
A further step in the secular direction is taking place in Sweden as clergy are gradually being replaced by funeral home directors at funeral services, according to a recent study. In a paper presented at the recent conference of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, Anna Davidsson Bremborg of Lund University finds that while clergy of the Church of Sweden still conduct more than 85 percent of all funerals in the country, their role is becoming marginalized.
To avoid the Swedish stigma of dealing with dead bodies, funeral directors in Sweden have in the last decade professionalized and diversified their occupation. This means that funeral directors today are involved in bereavement preparation and counseling, as well as handling legal matters (such as wills and estates).
Davidsson-Bremborg adds that funeral directors are also gradually taking over the viewing of the dead body, often praying or reading a religious text at the family’s request. The viewing can easily replace the funeral service, especially if only a few funeral guests are expected. In this way, “the ministers are getting a more and more marginal role, and the funeral directors may even take over the ceremonial role as well as the therapeutic.”
There is also a growth in secular, “civil” funerals, which may further blur the line between clergy and funeral directors.
—By Jean-Francois Mayer, RW Contributing Editor and founder of the website Religioscope (http://www.religioscope)
Europe is at a “turning point” in showing an increase of religious beliefs, suggesting that it may not be the secular exception in an increasingly religious world, according to a new study.
The study, presented by Yves Lambert of the Paris-based Group de Sociologie des Religions et de la Laicite (GSRL) at the mid-August conference of the Association of the Sociology of Religion, is based on the European Values Surveys between 1981 and 1999. Between 1981 and 1990, the surveys of eleven countries supported the accepted view that western Europe was undergoing increasing secularization, especially among young adults.
But the 1999 survey (the most recent multi-nation survey) revealed dramatic changes especially in comparison to the 1970s and 1980s. Lambert explains that a decline in “religious belonging,” as shown in church membership and attendance, has grown (today, 62 percent of the young have never belonged to any religious institutions). But there is also a higher rate of belief in God, growing by almost 10 percent since 1981 (20 percent in 1981 to 29 percent in 1999).
In the 1980s, disbelief in an afterlife started to reverse itself among baby boomers and younger generations and today that reversal is spreading to other beliefs, such as the belief that the church holds answers to spiritual needs. Lambert concludes that Christian renewal in several countries, as well as religious growth in post-communist countries, explains much of this reversal.
In another presentation, Jean-Paul Willaime of GSRL finds that a militantly secularist outlook is losing its hold in France. There is a growth of interest in religion in the French media, schools and government and the “reemergence of ethical concern.” Williame said that the growth of religious pluralism in France is posing new questions, particularly as it is difficult to reduce Islam and new religious movements to a privatized view of faith. Thus, there is a “rediscovery of religion’s social dimension.”
In an article from the news service UPI (Aug. 27), writer Uwe Siemon-Netto reports that though France still ranks with Quebec and the Czech Republic as among the most secular places in the world, there is a renewed interest in Christianity. Leftist spokesman Regis Debray, is now pleading for religious instruction in public schools. Actor Gerard Depardieu has “astounded the public with statements of support for the Christian faith.” At the Catholic Institute of Paris, some 2,000 laypeople are studying theology, not to be ordained but simply because of a search for God or, as sociologist Daniele Hervieu-Leger, says, out of a postmodern desire for fulfillment.
While the Catholic seminaries are seeing a decreasing amount of priests, there is steady growth of ordained deacons, and Protestant seminaries are crowded. Many parishes also report “constantly swelling catechism classes and Bible study groups for adults,” Siemon-Netto adds.
Those viewing Europe as an exception to American and other nations’ high rates of religiosity often point to the failure of evangelicalism to gain a foothold in many European countries. But even such a highly secular country as France is revealing patterns that to some extent challenge this theory, according to a paper presented at the ASR by Sebastien Fath of GSRL. The evangelical churches of France are a small yet growing minority (representing 0.5 percent of the population) and it may be because of their small size (not easily captured in surveys) that their more “American”-style of competition, networking and restructuring goes unnoticed.
Contrary to theories that the evangelical growth in Europe represents a sectarian reaction to widespread secularization and religious “decomposition,” Fath finds that evangelicals (and other newer religious groups in the country) thrive in an environment of competition and pluralism, giving birth to new networks and coalitions with a distinctly French identity (which is often critical of American evangelical directions). Thus, (as Yves Lambert pointed out), the U.S. may well be growing closer to the European secularized society type, but it is just as important to be attentive to the rise of European religious dynamics familiar to North America,” Fath said.
01: Contrary to fears of a collapse in financial support relating to the sex abuse scandals, contributions to the church among American Catholics actually rose last year, the peak period of the crisis.
The annual financial statement from the Vatican shows that Americans continue to lead other nations, such as Germany and Italy, in contributions to the annual operating expenses of the church. The National Catholic Reporter (Aug. 1) reports that although the Vatican declined to give a specific figure on how much the U.S. contributions increased in 2002, economics official Cardinal Sergio Sebastiani confirmed that there was an increase. The Vatican registered a significant growth in worldwide contributions, with the total leaping from $41 million in 2001 to 96.7 million in 2002 (some of this increase was due to an 18 percent decline in the value of the dollar over the past year).
02: While a majority of gays and lesbians say they are affiliated with a religion, few are practicing that religion, according to a recent survey.
The recent Gay/Lesbian Consumer Online Census found that more than six out of 10 respondents (63.7 percent) said they belong to a particular faith, and 38 percent said they are practicing this religion. Of the 8, 831 respondents (the largest sample consumer study of gays and lesbians), Catholics were the most numerous (17.2 percent), although only 29.5 percent of those members said they are practicing.
Six percent of the respondents say they are atheists and almost a third (30.3 percent) said they have no religious preference. The website Advocate.com (Aug. 7) cites the study as showing that the highest percentage of practicing believers were found in Pagan (84.6 percent), Metropolitan Community Church (79.4 percent), Unitarian (66.7 percent), Episcopal (57.6 percent), and Jewish (47.5 percent) congregations.
03: There is a significant difference between how Muslims fare in prisons in Britain and France, which may be a factor in encouraging a turn to radicalism among prisoners . . . In a paper presented at the conference of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, James Beckford of the University of Warwick in England contrasted the conditions of British and French Muslims in prison and found the former have more opportunities and freedom to practice their faith.
Beckford found halal food is available and imams are considered chaplains in British prisons. In France there are few opportunities for Islamic worship and observance, as officials fear that such activity might encourage resistance to the prison system. These differences may have an effect on the growth of radicalism among Muslims in prison.
In France, with the absence of a recognized imam, terrorists and those suspected of terrorism play a more prominent role in spreading the faith. “Prisoners construct a do-it-yourself religion. These extremists become heroes and teachers for other Muslims,” Beckford said. Many more prisoners may be introduced to Islam in British prisons, but it is controlled by imams; in France, the restrictions can lead to dissidents who feel they are discriminated against who become resistant to prison authorities.
As part of the recent “intentional” thrust in mainline churches (see above article), there is growing interest in planting new congregations.
The Christian Century (Aug. 23) reports that “Instead of trying to teach old churches new evangelistic tricks, more and more denominations are starting fresh by creating new churches to meet the special needs of ethnic or racial groups or to reach out to growing populations of young families in suburban and rural areas.”
While the number of people in the new congregations are small and are not likely to replace the millions who have dropped out of these churches since the 1970s, there does seem to be the growing sentiment that shoring up old and dying churches has not proved to be an effective strategy. Writer David Briggs reports that the new startups from the United Methodist Church and United Church of Christ in Ohio cover the spectrum — from the Liberation United Church of Christ serving a primarily gay membership to Imani and Buenas Nuevas churches serving black and Hispanic churchgoers.
Is the Episcopal Church edging toward a serious schism after the denomination’s recent move to elect a gay bishop and allow same-sex ceremonies?
At this point, the answer seems far from clear and often depends on which publications and observers one listens to and reads. But even beyond the question of schism, the controversy over the election of Bishop Gene Robinson and the decision to allow same-sex ceremonies reveal new faultlines and dynamics that are not easily captured by conventional denominational politics.
As one might expect, liberal commentators were more likely to downplay the possibility of a significant split of conservatives from the church. Supporters of these measures often compared the conservative threat of schism to the opposition over women priests almost two decades ago; many complained but few left the church. In the Wall Street Journal (Aug. 12), theologian Harvey Cox writes that “Episcopalians handle deep disagreement better than most,” through a decentralized unity that combines reason, experience and tradition as the basis for decision-making.
This “supple authority” will prevent the church from undergoing a major schism, Cox concludes. The New York Times (Aug. 10) likewise focuses on a distinctly Episcopalian sensibility to minimize the prospect of schism, venturing that such a break would not be in keeping with the “decorum” of the denomination.
But the conservative Anglican news service Virtuosity (Aug. 30) notes that there are external and even international factors involved in the rift over Robinson that were not present in previous church feuds. Editor David Virtue writes that the momentum for schism is growing, with “more wealthy defecting parishes from mainly orthodox dioceses than was first thought . . .” There is also an expanding movement of parishes pledging to withhold funds from the national church and their own dioceses over this issue (more information on this campaign is available at the website:www.communionparishes.org).
But propelling much of this fierce resistance is the reality of an influential conservative bloc of bishops from the global South with whom Americans have built close connections and coalitions. Virtue cites a recent report claiming that these bishops are increasingly confident that they can force the expulsion of the American Episcopal Church from the Anglican communion over its liberal line on homosexuality.”
Virtue may be overreaching on the impact of the Robinson affair when he writes in the August 25 issue of Virtuosity that “There are the lives of African Anglicans who will be slaughtered by Muslim fundamentalists because it now confirms in their minds that Christianity is a Western decadent religion deserving of their retribution.” But it is the case that Muslim-Christian conflicts in much of the Third World may have some bearing on the global South’s bishops’ anger over the Robinson decision.
The Aug. 10 issue of Arab News editorializes that the election of Robinson serves as an instance of Western liberal arrogance toward traditional non-Western fellow believers. “After all,” Amr Mohammed Al-Faisal writes, “does that non-Westerner Jesus know more about Christianity than an American or British bishop? If this is how they deal with their own religion, think what they will try (are already trying) to do with other religions such as Islam.”
Bishops and other sympathetic observers to the Robinson election often predicted that the decision would likely make the Episcopal Church more attractive to the younger generations. But in the Aug. 18 issue of Virtuosity, David Sumner examines the growth rates of the dioceses in which the bishops voted for Robinson (presumably supportive of gay rights in the church) against those dioceses opposing the measure. Sumner finds that the bishops who voted “yes” to the confirmation of Robinson came from dioceses which lost 85, 374 members in the last six years.
As a whole, the Episcopal Church lost 94,326 members during this same period. Bishops who voted “no” came from dioceses that had a total net loss of 345 members. There were dioceses which voted “yes” which gained members (Tennessee gained 18 percent and Dallas gained 13 percent) and there were dioceses that voted “no” which lost members, but their losses “were almost completely offset by those dioceses that gained in membership,” Sumner writes.
Yet when studying Episcopalians as a whole, the scenario of conservative growth and liberal decline becomes more complex. The New York Times (Aug. 16) reports that a new study based on interviews with more than 2,500 Episcopalians shows the church divided, but not in the ways widely assumed. It is often noted that from 1967 to 1997, the Episcopal Church’s membership declined by 36 percent. Yet one finding reported in the new study is that From 1974 to 1997, church attendance among Episcopalians increased by more than 31 percent, and financial giving also rose.
The study’s authors, Rev. William Sachs, director of research at the Episcopal Church Foundation, and Thomas Holland, claim that focus groups and individual interviews with Episcopalians in more than 200 locations revealed not decline and stagnation in these congregations but “pervasive vitality.” Congregations were being transformed by an influx of new members quite distinct from lifelong Episcopalians, the study says. These adults saw themselves as embarked on spiritual journeys within the confines of a community. The “new reality” among Episcopalians that the researchers describe involved a new emphasis on the spiritual rather than the institutional and the local rather than the diocesan or national.
Denominational conflicts “were less likely to be over theological or ideological differences than over frustration, even anger, at diocesan and national offices that were accused of not `honoring local wisdom’ and not providing the resources and guidance needed for local initiatives.”When it came to the battles that have roiled the church for years over the moral legitimacy of homosexual relationships, the study suggested that many Episcopalians were less exercised about the outcome one way or the other than about legislative approaches to the issue that overshadowed the congregation’s ability to deal with these concerns in their own, more flexible fashion.
There was overwhelming agreement (from 95 to 99 percent of those answering a survey of 30 congregations) about three things: the centrality to congregational life of the Eucharist, of the Book of Common Prayer and of prayer in general. Peter Steinfels concludes that “a great many Episcopalians are apparently willing to leave doctrinal questions unresolved as long as the effort to grapple with them is rooted in traditional forms of Anglican worship and prayer, and produces a stronger spiritual community engaged in effective local outreach and good works.” In the Christian Century (Aug. 23), Sachs finds additional confirmation of his findings by noting how the deliberations to elect Robinson were often couched in terms of spirituality and diversity rather than “justice” and “rights.”
Dominant throughout the proceedings “was a conviction that the church’s task is to encourage people on their spiritual journeys, to accept where that journey may lead, and to build a faith community on that basis from the local level outward,” Sachs writes. He notes that the emphasis on “local autonomy among Robinson’s supporters made little reference to the Episcopal Church’s place in the Anglican communion.”
“Intentional” parishes are what such mainline observers as Diana Butler Bass (in her book Strength for the Journey) call mainline congregations involved in this move away from the establishment and toward the local and spiritual. Such observers would argue that the gay rights movement in the church should not be equated with secularizing the denomination through importing politicized and non-Christian causes.
At the mid-August conference of the Association for the Sociology of Religion (ASR) in Atlanta attended by RW, sociologist R. Stephen Warner took issue with other scholars who argue that mainline churches’ acceptance of gay clergy and same-sex ceremonies are yielding to secularism and becoming “low tension” religions. Warner said that “essentialism”–that one is born homosexual–marks the views of many gay Christian groups and individuals and stands in marked contrast to the secular gay rights movement that stresses a socially constructed, chosen gay identity.
“They believe that God made them gay . . . These ideologies are different, [gay Christians] are not just imbibing on secularism,” Warner said.