2018 religion marked by pressures for reform and schism

The issues and trends in religion most visible in 2018 did not originate in that year but actually had germinated for decades. Still, 2018 carried enough bad news to convince religious leaders of difficult times ahead for religious institutions—from the continuing disaffection of young people to divisions over social and political issues in the contentious Trump era. As with previous years, the following review draws on past issues of RW and other sources to look at trends that unfolded in 2018 and their possible shape in the years ahead. 

1) The issue of sexual abuse in its various forms has continued to represent an uncomfortable challenge to most institutions, with the #MeToo movement—launched through social media in October 2017—adding more fuel to the fire with a variety of non-religious targets that subsequently extended to religious organizations, from prominent megachurches to new religious movements. The Roman Catholic Church has been at the forefront of the crisis, especially with charges of sexual abuse suffered by minors and a steady flow of new revelations about the complicity of bishops covering up abuse cases. A “Letter to the People of God” released by Pope Francis in August linked sexual abuse to wider ecclesiastical issues, stating that “To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism,” while the Pope himself was criticized by Archbishop Vigano for allegedly having protected former-cardinal McCarrick. A summit of the bishops for discussing the problem of clerical sexual abuse will take place at the Vatican in February. Other religious groups have also continued to experience turmoil, for instance several Buddhist groups dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct mostly toward adults. In September 2018 a report was released detailing serious “physical, sexual and emotional abuse” by Tibetan lama Sogyal Rinpoche, who had withdrawn from the leadership of his network of Rigpa centers the previous year. “There are huge cover ups in the Catholic church, but what has happened within Tibetan Buddhism is totally along the same lines,” according to author and journalist Mary Finnigan, quoted in The Telegraph (September 9).

2) Since the death of evangelist Billy Graham last year, there has been speculation about his successors in the field of mass evangelism. Many observers have concluded that any such successor—more likely successors—will come out of a different mold than Graham, given the fragmentation of evangelicalism and the rise of social media. One approach is team-based evangelism, with the charismatic Send movement being a noted example. The Send movement is built around an event of the same name to be held in February in Orlando, where lay missionaries will be commissioned to evangelize their own neighborhoods, cities, and schools.  The movement is the brainchild of Lou Engle, who has for nearly two decades led mass events known as TheCall that organize youth to pray for revival. Engle is working with such major mission organizations as Youth With A Mission and prominent charismatic megachurches including Bethel Church to run this evangelist-training movement, according to Charisma magazine (January).

3) Last year saw the Orthodox Church coming very close to a serious schism. While tensions between the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Patriarchate of Moscow have for years been difficult at times, as evidenced by the non-participation of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Pan-Orthodox Synod gathered in Crete in 2016, few would have predicted that the situation would escalate so dramatically around the issue of Ukrainian autocephaly. To the applause of the Ukrainian government, Constantinople lifted sanctions against the leaders of two independent Orthodox bodies advocating autocephaly for a national Ukrainian Church, stated that Ukraine was a territory under its canonical authority, and announced that autocephaly would be granted after a unification council of bishops supporting Ukrainian ecclesiastical independence convened. That gathering finally took place in December, and the granting of autocephaly is expected in January. The Russian Orthodox Church broke ties with Constantinople unilaterally and forbade its faithful from taking Communion in churches under Constantinople. Russian Orthodox leaders claim that Constantinople is playing a U.S.-sponsored game of weakening Russia. Supporters of Constantinople answer that a core issue is the Russian Church’s failure to understand the specific role of Constantinople (“the Ecumenical Patriarchate”) as a primate and worldwide center of unity for the Orthodox Church. (See the November issue of RW)

4) In September a provisional agreement was signed between China and the Holy See. While negotiations had been going on for a long time between the Chinese Communist authorities and representatives of the Catholic Church, such an agreement was far from certain in the climate of hardening Chinese policies toward religions of recent years. While both sides certainly think that they are acting in their best interests over the long term, assessments about the agreement and its timing are mixed in Catholic circles. Some feel that the part of the Church that remained faithful to Rome is being sacrificed, while the excommunications of those bishops belonging to the so-called “Patriotic Church” (loyal to the government) who had been ordained without permission from Rome have been lifted. At the Pope’s request, two bishops of the underground Catholic Church have already agreed to step aside in favor of formerly excommunicated bishops. According to the agreement, while the Pope will continue to have the final say, new bishops for Chinese dioceses will be proposed to the Vatican by the Chinese government. In the meantime, some new arrests of Catholic clergy not approved by the Chinese government have been reported.