ReligionWatch Archives

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Sizing up the impending schism in United Methodism

The United Methodist Church’s (UMC) recent decision at a special session of its General Conference in St. Louis to turn down a proposal that would have allowed congregations to ordain gay clergy and ministers to officiate at same-sex marriages is likely to lead to a schism, with liberals either starting their own body or departing for more congenial networks of like-minded mainline churches—it’s just a question of how much of a schism will take place. In the blog Religion in Public (February 26), political scientist Paul Djupe estimates that the United Methodists stand to lose more members and clergy than did the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in its schism of a decade ago, when conservatives comprising about 10 percent of its membership left the denomination, also over issues of gay rights. Djupe writes that United Methodists may lose double the amount that the ELCA did because the “liberal wing is larger in the UMC than was the conservative side of the ELCA. The liberal wing is also on the side of expanding rights, which is a dominant mode and powerful frame in American political life.” He adds that “churches with younger overall congregations will be more likely to depart. This decision also comes at a time when national ties are frayed as they have not been in a long time, national trust continues at a low point, and people are walking away from traditional ties like never before.”

Djupe speculates that there “is an outside possibility that all of those…United Methodists who are in favor of same sex marriage might depart. That may add up to something more like 40 [percent] of those in favor of same-sex marriage leaving. The total loss in that scenario would reach to something like 2.2 million members lost.” He cites a New York Times report that “pastors and bishops in the United States are already talking about leaving the denomination and possibly creating a new alliance for gay-friendly churches.” Djupe quips that such an organization “already exists, though people more often call it the Episcopal Church. It has some different ways of organizing the denomination and theology, but it’s welcoming even of Lutherans so it’s not far off.”

An article in The Atlantic (February 26) throws some doubt on the prospect of a massive schism, noting that while “the United Methodist Church is often described as a liberal, mainline Protestant denomination, in reality, the body is much more split, even in the United States. In a poll of its American members, the denomination found that 44 percent of respondents described their religious beliefs as traditional or conservative, 28 percent said they are moderate or centrist, and 20 percent identified as progressive or liberal.”

Sexual abuse crisis in the SBC also an evangelical problem?

Widespread sexual abuse and the ability of abusive pastors and church leaders to move on to other congregations without censure or reproof in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) may also be a problem in other parts of the evangelical world, writes Dale Coulter in a blog at First Things magazine (February 17). The sex abuse crisis in the SBC, first reported in the Houston Chronicle (February 9), involves 380 church leaders and volunteers who have faced allegations of sexual abuse in the last 20 years. That report notes that local church autonomy in Baptist polity has permitted sexual abusers to circulate freely among churches. It also notes how Baptist ministers are easily ordained, since the practice of local ordination means that one can simply secure the endorsement of any congregation in good standing with the convention to be ordained, however small or remote it may be. Coulter adds that “the problem extends beyond the Southern Baptist Convention. As one denominational leader pointed out to me, ministers brought up on charges and dismissed from one denomination have simply gone to another for credentials. It’s not just laity who take advantage of evangelicalism’s big tent to move around.”

Such open networks allow for “ministerial movement from one part of evangelicalism to another [and] allow sexual abusers to escape judgment and start over. We don’t need a database of sexual abusers for the Southern Baptist Convention, we need it for evangelicalism as a whole. We need greater cooperation and transparency among evangelical churches and institutions on matters of church discipline so we can close these open networks.” The Chronicle report also added that denominations have begun to function like corporations, where they seek to protect the brand rather than the victims. In a similar way, Coulter argues that “[e]vangelicals have too often succumbed to victim shaming while simultaneously protecting their leaders[,]” as seen in the way conservative leader Paige Patterson’s abusive actions were denied and unquestioned because of his status, which took priority for his followers over church doctrine. Coulter concludes by focusing on the “bad theology” of the SBC and evangelical circles when it comes to extending “forgiveness over and over—even when patterns of sinful behavior have been established. The problem isn’t that they offer the mercy of Christ to persons caught in sinful patterns, but the idea that extending such forgiveness means the person should be allowed to remain in a position of authority.”

Islamic leaders, scholars worry that American Muslims are too integrated into American culture

Conservative American Muslim leaders are more likely to be concerned about a creeping liberalization in their own ranks than about promoting Sharia law or some other political issue, writes Mustafa Akyol in the New York Times (February 18). He writes that there is concern over a new genre of Muslim bloggers and writers who are […]

A disenchanted world for spiritual masters in the information era

When it comes to following gurus and spiritual masters, “[w]e have come to know too much to worship unconditionally,” says Bernhard Pörksen, a German media scholar and professor of media studies at the University of Tübingen, in an interview with Ursula Richard published in Buddhismus Aktuell, a German Buddhist quarterly (1st Quarter). He attributes this […]

CURRENT RESEARCH – March 2019

“Deaths of despair” has become a popular term used in the last few years to account for the rising number of middle-aged white Americans who have been dying from suicide, drug overdoses and conditions related to alcoholism, but there have been few attempts to relate the phenomenon to religion. In a paper presented at the […]

Dark side of the revival of Russian Orthodoxy emerges

The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is still in a period of “revival” marked by the rehabilitation of its position in society and rapid institutional expansion, but “signs of crisis are mounting rapidly,” writes Sergey Chapnin in IWM Post (Fall/Winter), a publication of the Vienna-based Institute for Human Sciences. Chapnin argues that the positive tendencies characterizing […]

Chinese workers discovering evangelical Christianity in Africa

With some 10,000 Chinese-owned firms operating in Africa and hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers currently staying in African countries, an unexpected consequence is that some of them return home after having converted to Christianity, reports journalist Christopher Rhodes in UnHerd (Feb. 13). Rhodes remarks that having to live in such a different culture can […]

Chrislam encountering inter-faith taboos in Nigeria

Despite the attempt of a syncretistic movement known as Chrislam to bridge the differences between Islam and Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa, the public reception to such groups has been characterized more by sharp debate and hostility than interest and acceptance, according to a study by Corey L. Williams in the journal Studies in World Christianity […]

Catholic Church in Philippines faces intimidation and irrelevance under Duterte regime

The Catholic Church in the Philippines is losing its once substantial civic role as it faces growing secularism and an aggressively anti-Catholic president, writes Adam Willis in Commonweal magazine (February 22). While Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s stringent war on drugs has brought the church into confrontation with the government over its abuses, it has not […]

Findings & Footnotes – March 2019

RW has covered the rise and growth of FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), and now Katherine Dugan fills out the picture considerably, showing how this group has fused evangelical practices and fervor with orthodox Catholicism in her new book Millennial Missionaries (Oxford University Press, $34.95). As its title implies, the book provides an in-depth […]