Friday, July 14, 2006


The accelerating fragmentation of the strife-torn Episcopal Church USA, in which several parishes and even a few dioceses are opting out of the church, isn't simply about gay bishops, the blessing of same-sex unions or the election of a woman as presiding bishop. It also is about the meltdown of liberal Christianity.

Embraced by the leadership of all the mainline Protestant denominations, as well as large segments of American Catholicism, liberal Christianity has been hailed by its boosters for 40 years as the future of the Christian church. Instead, as all but a few die-hards now admit, all the mainline churches and movements within churches that have blurred doctrine and softened moral precepts are demographically declining and, in the case of the Episcopal Church, disintegrating.

It is not entirely coincidental that at about the same time that Episcopalians, at their general convention in Columbus, Ohio, were thumbing their noses at a directive from the worldwide Anglican Communion that they "repent" of confirming the openly gay Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire three years ago, the Presbyterian Church USA, at its general assembly in Birmingham, Ala., was turning itself into the laughingstock of the blogosphere by tacitly approving alternative designations for the supposedly sexist Christian Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Among the suggested names were "Mother, Child and Womb" and "Rock, Redeemer and Friend." Moved by the spirit of the Presbyterian revisionists, Beliefnet blogger Rod Dreher held a "Name That Trinity" contest. Entries included "Rock, Scissors and Paper" and "Larry, Curly and Moe."

Following the Episcopalian lead, the Presbyterians also voted to give local congregations the freedom to ordain openly cohabiting gay and lesbian ministers and endorsed the legalization of medical marijuana. (The latter may be a good idea, but it is hard to see how it falls under the theological purview of a Christian denomination.) The Presbyterian Church USA is famous for its 1993 conference, cosponsored with the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and other mainline churches, in which participants "reimagined" God as "Our Maker Sophia" and held a feminist-inspired "milk and honey" ritual designed to replace traditional bread-and-wine Communion.

As if to one-up the Presbyterians in jettisoning age-old elements of Christian belief, the Episcopalians at Columbus overwhelmingly refused even to consider a resolution affirming that Jesus Christ is Lord. When a Christian church cannot bring itself to endorse a bedrock Christian theological statement repeatedly found in the New Testament, it is not a serious Christian church. It's a Church of What's Happening Now, conferring a feel-good imprimatur on whatever the liberal elements of secular society deem permissible or politically correct.

You want to have gay sex? Be a female bishop? Change God's name to Sophia? Go ahead. The just-elected Episcopal presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, is a one-woman combination of all these things, having voted for Robinson, blessed same-sex couples in her Nevada diocese, prayed to a female Jesus at the Columbus convention and invited former Newark, N.J., bishop John Shelby Spong, famous for denying Christ's divinity, to address her priests.

When a church doesn't take itself seriously, neither do its members. It is hard to believe that as recently as 1960, members of mainline churches - Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans and the like - accounted for 40% of all American Protestants. Today, it's more like 12% (17 million out of 135 million). Some of the precipitous decline is due to lower birthrates among the generally blue-state mainliners, but it also is clear that millions of mainline adherents (and especially their children) have simply walked out of the pews never to return. According to the Hartford Institute for Religious Research, in 1965, there were 3.4 million Episcopalians; now, there are 2.3 million. The number of Presbyterians fell from 4.3 million in 1965 to 2.5 million today. Compare that with 16 million members reported by the Southern Baptists.

When your religion says "whatever" on doctrinal matters, regards Jesus as just another wise teacher, refuses on principle to evangelize and lets you do pretty much what you want, it's a short step to deciding that one of the things you don't want to do is get up on Sunday morning and go to church.

It doesn't help matters that the mainline churches were pioneers in ordaining women to the clergy, to the point that 25% of all Episcopal priests these days are female, as are 29% of all Presbyterian pastors, according to the two churches. A causal connection between a critical mass of female clergy and a mass exodus from the churches, especially among men, would be difficult to establish, but is it entirely a coincidence? Sociologist Rodney Stark ("The Rise of Christianity") and historian Philip Jenkins ("The Next Christendom") contend that the more demands, ethical and doctrinal, that a faith places upon its adherents, the deeper the adherents' commitment to that faith. Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, which preach biblical morality, have no trouble saying that Jesus is Lord, and they generally eschew women's ordination. The churches are growing robustly, both in the United States and around the world.

Despite the fact that median Sunday attendance at Episcopal churches is 80 worshipers, the Episcopal Church, as a whole, is financially equipped to carry on for some time, thanks to its inventory of vintage real estate and huge endowments left over from the days (no more!) when it was the Republican Party at prayer. Furthermore, it has offset some of its demographic losses by attracting disaffected liberal Catholics and gays and lesbians. The less endowed Presbyterian Church USA is in deeper trouble. Just before its general assembly in Birmingham, it announced that it would eliminate 75 jobs to meet a $9.15-million budget cut at its headquarters, the third such round of job cuts in four years. The Episcopalians have smells, bells, needlework cushions and colorfully garbed, Catholic-looking bishops as draws, but who, under the present circumstances, wants to become a Presbyterian?

Still, it must be galling to Episcopal liberals that many of the parishes and dioceses (including that of San Joaquin, Calif.) that want to pull out of the Episcopal Church USA are growing instead of shrinking, have live people in the pews who pay for the upkeep of their churches and don't have to rely on dead rich people. The 21-year-old Christ Church Episcopal in Plano, Texas, for example, is one of the largest Episcopal churches in the country. Its 2,200 worshipers on any given Sunday are about equal to the number of active Episcopalians in Jefferts Schori's entire Nevada diocese.

It's no surprise that Christ Church, like the other dissident parishes, preaches a very conservative theology. Its break from the national church came after Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Anglican Communion, proposed a two-tier membership in which the Episcopal Church USA and other churches that decline to adhere to traditional biblical standards would have "associate" status in the communion. The dissidents hope to retain full communication with Canterbury by establishing oversight by non-U.S. Anglican bishops.

As for the rest of the Episcopalians, the phrase "deck chairs on the Titanic" comes to mind. A number of liberal Episcopal websites are devoted these days to dissing Peter Akinola, outspoken primate of the Anglican diocese of Nigeria, who, like the vast majority of the world's 77 million Anglicans reported by the Anglican Communion, believes that "homosexual practice" is "incompatible with Scripture" (those words are from the communion's 1998 resolution at the Lambeth conference of bishops). Akinola might have the numbers on his side, but he is now the Voldemort - no, make that the Karl Rove - of the U.S. Episcopal world. Other liberals fume over a feeble last-minute resolution in Columbus calling for "restraint" in consecrating bishops whose lifestyle might offend "the wider church" - a resolution immediately ignored when a second openly cohabitating gay man was nominated for bishop of Newark.

So this is the liberal Christianity that was supposed to be the Christianity of the future: disarray, schism, rapidly falling numbers of adherents, a collapse of Christology and national meetings that rival those of the Modern Language Assn. for their potential for cheap laughs. And they keep telling the Catholic Church that it had better get with the liberal program - ordain women, bless gay unions and so forth - or die. Sure.


Rebellion against homosexual clergy among Australian Methodists

The Uniting Church of Australia is facing rebellion by conservative factions angry over the church's failure to ban homosexuals from the ministry. The Uniting Church's 11th National Assembly, which finished in Brisbane on Tuesday ruled a congregation would not be forced to accept a minister living in a homosexual relationship. Equally, any congregation willing to accept such a minister would have its decision respected.

About 100 ministers and leaders in the church - mostly from the conservative Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church and Reforming Alliance groups - met in Brisbane yesterday to discuss their concerns over the issue.

The Assembly resolved 173 to 48 in a formal vote to affirm the church's unity in Jesus Christ but acknowledged a variety of theological perspectives and biblical understandings over sexuality. Uniting Church president Gregor Henderson said he was deeply concerned over the meeting and urged those unhappy with the decision to consider the "bigger picture". "We are very keen not to lose one member of the Uniting Church over this decision but I do recognise that some people in their own consciences may feel that they can't stay with us," Mr Henderson told ABC Radio. [Which is a polite Methodist way of saying: "Good riddance to fundamentalist Neanderthals"]


Americans read food labels, then eat what they want, poll finds

And so they should

Oh, the irony. A nation full of overweight people is also full of label readers. Nearly 80 percent of Americans insist they check the labels on food at the grocery store. They scan the little charts like careful dieters, looking for no-nos such as fat and calories and sugars. Yet even when the label practically screams, "Don't do it!" people drop the package into the cart anyway. At least that is what 44 percent of people admitted in a recent AP-Ipsos poll.

So attentive, yet so overweight. Two-thirds of people in the United States weigh too much. Why, then, don't labels make a difference? Why do people bother with them at all? "I don't know, force of habit. I want to see what I'm getting myself into," says Loren Cook, 39, of Marysville, Washington. "It doesn't make my buying decisions for me. It's mostly a curiosity factor." He adds: "It's got to taste good. Otherwise, there's no point."

The survey of 1,003 adults, conducted May 30 to June 1, found:

* Women check labels more frequently than men, 65 percent versus 51 percent. Women also place more importance on nutrition content, 82 percent to 64 percent.

* Married men are more likely to check labels than unmarried men, by 76 percent to 65 percent.

* Younger people are more likely to look at calories on food labels. In the poll, 39 percent of people between age 18 and 29 said they look at calories first. Even so, 60 percent of younger people were more likely to buy foods that are bad for them even after they checked the label. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Are these avid label-readers really telling the truth? People do exaggerate, said Robert Blendon, professor at Harvard's School of Public Health. They tell pollsters they go to church and vote more often than they really do, he said. He does believe most people do look at labels. They just do not use labels to lose weight, he said. Instead, diabetics use it to avoid sugars, or people with high blood pressure steer clear of sodium. "It's not being used as part of a total diet to really lower their weight," Blendon said.

To help people lose weight, Blendon said, labels should state the number of calories in an entire package. Instead, labels list calories per serving, leaving shoppers to do the math. Consider ice cream. A pint might list 260 calories in a serving. Scarf down the whole container, and that is four servings, 1,040 calories, half the calories probably needed in a single day.

The current food label became standard in 1994. Since then, the number of overweight people in the U.S. has risen from 56 percent to 66 percent, [LOL] according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Consider another trend: People eat more of their meals at restaurants, where they often cannot find nutrition labels. A recent government report says people consume one-third of their calories away from home. "We can't assume that better packaged food labels are going to solve our problem," said Alice Lichtenstein, professor of nutrition at Tufts University.

The federal report said restaurants should promote healthy choices and offer more of them. It also gave an explanation for the lack of nutrition information at restaurants -- the cost, which can run from $11,500 to $46,000 to analyze all the offerings on a menu. The government is considering changes to packaged food labels to make them easier to understand. Tammy Fultz, 45, thinks labels are plenty good now. She checks whenever she shops for groceries and avoids artery-clogging trans fat. "But none of that really matters," said Fultz, who lives in Independence, Kentucky. "In the end, you still eat way more than you should and exercise way less than you should."


Australia's most Leftist State government opposes Federal citizenship requirements

Victoria is on a collision course with the Federal Government over a proposed compulsory citizenship test, which would test migrants' English skills and knowledge of Australian values. Andrew Robb, the parliamentary secretary to the Immigration Minister, has pledged to have a "serious look" at introducing a compulsory citizenship test. He said in April it was essential new citizens learned English and made a commitment to "common values" in order to integrate into "our Australian family".

But state Multicultural Affairs Minister John Pandazopoulos is expected to voice the Victorian Government's "complete opposition" to a compulsory test at a meeting with Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone and state and territory ministers in New Zealand tomorrow. The Age believes Mr Pandazopoulos will raise concerns that a compulsory test would create a discriminatory, two-tiered system in Australia, where those who did not speak fluent English were seen as less worthy of being an Australian citizen than those born here. Mr Pandazopoulos will stress to the Ministerial Council on Immigration and Multicultural Affairs in Wellington tomorrow that Australia is a multicultural society and the ability to speak fluent English should not predicate citizenship. He is likely to point out that not all migrants who come to Australia are young and educated, and many refugees can barely read and write in their own language.

The Age believes the Victorian Government has expressed concerns that many countries that have tried to introduce citizenship tests have had problems. The German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg sparked national controversy early this year when it introduced a citizenship test that included questions about a person's view on homosexuality, forced marriage and women's rights. It was branded the "Muslim Test". Critics claimed it was aimed at the state's large Turkish community.

The meeting, to be attended by Senator Vanstone, the multicultural affairs ministers in each state and territory and several New Zealand ministers, will also discuss ways to stamp out religious extremism. A multimillion-dollar national action plan is likely to include the establishment of an Institute of Islamic Studies within a prominent Australian University, programs to encourage Muslim youths to play mainstream sports and a jobs scheme for unemployed Muslims.

Earlier this year Mr Robb said one of the ways of preventing fanaticism getting a toehold was to aim employment programs at young Muslims. "Fifty per cent of the 300,000 Muslims in Australia are 24 years and younger and there are big pockets of unemployment, and that leads to frustration and anger and aimlessness," he said at the time. "We have to have a prime focus on getting young Muslims educated and ready for jobs and into real jobs, good jobs."

But The Age believes the Victorian Government is opposed to any strategy that targets one religion. It is expected to argue that singling out Muslims only serves to perpetuate the myth that Muslims are the only people responsible for extremism. The Victorian Government will also call for a national review of the use by police of ethnic descriptions such as "of Middle Eastern appearance".


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