FaithWorld

Guestview: Editorial independence and an ecumenical news agency

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone.  Peter Kenny is the former editor-in-chief of ENInews.
eninews1By Peter Kenny

Maintaining editorial integrity at ENInews, a Geneva-based world-wide news agency run by Ecumenical News International that covers global Christianity and other religions, is hard work. Although church groupings and their partner organizations founded ENInews, editorial independence is often linked to that which is the root of all evil — money. (Photo: Financial freeze puts squeeze on ENInews at Geneva Ecumenical Centre/Peter Kenny)

And that was one of the root causes of ENInews being forced to suspend production for a time at the beginning of the year. It has resumed services and now has an interim editor and is looking for an editor/manager for a one-year term, who will have no office. In 2011 it will also likely face another big cut from its biggest sponsor.

When in May 2010 the biggest founding member of ENInews, the World Council of Churches, suddenly said it would drastically cut funding due to a budget deficit of millions of dollars it was trying to fend off, the news agency was already running with little room to manoeuver.

The new management and editorial team is operating with vastly reduced resources and there is talk that the WCC’s financial predicament will force it to deliver another big cut next year, or even to cease support totally.

Church collection plates may go empty in U.S. as electronic giving rises

collectionBrie Hall felt awkward the first few times she passed the collection basket at her Catholic church without tossing in a donation envelope. But it is more convenient to give her gift to God by direct debit from her checking account.

The tradition of passing the church plate in U.S. churches might become a relic of the past, as a majority of Americans pay bills electronically and move away from using cash or writing checks. Despite concerns about commercializing something so personal, electronic giving to churches is growing. (Photo: Rev. Grainger Browning prays with offering donations at his feet during a Sunday service at Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington, Maryland, March 28, 2010/Jonathan Ernst)

“You just kind of get over it … because you know you’ve donated,” said Hall, a communications manager for the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. At the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Washington, about half of the 1,600 congregants who give regular donations do so electronically, up from 20 percent four years ago.

German Lutheran bishop quits after report accuses her of sex abuse cover-up

jepsenThe world’s first female Lutheran bishop, Maria Jepsen of Germany, resigned on Friday following a report she had allowed a pastor accused of sexual abuse of teenagers in her diocese continued contact with youngsters. (Photo: Bishop Maria Jepsen announces her resignation in Hamburg July 16, 2010/Christian Charisius)

In an echo of scandals hitting the Catholic Church, Der Spiegel news magazine reported last week that Jepsen, 65, heard in 1999 that the pastor had abused teenagers in his care, but let him stay in contact with youngsters until 2000.

At a news conference, Jepsen, who has been bishop of Hamburg since 1992, did not say when she first heard the allegations, but said she felt her credibility was now in question.  “I no longer feel I am in a position to spread the Good Word as I promised at ordination and when I was made bishop,” she said.

Germany’s top Protestant bishop quits after drunk driving

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Bishop Margot Kässmann at her news conference in Hanover 24 Feb 2010/Stringer

The head of Germany’s 25 million Protestants resigned on Wednesday after police stopped her for driving while under the influence of alcohol just four months after becoming the third woman to head a major Christian church.

Known as the “pop bishop,” 51-year-old Margot Kässmann is a regular on television talk shows and had been a controversial choice as head of Germany’s Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), the main association of Protestant churches, because she is a divorced mother of four.

Betraying no emotion, she told reporters she had made a grave mistake which she deeply regretted: “But I cannot ignore the fact that my office and my authority … have been damaged.” With immediate effect, she would give up her role as leader of the EKD, an umbrella group of 22 Lutheran, Reformed and United Churches, and as Lutheran bishop of Hanover, she said.

Thundering sermons produce surprising results in Germany’s Afghanistan debate

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Bishop Margot Kässmann

Thundering sermons can produce some surprising results in Germany these days.

Bishop Margot Kässmann, the new head of Germay’s main association of Protestant churches (EKD — Evangelical Church in Germany), reaped a tirade of criticism from politicians after she denounced Germany’s military mission in a New Year’s sermon at the Berlin Cathedral, the city’s huge monument to Prussian Protestantism. A church leader calls for peace — that’s not news. Politicians supporting soldiers at the front — that’s not a headline either.

But then came a few interesting twists.  Instead of simply fueling the polemics, Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg — surprise #1 — invited her to meet and exchange views. At the meeting in Berlin on Monday, he  — surprise #2 — invited Kässmann to visit the troops in Afghanistan soon. According to the Rheinische Post newspaper, they — surprise #3 — agreed to set up a “regular dialogue between the churches and the Bundeswehr (armed forces).” Anyone who has been following Kässmann, the 51-year-old Lutheran bishop of Hannover elected last October as Germany’s top Protestant leader (and the first woman to hold the post), would say the only non-surprise in all this was that she accepted the invitation to Afghanistan. She is not someone to run away from challenges. guttenberg

German Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg visits German troops in Kunduz, 13 Nov 2009/Michael Kappeler

Russian Orthodox wants joint traditional front with Catholics


(Video: Archbishop Hilarion holds a news conference in French during his Paris visit, 13 Nov 2009/courtesy of Orthodoxie.com)

Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, the Russian Orthodox Church’s top official for relations with other churches, has been busy this past week putting his revived church’s stamp on the world Christian scene. Over the weekend, he urged Catholics and Orthodox to join forces to defend their traditional version of Christianity. His comments, made during a visit to Paris to inaugurate his Church’s first seminary outside of Russia, come only days after positive remarks he made last week about how the Vatican and Moscow were slowly moving towards a meeting between Moscow’s Patriarch Kirill and Pope Benedict. Also last week, Hilarion indicated the Russian Orthodox might end their ecumenical dialogue with Lutherans after Germany’s Protestants elected a divorced woman, Bishop Margot Kässmann, as the new head of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD). After all this, he planned to take off for a visit to China. russian-church-in-paris (Photo: Saint Seraphin Russian Orthodox Church (Ecumenical Patriarchate) in a courtyard in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, 27 Sept 2009/Tom Heneghan)

At his news conference, the 43-year-old archbishop said the Catholic and Orthodox churches were “already working together in many areas. Their views are almost identical in matters of doctrine and social ethics. They could show all these values in secular society, nationally or internationally, for example regarding the concept of family, environment, economy, education etc.. Orthodox and Catholics should find a common language and speak with one voice to defend the values that derive from their faith. They could also work effectively in many areas of social and charitable work. This testimony and cooperation, I am sure, could help us take a different approach to the theological issues that divide us. They could make the question of unity more interesting to a wider audience, which is little concerned with theological issues such as the Filioque or primacy issues, but sensitive to questions that concern everyday life. I had the honour to raise these issues with His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI last September, during my visit to Rome.”

He also evoked this theme at the opening of the Russian Orthodox seminary in a former 17th-century Catholic convent in Epinay-sous-Sénart outside of Paris. “The opening of an Orthodox seminary of the Moscow Patriarchate in Paris is an unprecedented event,” he said. “The seminary is called among other things to become an important center of rapprochement between traditional Christian Churches in Europe … The primary task of Paris Seminary is to offer high-quality theological education. The seminary is also to become a link between the Russian Orthodox Church and Christians in France.”

How East Germany’s communists misunderstood its Protestants

schroederAnniversaries are a time to look back at how the world was before the historic event being commemorated. During a recent trip to Berlin in advance of today’s 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall, I asked the former East German theologian and politician Richard Schröder for his recollections of the life as a Protestant pastor before the country fell apart. He zeroed in on a fascinating aspect of the Communists’ anti-religion policy I’d never heard about before. (Photo: Richard Schröder, 21 Oct 2009/Tom Heneghan)

“The Communists who took over in 1945 were trained in Russia,” he told me at his home in a southern suburb of Berlin. “Their model was the Russian Orthodox Church, which focuses heavily on the liturgy. By contrast, Protestant churches have always been a wide field that included Bible study and other discussion groups. All the charity work of the Protestant churches, like their hospitals, were started by what you might call grass roots movements of congregation members. They were not started by the churches themselves. But the Communists always tried to handle us as if we were Russian Orthodox.”

One way to do this was to demand the churches register in advance any meeting except their Sunday church services and the internal sessions of the church leadership. Officials were especially suspicious of the churches’ youth activities, such as camping trips that included Bible study sessions. The churches refused to agree because this would have been a way to block such activities without banning them outright — all they would have to do was fail to issue permission for the meeting. “The state made a second effort to impose this registration, but the churches decided to pay all the fines and not register the meetings. They got away with it. When the officials noticed the churches always paid the 500 mark fine but kept on holding their meetings, they stopped imposing the fine. It took a long time for the Communists to understand that the Protestant churches are a different version of Christianity than the strongly liturgical Orthodox Church.”

Some east German Protestants feel overlooked as Wall recalled

thomaskircheAs Germany celebrates the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, some Protestants feel the crucial role their church played in shepharding the democracy movement to success is quietly being overlooked. This seems strange to someone like myself who reported on those events back then. Any reporter in Berlin in the tense weeks before Nov. 9, 1989 knew the Protestant (mostly Lutheran) churches sheltered dissidents and was working for reform. But the idea that this was fading from public view came up during my recent visit to Leipzig when, at an organ recital in Johann Sebastian Bach‘s St. Thomas Church (Thomaskirche), the pastor mentioned the point in a sermon. (Photo: St. Thomas Church in Leipzig with Bach statue, 17 Oct 2009/Tom Heneghan)

When I later went up to Berlin, I ran the idea past a leading east German Protestant theologian and a pastor and two parish council members from the Gethsemane Church (Gethsemanekirche). That church in eastern Berlin was one of the most active centres of protest in the tense months before demonstrators forced open the Wall on Nov. 9, 1989. They all agreed.

The many anniversary celebrations, documentaries and discussions now underway across Germany seem to focus mostly on how fearless street protesters and astute politicians pulled off the “peaceful revolution” that ended communism. Films and photos of dissidents packed into the Gethsemane Church in East Berlin or Leipzig’s St. Nicholas Church (Nikolaikirche), the leading houses of worship that sheltered them until the Wall opened , are among the trademark images.  But those crowded “peace prayer” evenings were only the tip of the iceberg of behind-the-scenes work by pastors and lay people who considered it their Christian duty to promote civil rights and human dignity in a rigid communist society.

German Protestants pick first woman to head church

Bishop Margot KässmannGerman Protestants on Wednesday elected Margot Kässmann, a divorcee and the Lutheran bishop of Hanover, to lead their Church, the first woman to take the post and only the third woman to head a major Christian church.

Kässmann, 51, a regular on television talk shows and known in the media as the “pop bishop,” was considered something of a controversial candidate to lead Germany’s roughly 25 million Protestants because she is divorced. But she won 132 of 142 votes at a synod of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), an umbrella group for 22 Lutheran, Reformed and United Churches, in the vote to replace the retiring Berlin Bishop Wolfgang Huber, 67, as EKD chairman.

“The election sends a signal to the Church worldwide that God calls us to leadership without consideration of gender, color or descent,” Rev. Ishmael Noko, general-secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, told the Ecumenical News International news agency at the synod in Ulm.

Swedish Lutheran church to allow gay marriages from Nov. 1

gay-cake-ornamentSweden’s Lutheran church, the Church of Sweden, has decided to conduct gay weddings in the Nordic country from Nov. 1. “We are the first major church to do this,” said Kristina Grenholm, the church’s director of theology. The decision came after the Swedish parliament earlier this year passed legislation allowing homosexuals to legally marry, changing a previous law permitting legal unions but not formal marriage.

“For my part, the right decision was taken, but I can empathise with the many who believe this has gone too fast,” Archbishop of Sweden Anders Wejryd told a news conference.

Sweden’s Lutheran church, which split from the state in 2000 but remains the country’s largest religious community, had previously said it was open to registering same-sex unions but wanted to reserve the term matrimony for heterosexual marriages.