FaithWorld

Biggest U.S. Lutheran group advances gay questions

The largest U.S. Lutheran church group is about to begin a detailed discussion at the grass roots level on a policy change that would enable people in same-sex relationships to become clergy. Between now and June the debate will spread over some 65 synods covering the 5-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

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These meetings will produce comminiques which will be sent to the church’s convention in August where a final decision will be made on issues that have nagged the church and other denominations for years.

The ELCA’s current policies allow gays to serve in the ministry but not engage in sexual relations outside marriage — and the church defines marriage as being only between a man and a woman.

But possible changes advanced this week when the Church Council, a top governing body, approved with only minor revisions recommendations made by a task force  after a lengthy study.  Those recommendations will go before a membership convention in August, after input from the synods which are beginning their meetings this month.

The task force report asks whether the church wants to find ways to recognize life-long, monogamous same-sex relationships, and if so whether the church is committed to finding a way for people in such relationships to serve as clergy. There are other recommendations and proposals on how the process would work, but the first two steps have drawn the most attention.

A religion board game – satire or scandal?

How much fun — really — can you make of religion?  A U.S. marketer of board games may find out with ”Playing Gods” which it calls “the world’s first satirical board game of religious warfare.” It had its European premier this week at the London Toy Fair and will make a U.S. debut at the New York Toy Fair in February.

Ben Radford, head of the company that put the game together, said in a news release it is designed for two to five players who act as “gods” and …

“Try try to take over the world and make everyone on Earth worship him or her. As a god, you can try to convert other gods’ followers, promising them things like Afterlife, Prosperity, and Miracles. Or you can kill them off with plagues, locusts, earthquakes, floods, and other Acts of Gods.

Look who’s celebrating Reformation Day today

Today is Reformation Day, the anniversary of the day in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg in eastern Germany and set off the Protestant Reformation. It is a public holiday in the five eastern German states, in Slovenia and — this year for the first time — in Chile.

Chile? Isn’t that traditionally a Catholic country? Even the Catholic parts of Germany don’t celebrate Reformation Day.

Yes, Chile is traditionally Catholic, but now only about 70% so. Like elsewhere in Latin America, Protestant churches — especially evangelicals and Pentecostals — have spread rapidly in recent decades. They now make up just over 15% of the Chilean population, up from 7% in 1970. It’s not a new story, but creating a holiday especially for Protestants is a symbolic step towards recognising the changes in the religious landscape in Latin America.

Is the pope planning visit to cradle of Protestantism?

Is Pope Benedict planning a visit to a cradle of Protestantism? Should a Catholic pontiff tour the medieval castle where Martin Luther translated the Bible into German at the start of the Reformation? It’s far too early to get confirmations or denials from the Vatican or the German government, since the visit — still only in the rumor stage — is not due until the spring of 2009. But a local newspaper in the eastern state of Thuringia, where the Wartburg is located, says security planning has already begun.

Thüringer Allgemeine logoAccording to the Erfurt daily Thüringer Allgemeine, an advance team from the German president’s office in Berlin has already met local police. Dieter Althaus, the state premier who invited Benedict to Thuringia during a visit in Rome in April, has also met mayors from towns in the area “to discuss the emergency case of a papal visit. Also in Eisenach, the words ‘pope’ and ‘Wartburg’ are mentioned together more frequently.” An earlier German press report about a possible trip mentioned that Benedict would visit Eichsfeld, a nearby island of Catholicism in an otherwise Lutheran region, so he would be in the neighborhood.

Apart from the security, a visit by any pope to the Wartburg would need careful preparation to ensure it helps rather than hurts Catholic-Protestant relations. If that pope is Joseph Ratzinger, the task becomes even more tricky. Pope Benedict has studied the writings of Martin Luther — he’s probably the only pontiff who ever has — and impressed Lutherans with his knowledge and appreciation of his fellow German theologian. At the same time, he has also been blunt in describing Protestant denominations as “not proper churches.” In fact, he doesn’t refer to them as churches at all, but “ecclesial communities.” Not surprisingly, Protestant leaders feel offended.

Euro 2008: do Catholic countries have the edge?

The Euro 2008 flag flutters near Zurich’s Grossmünster church, 25 May 2008/Arnd Wiegmann“Do Catholic countries have better football players?”

I was surprised to see this headline on the Austrian Catholic website kath.net today… and even more surprised to see they seemed to mean it seriously.

“A look at the participants in the final round of the European football championship in Switzerland and Austria suggests this,” kath.net writes in a report from Vienna. “In seven of the 16 participating countries, Catholics are clearly in the majority: Poland (95 percent of the population), Spain (92 percent), Italy (90 percent), Portugal (90 percent), Croatia (77 percent), Austria (69 percent ) and France (51 percent). Only one Protestant stronghold confronts them, Sweden. Of the 8.8 million inhabitants of the northern European country, 80 percent are Lutherans.”

Poland’s team with coach Leo Beenhakker (C) attends Mass in Bad Waltersdorf, 6 June 2008/stringerThere’s no hint of analysis of why this should be relevant, or mention of the personal faith — or lack thereof — of the players on these national teams. This purely statistical view (sports fans love stats, don’t they?) goes on to point out which participating countries have large numbers of both Catholics and Protestants (Germany, Switzerland and Netherlands).

Evangelical Church in Germany knocks creationism, ID in school

EKD logoThe Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) has just published a booklet for school teachers urging them not to advocate creationism or intelligent design (ID). That’s “evangelical” as in the German evangelisch (meaning Protestant, mostly Lutheran), and not “evangelical” as it’s more commonly used in the United States. Still, it’s interesting to see that the EKD in Germany, where there are few U.S.-style evangelicals and almost no dispute about the theory of evolution, felt it necessary to issue a 22-page booklet about teaching evolution. It’s called “The Origin of the World, the Theory of Evolution and the Belief in Creation in School” (here in German).

EKD Chairman Bishop Wolfgang Huber (pictured below) writes in the introduction that there is “an intense debate” about these issues but that “it is being conducted in Germany in a different way from, for example, the United States of America. Still, a fundamental clarification is of considerable practical importance.” He doesn’t elaborate.

Bishop Wolfgang Huber, 5 Nov 2003//Vincent KesslerThe daily Die Welt gave a bit more background. “This dispute is increasingly spilling over from the USA to us and has already led to political debates. The Hesse state culture minister (and Protestant synod member) Karin Wolff spoke last year of a “surprising agreement” between evolution and the Bible. With that she sparked a dispute within the Church in which the reasonable faction of the EKD found itself confronted with the growing strength of evangelicals loyal to the Bible. This “orientation aid” should now calm the dispute by setting limits towards both sides.”The “orientation aid,” as the booklet is called, criticises Richard Dawkins and other atheists for thinking science can disprove the existence of God. It compares the books of the “new atheists” to the communist textbooks in East Germany: “The new atheism propagated by Dawkins and others today fits seamlessly into this ideological scheme.”

Martin Luther’s “rehabilitation” may have to wait

Is Martin Luther, the German monk who sparked the Reformation, going to be “rehabilitated” this year by Pope Benedict? Some media say yes, the Vatican says no way. Here is an interesting sequence of events that says a lot about how something can take on a life of its own, regardless of whether it may be totally correct.
0It all appears to have started on March 2, when ApCom, an Italian news agency, ran a three paragraph article, here in Italian , merely saying that the pope and some of his former PhD students (the so-called Ratzinger- Schlerkreis), would discuss Luther during their yearly summer encounter in August at the papal summer villa at Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome.
APcom, said the seminar would discuss whether Luther “wanted a rupture … or intended to reform the Church but without traumas”.
On March 5, two days after the APcom report, the Turin newspaper La Stampa ran a story with the headline “Ratzinger reforms Luther. ‘He had many Catholic ideas. The theologian pope summons his students for a seminar of study on the heretic.”The article, seen here in Italian, quoted Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity, as saying the choice of topics was meant “to favour a climate of encounter with Protestants.”
Pope and Cardinal Kasper meet Archbishop of Canterbury The day after the article in La Stampa, the Times of London reported that “Pope BenedictXVI is set to rehabilitate Martin Luther, arguing that he did not intend to split Christianity, but only to purge the church of corrupt practices.”
From there, the story took off,was repeatedby some news organisations around the world, was the buzz on the blogs, and even prompted an editorial critical of the pope by the Financial Times, called “Papal Indulgence – Cosmetic changes cannot hide Benedict’s dogmatism”.
The Vatican itself finally weighed in on March 8, when Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s chief spokesman, told the Italian news agency Ansa, that the Financial Times editorial was “totally without foundation because no rehabilitation of Luther is foreseen.” The Ansa story went onto say that the specific theme of this summer’s meeting had not yet been finally decided.
What do you think about how the media covered this and do you think the pope should “rehabilitate” Luther?

Is Kobia on his way out at the WCC?

The Rev. Samuel Kobia in Beijing, 21 Nov. 2006/Claro CortesOnly a few days ago, Samuel Kobia from Kenya was running unopposed for a second five-year term as general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC) at its Central Committee meeting now being held in Geneva. The story seemed pretty ho-hum. Then the German Protestant news agency epd revealed he had a “digital doctorate” from a unaccredited diploma mill in the U.S. Now he’s in danger of losing his job running the WCC, the global Christian grouping of 349 churches (mostly Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox) that represent more than 560 million believers around the world. Our correspondent in Geneva Robert Evans reports he may be on his way out. The rumour making the rounds is that we may hear as early as Tuesday that he will not be there much longer.

All because of a phony Ph.D? No, there’s a lot more where that story came from. The epd also ran a scathing interview with Lutheran Bishop Martin Hein of Kassel, the top German on the WCC Central Committee, in the run-up to the meeting. He made it abundantly clear that the German Protestants, who contribute one-third of the WCC budget, had lost patience with Kobia. Here’s a taste of what he said:

The WCC takes stands on everything. The World Council of Churches does not have to be a little United Nations.”

Lutheran pastor who helped topple East German communism to retire

Leipzig protest march on October 9, 1989The peaceful revolution that toppled East German communism had roots going back to a prayer. The weekly peace prayer meetings started in 1982 in Leipzig’s Nikolaikirche (Church of St. Nicholas) became a rallying point for dissidents later in the decade. By September 1989, participants leaving the church defied the Stasi and arrest threats to march publicly against the government. On October 9, the protesters feared a “Chinese solution” — i.e. a bloodbath like the one in Beijing the previous summer — but marched anyway out of the Lutheran church and around the city. When the massed security forces did not fire on the marchers, who by then numbered 70,000, the protest movement began to lose its fear. The opening of the Berlin Wall followed only a few weeks later.

Christian Führer has just told the New York Times he will step down in March as pastor of the Nikolaikirche when he reaches 65. Führer was a co-organiser of the peace prayers during the 1980s and the protest marches in 1989. He was also a courageous source for us journalists trying to cover the protests there in September and October of that year. The Stasi had closed Leipzig off to foreign reporters and would turn us away on the autobahn before we could even reach the city. Führer took calls from our East Berlin office on his crackling (and bugged) phone line and kept us informed of the growing numbers of participants at his prayer services, the arrests outside his church and the marchers who succeeded in protesting publicly.

Christian Führer, 2 May 2006/Fabrizio BenschLeipzig opened up after the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, but plainclothes Stasi agents still haunted the meetings and marches. Courage outweighed fear at a prayer service I attended early that December, but Führer still ended it with an appeal to the participants not to let themselves be provoked into violence. They streamed out and marched around the city, calling for reunification with West Germany.

Attenzione! Important Vatican doctrinal document due…

Pope Benedict, 10 Dec. 2007 Attenzione! The Vatican will issue an important doctrinal document on Friday “on some aspects of evangelisation.” Pope Benedict has a long track record of making sharp distinctions between Catholicism and other religions in his doctrinal declarations. Some of these have upset other Christians, others have angered Muslims and been challenged by Islamic scholars. This new text has been written by papal aides, not the pope himself, but it is expected to be a close reflection of his views. What Vatican observers are waiting to see is how clearly it states the Catholic view on converting others and how other religions react.

The document from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger headed for over two decades before becoming pope in 2005, comes at a time of growing Catholic difficulties with Anglicans, Protestants and evangelical and Pentecostal Christians. Its hesitant reaction to an invitation leading Muslim scholars for a theological dialogue has raised questions about its interest in inter-faith relations. And evangelisation is now a sensitive topic for Christian churches. The Vatican is working with the World Council of Churches, the World Evangelical Alliance and Pentecostal leaders on a code of conduct for missionary work .

The declaration is expected to say that conversion remains a goal of Catholic missionary efforts and that Catholic theologians must not water this down by arguing that other faiths can be paths to salvation. This recalls Dominus Iesus, a document issued in 2000 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) that said the Catholic Church was the only true church of Jesus Christ and others were “gravely deficient.” In fact, the document should be a guide on how to put Dominus Iesus into practice. The CDF began this process with a clarification of the 2000 document last June — a clarification that caused dismay among leading Protestant theologians.Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie (L), the Archbishop of Thyateira and Great Britain Methodios (2L), Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama (R) pray for world peace in a service in Assisi October 27, 1986