May 18, 2006

World News

California American Baptists 
Vote to Leave Denomination


BY ADELLE M. BANKS                                                                               c. 2006 Religion News Service
capA California-based group of churches has announced its formal decision to break ties with the American Baptist Churches USA, marking the first split of one regional group from the denomination over homosexuality.
The board of the American Baptist Churches of the Pacific Southwest voted unanimously Thursday (May 11) to part ways with the denomination. Less than two weeks earlier, church delegates within the group voted 1,125-209 to recommend the board move to sever ties.
The California group will now use the name Transformation Ministries and will sever ties by Nov. 1. The decision affects about 300 churches affiliated with the denomination in Southern California, Nevada, Arizona and Hawaii.
Leaders of the Valley Forge, Pa.-based denomination, which claims 1.4 million members in the United States, have anticipated this decision but reacted with sadness to Thursday's vote.
"This is not a happy day for American Baptists," said the Rev. Robert Roberts, a spokesman for the denomination. "We will all be left weaker by this, in my judgment, and so it's a very sad day."
Asked if other regional groups are likely to follow suit, the Rev. Dale Salico, executive minister of the Pacific Southwest churches, said: "It's possible, but I really can't speak for others."
Roberts said other regions have voiced similar concerns, but said no other regional body has "moved as deliberately" as the California churches.
Last September, the board of the California churches approved a statement that said "deep differences of theological convictions and values" between the region and the denomination are "irreconcilable." Its members believe the denomination has not enforced a resolution that states "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."
"The inability of the denomination to adequately implement (the policy) was one of the factors," said Salico, whose office is in Covina, Calif., outside Los Angeles.
Salico also cited differences over the authority of Scripture and the accountability of local churches. "When churches are as far apart as we are with ABCUSA, it makes mission really difficult," he said. "We want to just concentrate on those areas that we're called to be in ministry with and not to be constantly engaged in a struggle within the denomination."
Denominational officials said individual churches must also vote if they wish to break ties. "One of the things that brings us some hope is that there are a number of churches out there that have indicated that they will stay with American Baptists," Roberts said. "There are enough of them that they will form a new American Baptist association."
Survey Finds Catholics Not Leaving Church Over Scandals
BY ANNE PESSALA                                                                                        c. 2006 Religion News Service
A report by a Catholic research group shows that Catholics do not appear to be leaving the church in large numbers in response to accusations of sexual abuse among clergy.
The working paper by the Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University compared responses to surveys conducted by CARA between January 2001 and October 2005, as well as studies by other groups.
CARA researchers identified early 2002 as the beginning of "widespread media coverage of abuse allegations." They concluded the percentage of adult Americans who identify as Catholic remained constant at 23 percent before and after this point.
The study also examined changes in Mass attendance, financial donations, confidence in church leaders and awareness of abuse scandals. Researchers found that the percentage of Catholics who attended Mass every week remained relatively constant at about 33 percent throughout the study.
The portion of people who contributed to a Catholic parish or organization in the past year dropped from 78 percent in 2001 to 70 percent in 2005. Of the people who stopped giving to their dioceses, 55 percent said sex abuse scandals had played a role in their decision.
Less than half of respondents were aware of the number of cases of sex abuse or the extent of the financial repercussions. "I think it creates an accurate picture," said John Moynihan, spokesman for Voice of the Faithful, a Boston-based group that advocates for greater transparency and lay involvement in church leadership. "I think that's just the state of things and I think the state of things is that people are for the most part unaware of the extent of the problem."
The study concludes that "although most Catholics have expressed dissatisfaction with some aspects of the church's handling of the issue of sex abuse, most are loyal to their faith in that they have not changed their patterns of Mass attendance or parish giving."
Panel Suggests Norway Cut Ties to Lutheran Church
BY SIMON REEVES                                                                                         c. 2006 Religion News Service
A commission appointed by the Norwegian government in 2003 to study the country's state support of the Lutheran Church system has recommended that the centuries-old bond be broken.
Eighteen of the body's 20 members supported cutting the ties, created in 1537, between the Church of Norway and the government, according to a report submitted earlier this year to Norway's minister of culture and church affairs. Two members opted to keep the status quo with the reigning king and the government having the last word in church affairs, the local paper VartLand reported.
The commission was comprised of representatives from major political parties, the church and various denominations and religions. However, 14 of those favoring abolition do not want the tie to be completely broken, instead calling for it to be loosened. A Muslim member of the commission is one of those favoring relaxation. "I hope that our report will be of help when politicians shall discuss the matter," commission chairman Kare Gjonnes said at a press conference in the Norwegian capital of Oslo.
The commission noted that the (Evangelical Lutheran) Church of Norway, which counts 86 percent of the country's 4.5 million inhabitants as members, should no longer be based on the constitution of the country. Instead, the commission said it should be based on a parliamentary act.
The commission also proposed that the church's general synod should hold the power to appoint bishops and clergy. Currently, that power is held by the king and the government.
Recent polls have indicated that a majority of Norwegians wants to break the tie between church and state. Many believe that the increase in the number of faiths in recent years encourages the call to do away with the structure. Once a report is submitted to parliament next year, no formal change would occur until at least 2013. Neighboring Sweden broke its state-church tie in 2000.
House Allows Military Chaplains to Pray 
According to Their "Conscience"
BY ADELLE M. BANKS                                                                                    c. 2006 Religion News Service
The House approved language on May 11 that allows military chaplains to pray "according to the dictates of the chaplain's own conscience" as part of a defense spending bill.
The vote comes as religious groups, church-state separationists, and military officials have debated the appropriateness of sectarian prayers in settings outside worship services.
"Each chaplain shall have the prerogative to pray according to the dictates of the chaplain's own conscience, except as must be limited by military necessity, with any such limitation being imposed in the least restrictive manner feasible," reads a short section within the massive legislation.
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative advocacy group, said on his radio program that he was "very encouraged" and expects "major movement" on the bill later this summer.
A Navy policy issued in February urges chaplains to use inclusive prayers outside worship settings. Beyond chapel services, "religious elements for a command function, absent extraordinary circumstances, should be nonsectarian in nature," the naval rules read.
Guidelines from the U.S. Air Force, released that same month, said chaplains "will not be required to participate in religious activities, including public prayer, inconsistent with their faiths" but also state that "nondenominational, inclusive prayer or a moment of silence may be appropriate for military ceremonies ... when its primary purpose is not the advancement of religious beliefs."
Critics have said the policies prevent chaplains from praying "in Jesus' name" wherever they wish, while supporters say nonsectarian prayers are appropriate in a pluralistic setting. Mikey Weinstein, president of the newly founded Military Religious Freedom Foundation, harshly criticized the House action.
"There is an inescapable irony here, that this bill, which purports to be a `defense authorization,' not only flagrantly disregards military rules, but also strikes a serious blow to the constitutional oath that every soldier, airman, sailor and marine has sworn to uphold with their lives," said Weinstein, an Air Force veteran based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.