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c. 2000 Religion News Service

Presbyterian Church (USA) Membership Losses Growing

(RNS) The Presbyterian Church (USA) lost members at a faster rate last year than in the previous two years.

The church reports that in 1999, membership dropped by 27,473 to a total of 2,560,201.

In 1997 and 1998, the annual decline had slowed to about 20,000. Prior to that, since the 1960s, the church had lost members at a rate of about 30,000 a year.

The Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the church’s General Assembly, said he “continues to pray fervently for the days when those numbers go the other way.”

The church “needs to be more active in our evangelization, and in building up the strength and health of our congregations.”

The church found declines in adult professions of faith, transfers from other denominations and adult and child baptisms.

Kirkpatrick said he was encouraged by an increase in racial and ethnic minority membership.

“We gained 27,000 racial-ethnic members last year,” he said, “which isn’t nearly enough, but shows that we are on the right track toward our goal of 10 percent racial-ethnic (black, Hispanic and Asian) membership by 2010.”

There also were increases in church-school enrollment and the number of women deacons and women elders.

Despite the decline in membership, church officials found there was an increase in giving in almost every category.

Total receipts by governing bodies and churches hit a record $2.825 billion, an increase of almost $216 million from 1998.

Wisconsin Judge Rules Against Wall Around Jesus Statue

(RNS) A Wisconsin judge has ruled that the city of Marshfield should place a wrought-iron fence around a statue of Jesus on a private piece of land within a public park rather than a masonry wall requested by atheists.

The 15-foot-high statue has been in the park since 1959 but has been a source of dispute since the Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sued to get it removed because its members thought it violated the First Amendment.

The city sold the statue to a private landowner, prompting dismissal of the suit in December 1998. An appellate court ruled in February the sale was appropriate but told the city to differentiate between the public property of the park and the private property on which the statue stands.

The city proposed the 4-foot-high fence and a sign indicating the statue was on private property. The Freedom From Religion Foundation requested the statue be enclosed behind a 10-foot high concrete wall.

U.S. District Court Judge John Shabaz ruled Tuesday (May 9) that a “visual separation” of the statue from the rest of the park was not required. He accepted the city’s proposal for the fence. The city also will display a sign that says “Private Park.”

“This decision is a victory for common sense in an area of the law where common sense is all too often forgotten,” said Francis J. Manion, senior regional counsel for the Midwest of the American Center for Law and Justice, a law firm founded by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, spokesperson for the foundation, said her group didn’t expect to succeed in getting the masonry wall erected, but she hopes something other than the proposed fence would be put up in the park located next to a highway.

“They’re not going to see a wrought iron fence going at highway speed,” she told Religion News Service.

Gaylor said the judge will issue a final ruling in June after reviewing the city’s drawing of the proposed fence.

“It was a preliminary decision,” she said. “We’re negotiating. It’s not a final thing. We’re disappointed at this point but we haven’t given up.”

Methodists Will Stay in National Council of Churches

(RNS) The United Methodist Church voted Thursday (May 11) to continue its membership in the National Council of Churches despite growing frustration in some church circles that the ecumenical body has grown too liberal.

The legislation also continued the church’s membership in the Consultation on Church Union, an ecumenical dialogue among mainline Protestant bodies that is geared towards recognizing clergy and sacraments between churches.

Delegates closed the General Conference of the United Methodist Church on Friday (May 12), bringing to an end the highest legislative body of the nation’s second largest Protestant body. During the 10-day meeting, the church upheld a ban on gay ordination, same-sex union ceremonies and language that calls homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

In the Thursday vote, delegates defeated a motion that would have ordered the church to withdraw from the NCC by the end of the year. Delegates voiced support for the 50-year-old organization, rejecting language that said the NCC was focusing on issues of “a secular political nature” and had “retained a peripheral relationship” to spreading the gospel.

The United Methodist Church is among the NCC’s largest financial supporters. Some conservatives in the church say the NCC has strayed from its original mission. Their frustration is directed specifically at the Rev. Thom White Wolf Fassett, the general secretary of the church’s General Board of Church and Society and a close ally of the NCC.

Fassett “never saw an extreme left position he didn’t like,” said Ken Kinghorn, a professor of church history at Asbury Theological Seminary, a conservative Kentucky school with historic ties to the church.

Fassett’s role in raising funds for the father of Elian Gonzalez came under strong scrutiny recently. Fassett said the fund, which raised about $50,000 to pay for Gonzalez’s legal team, was an attempt to give adequate legal representation in the father’s bid to win custody of his son. The fund has since been transferred to the oversight of the NCC.

Pope Goes To Fatima Amid Speculation He Will Reveal “Third Secret”

(RNS) – Pope John Paul II left Friday for an overnight visit to the shrine of the Madonna of Fatima in Portugal amid speculation he may finally reveal the “third secret” of Fatima some fear will portend the end of the world.

John Paul flew to Lisbon on his 92nd trip outside Italy since he was elected Roman Catholic pontiff in 1978. After a brief private meeting with Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio at Portela International Airport he was to travel on by helicopter to the village of Fatima, 80 miles north of Lisbon.

Before leaving for Portugal, the pope gave an audience to 500 members of the cycling teams which will begin the annual Giro d’Italia race across Italy in Rome on Saturday (May 13) as part of Holy Year celebrations. He urged the cyclists to compete “with great athletic passion but also with a strong spirit of solidarity and sharing.”

The pope, who will celebrate his 80th birthday on Thursday (May 18), traveled to Portugal to beatify two of the shepherd children who reported in 1917 that the Virgin Mary had appeared to them three times and each time told them a secret.

The first secret predicted the deaths of the two younger children and the second the imminent outbreak of the Russian Revolution and spread of communism. The third shepherd, now a 94-year-old cloistered nun, divulged the last secret in a letter to Pope Pius XII in 1941, saying it could be disclosed to the world after 1960, but successive popes have decided against making it public.

The mystery over the secret has fed fears that it predicts the coming of the Apocalypse and the end of the world.

Italian newspapers reported speculation in the Portuguese Catholic Church that John Paul would reveal the secret during the Mass in which he will declare Giacinta and Francesco Marto blessed, one step below sainthood.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith where the letter of Sister Lucia dos Santos is preserved, has denied that it has anything to do with the Apocalypse. He expressed doubt Thursday (May 11) that the pope would reveal the secret at Fatima.

Update: Two Charged In Connection With Controversial Book in Egypt

(RNS) Two government officials in Egypt have been charged with helping to publish a book that critics say insults Islam.

Hamdi el-Galeel, the managing editor of the publication department at Egypt’s Culture Ministry, and Ibrahim Aslan, the ministry official in charge of publications, face charges of “disparaging religion and editing and publishing a work that offended public morals,” a police official told the Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

But the day before the charges were announced, a committee appointed by Culture Minister Farouk Hosni to look into the claims against Haidar Haidar’s novel “A Banquet for Seaweed” announced the book was not blasphemous and had been unfairly attacked.

The committee was convened after Hosni came under attack from Islamic fundamentalists in Egypt who said they believed the book insulted God and Mohammed, the founder of Islam. The book was reprinted last November by the Culture Ministry as part of a campaign to honor celebrated Arabic novels.

On Sunday (May 7) and Monday (May 8), students at the prestigious Islamic school Al-Azhar University in Cairo launched protests against the book, demanding the execution of its Syrian author and the firing of Culture Ministry officials.

On Friday, the weekly newspaper Al-Shaab, which had published an article claiming Haidar’s novel described God as “a failed artist” and labeled the Koran as excrement, cautioned that the Muslim majority in Egypt would “not hesitate to turn out against the state if it used its authority to insult the religion.”

More than 100 complaints have been sent to the prosecutor general demanding that Haidar stand trial for apostasy, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has received appeals from several Al-Azhar clerics who say they want Culture Ministry officials who have allegedly insulted Islam to leave office.

Canadian Broadcast Panel Says Dr. Laura Violates Ethics Code

(RNS) A Canadian broadcasting regulation panel has ruled that radio talk show host Dr. Laura’s controversial statements about homosexuals have violated national broadcasting ethics codes.

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council announced Wednesday (May 10) that Laura Schlessinger’s on-air claims that homosexual activity is “abnormal” and “deviant” violates the human rights provision of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ code of ethics, the Associated Press reported. The council also decided that Schlessinger’s claim that homosexuals were more likely than heterosexuals to commit pedophilia was “abusively discriminatory.”

“To use such brutal language as she does about such an essential characteristic flies in the face of Canadian provisions relating to human rights,” the council said in its decision, adding that “In Canada, we respect freedom of speech but do not worship it.”

Noting that Schlessinger has no medical license to practice either psychiatry or psychology, the council said her views “were more than a quarter of a century out of date in the opinion of the professional psychiatric and psychological associations.”

The decision requires Canadian networks that broadcast the syndicated show to air during prime time hours public announcements that notify the public of the council’s decision.

Schlessinger’s criticism of gays and lesbians has sparked controversy in the United States as well, where her weekly program is broadcast by more than 400 stations and her column is published by more than 100 newspapers. In March,advocates of civil rights for gays demonstrated in Los Angeles outside Paramount Pictures to protest the studio’s decision to allow Schlessinger to host a television talk show.

Denominational Colleges, Seminaries See Presidents Arrive, Depart

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(RNS) A number of denominational colleges and seminaries across the country are in transition as new presidents come on board and others take their leave.

Heidi Hadsell, has been named the next president of Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Conn. Currently the director of the Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of Churches in Bossey, Switzerland, she will begin her new role on Sept. 1, the interdenominational seminary announced. She succeeds Barbara Brown Zikmund, who is stepping down June 30 and will become a faculty member in the Graduate School of American Studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan.

Mitchell M. “Mick” Zais will become president of Newberry College in Newberry, S.C., which is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He currently serves as the chief of staff for the U.S. Army Reserve Command in Atlanta. He will succeed Peter French who retired last year, the church announced.

Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, Pa., has named the Rev. Michael L. Cooper-White as the next president of the seminary affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Cooper-White currently is the executive assistant to the presiding bishop of the ELCA and director of the ELCA’s Department for Synodical Relations in Chicago. He will succeed the Rev. Darold H. Beekmann, who will retire July 31.

Mark U. Edwards has announced his plans to retire as president of St. Olaf College, an ELCA-affiliated school in Northfield, Minn. Citing his “awareness of life’s finitude” after a bout with cancer several years ago, Edwards said he plans to spend time pursuing scholarly and other interests, the church reported.

The Rev. Donald W. McCullough, who served as president of San Francisco Theological Seminary for six years, resigned May 1 after acknowledging he was involved in “inappropriate conduct” while he was pastor of Solano Beach Presbyterian Church near San Diego before coming to the seminary. The board of trustees of the Presbyterian Church (USA) seminary in San Anselmo, Calif., accepted his resignation “with deep regret.”

Quote of the Day: The Rev. Michael Dogali of Connecticut

(RNS) “It wasn’t written in theological Vaticanese. It was written for my mother, who sits in the fourth pew on the right in church.”

The Rev. Michael Dogali, a priest in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., speaking about a local Catholic magazine column written by Bishop Edward Egan, appointed Thursday (May 12) leader of the Archdiocese of New York. He was quoted in the Friday (May 12) edition of The Washington Post.


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