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Religion Notes

Religion

Issue: "Rebel with a cause," Jan. 30, 1998

New renewalists

By some accounts, the Episcopal Church has lost more than one-third of its members during the last 20 years, with some dioceses declining by as much as 40 percent. Conservatives in the 2.4-million-member church blame much of the loss on the failure of its leadership to uphold the authority of Scripture. Several renewal groups have emerged over the years to try to counter the trend. The latest such group to arrive on the scene bears the church's original name: The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, Inc. (PECUSA). Based in Pawley's Island, S.C., the group says it wants to help move the denomination back to its moorings. More than 150 clergy, including 15 active and retired bishops and representing over 60,000 communicants, many of them in the denomination's largest and fastest growing parishes, have signed its "First Promise" document, spokesman Jon Shuler says. The document's name refers to the first vow taken by Episcopal clergy pledging loyalty to the "doctrine, discipline, and worship of Jesus Christ as the church has received them." Although PECUSA's leaders say they want to emphasize "positive steps" the Episcopal Church must take to recover its spiritual heritage, they served notice they already are on a collision course with the church's newly installed presiding bishop, Frank T. Griswold. "Bishop Griswold's reinterpretation of Scripture and his willingness to compromise the church's historic teaching on moral issues is not the direction we believe God wants the Episcopal Church to take," Mr. Shuler asserted. In his installation sermon at Washington National Cathedral early this month, Bishop Griswold spoke of the "diversity" in the church and suggested there are "different dimensions of truth." In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine that appeared just prior to his installation, he said he believes "the mind of Christ operative in the church over time ... has led the church to in effect contradict the words of the gospel." In a Washington Post interview, he called for less strident debate in the church but hinted controversy would mark his tenure. He is a strong backer of ordination of women as priests, and he was one of the 100 bishops who signed a 1994 statement saying sexual orientation is "morally neutral" and commending "committed" homosexual relationships as worthy of honor. Bishop Griswold, 60, was bishop of the Diocese of Chicago for 12 years. He succeeds Bishop Edmond L. Browning for a nine-year term as the church's chief executive officer and chair of its House of Bishops. Why another renewal group? Privately, PECUSA's leaders say the other groups haven't accomplished much, and new blood is needed. They indicate PECUSA will be aggressive in promoting its agenda. "We are not asking anyone to leave the church they love. We are asking them to help us build the church for the next generation," Mr. Shuler says. Todd Wetzel, executive officer of a larger renewal group, Chicago-based Episcopalians United, is hoping for reinforcements. Many who left the Episcopal Church to seek spiritual nurture and to raise their families in Bible-believing churches now find themselves in the empty-nest stage of life, he observed. They should consider returning to the Episcopal Church as "missionaries" to help reform it, he says.

Crossley convicted

Florida TV preacher George Crossley was convicted last month of trying to hire a hit man to kill his former lover's estranged husband because he threatened to go public with the affair. The person Mr. Crossley chose to look for a hit man turned out to be a police informant. Mr. Crossley maintained he was entrapped by the informant, but a jury found him guilty after viewing a videotape of him negotiating with the informant.

Captive congregations

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Sixteen inmates at maximum-security Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La., received a degree from New Orleans Baptist Seminary, an accredited Southern Baptist school that set up an extension center there two years ago. The 16 were the first group to complete the associate in pastoral ministries degree program, Baptist Press reported. The center is at capacity with 50 students, and many more are on the waiting list, BP noted. Nearly 20 congregations are functioning inside the prison, officials said. Of the some 5,000 inmates at Angola, 83 percent will never be released, officials estimated. Many ministers are needed to work among their fellow inmates and offer hope, Warden Burl Cain told a reporter. True rehabilitation, he said, comes from within. "Even if I were an atheist, I would want a strong religious program in prison," he said.

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