Dispatches > Quick Takes

Religion Notes

Issue: "Focus on a family feud," Feb. 27, 1998

SBC's MIAs

America's largest Protestant denomination is the Southern Baptist Convention, but more than half of the 15.7 million members carried on the rolls of its congregations are inactive, a study by the SBC Sunday School Board found. The figures show 20.7 percent of church members are listed as "resident actives," which means they stopped attending, and 31.8 percent as "non-resident," which means they have moved away but remain on the local church's rolls. Some of the latter might also be included on the active roles of churches to which they've moved, which means total membership could be somewhat inflated.

Once-secret Roman Catholic documents opened

The Vatican last month opened up part of the archives of the Inquisition, or Holy Office, to scholars. Officials said the files, which date from 1542 to 1902, were a "gold mine" of information for researchers but predicted they would find few juicy secrets. Opened at the same time was the infamous Index of Forbidden Books, which listed books Catholics were forbidden to read or possess at peril of excommunication. Even non-Latin translations of the Bible were on the blacklist and ended up in bonfires with other "heretical" writings. Church leaders believed that allowing the faithful access to Scripture without ecclesiastical guidance could result in more heresy. The Inquisition was established by Pope Gregory IX in 1233 as a special court to help curb the spread of heresy. It escalated as church leaders began relying on civil authorities to fine, imprison, torture, and sometimes even burn heretics. It reached its height in the 16th century to counter the Reformation. Perhaps the Inquisition's most famous case was that of Galileo, the Italian astronomer it condemned in 1633 for claiming Earth was not the center of the universe but revolved around the sun. It accused him of heresy and forced him to renounce his espousal of the Copernican theory. Centuries later, in 1992, Pope John Paul II rehabilitated the astronomer and said the church had been wrong to condemn him, then commenced building his own telescope. The Holy Office exists today as the renamed Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It is headed by Bavarian-born Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog.

Good-Bye, New York

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The New York Bible Society is no more. Executives from its parent organization, the Colorado Springs-based International Bible Society (IBS), arrived in Manhattan one morning last month, announced the closure, and RIF'ed the staff of 14 on the spot. They also closed the bookstore operated by NYBS on West 57th Street, despite record sales last year that helped to underwrite the $500,000 NYBS annual budget. "It was not a cost-driven decision, but a matter of reallocating resources," IBS spokesman Steve Johnson told WORLD. Paul-Gordon Chandler, chief executive of IBS's U.S. operations, said the ministry plans to broaden its work, targeting 10 major metropolitan areas, including New York, but to concentrate more narrowly on its primary mission: Scripture distribution (including sales). IBS, which owns the profitable New International Version Bible, started out in New York in 1809 as the New York Bible Society. The name changed in 1983, and in 1988 IBS moved its headquarters to Colorado Springs, maintaining its New York operations under the NYBS name. "They gave us less than an hour's notice," recalled former NYBS executive director Charles Rigby, 61, a seasoned urban evangelist who had held the post since 1989. The sudden shutdown's "effect was to greatly disrupt the ongoing work of thousands of area Christians who had trusted the IBS commitment to the city which gave it birth over 188 years ago," he wrote in a news release. But, he pledged, ministries that had grown up around the NYBS would continue under the auspices of Christian Urban Partnership-New York (CUP-NY), which he heads. Living on severance pay, he and other former NYBS executives are hustling to form a new base from which the ministries can operate. Pending sale of the old NYBS building on Lexington Ave. (which should fetch at least $750,000, sources say), IBS has leased it to Mr. Rigby and CUP-NY for $1.

NAE president to leave in May

Donald Argue, 58, announced he will step down as president of the National Association of Evangelicals in May. His new job will be the presidency of 900-student Northwest College, an Assemblies of God school in suburban Seattle. Mr. Argue came to the Carol Stream, Ill.-based NAE from another AG school only three years ago. But in recent months, he told WORLD, he had come to realize that his role was to be "a bridge of transition" between the man who held the post for 28 years (Billy Melvin, a Free Will Baptist) and a leader of vision who will guide the NAE into the next century. Under Mr. Argue's leadership, religious freedom became a prime NAE agenda item. In 1996, President Clinton appointed him to membership on the State Department's Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad, where he co-chairs a subcommittee on religious persecution. This month, Mr. Clinton sent him, Rabbi Arthur Schneier of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, and Catholic archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark, N.J., on an 18-day mission to examine the extent of religious freedom in China. The action was at the invitation of Chinese strongman Jiang Zemin during the China-U.S. summit in Washington last fall. The U.S. delegates met with Mr. Jiang Feb. 12 in Beijing. He reportedly encouraged them to seek out the views of ordinary religious believers, not just those of leaders. In all, the Americans were scheduled to confer with officials and religious leaders of several faiths in six cities, including Lhasa in Tibet. Mr. Argue told WORLD he hoped to visit some imprisoned believers, but no visits to house churches were on the itinerary. He said he will deliver a full report at the annual NAE meeting March 2-4 in Orlando, Fla.

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