Cover Story

Religion

Mainline on the decline

Issue: "Year in Review 1999," Jan. 8, 2000

The continuing decline of the ecumenical movement and mainstream churches, with conservatives in some of the denominations enjoying limited success in withstanding the homosexual agenda for the churches Unity continued to be elusive among major players on the mainline church scene. The wheezing Consultation on Church Unity (COCU), a plan originally aimed at merging some of America's leading denominations, remained at an impasse over the issue of bishops: Episcopalians insist prospective partners must adopt the historic episcopate; Presbyterians and others are opposed. The 5.2-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, seeking its own deal for closer relations with the 2.4-million-member Episcopal Church, voted in 1999 to upgrade its bishops, a move opposed by many in the pews. The Episcopalians are scheduled to vote in 2000 on closer fellowship with the ELCA; some question whether the Lutherans have gone far enough. The badly limping and nearly bankrupt National Council of Churches, most of whose 34 member denominations contribute little if anything to keep it alive, is headed for radical surgery following its less than festive 50th-anniversary celebration in November. Theological liberalism is the major root problem within many denominations, and disobeying the Bible by embracing homosexuality the most divisive issue. Conservatives in the 1.5-million-member American Baptist Churches U.S.A., the 2.6-million-member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the 8.4-million-member United Methodist Church could count some victories in 1999, but pro-homosexual activists and their supporters vowed to attack again in 2000. Schism is still a possibility; many large congregations in all three denominations are poised to bolt if the doors don't hold. Beleaguered conservatives in the Episcopal Church sought help overseas from like-minded Bible-believing bishops in other Anglican communions. However, the Anglicans, long dismayed by the liberal trends in the American church, could offer little more than moral support. Discord on the right
Disinterest, disillusionment, and disruption among those in the "Religious Right" Leaders and former leaders of the "Religious Right" could not agree on new-millennium resolutions. Columnist Cal Thomas and Baptist minister Ed Dobson, both former employees of Jerry Falwell and promoters of the now-defunct Moral Majority, argued in Blinded by Might that Christians should put their faith not in politics but in individual conversion. James Dobson and others rebuked the pair, saying this was not an either/or question. Pat Robertson urged conservative Christians to keep trying to influence politics, but political strategist Paul Weyrich circulated a letter saying social conservatives had lost the cultural war. Mr. Robertson had problems of his own. The IRS denied tax-exempt status to the Christian Coalition. A shakeup saw the departure of Don Hodel, a former Reagan cabinet secretary, as president of the Coalition, and the sideways promotion of former Republican congressman Randy Tate out of the top executive post. Both had joined the Coalition in 1997 to take over from Ralph Reed, who went into private consulting and supported George W. Bush. GOP hopeful Gary Bauer didn't help matters-or his credibility-by failing to correct "appearances" problems early on; some staff members walked off in disgust (see WORLD, Oct. 23). Ministers behaving badly
Some ministry leaders landed in jail or hot water for misconduct Henry Lyons, former president of the National Baptist Convention U.S.A., went to prison. The state of Florida sentenced him to a term of 5H years (plus restitution of $2.5 million to entities he defrauded) on theft and swindling charges. The federal government prosecuted Mr. Lyons for fraud and tax evasion; a judge sentenced him to a 4G-year prison term (plus $5.1 million restitution). The sentences are concurrent. His crimes included stealing more than $200,000 given to help rebuild black churches that had been burned by arsonists. Florida officials also arrested and indicted Gerald Payne, 62, his wife, and five other officials of a nomadic entity known as Greater Ministries International, on charges of running a Ponzi scheme. Using Scripture to buttress their marketing, they promised prospects double their money in a "gift exchange" within 17 months. Early investors were repaid by funds from later investors, authorities said. Officials in at least four states issued cease-and-desist orders against the group, and Pennsylvania fined the outfit $6 million in a civil suit aimed at repaying bilked investors there. Also sent to prison: Allan Boesak, former Reformed clergyman and ecumenical leader in South Africa and a leading campaigner against apartheid. A South African court sentenced him to six years for stealing the equivalent of more than $200,000 meant for victims of apartheid. A veteran San Antonio newspaper crime reporter, John MacCormack, apparently solved the mysterious 1995 disappearance of professional atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, her son Jon Garth Murray, her adopted daughter Robin Murray O'Hair, and more than $500,000. Police say the three were robbed and killed by three ex-cons, including Mrs. O'Hair's former business manager; their bodies were cut up and buried in barrels at a remote Texas location. The FBI and police have been unable to find the bodies. Authorities did find diaries and other writings of Ms. O'Hair that painted a portrait of a sad, lonely woman: "I hope I live my life in such a manner that when I die, someone cares-even if it is only my dogs.... I think I want some human being somewhere to weep for me." Three notables were forced out of their jobs: Mark Coppenger as president of Midwestern Baptist Seminary, for failing to keep his anger private; Don Folkenberg as top executive of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, for questionable business dealings; Archbishop Spyridon of the 2-million-member Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, for harsh autocratic dealings with clergy and educators (a campaign by lay leaders that reached to Istanbul resulted in his reassignment). Explosion of Christianity in Africa, Asia, and Latin America
In countries ravaged by recent wars, mission agencies and church coalitions reported evangelistic harvests and church plantings. Reports from rural areas of Ethiopia noted 313 indigenous missionaries at work, 30,000 new believers, and 300 churches established since 1996. In Liberia's capital of Monrovia, the number of congregations has quadrupled to 200 since the end of civil war in 1997. "Religion in general has really taken off in every direction," observed Bishop William Dixon, who heads Liberia's Council of Churches. In Cambodia, where Christianity was hardly known as late as the 1970s, workers in 1999 reported the existence of more than 1,000 congregations, up from 50 in 1992. "A phenomenal harvest is taking place in many countries," Assemblies of God general superintendent Thomas Trask declared at the 1999 convention of the 2.4-million-member U.S. denomination, which has 30 million adherents in other countries. Mr. Trask, who also chairs the Pentecostal World Conference, pointed to "remarkable" responses to the gospel in Africa (where he preached to a stadium crowd of 25,000 in the Ivory Coast), India, and some Balkan states. "Those people haven't been inoculated with unbelief; they hear and believe." Meanwhile, evangelist Luis Palau preached to huge stadium crowds in Mexico City and concluded that "a new openness exists among the people." Focus on the Family head James Dobson announced that his radio commentaries on the family have been sanctioned by Chinese broadcast authorities and will be aired across China on the more than 400 stations of the China Nation Radio Network. Officials also asked for permission to run the printed version in a Beijing daily newspaper. Mr. Dobson is known to Chinese listeners and readers as "Doctor Du." Potpourri

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