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Issue: "Osama's witnesses," May 18, 2002

A nation prayed
My husband and I find strength in the word of the Lord, and we realize the power that prayer has in our own lives. I'm truly blessed to be married to a man who's strong enough to bear the burdens and humble enough to ask God for help." The 200 people in the White House East Room on the National Day of Prayer May 2, many of them evangelical luminaries, gave Laura Bush's words a long ovation. On his turn to address the gathering as thunder rumbled in the skies outside, Mr. Bush said prayer "strengthens our commitment to things that last and things that matter." In a proclamation he issued earlier, he looked back to 9/11 and said, "We have all seen God's great faithfulness to our country." Senate Chaplain Lloyd Ogilvie unintendedly evoked laughter, including a loud chuckle from Mr. Bush: "Today, along with millions of Americans, we pray for nothing less than a spiritual awakening in America and an unprecedented unity in Congress." Some Bush proposals and appointments have stalled in the narrowly Democrat-controlled Senate. Thousands of similar gatherings to pray for the nation convened that day in government buildings, parks, churches, office buildings, and other sites across the nation and even in Canada. Organizers said 30,000 such prayer events were held in 2001, and this year's numbers would be about the same. The 1775 Continental Congress informally began the day of prayer; it was signed into law in 1952 by President Truman. High-risk priests?
When Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, Philadelphia's Roman Catholic archbishop, returned from the recent summit with the pope on the homosexual-abuse problems among some American Catholic priests, he said publicly what many conservatives in the church think but are afraid to say: Homosexuals aren't "suitable candidates" for the priesthood because such priests, even chaste ones, are at a "much higher" risk of becoming sexually active. Heterosexual celibates give up the good of family and children, he said, while gay celibates give up "what the church considers an aberration, a moral evil." Homosexual activists blasted the 71-year-old archbishop, and liberal scholars in the church distanced themselves from his "unusual" position. Yet his stance is in harmony with an official Vatican position. Some church scholars argue that the directive doesn't apply to seminarians. Others contend that it should, because seminaries have been a known breeding ground for homosexual activity. Some of the priests accused of abuse of adolescent boys in the national news claim to have been victims of abuse themselves while in seminary. Freedom to fire
In a case many denominations, churches, and parachurch ministries followed closely, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit on April 30 rejected Lee Ann Bryce's claims of sexual harassment and civil-rights violations against St. Aidan's Episcopal Church in Boulder, Colo., the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado, and other defendants. St. Aidan's had terminated her as lay youth minister because she was a practicing lesbian. The court said religious institutions are protected under the so-called church autonomy doctrine, a First Amendment?based legal tenet that allows churches and religious organizations to make decisions about their own internal affairs and beliefs. As long as a church's hiring decisions are made for ecclesiastical and not secular reasons, courts shouldn't interfere, the three-judge panel said. When St. Aidan's hired Miss Bryce, a non-Episcopalian, in 1997, its leaders didn't know her sexual preference. In November 1998 she and her partner, Sara D. Smith, an ordained United Church of Christ minister, had a civil "commitment" ceremony. Two months later, St. Aidan's rector, Donald Henderson, and other church leaders learned about the ceremony. When they confronted Miss Bryce, she acknowledged she was a lesbian living in a sexual relationship with another woman. They fired her, saying she had violated Episcopal doctrine that opposed sexual relationships outside of marriage. The two women sued, but a lower court dismissed the case on church autonomy grounds. Plagiarized piety
Clergyman Edward Mullins is back in his pulpit at Christ Church Cranbrook near Detroit following a three-month suspension by the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan over charges of plagiarism and other complaints. As part of the agreement with the diocese, he apologized to the audience of about 900 his first Sunday back and said, "I'm sorry." But he didn't sound very repentant. He joked he would be using "three primary sources and God knows how many secondary sources" in his sermon. Many in the congregation laughed and twice gave him standing ovations. Earlier, 159 members had signed a letter criticizing the diocese, and saying attendance and giving had nosedived. Rev. Mullins has been at the church about five years. Some in the 800-family congregation accused him of being lax in pastoral responsibilities and loose with his temper. His 13-member staff last year complained to the bishop that they no longer could work with him. But it was the discovery by several members that he had lifted verbatim from the Web, and without crediting the sources, some sermons and articles for the church newsletter that captured the attention of diocesan officials. They banned him from serving or attending the church while they investigated. Rev. Mullins insisted to reporters that "oral use of anything is permissible under any circumstances." He pointed to U.S. presidents who in their speeches never credit the speechwriters. He claimed the "academic world is trying to impose its standards on public figures and pastors ... without understanding how clergy do their business." It takes a lot of time to prepare sermons, he said, and "the purpose of these online services is to help speed up that process." Lower standards, lower giving
The 2.5-million-member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been reeling from one crisis to another lately. The latest: a shortfall in income. Officials announced more than $4.2 million in personnel and program cutbacks to balance next year's mission budget of $132 million. In all, PCUSA executives eliminated 66 positions at denominational headquarters in Louisville, Ky., along with 34 international mission workers. Forty-three workers, some in place for decades, had to vacate their jobs in Louisville early this month with one week's notice. There are lessons here for leaders of other denominations to note. The PCUSA officials blamed the sagging national economy, reduced yields from investment portfolios, and the need to juggle priorities and fund new programs. But the denomination also lost nearly 32,000 members last year, continuing a pattern that has seen the departure of more than 1.76 million since 1965, nearly 138,000 of them in the past five years. Individual churches are assessed per capita giving quotas based on the number of members. And more churches of late are designating formerly unrestricted donations. Data show members tend to leave the pews in higher numbers during times of doctrine-related disputes, when principles of the Reformed faith are under attack. The denomination avoided a disaster this spring when presbyteries (regional governing units) voted 126 to 46 against stripping from the PCUSA constitution a moral standard of fidelity in marriage and chastity in singleness for clergy and lay leaders. Homosexuals and their supporters have fought for years to have the standard removed. Many of the largest PCUSA churches are led by conservatives. Some were poised to leave if the pro-homosexual measure had passed; others were set to curtail their giving. The conservatives say it is harder to attract new members in their communities as a result of such efforts to downgrade standards. A new source of evangelical clout in the PCUSA is the Confessing Church Movement. A grassroots movement, it arose in reaction to the pro-homosexual mood at last year's left-leaning PCUSA General Assembly (annual meeting) and what appeared to be attempts to undermine the uniqueness of Christ as the only way of salvation. The movement encompasses the governing boards of 1,260 congregations with more than 420,000 members. They represent 11.3 percent of the PCUSA's 11,142 churches and 16.9 percent of its membership. Meanwhile, a time bomb continues to tick in the PCUSA. Some liberals are tooling up to do battle in the church courts to gain the changes denied them in the churchwide votes.

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