By all indications, 2003 marked the beginning of the end for the Episcopal Church (ECUSA) as we've known it, and possibly for the entire 77-million-member worldwide Anglican Communion.
The 2.3-million-member ECUSA is the U.S. province of the communion, and what ECUSA did this year threw the entire communion into turmoil. By majority vote, it ignored the pleadings of its own Bible-oriented conservatives, overseas Anglican leaders, and even the Vatican, and approved the selection of an open homosexual as a bishop. It also recognized same-sex unions as within the bounds of church life and belief.
In November, dozens of ECUSA bishops, led by Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, consecrated Rev. Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire.
Among the fast-developing consequences:
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams called a crisis meeting in London. Heads of 37 of the world's 38 Anglican provinces authorized a commission to consider ways to deal with differences within the churches-in effect, to prepare for schism and to keep it as bloodless as possible.
Heads of global south provinces representing more than half the world's Anglicans declared broken communion with ECUSA or parts of it and stood behind ECUSA's conservative minority. Some threatened to break ties with other provinces that remain in fellowship with ECUSA.
The Vatican, the huge Russian Orthodox Church, and other Orthodox bodies suspended cooperative ties and talks with ECUSA.
ECUSA conservatives began organizing to set up what amounts to a parallel, biblically faithful Anglican presence in North America. Bishops of 13 ECUSA dioceses this month announced formation of a confessing Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Congregations, with Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh as moderator.
The price of silence
This was payout year for the Roman Catholic Church. U.S. dioceses agreed to pay alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse nearly $100 million, probably millions more undisclosed, and the end is nowhere in sight.
So far, no diocese has been forced into bankruptcy. The Boston archdiocese came close. It alone paid out $10 million last year to 86 alleged victims of priest John Geoghan, who was killed in prison in August, and agreed in September to pay $85 million to 552 people to settle claims. It has mortgaged its cathedral, a seminary, and other property to help pay the bill. Other plaintiffs are waiting their turn.
Some priests were convicted of sex abuse and sent to jail. Then came civil lawsuits and discovery. Bishops in a number of dioceses, it turned out, had covered up, often ignoring complaints or simply transferring "problem" clergy elsewhere without warning anyone there of the problem.
U.S. bishops have since adopted a tough national policy to head off future abuse. But it's up to the affected dioceses to pay for the sins of the past, and they are paying dearly.
It's the law
A variety of court rulings in 2003 affected religious communities for better or for worse. Among them:
Facing legal threats, the state of Kentucky removed a ban on scholarship grants to students pursuing "a degree in theology, divinity, or religious education."
Ruling in a Pennsylvania case, a federal appeals court ruled that public schools can't bar student religious clubs from meeting during student-activity periods held during the school day. "Impermissible viewpoint discrimination," the court decided.
A federal judge in California declared unconstitutional the part of a law enacted by Congress in 2000 to help churches and other religious groups overcome local government land-use restrictions.
A New Jersey appeals court ruled it's OK for prosecutors to keep openly religious people off juries. Its reasoning: "Individuals who are demonstrative about their religion do not share the same values, tenets, or practices [as most people], and thus do not represent a cross-section of society."
Muslims in mind
Relations between Christians and Muslims continued to grab headlines:
Nearly 100 retired Southern Baptist missionaries signed a plea in June asking Christian leaders to refrain from making inflammatory public statements about Islam. Such remarks harm missionary work in Muslim lands, they said. Leaders of a number of evangelical missions groups involved in active outreach to Muslims agreed.
Fuller Seminary received a $1 million grant from the Justice Department to help fund a project aimed at calming relations between Christians and Muslims. The project itself is in dispute. It features a proposed code of ethics that rejects offensive statements about each other's faiths, affirms a mutual belief in one God, and pledges not to proselytize. Some evangelical leaders contend it goes against the grain of the church's commission to evangelize the world.
Some newsmakers in 2003 went the second mile. One of them was Evangelist Franklin Graham.
For 15 years, Rev. Graham and his Samaritan's Purse ministry have been providing medical assistance and other relief aid to African Christians in war-torn southern Sudan. The territory is home to the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Party, which has been resisting the Muslim-dominated government's land-grabbing efforts and repressive religious policies for decades. Muslim forces from the north frequently bombed and devastated villages in the largely Christian south, killing and uprooting many-and destroying medical facilities Rev. Graham's ministry built. Rev. Graham lashed out angrily at the government.
But now peace talks are under way. This month, at the invitation of the Sudanese government, a hesitant Rev. Graham traveled to the capital, Khartoum, for the first time and met with President Omar el-Bashir. Afterward, Rev. Graham said he believes all the Sudanese want peace, and he will help all he can. He insisted peace must include religious and other freedoms.
Good news amid the bad
Although conflicts over sexuality, lawsuits in the Catholic clergy-abuse scandal, and tensions involving Islam dominated this year's religion coverage in the national news media, some other news was, well, good.
Oregon-based international evangelist Luis Palau scored successes with two-day outreach "festivals" in Buenos Aires in January and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in March.
In Buenos Aires, hundreds of thousands of Argentinians turned out to hear Christian pop musicians and Rev. Palau. Organizers said tens of thousands made decisions to receive Christ or renew their faith. Church workers reportedly visited 3 million homes in the city of 13.5 million and also mounted a food-distribution program for the poor.
In Fort Lauderdale, 1,100 churches sponsored a two-day Palau festival of fun, singing, and preaching on the beach. Police estimated attendance at 200,000 the first night and 100,000 the second night-Rev. Palau's largest crowds on U.S. soil.
Meanwhile, though in frail health, Billy Graham at age 84 carried out a four-day preaching mission in San Diego and broke attendance records at the 67,000-seat stadium. Nearly 13,000 responded publicly to his invitation to follow Christ. It was his 413th crusade in nearly 60 years of preaching to live audiences estimated to exceed 210 million people.