The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America



The National Council of Churches, an ecumenical organization to which the ELCA belongs, launched an open letter to the captors of four aid workers kidnapped in Iraq, pleading for the hostages’ release (see "Perspective: 'A faith stronger than guns.'"). Faithful America, an NCC-hosted online community, collected nearly 7,000 signatures for a letter sent to the Al Jazeera TV network. James Loney, 41, Toronto, and Harmeet Sooden, 32, formerly of Montreal, along with Briton Norman Kember, 74, and Tom Fox, 54, Clearbrook, Va.—all members of Christian Peacemaker Teams—were taken off a west Baghdad, Iraq, street at gunpoint Nov. 27. At presstime kidnappers threatened to kill the men unless Iraqi detainees are freed from U.S. and Iraqi jails.

The University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire suspended its ban on resident assistants leading Bible studies in their dorms. The school reviewed the policy after resident assistant Lance Steiger filed suit in federal court Nov. 30, charging the university violated his freedoms of speech and association. The school had based its policy on the fact that resident assistants are considered state employees—receiving free room and board and a $625 per-semester stipend—and therefore forbidden to host religious, political or sales activities in their workplace.

Roman Catholic belief in limbo—the afterlife reserved for babies who die before baptism—is “in limbo” as the Vatican prepares to update its policy on the unbaptized. Catholics devised limbo in the Middle Ages as an alternative to hell for babies they believed were excluded from heaven because they weren’t cleansed of original sin through baptism. Catholic theologians say souls in limbo feel eternal happiness but aren’t in the presence of God. Expressing concern that the current belief has become outdated, Archbishop William Levada, the prefect for the Doctrine of the Faith, said a Vatican commission will issue a document addressing the fate of unbaptized children.

Reflecting on important values—religious or nonreligious—reduces stress, according to a University of California at Los Angeles study. Researchers asked 80 undergraduates to perform a task under stressful conditions. One group prepared by reflecting for a few minutes on cherished personal values. The other group reflected on values they said were unimportant. Fifty-one percent of those who reflected on important values had increased levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress. In the other group, 82 percent saw their cortisol levels rise.

More than 500 Roman Catholics in Xian, the capital of China’s northwestern Shaanxi province, protested the arrest and beating of 16 Franciscan nuns in Xian and the arrest of six priests in the Zhengding diocese. The Vatican issued a protest that led to the Nov. 27 demonstration. The nuns were trying to prevent the demolition of a former church school, which city officials had sold four days earlier in preparation for the 2008 Summer Olympics in China.

Creating a more candid judicial confirmation process and learning to treat new immigrants as neighbors rank among the top ethical challenges facing the U.S. in 2006, according to the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. The Jesuit research center at Santa Clara [Calif.] University unveiled its annual National Ethics Agenda in November. The agenda highlighted four other issues: excessive compensation for corporate executives, managing energy resources wisely and fairly, educating delinquent youth and identifying legitimate heroes.

Canada’s churches are suffering such a serious membership decline that some denominations could disappear, according to an Anglican Church of Canada report. The report shows that between 1961 and 2001, Anglican numbers plunged from 1.36 million to 642,000, a 53 percent decline. The Anglican Church loses 13,000 members each year and faces “extinction by the middle of this century,” the report states. During that same period, membership dropped 39 percent in the United Church of Canada, 35 percent in the Presbyterian Church of Canada, 7 percent among Baptists and 4 percent among Lutherans.

Seventeen United Methodist Church leaders urged the denomination in December to “embody God’s love and justice” and end discrimination against homosexuals. The group, “Here We Stand,” called on the United Methodist Judicial Council, which rules on questions of constitutionality in church law and practice, to reconsider and jettison a decision in which a pastor was allowed to refuse congregational membership to a gay man. The leaders’ statement said the ruling negates the church’s constitutional guarantee of open membership, deprives lay people of their rights, and puts minorities at risk of discrimination and exclusion. They criticized the denomination’s position that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching and policies that bar the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals.

The Vatican’s first major policy statement under Pope Benedict XVI reiterating that gay men shouldn’t become priests under any circumstance was lauded and condemned by U.S. Catholics. While groups urging tolerance on the issue of homosexuals in the church argue there’s no link between sexual orientation and pedophilia, both sides responded to the directive through the filter of North America’s recent history of sexual abuse by its priests and child abuse. “We’ve had a homosexual crisis in the priesthood all along,” said Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League. But DignityUSA, which supports the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the life of the church, condemned the statement. “The Vatican continues to erroneously focus on gay men as the cause of the church sexual abuse crisis while [not] addressing the root causes of the crisis,” said Debra Weill, executive director of DignityUSA.

Following a similar decision by the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden, the (Lutheran) Church of Norway may loosen its state ties. A government-appointed commission will present its conclusions on the matter early this year. Since the Reformation in 1537, the king has been the formal head of the Church of Norway. In the 1970s another government-appointed commission proposed to separate church and state in Norway, but the move failed to gain sufficient support from parishes and municipalities or in the parliament. In recent decades the king has delegated authority back to church bodies. But the appointment of bishops, deans and rural deans still rests with the king and government ministers who are Church of Norway members.

Norway’s 21,000-member Evangelical Lutheran Free Church appointed its first female pastor. Caroline Vesterberg, 28, was called as a part-time children and youth pastor in the Free Church’s largest congregation in Oslo. The denomination split from the majority (Lutheran) Church of Norway in 1877 due to disagreement about the country’s state church system. The Church of Norway has had female pastors since the 1960s. The Free Church General Synod decided to accept women as elders and pastors in July 2005.

About 200 Muslim residents of the Jati Mulya housing complex in Bekasi, West Java, surrounded worshipers of three Christian congregations, forcing them to cut short their Oct. 31 worship services. One of the congregations belongs to the Huria Kristen Batak Protestant Church, a Lutheran World Federation member with ties to the ELCA. The congregations were meeting in the street since Muslims have blocked access to their sanctuaries within the complex since September. Police stationed nearby separated the two groups. While the churches point to operational permits they received in 1993 from West Java’s religious affairs agency, hard-line Muslims say a letter issued by Bekasi’s regent bans the complex from being used as place of worship. Under a 1969 Indonesian law, congregations must apply for worship permits, issued only after residents sign their approval.

An Italian Protestant leader accused Pope Benedict XVI of setting back Christian unity by granting indulgences to Roman Catholics who carried out acts of devotion to the Virgin Mary on Dec. 8 to mark the 40th anniversary of the end of the Second Vatican Council. “Pope Benedict XVI’s frequent and ostentatious recourse to indulgences, whose practice was a major cause of the division of the Western church, is just staggering,” said Paolo Ricca of the Protestant Waldensian theology faculty in Rome.

Referring to a denominational divide over homosexuality, A. Roy Medley, recently re-elected as general secretary of the American Baptist Churches, told members he would “do everything in [his] power to promote the spirit of unity in the bond of peace.” He was responding to a September decision by the American Baptist Churches of the Pacific Southwest to begin withdrawing from the 1.5 million-member denomination. Leaders of that region were among those who said the denomination had not enforced a 1992 resolution that states “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” The General Board of the American Baptist Churches USA voted to change a “We Are American Baptists” document, adding the phrase, “who submit to the teaching of Scripture that God’s design for sexual intimacy places it within the context of marriage between one man and one woman, and acknowledge that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with biblical teaching.”

Canadian church leaders say a Supreme Court ruling about compensation to aboriginal students offers a chance for a lasting solution to the issue. The students suffered abuse at Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and United Church of Canada residential schools operated on behalf of the government. In November, Canada pledged $4.3 billion in a deal with Indian and northern Inuit communities to help alleviate the poverty and disease that has plagued their reserves for more than a century and to narrow the gap with the rest of the population. It will also allocate $1.7 billion to be distributed among the 86,000 students still living who attended the residential schools. The Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision that would require one of the denominations, the United Church of Canada, to meet 25 percent of damages awarded to students who experienced sexual abuse at a native residential school, while the government would be responsible for the remaining 75 percent. Former pupils’ claims against the government and churches that ran the schools must now be dropped as part of the deal, which includes $60 million Canadian dollars for a truth commission to promote awareness.

Sheriff’s deputies are investigating the reported beating of a University of Kansas (Lawrence) professor who wrote that teaching intelligent design as mythology would be a “nice slap” in the “big fat face” of Christian fundamentalists. Religious studies professor Paul Mirecki, who gained notoriety for his Internet tirades against Christian fundamentalists and Roman Catholics, told the Lawrence Journal-World that he was beaten by two men on the side of a rural road in December. The university withdrew plans to offer a course that Mirecki had titled “Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationism and Other Religious Mythologies.” The decision came after e-mails Mirecki sent to an Internet site for student atheists were publicized.


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February issue


Embracing diversity