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Religion stories in '09 that made waves

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What were the top religion stories in 2009? Here are a few that made the news last year, along with one that didn't -- but should have.

1. Roman Catholics invite Anglicans to come on over. In October the Vatican issued an unprecedented invitation to disaffected Anglicans, including married priests, to join the Roman Catholic Church and to keep their own liturgy. Members of both churches are trying to understand the implications: What would it mean for Catholics if married Anglican priests are allowed to serve, but Catholic priests must be celibate? And will the offer undo decades of Catholic-Anglican relations by encouraging schism in the Anglican Church? The years ahead will be interesting for Catholics and Anglicans alike.

2. Homosexuality and religion. Homosexuality was in the news in summer when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to permit non-celibate gays and lesbians to become clergy. In November, Episcopalians in California elected their first openly lesbian bishop. This is an issue we can expect to hear more about in 2010 and beyond; more liberal attitudes towards homosexuality on the part of many younger people, including many churchgoers, means that all churches will wrestle with it sooner or later. As veteran Dallas Morning News religion reporter Rod Dreher wrote last August: "The demographic wave on homosexuality is real, and it's going to impact conservative churches in a big way over the coming decades."

3. Decline in denominational loyalty. A Pew Forum study released last April showed that 44 per cent of American adults have changed churches at least once. Another study, by Ellison Research, found that seven out of 10 U.S. churchgoers were open to switching denominations. Similar studies have not been conducted in Canada, but I suspect the results would not be very different.

For faith groups, this means coming to terms with the fact that their members have many options when it comes to religion. This is especially true for youth, who are more fluid about doctrine and other issues than previous generations. Over the next few years faith groups -- and schools and ministries built on the notion of denominational loyalty -- will face growing challenges to define themselves, and to find new ways to get additional members and dollars in the larger religious marketplace.

4. The recession. The economic crisis hit many denominations and church-related ministries hard. Giving to most groups was down, even as the numbers of people needing assistance rose. Will giving return to pre-crisis levels when the recession ends, or will groups will have to rethink their mission and goals in the future?

5. H1N1. Fortunately, the pandemic was not as bad as feared. But worries about the illness prompted some faith groups to create pandemic preparation plans, while many changed practices such as passing of the peace and communion. Meanwhile, hand sanitizers are now as common in many churches as offering baskets.

6. Funding cutbacks to Kairos. Last month Immigration Minister Jason Kenney told a conference in Jerusalem that the federal government would cut back funding to Kairos, a social justice group supported by 11 Canadian denominations, as part of a government plan to curb anti-Semitism. The decision raises a troubling question: Do aid organizations have the freedom to criticize Canadian policy if they want government funding? It's causing particular anxiety for groups working in the Middle East, who wonder if the government is expanding the definition of anti-Semitism to include any criticism of Israel.

And will it stop there? What about groups that are critical of the Alberta oilsands or Canada's position on climate change? For religious organizations, which often feel called to stand in solidarity with oppressed people, the government's action is worrisome.

Other stories that received attention in 2009 included U.S. President Barack Obama's declaration in Cairo that the U.S. is not at war with Islam; the release of Caritas in Veritate by Pope Benedict XVI, an encyclical that applies Catholic social-justice teaching to economics; the vote in Switzerland to ban the building of minarets; and the terrible clergy sex abuse scandal in Ireland.

One major story that didn't receive much mainstream coverage involved changes in leadership for American evangelicalism. The stepping down of James Dobson as chair of Focus on the Family in the U.S. in February, together with his leaving his radio show in October, signalled what some consider to be the waning days of America's religious right.

Together with Jerry Falwell, James Kennedy and Pat Robertson, Dobson helped lead conservative American Christians into American political and cultural life. Falwell and Kennedy both died in 2007, and Pat Robertson retired as head of the Christian Broadcasting Network that same year. Dobson and the others are being replaced by a new generation of American evangelical leaders who are deeply committed to their faith, but who seem much less strident and doctrinaire.

One of the most prominent of the new evangelical leaders is Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback mega-church in California. Warren could not be further from the us-against-them mentality promoted by some of the previous generation of American evangelical leaders. In 2008, he said the following at the annual conference of the Muslim Public Affairs Council: "I love Muslims. I also happen to love Hindus and Jews and Buddhists. Now this one will shock, I happen to love Democrats and Republicans. And for the media's purpose, I happen to love gays and straights ... we don't have to see eye to eye to walk hand in hand."

What will 2010 bring? I hope there are more stories of how people of faith walk hand in hand.

jdl562000@yahoo.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 9, 2010 H13

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