The Adventist Review shares the following world news from Religion News Service as a service to readers. Opinions expressed in these reports do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Review or the Seventh-day Adventist Church. -- Editors
Jehovah's Witnesses Fastest-growing
of U.S. Faiths
ehovah's Witnesses are the fastest-growing church body in the U.S. and Canada, now with more than 1 million members, according to new figures that track church membership in the U.S. and Canada.
Although Jehovah's Witnesses ranked 24th on the list of 25 largest Churches [in the U.S.], they reported the largest growth rate--2.25 percent—of all churches. The badly divided Episcopal Church, meanwhile, reported the largest drop, at 4.15 percent.
The 2008 Yearbook of Canadian and American Churches, produced by the New York-based National Council of Churches, recorded growth trends in 224 national church bodies, with a combined membership of 147 million Americans.
The 2008 Yearbook is based on self-reported membership figures for 2006, the most recent year available. The Roman Catholic Church, with 67.5 million members, remains the largest U.S. church body, with a 2006 increase of 0.87 percent. The second largest church, the Southern Baptist Convention (16.3 million) has more than twice the number of members as the United Methodist Church, the third largest, which documented 7.9 million U.S. members.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at 5.7 million U.S. members (1.56 percent increase) and the Church of God in Christ, with steady 5.5 million, round out the top five. Only the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Catholic Church, Southern Baptists, Mormons, the Assemblies of God (2.8 million) and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (1.4 million) reported increases; all others either posted declines or flat membership from 2005.
Historically African-American churches make up six of the 15 largest churches, with a three-way tie for the No. 11 spot among the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America, Progressive National Baptist Convention Inc., and African Methodist Episcopal Church -- each having 2.5 million members.
Several historically black churches, such as the 5 million-member National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., have reported the same figures for several years running. The Rev. Eileen W. Lindner, who produces the annual yearbook, explained that many black denominations "estimate" the number of people in the pews. "They aggregate the whole of their members because many of their congregations are dually affiliated" with multiple denominations, Lindner said. "The accuracy doesn't come from the count, but from the year-to-year census or estimations."
The 2008 Yearbook also tracks the time and resources spent by churches on responding to health care needs, and financial figures that show an increase in per-capita financial giving by 65 churches that reported figures. The report showed an average increase of $28.47 given per member over the past year.
The membership of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the U.S. stood at 984,361 at the end of 2006. During the year, church membership grew at the rate of 1.6 percent. -- Editors
Presbyterian High Court Bars Noncelibate Gay Clergy
The high court of the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) has issued a landmark decision that unequivocally bars noncelibate gay and lesbian clergy and halts recent attempts to compromise on ordination standards. Ministerial candidates in the PCUSA are required to be in faithful heterosexual marriages or remain celibate, though a compromise reached in 2006 was thought to potentially loosen those standards.
No such loosening is allowed, ruled the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission, the 16-member high court of the PCUSA, on February 11. The "fidelity and chastity" requirement is "a mandatory standard that cannot be waived," the court ruled.
While candidates for ordination may disagree with those standards, they are still required to obey them, the court said. The standards themselves can only be changed through a constitutional amendment at a biennial General Assembly, according to the court.
In 2006, Presbyterians passed an "authoritative interpretation" of the constitution that many saw as a compromise, which would allow gay and lesbian candidates to declare a conscientious objection, or "scruple," to the ordination standard. The local presbytery, or governing body, could then decide whether the candidate's scruple touched on an "essential" of the faith.
In January, Lisa Larges, a lesbian, used the "scruple" policy to pursue a path to ministry in the San Francisco Presbytery. Later that month, Minnesota Presbyterians approved the re-ordination of a gay man, Paul Capetz, who left ministry eight years ago because he would not take the celibacy vow.
"The San Francisco case does get stopped in its tracks," said Jack Haberer, editor-in-chief of The Presbyterian Outlook and a member of the task force that brokered the ordination compromise. But since Capetz has already been re-ordained, someone would have to seek to defrock him, Haberer said.
Capetz said the ruling left him "baffled." He said he would not relinquish his ordination and that he had been certain the new "scruple" policy opened the door to gay and lesbian clergy. "Everyone I talked to saw it that way. We thought a new way had opened up," Capetz said on February 19.
Conservative Presbyterians, however, were pleased by the ruling. "We can now rest assured that our standards for ordination in the PCUSA continue to reflect the clear teaching of Scripture and the plain meaning of our constitution," the Louisville, Kentucky-based Presbyterians for Renewal said in a statement.
The Catholic Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska, plans to file for bankruptcy after failed talks with an insurer and mounting legal expenses from clergy sex-abuse claims, becoming the sixth U.S. diocese to seek Chapter 11 protection.
Fairbanks Bishop Donald J. Kettler said, "I am legally and morally bound to both fulfill our mission and to pursue healing for those injured." The Chapter 11 filing could come within five weeks, Kettler said.
More than 140 people have filed some 150 claims against the diocese in Alaska state court, according to the diocese. Those cases are "decades old, stretching from the 1950s through the early 1980s," the diocese said in a statement. Settlement talks with attorneys for the victims began last summer, the diocese said, but were scuttled by "the reluctance of a key insurance carrier to participate meaningfully in the process." Costly legal expenses also drove the decision to file for bankruptcy, according to Kettler.
The Catholic dioceses of Spokane, Wash., Portland, Ore., Tucson, Ariz., Davenport, Iowa, and San Diego have also filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy because of sex-abuse lawsuits. All but Davenport have emerged with judge-approved settlements. A judge is scheduled to hold hearings on Davenport's settlement and plan for reorganization March 5, according to the diocese.
The Fairbanks diocese, which encompasses Northern Alaska, is the nation's largest geographically and is the only U.S. diocese under the Vatican's missionary wing. Only eight of the diocese's 46 parishes are financially self-sustaining, said Kettler.
IRS Probes Huckabee Endorsement By California Pastor
The Internal Revenue Service is questioning a Southern Baptist pastor in California who endorsed Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, his lawyer said.
Pastor Wiley Drake of First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park received a February 5 letter expressing concerns about an August 11 press release issued on his church's letterhead about the endorsement. The IRS letter notes that churches are prohibited from participating in political campaigns by supporting or opposing candidates.
Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, is representing Drake and said the endorsement was a personal one. Drake, a former second vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention, later issued a second statement clarifying that his was a personal endorsement. “This is not a church endorsement," Stanley said.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which sought the IRS inquiry on Aug. 14, welcomed the agency's action. "This is a clear signal to clergy that the IRS is serious about enforcing federal tax law," said the Barry Lynn, executive director of the Washington-based watchdog group.