Some Churches to Close on Christmas Sunday

BY ADELLE M. BANKS and JASON KANE                                       © 2005 Religion News Service

n the last Sunday in December--which happens to be Christmas Day this year -- Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis will hold four services instead of the usual six.

Other megachurches, including Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., won't be holding services at all.

When Christmas and Sunday occur on the same day -- which last occurred in 1994 -- what's a church to do? At a time when evangelicals have criticized retailers for ignoring the religious reason for the season, this December dilemma raises a broader question for Christians: Should Christmas Day be a time for faith or family, or both?

For Tom MacNally, chief operating officer of Mount Olivet, there is no question church doors should remain open when Jesus' birthday falls on a Sunday.

"It's a Sunday ..., for one thing, and the second thing is we know that a lot of our members are going to want to go to church on Christmas Day," said MacNally.

He said he was "totally surprised" to learn that some churches aren't planning services. He wasn't the only one. Cally Parkinson, a spokeswoman for Willow Creek, has attempted to handle the reaction to news reports that her church won't be open. She points out that tens of thousands of people are expected to attend eight services leading up to Christmas Day. "I'm getting e-mails from people who just think we're shutting our doors because we're lazy," said Parkinson.

She said the last time Christmas fell on a Sunday "we didn't get very good attendance on that day, at least not for us," so they opted for a DVD that would carry the "God With Us" theme of their pre-Christmas services into the homes of those who attended.

Sociologist Scott Thumma said he has heard of half a dozen megachurches not holding Sunday services on Christmas. This comes during a year in which retailers and public schools have been targeted by evangelicals, including the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who says he must "protect Christmas from the secular Grinches" trying to take Christ out of Christmas.

"How much is Christmas a secular reality and how much is it a religious holiday?" asked Thumma, based at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. "There are going to be plenty of open churches that are going to be mostly empty."

At Catholic churches, crowds are expected to be larger than usual on Christmas Day--considered a holy day of obligation. Thumma and other Protestant researchers expect the numbers to be far lower than usual in Protestant pews. One reason is the liturgical calendar, which Catholic and some mainline Protestant congregations follow. Christmas is a prominent date. Non-liturgical congregations, including most evangelical and nondenominational churches, may have more extended Christmas celebrations that occur on days other than the specific holiday.

Thumma noticed in a nonscientific online search that of 26 small and medium-sized evangelical churches, five were closing and those having services were reducing them from two to one, and canceling Sunday school or evening services.

"How many kids do you want to drag away from the house while their presents are still under the tree, wrapped or unwrapped? How many husbands are you going to drag away from the football game?" asked Thumma.

Honoring family time is a primary reason cited by churches that have chosen to not have a Christmas Day service.

Supporters Link Supreme Court Nominee
to Defense of Religious Christmas

BY KEVIN ECKSTROM                                                                                            © 2005 Religion News Service

Conservative backers of Judge Samuel Alito's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court have rolled out new advertisements that present Alito as a defender of religious Christmas displays.

The twin adds, by the Committee for Justice and a Catholic group, Fidelis, point to Alito's ruling as a federal appeals judge that allowed a nativity and menorah display at City Hall in Jersey City, N.J.

"Judge Alito ruled against the ACLU's attempt to scrub away our religious heritage," says the Fidelis Internet ad, unveiled on Monday (Dec. 5), against background music featuring "The First Noel." "Judge Alito used common sense and applied the law, the kind of common sense that every American needs on the Supreme Court."

The Committee for Justice radio ad, airing in Colorado, West Virginia and Wisconsin, says, "Freedom of religious expression is everyone's right -- and not just during this special season, but all year long."

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative law firm founded by broadcaster Pat Robertson, told The New York Times that his office is e-mailing 850,000 supporters a Christmas-themed push for Alito.

Joe Cella, president of the Michigan-based Fidelis, said the Alito fight is a proxy for the annual holiday skirmishes over how much space religion--or religious expression--should be granted in the public arena.

"We will provide a vigorous defense of Judge Alito, who is being brought into the war on religious freedom by liberal groups who are out of touch with American values on religion," Cella said.

The Rev. Barry Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called the Alito holiday ads "pandering."

"If they think that hitching Samuel Alito to Santa's sleigh is going to eliminate serious issues about his regard for the Constitution, I think they are mistaken," Lynn told The New York Times.

Catholic Belief in Limbo Is in, Well, Limbo

BY STACY MEICHTRY                                                                        © 2005 Religion News Service

Roman Catholic belief in limbo--the afterlife reserved for babies who die before baptism--is hanging by a thread 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 who are excluded from heaven because they have not been cleansed of original sin through baptism.

But American Archbishop William Levada, the Vatican's top theologian, reported Thursday (Dec. 1) that a Vatican commission is expected to issue a document addressing the fate of unbaptized children, expressing concern that the current belief has become outdated.

"In today's season of cultural relativism and religious pluralism, the number of non-baptized babies is increasing considerably," Levada told an annual session of the International Theological Commission that was attended by Pope Benedict XVI.

"In this situation, the paths to reach the way of salvation appear ever more complex and problematic," he said.

Critics of limbo say the church cannot pass judgment on people living in regions with no access to Catholic mission and conversion.  Catholic theologians hold that souls in limbo feel eternal happiness, but are not in the presence of God.

Religious Leaders Press Bush, Rice on Foreign Aid

BY KEVIN ECKSTROM                                                                                © 2005 Religion News Service

Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders have urged President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to increase U.S. aid to developing nations and remove agricultural subsidies that they say hurt poor countries.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington met with Bush in the Oval Office on Dec. 1 to support a U.S. move to cut "trade-distorting" farm subsidies at an upcoming World Trade Organization conference in Hong Kong.

McCarrick and others say the subsidies bloat global markets and prevent developing countries from equal competition, which in turn keeps those countries mired in the cycle of poverty.

At a follow-up meeting at the State Department, McCarrick and 12 other religious leaders asked Rice for a $5 billion increase in poverty-focused development aid, and urged the White House to convince Republicans on Capitol Hill to fully fund foreign development programs. They also asked that $2 billion in overseas food aid be protected from potential budget cuts.

"The average European cow gets more (government) subsidies than the average person in Africa makes in income," said the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, an ecumenical anti-hunger agency that convened the talks.

The Rev. Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, cited an "emerging powerful convergence" among all faith groups against poverty, and said, "God looks on the condition of those in poverty to evaluate the quality of our faith."

"My colleagues will quote from (the Gospel of) Luke and I'll quote from Isaiah, but we'll all come to the same conclusion," said Eric Schockman, president of MAZON, a Jewish anti-hunger agency.

Beckmann said Rice shared concern about foreign development funding, but said it would be "tough" to get more money from Congress. Regardless, the religious coalition urged Rice and Bush to "be bold" in increasing the amount of overseas U.S. aid.

Other leaders included the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA); Sayyid Syeed, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America; Daniel Vestal, coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship; and Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University.

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