Tuesday
Dec242013

Daily RNS News

From Beacon Hill to ‘Bishop Bling,’ clergy housing faces new scrutiny

By DAVID GIBSON

© 2014 Religion News Service

Bye-bye, “Bishop Bling.” So long, “Pastor Perks.” The so-called “Francis effect” may be real, at least when it comes to clerical housing, and could be coming to a church near you.

Pope Francis famously eschewed the trappings of the papal office, including deluxe digs in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, and the pressure of his example seems to be making itself felt.

Last week, the pontiff accepted the resignation of the most ostentatious offender, Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg in Germany, aka “Bishop Bling” who spent a cool $43 million on a swank new residence and office complex while cutting staff.

Now Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta is the latest to feel the peer pressure. On Monday (March 31), Gregory responded to anger over his decision to move into a new $2.2 million home by repeatedly apologizing in a letter to his flock and saying he would explore the possibility of selling the mansion and moving into simpler quarters.

Here are some of the latest controversies over clerical lifestyles:

“Bishop Bling” was in a class of his own, spending nearly $500,000 on walk-in closets, nearly $300,000 on a fish tank, more than $200,000 on a spiral staircase and $20,000 on a bathtub. Tebartz-van Elst also spent more than $600,000 on artwork — at a time when some dioceses in the U.S. are selling their collections; the seminary of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia recently announced it would auction off several Thomas Eakins works.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory led off his column of apology with this complaint from a parishioner, which sums up the new dynamic: “We are disturbed and disappointed to see our church leaders not setting the example of a simple life as Pope Francis calls for.” Gregory explained the rationale behind his move and the purchase of the new home, using a bequest from the nephew of “Gone with the Wind” author Margaret Mitchell. But he conceded the reasons weren’t nearly sufficient to justify the move to the 6,000-square-foot house in Atlanta’s tony Buckhead neighborhood.

In New Jersey, Newark Archbishop John Myers hasn’t opted for penitence, and instead is defending the expenditure of some $500,000 to add a three-story, 3,000-square-foot addition to his already spacious retirement home. The new wing will include an indoor exercise pool, a hot tub, three fireplaces, a library and an elevator.

“Archbishop Myers obviously is not paying any attention to the pope,” says Charles Zech, who has studied bishops’ spending as faculty director of the Center for Church Management and Business Ethics at Villanova University’s business school.

The Diocese of Camden, N.J., includes one of the poorest cities in the country, which is partly why Bishop Dennis Sullivan made headlines in January for spending $500,000 to buy an historic 7,000-square-foot mansion with eight bedrooms, six bathrooms, three fireplaces, a library, a five-car garage and an in-ground pool. The diocese said Sullivan needs the space to entertain dignitaries and donors. Not everyone’s buying that. “This is a joke,” parishioner John Miller told the local paper. “Jesus was born in a stable.”

Catholics aren’t the only ones feeling the heat. Trinity Church in Boston, an Episcopal congregation with a blue-blood heritage and an extensive ministry to the poor, sparked controversy in February for purchasing a $3.6 million Beacon Hill condo for its rector, the Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III. The church says the outlay is a good investment and won’t dent its $30 million endowment, but some in the pews aren’t happy.

Last fall, the 33-year-old pastor of Elevation Church in North Carolina, Steven Furtick, came in for criticism for plans to build a 16,000-square-foot estate with 7.5 bathrooms and an electrified gate. Furtick, a Southern Baptist who heads one of the nation’s fastest-growing congregations, probably didn’t help his cause when he said that the $1.6 million home is “not that great of a house.” But the purchase seems to be moving ahead nonetheless.

Thursday
Dec192013

Daily RNS News

Poll: Younger Christians less supportive of the death penalty

By JONATHAN MERRITT

© 2014 Religion News Service

One day after the state of Ohio executed a man for murder (Jan. 16), a new poll shows younger Christians are not as supportive of the death penalty as older members of their faith.

When asked if they agreed that “the government should have the option to execute the worst criminals,” 42 percent of self-identified Christian boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, said “yes.” Only 32 percent of self-identified Christian millennials, born between 1980 and 2000, said the same thing.

The poll conducted by Barna Group this past summer and released to Religion News Service Friday, surveyed 1,000 American adults and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.

It showed an even sharper difference in support for the death penalty among “practicing Christians,” which Barna defined as those who say faith is very important to their lives and have attended church at least once in the last month. Nearly half of practicing Christian boomers support the government’s right to execute the worst criminals, while only 23 percent of practicing Christian millennials do.

Other polling organizations such as Gallup, show similar generational trends among Americans in general.

Heather Beaudoin, national organizer for Equal Justice USA, a national organization working to reform the criminal justice system, said the Barna research confirms what she sees: a growing desire among younger Christians to abolish the death penalty.

“The question for them is no longer ‘Is it right or wrong?’” said Beaudoin. “They are seeing how it is actually functioning in our country — the race issues, the risk of executing the innocent, the fact that if you can afford an attorney you’ll probably not end up on death row — and they are changing their minds.”

Roxanne Stone, vice president for publishing at Barna, said capital punishment may increasingly be seen as a human rights or social justice issue.

“This parallels a growing trend in the pro-life conversation among Christians to include torture and the death penalty as well as abortion,” Stone said. “For many younger Christians, the death penalty is not a political dividing point but a human rights issue.”

And what of that age-old question, “What would Jesus do?”

According to the Barna study, only 5 percent of Americans believe that Jesus would support government’s ability to execute the worst criminals. Two percent of Catholics, 8 percent of Protestants, and 10 percent of practicing Christians said their faith’s founder would offer his support.

“People use Jesus as their ideal and what they aspire to,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. “But in practical day-to-day living they know they will fall short and be less than ideal. They might think that the ideal is to turn the other cheek or not throw the first stone, but they do. They are more pragmatic.”

Comparatively lower support for the death penalty among young Christians stands in sharp contrast to the way conservative Christian leaders like Ralph Reed, Gary Bauer, and Jerry Falwell backed state executions in the 1990s.

“Certain things come to a moment and then become accepted all of a sudden very quickly,” Dieter says. “From apartheid to women’s rights, we’ve seen this throughout history. I think we’re coming to a moment on this issue now that will lead to the death penalty being outlawed in the United States and around the world.”

Wednesday
Dec182013

Daily RNS News

Inside job: Inmates help further Mormon genealogy work

By BROOKE ADAMS and JIM DALRYMPLE II

© 2014 Salt Lake Tribune

SALT LAKE CITY (RNS) William J. Hopkins already knew a bit about genealogy work when he arrived at the Utah State Prison in 1994, an interest that was sparked in his teens by an aunt who is a family historian.

Hopkins, 40, now spends two to three hours a day working on family history projects — his own and that of others — at the Family History Center at the prison’s Wasatch unit. He is an arbitrator; someone who reviews duplicate data entered by various indexers to ensure the information corresponds and then enters one copy into a database. Hopkins also tutors fellow inmates on how to do family research.

He has traced his family line back to Myles Standish, his 11th great-grandfather who came to America on the Mayflower as a military adviser to the Puritans and then went on to help settle Massachusetts. Hopkins also has traced his ancestors’ trek west as part of the Mormon migrations to the Utah territory between 1847 and 1850.

“You understand the hardships they went through,” he said, “and get to feel for them.”

The Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints opened the first Family History Center at the Utah State Prison more than 20 years ago. Today, there are four centers at the prison’s various units and one at the Central Utah Correctional Facility.

LDS Correctional Services also has centers in 14 jails in Utah and Idaho and plans to open as many as eight more in coming months.

Inmates who volunteered at Utah State Prison centers last year indexed more than 2 million records, said Wayne Parker, director of LDS Correctional Services for Salt Lake and Summit counties. They also put in approximately 50,000 hours of personal family research.

It’s transformative work, Parker said, which helps inmates get to know their own family histories while also developing understanding of others.

“Everybody desires to have an identity and know who they are,” he said. “It helps them to connect and fortifies their own identities, gives them a place in the scheme of things.”

One example: Parker said an inmate who worked in the Family History Center at the Wasatch unit set a goal of completing college after discovering through family research that his great-grandmother had received a degree in the 1920s, a time when few women sought higher education.

Several Mormon volunteers work with the inmates as part of the program, which debuted last year.

When the indexing is finished, the records go online and become publicly available for anyone to use.

Cache County Sheriff’s Deputy Chris Toone called the program a success. About half the jail population, or 150 people, is eligible to participate in work programs, and Toone said 23 inmates had voluntarily enrolled in the genealogy class in March. Enrollment numbers stay fairly consistent, which, he said, indicates the inmates like the program.

“It gives them a little satisfaction,” Toone said. “It’s a service they’re doing to help other people out. They also go because there are some keyboarding skills they can learn.”

At the Utah State Prison, inmates may spend up to three hours at a time in the centers, where they work on computers that connect only to the LDS Church’s family-history research databases or dedicated, stand-alone servers. Volunteers oversee their work.

Jed Dunford, LDS Correctional Services coordinator for Salt Lake and Summit counties, said piecing together puzzles from past lives can trigger “remarkable change” in inmates’ outlooks.

“They start thinking more in terms of others than themselves and that, we find, is a very beneficial perspective for inmates,” he said. “The inmates have a reason to look forward to the day instead of spending excessive time in their cells and with other inmates and bemoaning their situation in life. They have a better attitude, have a better perspective on life and are more motivated to change.”

That’s partly because the centers are a sanctuary from daily prison life, Hopkins said. “It’s a place you can go that is quiet, that’s not part of the everyday life in prison,” he said. “The volunteers make it more like we’re not in prison.”

Hopkins has worked on all sorts of records, including World War I draft registrations, Brazilian passports and North Carolina marriage records.

“The benefit to me is knowing that I’ve done something to help somebody else,” he said. “I know when I am looking online to find a name or something and I actually find it, is a relief, it’s exciting. I know that after I’ve indexed something, it is helping someone else feel that exhilaration that I’ve experienced.”

 

Wednesday
Dec182013

Daily RNS News

Bats in the belfry a serious matter for the Church of England

By TREVOR GRUNDY

© 2014 Religion News Service

CANTERBURY, England (RNS) Bats are making life unbearable for congregations by defecating on worshippers from roofs as well as bell towers, according to a report to the Church Buildings Council of the Church of England.

“Bats in churches are no joke for those who have to clean up the mess behind,” said Anne Sloman, chair of the council. “Their presence in large numbers is making it impossible for us to open churches for a whole variety of social and community uses as well as making life miserable for worshippers, and we are seriously worried about the irreparable damage bats are causing to priceless church artifacts.”

The report prepared by academics at Bristol University suggests that with clever use of lighting systems and acoustic devices, bats can be kept away from parts of churches.

“The research has been helpful,” said Sir Tony Baldry, a member of Parliament, “but what we now need is action to ensure that church congregations can worship without being concerned about the impact of bat feces and urine.”

Church wardens say that bat droppings can seriously damage your health.

Droppings and urine present a risk of gastrointestinal infection through accidental hand to mouth transfer.

The full research of the number of churches involved will be published on the government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs website in two weeks.

Wednesday
Dec182013

Daily RNS News

Russell Crowe meets Pope Francis but leaves without a ‘Noah’ endorsement

By ERIC J. LYMAN

© 2014 Religion News Service

VATICAN CITY — Russell Crowe, who plays the title character in the new Hollywood blockbuster “Noah,” lobbied hard for a personal audience with Pope Francis. What he got Wednesday (March 19) instead was a blessing.

Crowe used social media in recent weeks to try to cajole Francis to watch “Noah,” which has drawn fire from religious groups that say the film takes too many liberties with the biblical story of Noah’s Ark and the great flood. Crowe also asked for a private audience with the pontiff.

The Vatican’s chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, quashed both ideas; he said Francis would not watch the film and Crowe would not be granted a private audience.

But Crowe, along with director Darren Aronofsky and some studio officials, were in the invitation-only section of St. Peter’s Square on Wednesday, where they reportedly met the pope briefly and received a blessing.

“Pope Francis’ comments on stewardship and our responsibility in the natural world are inspirational,” Aronofsky, who was nominated for an Oscar four years ago for “Black Swan,” said via social media. “When the opportunity to hear him speak (arose) … I couldn’t miss the chance to listen and learn.”

Crowe, who is known for his quick temper, was equally measured, calling his participation in the audience “a privilege.”

Some backers of the film tried to cast Wednesday’s encounter as a kind of tacit endorsement for the movie, but Vatican officials made it clear that was not the case.

Still, the brief meeting is likely to draw new attention to the film, which will go into wide release March 28. It hits Italian cinemas April 10.