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If You Can't Preach ... Sue!

A convicted-murderer-turned-Pentecostal-preacher is the subject of a lawsuit aimed at restoring what he believes is his right to preach to fellow inmates.

Howard Thompson Jr. was ordained a Pentecostal minister at the New Jersey State Prison (NJSP) eight years ago. He preached weekly worship services at the maximum-security facility until prison officials issued a blanket ban last year on all preaching by inmates, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which filed the federal lawsuit on behalf of Thompson on Wednesday.

The NJSP administrator and the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Corrections are both named in the suit.

"Prisoners do not forfeit their fundamental right to religious liberty at the prison gate," said Daniel Mach, legal director for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. "The prison's absolute ban on inmate preaching clearly violates the law and Mr. Thompson's right to practice his faith."

As a preacher at Sunday services, a teacher in weekly Bible studies, and the founder of the prison choir, Thompson's religious activities have reportedly never caused any security incidents since he was incarcerated in 1986 for robbery and murder. The prison's chaplaincy staff has supported Thompson's preaching since the 1990s when he was asked to fill in for a sick chaplain.

"I have a religious calling to minister to my fellow inmates, and I've done so honestly, effectively and without incident for years," Thompson said. "All I want is to have my religious liberty restored and to be able to continue working with men who want to renew their lives through the study and practice of their faith."

Last year, an ACLU-backed lawsuit challenging similar restrictions on prisoner preaching in Rhode Island successfully overturned a statewide ban.

"Ours is a country where people are free to express their religious viewpoints without having to fear repercussions," said Edward Barocas, legal director of the ACLU of New Jersey. "The New Jersey State Prison may not deny its prisoners their most basic constitutional rights." [charismamag.com, 12/5/08] read more

'Mommy, What's a Minister?'

Oxford University Press' latest edition of its Junior Dictionary includes some culturally relevant additions such as MP3 player, blog and biodegradable. But it's the ones these words are replacing that have academics and clergy alike up in arms.

For its new release the British publisher omitted words such as minister, chapel, sin, altar, disciple and devil, as well as dozens of terms it believed were outdated because of their predominantly rural use. By nature of the product, the dictionary is restricted in size (10,000 words), meaning words are regularly being culled and replaced. The latest round of edits, according to Oxford representatives, reflect a modern, multifaith, multicultural society.

"When you look back at older versions of dictionaries, there were lots of examples of flowers for instance," said Vineeta Gupta, head of children's dictionaries at Oxford University Press. "That was because many children lived in semirural environments and saw the seasons. Nowadays, the environment has changed. We are also much more multicultural. People don't go to church as often as before. Our understanding of religion is within multiculturalism, which is why some words such as Pentecost or Whitsun would have been in 20 years ago but not now."

Such reasoning isn't working for many in the academic world, who were equally concerned about the loss of British heritage as with the spirituality of future generations. "We have a certain Christian narrative which has given meaning to us over the last 2,000 years. To say it is all relative and replaceable is questionable," said professor Alan Smithers, the director of the centre for education and employment at Buckingham University. "The word selections are a very interesting reflection of the way childhood is going, moving away from our spiritual background and the natural world and toward the world that information technology creates for us." [telegraph.co.uk, 12/8/08] read more

The Emerging Anglican 'Reformation'

Conservative Anglicans living in North America took a first step last Wednesday toward forming a denomination separate from the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of Anglicanism that has been teetering on the verge of a split since it ordained an openly gay bishop in 2003.

During a news conference in Wheaton, Ill., leaders of the Common Cause Partnership (CCP), a conservative group comprised of Anglican associations worldwide, unveiled a provisional constitution and the first set of canons for the new Anglican Church in North America (ACNA).

Leaders said the rival denomination represents 700 congregations, or roughly 100,000 people, in the U.S. and Canada.

"The purpose of the province is to share the gospel of Jesus Christ and His transforming love in the United States, Canada and beyond,” said Bishop Robert Duncan, moderator of the CCP.

Duncan, whom Episcopal Church leaders deposed from his position as bishop of the diocese of Pittsburgh in September, will serve as the interim leader of the ACNA. His diocese defected from the Episcopal Church in October to align with Latin America's Southern Cone based in Argentina.

The ACNA's formation poses the biggest threat yet to the unity of the England-based Anglican Communion, which boasts roughly 77 million members worldwide. Dozens of conservative congregations have defected from the Episcopal Church to align with bishops in Latin America and Africa amid concerns that the American branch of Anglicanism was breaking with orthodox Christianity by embracing gay bishops and blessing same-sex unions.

If the global Anglican Communion were to approve the formation of a new American branch, it could lead to further defections.

The new ACNA denomination already includes the breakaway dioceses of Pittsburgh, Forth Worth, Texas; Quincy, Ill.; and San Joaquin, Calif.—which each represent dozens of churches. Conservative Anglicans who left the Episcopal Church in the 1970s following changes to the Book of Common Prayer and the ordination of women are also among the new denomination's supporters. 

The Rev. Charles Robertson, canon for the Episcopal Church's presiding bishop, Katherine Jefferts Schiori, told the New York Times on Wednesday that there is room for diverse perspectives within the church. "We regret that some have felt the need to depart from the diversity of our common life in Christ,” he said.

Robertson added that the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church of Canada and La Iglesia Anglicana de Mexico are "the official, recognized presence of the Anglican Communion in North America.”

But Duncan said Anglicanism is experiencing a sort of revolution. "We're going through Reformation times, and in Reformation times things aren't neat and clean,” he told the Times. "In Reformation times, new structures are emerging.”

CCP leaders expect seven Anglican primates to approve the new denomination. Many of those leaders, including the archbishops of Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda and the Southern Cone, participated in a first-ever Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) in Jerusalem in July, where the primates signed a declaration proclaiming a new era for global Anglicanism.

On Friday, several of the GAFCON leaders met to present the provision constitution of the North American branch to the Rev. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. A spokesperson for Williams said on Thursday that the conservative American leaders had not begun to create a new church, Agence France-Presse reported.

"There are clear guidelines set out in the Anglican Consultative Council Reports ... detailing the steps necessary for the amendments of existing provincial constitutions and the creation of new provinces,” the spokesperson said.

"Once begun, any of these processes will take years to complete. In relation to the recent announcement from the meeting of the Common Cause Partnership in Chicago, the process has not yet begun.”

Duncan spokesman Rev. Peter Frank said the new denomination would proceed with or without the approval of the archbishop or the Anglican Consultative Council. Duncan spokesman the Rev. Peter Frank said the new denomination would proceed with or without the approval of the archbishop or the Anglican Consultative Council, the group responsible for sanctioning new jurisdictions.

"Certainly the leaders of the largest Anglican provinces are a great place to start, and they're on board with this,” Frank told Charisma. "We also know that we're past the point where some committee in England is going to be able to unilaterally decide who's Anglican and who's not. So that's where we're starting, with the support and the encouragement given to us by Anglican leaders around the world.”

Michael W. Howell, executive director of CCP-affiliated Forward in Faith North America, said many conservative Anglicans had been praying for the formation of a new church for decades. "Instead of focusing on things that divide us, we as orthodox Anglicans are focusing on the things that unite us,” he said.

Cynthia Brust, communications director for the Anglican Mission in the Americas, which is also part of the CCP, said that Wednesday marked "the beginning of the healing of the Anglican Communion.”

"The main component to me is the mission focus,” Brust said. "We will be driven by mission, not structure.”

The CCP links eight conservative Anglican organizations across the globe, including the American Anglican Council, the Anglican Coalition in Canada, the Anglican Communion Network, the Anglican Mission in the Americas, the Anglican Network in Canada, the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, Forward in Faith North America and the Reformed Episcopal Church, as well as the bishops and congregations linked with dioceses in Kenya, Uganda and the Southern Cone.

Despite their shared theological conservatism, the groups hold divergent views on significant issues such as liturgical practices and the ordination of women. Frank said the new denomination will encourage mutual submission while "doing all we can to give each other freedom to follow our convictions.”

The ACNA plans to hold an assembly next summer in Texas, where congregations that choose to align with the denomination will ratify the provisional constitution. [charismamag.com, 12/5/08] read more

Todd Bentley Speaks Out

Leaders of the Canadian ministry evangelist Todd Bentley founded a decade ago say the one-time revivalist is "intent" on divorcing his wife and is yet to begin a restoration process.

In a six-page letter to ministry supporters, the board of Fresh Fire Ministries (FFM) released more details about the circumstances that led to Bentley’s departure in August from the Lakeland, Fla., revival meetings he led for four months.

"Todd Bentley has demonstrated himself unfaithful to his wife by entering into a relationship with another woman while still legally married," the board said in its statement. "Todd has yet to enter into a clear system of accountability with the leaders he identified that would be involved in such a process."

The leaders claim Bentley, 32, has no biblical grounds for leaving his wife, Shonnah, and their three children, and that the nature of his relationship with his children’s former nanny is "that of adultery."

"The legal separation from Shonnah was initiated completely by Todd and he has not seen her or the children since the last week in July," they stated.

"It also needs to be clarified that Shonnah has in no way initiated this divorce and has no present intention to do so at any time in the future. She is understandably hurt by Todd’s infidelity, but is not asking or pressing for a divorce."

On Tuesday, Bentley said there had been no sexual immorality between him and the former nanny. He claimed that for two years no "spark or interest" in the former staff member existed, and that the two developed only an emotional relationship several weeks after July 1, when Bentley filed for divorce.

He admitted, however, that the budding relationship was "absolutely" bad timing.

"I would call it an inappropriate relationship, in the sense that it was too soon, too quick, and should’ve never happened the way that it happened," Bentley said. "Emotionally, she had stepped in to comfort me as a friend would.

"But I never left my wife to be with another woman," he said. "There was nothing premeditated or inappropriate in my heart. I had never even entertained the idea that I liked this girl. It never went there."

Claiming to have gone through years of counseling with his wife, Bentley said he is divorcing her over "irreconcilable differences."

He denied disconnecting from his children and told Charisma he is in constant phone contact with them and plans to see them as soon as he sorts out issues with his visa.

Bentley said FFM let him review the letter before they made it public and that he was unhappy with portions of it. He said he felt the letter implied that the breakup of his marriage could be blamed on his relationship with his former nanny and the pressures of leading daily nonstop revival meetings in Lakeland.

"I have the utmost respect for my team in Canada and we have had a lot of years together," he said. "[But] I’m not in agreement with my board on this. The point is, [the former nanny] wasn’t the cause. And I don’t want to blame Lakeland. I want to blame a bad marriage."

Bentley said he is willing to take 100 percent responsibility for his actions and that he readily admits he’s guilty of doing a lot of things wrong over the years. "In a lot of ways, the ministry has been my mistress," he said. "That did destroy my marriage. That I have to take responsibility for."

The FFM leaders said they had been on an "emotional rollercoaster" for several months before releasing the statement, seeking to persuade Bentley to abandon his relationship with the former nanny, return to his wife and children, and quickly embrace a process of counseling and accountability.

In the letter, the board thanked leaders of other ministries who have reportedly tried to help implement a process of restoration for Bentley. "But what we have come to realize is that ultimately, the buck stops with the FFM board of directors," they said. "No one knows Todd better, or has more access to all the facts from both sides than we do."

MorningStar Ministries’ founder Rick Joyner announced in October that he would be leading a team to help restore Bentley and would be assisted by Revival Alliance member Bill Johnson and Texas pastor Jack Deere, along with pastors John Arnott and Ché Ahn serving as advisers.

Bentley said he is still involved at an emotional level with his former nanny and soon plans to move to Joyner’s headquarters in Fort Mill, S.C., to "fully embrace a healing and restoration process."

Joyner confirmed that the process could begin as early as January. He did not confirm if abandoning his relationship with the nanny was a precondition Bentley would need to agree to before entering a healing process led by Joyner.

Joyner did express disappointment with FFM’s recent statement about Bentley and said he tried to persuade them not to send the letter in its current form.

"There is almost always another side to a story, as there is to many of the things they presented in this letter," Joyner said. "Sometimes the truth is found somewhere between the two sides, but if we’re going to ever get to real healing and reconciliation I don’t think this kind of thing helps."

The FFM board said they decided to send the letter to supporters after spending months of silence "in deference to [the] leaders" involved in trying to lead Bentley through a restoration process. "We struggled for a while with the question of how to satisfy two important obligations—that of honoring Todd, while believing for his restoration, and at the same time, our obligation to be completely honest and open with you."

Although Bentley experienced a moral failing, the FFM leaders said the Lakeland Revival he led was an authentic move of God. "Through the weakness and failure of man, the enemy seeks to defame and discredit what God has done," they said. "[But] Lakeland was and is an authentic move of God. God poured Himself out in Florida and through the Internet and television around the world."

FFM is in the process of restructuring its ministries with assistance from Johnson’s church in Redding, Calif., and Joyner’s ministry in South Carolina.

Their letter also stated that Bentley has officially resigned and that the Abbottsford, British Columbia-based FFM is searching for another leader. "We love Todd dearly, [and] it is our deep desire that our brother should be restored," they said.

"Please let us make it clear, that although what Todd has done is inexcusable, it is not unforgiveable. We do not judge him unworthy of a second, third or even fourth chance." [charismamag.com, 12/4/08] read more

How Churches Are Facing the Current Economy

Tired of hearing about the tumbling economy? Regardless of how inundated you've been with stories about the current economic woes, if you're a pastor, you won't want to miss the latest Barna Research survey regarding the economy's effect on churches and nonprofits.

According to a random sampling of more than 1,200 adult respondents across the country, one of every five households has decreased its giving to churches or religious organizations in recent months. Nonprofits have been hit the hardest, with almost one-third of all adults (31 percent) donating less to such groups. Among individuals cutting back on their giving, almost one in five reduced it by as much as 20 percent. Seventeen percent slashed their giving in half, while 11 percent decreased what they gave away by more than half. Worse still, a whopping 22 percent have stopped giving altogether.

Not surprisingly, those hit hardest by the economic downturn—and subsequently giving less to churches—are households making less than $20,000, as well as the 43 percent of families struggling with "serious financial debt."

Among those surveyed who attend church, more than one-third said their church had specifically addressed the economic turmoil. A larger percentage of churches (39 percent among Protestant churches) had offered financial counseling to those struggling, while about half (52 percent) had created opportunities for congregants to receive such material assistance as food or clothing.

"Most nonprofits and churches count on the fourth quarter of the year to produce at least one-third of their annual income," said researcher George Barna. "[But] the giving patterns we're witnessing suggest that churches, alone, will receive some $3 billion to $5 billion dollars less than expected during this fourth quarter. The average church can expect to see its revenues dip about 4 to 6 percent lower than would have been expected without the economic turmoil. We anticipate that other nonprofit organizations will be hit even harder." What are churches to do with such a bleak outlook? Beyond the obvious answers of prayer and a greater reliance on God, Barna suggested a shift in financial projections and planning. "With a large share of congregants expecting the nation's economic woes to drag on for several years, it would be wise for churches and nonprofits to reconfigure their financial models and plan to spend more cautiously over the coming two or three quarters," he explained. "Even if a congregation continues to grow numerically, this is not a good time to use dated financial projections and models. People's attitudes about generosity have been altered, as shown by their immediate donation behavior. We anticipate that a greater percentage of churchgoers will decrease both their giving levels and frequency over the next year or so. This is a time for church leaders to demonstrate restraint and wisdom in their financial decisions." [barna.org, 12/1/08] read more

Big Boost for Bible Translator

Giving to nonprofits may be down significantly, but one of the world's largest Bible translation organizations recently became an exception to the rule after a $50 million anonymous donation. Wycliffe Bible Translators received the generous gift only two weeks before unveiling a new initiative called the "Last Languages Campaign" that outlines ambitious plans to translate God's Word into the more than 2,200 remaining languages by the year 2025 using a new translation technology.

Though the massive initiative is estimated to cost Wycliffe nearly $1 billion over the next 10 years, the recent unexpected donation, which was earmarked specifically for the campaign, could give the project the kind of kick-start it needs for setting out to achieve its goal.

"People without a written language need one," wrote the anonymous donor. "Literacy is a key to helping people work their way out of poverty and to resist oppression by others. Children who first learn to read in their own language are more likely to become literate and to stay in school than those who first learn in a different language."

Bob Creson, president of Orlando, Fla.-headquartered Wycliffe USA, praised the generous donor for taking what he said was "a bold step of faith" that would help the organization reach "more than 200 million people in Bibleless language communities with the life-changing message of the gospel."

Wycliffe works with thousands worldwide in translating what professionals call "the world's most effective missionary"—the Bible. Aside from learning to speak, write and eventually translate the native tongues of remote villagers worldwide, Bible translators stress the important communal side effects of maintaining a Bible-translation program, such as literacy, water-purifying systems, and AIDS and human rights education. [charismamag.com, 11/26/08] read more

Vatican to Priests: Don’t Offend the Homosexuals

Just how far has the gay agenda expanded in the last decade? The Vatican released a pamphlet last week warning Roman Catholic priests not to use any language in their parishes that might be deemed offensive to gays and lesbians. The brochure, created by bishops and given to those priests under them, instructs priests to no longer assume every parishioner is heterosexual and therefore to refrain from using "heterosexist" language: "Remember that homophobic jokes and asides can be cruel and hurtful—a careless word can mean another experience of rejection and pain." Adding insult to injury, priests have also been told to put up posters promoting various "support services" for homosexuals attending church.

"It is things like this that are enfeebling the Church at the moment—the concentration on things that don't matter and missing the things that do," commented Catholic author and activist Lynette Burrows. "What is pitiful as well as demeaning is that the Church is running after homosexual opinion but nothing is going to make homosexuals like the Catholic Church. This is because the Catholic Church teaches that homosexuality is a disorder and whatever the bishops say will not change that." [dailymail.co.uk, 11/29/08; UPI, 11/29/08] read more

Pledging to God

George M. Docherty, the Washington, D.C., pastor credited with helping to insert the phrase "under God" in the United States' Pledge of Allegiance, died of a heart ailment Thanksgiving day at the age of 97. Originally from Scotland, Docherty served for 26 years as pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, the historic downtown church attended by Abraham Lincoln and many other presidents.

In 1952, Docherty heard his 7-year-old son recite the pledge—which he was unfamiliar with at the time—and decided to preach a sermon urging that the pledge to the flag be amended. "To omit the words 'under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance is to omit the definitive factor in the American way of life," he said, adding that the Godless pledge was just as applicable to the then-communist Soviet Union. "I could hear little Muscovites recite a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag with equal solemnity."

His original sermon did little to change things. But on Feb. 7, 1954, with President Dwight D. Eisenhower in attendance, Docherty repeated his message—only this time with near-instant results. Congress introduced a bill that same week, and Eisenhower signed the "under God" act four months later.

In his later years, Docherty addressed those who criticized the inclusion of God's name in the pledge as a violation of church-and-state separation. He believed the phrase "under God" was broad enough to include "the great Jewish community and the people of the Muslim faith," yet he pulled no punches when it came to atheists. "An atheistic American is a contradiction in terms," Docherty said in his sermon. "If you deny the Christian ethic, you fall short of the American ideal of life." [washingtonpost.com, 11/30/08; AP, 11/31/08] read more

Is There Value in a Name?

QUOTE: "'Under God' didn't enter the pledge until after World War II, after the oft-called Greatest Generation had proved its values. These men and women who fought overseas and sacrificed on the home front all grew up with a passion for their country but none pledged to God every morning facing the flag when they were school children. It wasn't essential to the formation of their character, evidently. When I read about civic battles today to add the name of God or a Ten Commandments to every public event or venue, I wonder: What is the desired effect to adding—or blocking—this? Do you have to say 'God' everywhere to know God? To develop good values?" —USA Today's "Faith & Reason" blogger Cathy Lynn Grossman [usatoday.com, 12/1/08] read more

Unearthing a Biblical Past

In the last month, archaeologists in the Middle East have unearthed a trio of biblical-times finds that offer important glimpses into both ancient Holy Land culture and the early Christian church.

Earlier this month, an Israeli archaeologist digging amid ruins of an ancient town outside Jerusalem discovered a pottery shard containing the oldest Hebrew inscription ever found. Penned almost 3,000 years ago, the five lines of text on the ceramic piece use proto-Canaanite characters, a precursor of the Hebrew alphabet. Artifacts found around the shard were carbon-dated to between 1,000 and 975 B.C., which corresponds with the time King David ruled in Jerusalem. Although the writing has not been completely translated, Yossi Garfinkel, the Hebrew University archaeologist in charge of the dig, believes it already indicates that a powerful Israeli kingdom existed at the time of King David.

Last week another Israeli archaeologist digging outside Jerusalem found what he believes are the 2,000-year-old remains of two tombs that once held a wife and daughter-in-law of King Herod—the same Herod that the Gospel of Matthew says conducted a mass slaughter of male infants around the time of Jesus’ birth. Along with the tomb artifacts, additional relics found by Ehud Netzer, who is a Herodian excavation expert from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, seem to further his case for discovering Herod’s tomb last year. “I would eat my hat if it were someone else’s tomb,” Netzer said.

Almost 300 miles down the road in Syria, a Syrian-Polish archaeological team unearthed the remains of an eighth-century church. Although the church is the fourth found in the ancient city of Palmyra, which is almost 150 miles northeast of Damascus, it is the largest such discovery to date. Walid al-Assaad, head of the Palmyra Antiquities and Museums Department, said that besides an amphitheater used for gatherings and services, the church contains at least “two rooms that are believed to have been used for baptisms, religious ceremonies, prayers and other rituals.” [AP, 10/31/08; AP, 11/17/08; Reuters, 11/19/08] read more


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