1. Churches respond to 9-11
A spirit of celebration filled the September air as John Walton preached his inaugural sermon at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Manhattan.
The celebration was short-lived. Two mornings later, Walton recounts, “As I was on my way down Fifth Avenue, I looked up and saw that the World Trade Center was on fire.” As he neared the church he realized both of the towers were in flames. “When I came in the building our custodian said, ‘Dr. Walton, that plane was so low it shook the stained glass windows in the sanctuary.’”
They opened the doors and people started flocking into the church. Some from near Ground Zero were covered in ash. Others were coming from uptown to find loved ones and realized that they couldn’t proceed any further. “We sent people out to get boxes and boxes of Kleenex. It was just a day for crying.”
Through the next two weeks, they welcomed 400-500 folks daily. They gathered nightly in the sanctuary for services of lament.
Asked about the impact on his ministry, Walton remembers, “For me it was like being a captain or lieutenant that’s flown into a battle zone by helicopter and given these troops to lead. ‘You’re the officer in charge. Now lead.’”
The attack on America will be remembered as the most defining, horrifying event of the first decade of this new century. Politically speaking, our national and foreign policies were transformed — in many cases, for the worse. Persons of faith felt a loss of innocence as well, as information began to emerge about the terrorists, and the role that religious fanaticism played in motivating them.
As deeply as the 9/11 attacks wounded, however, for many American Christians, the churches’ grief and recovery ministry and the pulling-together of the country in the days following the attacks stand as the decade’s most defining, grace-extending season. A broadened experience of connectional community emerged.
Case in point: care of folks in lower Manhattan by Walton and associate pastor Lindley DeGarmo, who tapped into the lessons in crisis ministry learned by leaders in the Presbytery of Indian Nations after the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City.
2. Interfaith relationships strive and strain
The attack on America launched a new era of interfaith relationships that turned hostile, as when Muslim mobs reacted violently to a Dutch newspaper’s publication of cartoons depicting Muhammad. After the pope’s lecture at the University of Regensburg in Germany on Sept. 12, 2006, in which he claimed that Muhammad commanded his people “to spread by the sword the faith,” Middle Eastern churches were torched. In Europe, clashes erupted between Muslim immigrants and the authorities.
At the same time, however, other faith leaders began to speak increasingly about an interconnected, multicultural, multi-faith world, and the importance of new understandings emerging across religious lines. Many Christian congregations began to engage in dialogue with nearby Muslim communities. And Muslim scholars issued a tempered response to the Pope, “A Common Word Between Us and You,” on Oct. 11, 2007. Amid all that, the civil war between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq took Islamic factionalism to an unprecedented level of violence — a sign that strife within religious traditions can be just as brutal as that between different faiths.
3. North to south, west to east: Center of Christianity shifts
For five centuries the church has been dominated and shaped by the culture of Europe and the United States. Twentieth-century evangelism brought exploding church growth to Africa, Asia, and South America, which now claim 1.15 billion of the 2 billion believers worldwide. The faith long identified with western, capitalist imperialism is shaking free of that moniker, empowering the new Christendom, as Philip Jenkins has dubbed it, based primarily in the southern hemisphere. See #7 below.
4. Clergy abuse scandalizes Roman Catholic Church
In early 2002, the Boston Globe published news of the prosecution of five Roman Catholic priests for sexually abusing minors. Eventually more than 4,000 priests were accused of molesting more than 10,000 victims, 23% of whom were 10 years old or younger at the time of the incidents. The scandal was exacerbated by the discovery that many of the perpetrators had not been disciplined but simply moved by their bishops from one parish to another. The church has paid more than $1.5 billion in settlements, bankrupting some dioceses.
5. John Paul II passes the keys to Benedict XVI
John Paul II died on April 5, 2005, after serving nearly 27 years. One of the most influential leaders of the century, he helped liberate his communist homeland of Poland and the rest of eastern Europe. He also intensified ecumenical efforts while holding the line on Catholic opposition to contraception and women’s ordination. Upon his death, Bishop Joseph Ratzinger, a German-born conservative, was elevated to the papacy, becoming Pope Benedict XVI. As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he earned a reputation for his sharp intellect and for exerting a heavy hand in enforcing church orthodoxy.
6. God-and-country: the contest expands
Conservative Christians exercised enormous influence on the administration of President George W. Bush. Nevertheless, religion’s role in the public square continues to be contested. The courts have heard cases arguing for and against “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, the placement of crosses and the Ten Commandments on public land, the use of vouchers to pay for parochial education, the teaching of intelligent design in biology classes. The GOP (dubbed “God’s Own Party”) lost some ground as the Democratic Party more openly asserted religious convictions, making it clear that no political party has a monopoly on religious faith, especially during the successful candidacy of Barack Obama.
7. Gay bishop unleashes Episcopal backlash
V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay, non-celibate man living in a committed partnership, was ordained bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire in March 2004. Pittsburgh Diocese Bishop Robert Duncan and 18 other bishops protested, warning of possible schism between the Episcopal Church (USA) and the Anglican Communion. Archbishop Peter Akinola of the Church of Nigeria and other leading bishops joined the protest. Most American bishops maintained their resolve to support marriage and ordination of monogamous gays and lesbians, but several U.S. dioceses withdrew from the ECUSA to form the Convocation of Anglicans in North America under the sponsorship of the Church of Nigeria. Also, the Lutheran Church (ELCA) voted in 2009 to allow local congregations to ordain and marry gays and lesbians. Some states approved same-gender marriage. Others passed state amendments to refuse to recognize those marriages.
8. NAE goes green, exerts social conscience
When Joel Hunter, mega-church pastor from Florida, walked away from his appointment to lead the Christian Coalition, he signaled a fracture within the American evangelical movement. He, Richard Cizik and other leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals became increasingly vocal in speaking out for such social issues as global warming, immigration reform, medical care for the uninsured, poverty, HIV-AIDS, justice of all kinds. The movement, long identified with the right-wing politics, was changing the conversation regarding what constitutes Christian morality and justice within the public square. Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Rick Warren, who prayed at Obama’s inauguration, gave added impetus and visible leadership to such movement. That Cizik (a conservative Presbyterian) was later removed from the NAE for accepting gay union ceremonies does not diminish this rapprochement in the younger generation.
9. Church goes gaga over Google
A new generation of emerging church leaders has tapped into the communications potential by getting wired. Most churches now consider a Web site as necessary as a Yellow Pages listing used to be. Some describe a Web site as being like the new “front door” of a church. Learning and cross-pollination of ideas now travels at Internet speed via blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. Many claim that the face of Christianity itself is changing, giving rise to an “Emerging Church.” In the process, insular parochialism commonly maintained within denominational traditions and, more recently, in popular religious movements, is disappearing as is the influence of religious institutions. Individuals are breaking with party lines and often shifting religious traditions, aggregating many ideas into their own brand of faith and conviction.
10. Old atheism, new spirituality supplant religion
No generation lacks strong critics of religious faith, and in the new decade biologist Richard Dawkins and journalist Christopher Hitchens are carrying the baton for the “New Atheism.” They openly ridicule religion. At the same time a new, non-specific spirituality has arisen among people, especially the young, who have lost patience for the parochial mentality and internecine battles of religious dogma. One of the biggest shifts: the increase in the number of people who claim no religious affiliation at all.