Is it just me, or is there something "off" about the following story?
FRESNO — On Sunday morning at the 18,000-member Calvary Church, tithers flash green Costco-like cards at greeters, who let them in early and usher them to special seating areas. "The seats have more padding, and they recline," says tither Dan Phelps, kicking back before the sermon. "I feel a little guilty, but you can't knock the comfort."
Calvary is believed to be the first church in America to use membership cards to dole out privileges to certain members. First-time visitors are offered the best seats — plush recliners in the orchestra section — while non-tithing attendees carry orange membership cards and are forced to sit in hard, stadium-style seats on the mezzanine.
"We give honor to whom honor is due," says pastor Jerald Dennis. "If you tithe or volunteer in some way, you deserve a special thank you." Churches like his are drawing wealthier "church consumers" by promoting luxury and social stratification inside the sanctuary. As rich people attend, the theory goes, tithe revenues increase and the church better promotes the gospel.
At Life Family Center in Abilene, Texas, members at all levels earn "reward points" similar to frequent flyer miles for tithing and attending. The points add up to free hotel stays, vacation packages and tickets to NASCAR events. Ringing the church's cavernous sanctuary are private skyboxes where groups watch the service while enjoying hors d'oeuvres and deep leather chairs. Some pay only occasional attention to what takes place on the platform.
"We compete with professional sporting events, not other churches," says pastor Lovey Pederson. "I would rather people come here than a football stadium, so I offer bigger perks." This year, at least a dozen more mega-churches will introduce some form of "club card." "The credit card commercial said it best: 'Membership has its privileges,'" says Pederson.
This is, of course, a joke. However, on first reading, one thinks, "This rings true". It must be something to do with how we view America and the American church.
Of course, it wasn't so long ago that people here had to pay pew rents. Maybe some enterprising church will reintroduce the concept?
I had an administration day today, as two meetings got called off. It was all providential really, as this included finally getting tax return details sent off to the accountant, planning for next term, reading, preparing a couple of sermons, setting up some meetings, answering and typing emails and doing a few references (including taking a call from a head-hunting agency in London who are looking for a new trustee/chairperson for a significant relief and development agency - it's a 25 days a year, expenses only gig. Anyone interested, let me know. I was a wee bit nervous with this one at first, as I thought they might be after me - what vanity! I think they are looking for for high fliers in the world of business.).
The papers in the study still need tidied up and filed, but that's another story.
The set up before anyone arrived (honestly, some people did show up).
I had a tough role at last Sunday evening's 'Deeper' service - welcoming people on the door. The good thing from my point of view was that I got chatting to some people I've never spoken to before.
A thought-provoking walk through a series of seven interactive zones led to the central area of the burning bush. Gordon's sermon was very helpful and I even got to be an illustration in it! The worship was reflective and moving.
Check out the thoughts of Graham ('Deeper-Meister') here.
In July, I posted here about the attempt to bring to trial Bishop John-David Schofield of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin. Other Californian bishops believed him to be about to take the diocese out of the Episcopal Church. Those charges were subsequently dismissed.
Now Episcopal Blogdom in the US of A has got all excited again because +San Joaquin has issued this letter to the congregations of the diocese, which does indicate preparations for a withdrawal. In response, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katherine Jefferts Schori has issued this letter. Battle lines appear to be forming.
It's bad enough that such division is taking place. Sadder still will be the waste of resources that the ensuing court battles over property will bring. Only the lawyers will get richer.
Some might say, "Why can't we all just get along?". In this situation the differences are so deep-rooted, it's impossible to see how they can be amicably resolved. San Joaquin does not accept the ordination of women, and will be expected to comply with the wider church on this. They are also at odds over the issues of the uniqueness of Christ, the authority of the Bible and same-sex relationships. It could well be that two different faiths are operating in the North American branch of Anglicanism. For more information and links on this see Matt Kennedy's articles here, here and here.
In these situations, surely the most sensible and just course of action is to part in as amicable a way as possible, thus allowing people to get on with what they understand to be right, rather than to publicly squabble and squander resources? But then, maybe that's too obvious and easy for powerbrokers to get?
I've been following this story about Edinburgh University Christian Union's 'Pure' Course and the attempts of various student bodies to have the CU banned from running the course on university premises. The powers-that-be have succumbed to the pressure and the course is now run in a student flat.
I'm interested for several reasons. Firstly, I'm an Edinburgh graduate and learned to respect different viewpoints as part of my education. Secondly, I'm on the Scottish Council of University and Colleges Christian Fellowship, the organisation that supports the CU movement. Thirdly because I am deeply concerned about limiting freedom of speech.
Note that the CU has never attempted to stop those societies which seek to encourage same-sex practice from doing so. Note too that the course encourages traditional Christian sexual morality for both those of homosexual and heterosexual orientation and is geared up for CU members and friends who want to attend. It has nothing to do with pushing an agenda on anyone who is unwilling to be part of the course.
We now face a situation in this country where Christians are going to find it harder to openly express views which are not considered politically correct or up-to-date enough. The label "homophobic" is thrown about at random in these situations. I don't know any conservative Christians who are fearful, either rationally or irrationally, of people of homsexual orientation (though I'm sure there are some). Nor do I know church people who would seek to harm someone who is attracted to the same sex (but again, I'm sure there are some). So why persecute and penalise all Christians for what they have believed on this subject for millennia? Would the establishment take on an Islamic society in the same way? Sadly, liberalism can so easily slide into fearful totalitarianism when it can no longer tolerate voices which differ from its own.
The Church could face a similar problem if it ever changed its view on sexual morality to a more liberal vision. How would the traditional understanding be honoured, taught, respected and articulated in a Church which no longer believed it? Or would such a view simply be expected to die out, or its proponents prevented from achieving leadership positions from where it might be encouraged?
If the Edinburgh situation concerns you too, why not write to the high heid yin?
The Principal and Vice-Chancellor,
The University of Edinburgh,
Edinburgh EH8 9YL.
We had our monthly Holy Communion with one of our senior members on Thursday afternoon. Over coffee and cake, we talked of remembrance. She had trained pilots in torpedo-dropping techniques in North Africa during the Second World War, meeting her army officer husband in the process. I'd known this part of her story for a long time, and it's always had a touch of romance about it.
She also shared how her brothers had served in the army during World War Two. One had been mentioned in despatches when he had helped capture some Germans trying to infiltrate his unit's position. The other brother had won the Military Cross and bar. He had to kill in face-to-face combat. As a result, he suffered what we now know as post traumatic stress disorder, for which he was treated by having a lobotomy. This allowed him to lead a long and successful life, but the 'spark' had gone from him.
It's one of the joys of this kind of ministry when people share deep memories like that. Take some time to listen to others' stories, particularly previous generations. There is much to learn.
The conversation also served as a reminder of what today's service men and women, their families, and civilians in conflicts around the world are suffering.
After that it was a bit of tidying up, rearranging furniture and vacuum cleaning. Followed by an asthma attack. I really am allergic to housework.
Tomorrow promises to be a quiet day, if one considers the following as such: visiting shops to buy shoes, groceries, computer games and a new bicycle for GadgetVicar Girl 2 (she's paying - she has a lot of money in the bank!). The stuff of nightmares.