America, home of the mega-church movement, has dozens of churches that draw crowds in the 10s of thousands on any given weekend, but the biggest megachurch of all drew an unprecedented 16,000 people to a single service last Saturday night as Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church held its first service in its new facility, the former Compaq Center, once home to the Houston Rockets. The arena had been remodeled, including adding 5 more stories to make room for the large expected crowds. Lakewood Church averages 30,000 worshippers over its weekend services, making it the largest church in America.
Lakewood Church was started in 1959 in an abandoned feed story by Joel Osteen's father, John, whom Joel succeeded on his death in 1999.
The renovations took 15 months & $75 million to complete.
Joel Osteen has come under criticism by some discernment ministries as a televangelist associated with the Word Faith Movement.
Hogen Fu-kun-aga (60), a former leader of the Ho-no-Hana Sampogyo religious group has been sentenced to 12 years in prison after his conviction for fraud in a Kyodo, Japan court. Fu-kun-aga, whose real name is Teruyoshi Fu-kun-aga, purported to be able to diagnose & treat diseases by examining the soles of clients' feet and "listening to the voice of heaven."
Although Fu-kun-aga argued through his defense team that his actions were protected because they were expressions of his religious beliefs, prosecutors successfully argued to the court that he & his cohorts ran a financial scam that preyed on vulnerable people, persuading them to ruin themselves financially to support the readings, diagnoses, & treatments.
In addition to Fu-kun-aga, 14 other faith group members were indicted, 12 have been found guilty in district court, & 2 have appealed their convictions.
Total fines for restitution & prison sentences range in the millions of yen & multiple decades.
Presiding Judge Tsutomu Aoyagi commented, "It's artful and vicious to swindle such a large sum of money," adding that Fu-kun-aga "incited anxiety by telling [clients] shocking things." He concluded, that his acts were "nothing but fraud, & it went far beyond an acceptable level of freedom of religion."
At its General Synod meeting in York, the Church of England took the first step toward a 4 year process to allow female bishops. The Church of England (COE) is the original church from which the international Anglican Communion developed. It was formed when England's King Henry VIII and the Archbishop of Canterbury broke with the Roman Catholic church in the 16th century. Today there are Anglican churches in 160 countries with a total membership of more than 77 million. The United States church is called the Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA).
The Synod voted to approve the process to conform all legal instruments of the COE to allow female bishops. Among the 4 bishops who voted (other clerics & lay representatives voted as well), 41 voted for the motion with 6 voting against it. Bishop of Southwark Tom Butler, who brought the motion to the voting bodies, explained, "In no way can it be claimed that in seeking at this time to test the mind of the Church of England we act hastily or preciptately."
Although the motion was approved overwhelmingly, and the COE has permitted female priests since the 1980s & had female priests serving since 1994, there is some conservative dissent from within and many other churches in the international communion are against the move.
Anglican churches in New Zealand, Canada, & the United States already have female bishops. In addition, Canadian Anglicans have church-approved blessing ceremonies for same sex unions & the ECUSA has consecrated an openly homosexual bishop in New Hampshire. These actions have caused many Anglican churches form other nations to draw away from close association & even threaten to break the international communion. Churches in Africa, South America, & Asia tend to be much more conservative than those in the UK & North America.
Within the ECUSA, some conservative congregations have withdrawn from official oversight & come under the leadership of more conservative African churches. The Anglican Communion has yet to determine whether the splintered hierarchy will be officially sanctioned.
A burned Quran found on the steps of a Virginia mosque came from a Muslim who didn't know how to properly dispose of his worn copy of Islam's Scripture. The Quran, found on the steps of the Islamic Center of Blacksburg, charred and placed in a plastic bag with other burned Arabic books.
While police said they were investigating whether it was a hate crime, some Islamic groups jumped to the conclusion that it must have been a hate crime, indicative of anti-Muslim bias in America. Laila Al-Qatami, spokesperson for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington DC, said shortly after the find, "Let's face it, books, don't burn themselves & end up outside a mosque. It's a willful act."
Last week a Muslim Virginia Tech student contacted local police and said he had left the Quran at the local mosque because it had been burned in a fire & he didn't know how to dispose of it respectfully himself. The note of explanation the student had left with the bag evidentally blew away.
According to research conducted by the Church of England (COE) and its Commission on Urban Life & Faith, 50% of 13-15 year olds in England & Wales believe in God & there is strong faith among them that prayer gave them a greater "sense of purpose." 75% of those who pray daily said they had a clear sense of purpose, while only 48% of those who never prayed expressed a sense of purpose.
Nevertheless, the research also showed that 25% have considered suicide & nearly 20% expressed a racial intolerance, stating that "too many black people" live in Britain.
The Commission report calls on the government to "explore a spiritual dimension" in its plans for children, to promote anti-rascist programs in schools & youth clubs, & to conduct a similar survey every 10 years.
The Rev. Lady Richardson of Calow, chair of the Commission, noted, "We can learn a valuable lesson from this report, one which could protect our children & help them to flourish."
More than 170 Muslim leaders, including scholars, theologians, & historians, attending the first International Islamic Conference (IIC), have concluded their 4 days of discussion by issuing a final statement denouncing any delcaration of "apostasy" against a Muslim by other Muslims & narrowly defining the circumstances under which a religious edict may be issued. The conferfence, hosted by the Jordanian government & held in the Jordanian capital of Amman, included Muslim scholars & leaders from more than 40 countries.
The conference was an attempt to unify the 8 schools of Islamic thought on high ranking issues with a goal of reducing violence attributed to Islam.
The conference was called "True Islam & Its Role in Modern Society." The final statement issued regulations necessary to interpreting Islam & issuing religious edicts or "fatwas."
In a statement representing the IIC, Abdel Salam Al Abbadi, spokesman, said that the most important statement to come out of the conference is that all Muslims are united in their schools of jurisprudence. The statement also denounced declaring any Muslim an apostate.
Attributing what he called the emergence of extremist thinking amongst Muslims to ignorance, oppression, & injustice they have suffered, Abbadi denounced rash religious fatwas by unqualified clerics.
Abbadi concluded that the differences among the attendees were minor & were handled "in a spirit of scientific, reasonable, & moderate dialog." He emphasized that differences were on minor issues of interpretation, "not the fundamentals on which all schools agree."
Regarding declarations of apostasy, which are often used as grounds to physically harm or even kill errant Muslims, or confiscate their property, the conference statement declared that any Muslim who belongs to one of the eight schools of thought in Sunni & Shiite Islam, as well as "true Sufism," is to be considered a Muslim & cannot be declared an apostate.
Whether the views of the conference participants prevail in previously violence-oriented factions of Islam remains to be seen. Farouk Jarrar is the spokesman of Aal al-Bayt Foundation of Islamic Thought, an international, non-governmental charitable foundation based in Jordan but comprising a membership of 70-100 of the world's top Islamic scholars and clerics from almost every Islamic country and major community in the world. It was financed and created by the Jordanian government under the edict of King Abdullah II and supervised by Prince Hamzah. Jarrar noted concerning the conference participants, "some of these people in there have their television shows & their websites, & they are highly influential. If they say that killing civilians is against Islam & must stop, it will stop" [or at least decline].
As expected, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ (UCCj) on Monday approved a resolution affirming same sex marriages, urging churches to promote legislation supporting same sex marriages & to discourage legislation denying same sex marriage legal rights. The vote was overwhelming at 80% of the attendees agreeing with the UCC president's sentiments made public last week in advance of the general conference.
The resolution is not binding on any of the congregations, but most are expected to implement its guidelines. A few congregations may choose not to do so, and some have even indicated they may leave the UCC association. The UCC has a long tradition of supporting progressive social issues.
The Rev. Andrew Young, former Atlanta mayor & ambassador to the UN, strongly supported the proposal, commenting before the vote, "I'd be disappointed if we did not approve this resolution," he said on Friday. "I think it would be consistent with our historic spirit of fairness and justice, but it also would be consistent with the spirit of grace and mercy as the path to peace and that you judge not that you not be judged."
The UCC has 3.1 million members. It was founded in 1957 & has supported homosexual rights since the 1970s.
The United Church of Christ (UCC), one of the main United States Protestant denominations, with a membership of 1.3 million in 5,700 congregations, may adopt a resolution at its General Snyod this weekend in Atlanta that will officially support gay marriage. The Rev. John H. Thomas, head of the UCC, spoke Tuesday at Emory University and declared that the General Synod "should affirm the rights of gay, lesbian, and transgender persons" to have marriages "equal in name, privileges, & responsibilities to married heterosexual couples." Since all of the congregations are autonomous, they cannot be bound by the resolutions of the General Synod. Nevertheless, Thomas argued, "I believe our local churches, as they are able, should move toward the development of marriage equality policies."
The UCC would be the first main American church body to fully embrace gay marriage. The UCC ordained the first openly gay minister and established a gay caucus in 1972.
More than 50 years after he rose to naitonal & international prominence as the premier Christian evangelist in the world, Billy Graham preached what may have been his last crusade sermon in New York City on Sunday. Graham's voice was strong & deliberate, but he spoke for only 23 minutes before issuing his customary invitation to listeners to come forward and publicly accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord & Savior.
More than 90,000 people attended the crusade meeting in near century mark summer temperatures at the Flushing Meadows-Corona park. Asked by journalists if this was the end of his revival career, the 86 year old evangelist told them, "I never say never." Graham suffers from fluid on the brain, prostate cancer, & Parkinson's disease. He used a walker Sunday as a result of a pelvic fracture he suffered in a fall recently.
New Pope Benedict XVI has waived the traditional 5 year waiting period before a deceased pope is examined for possible sainthood and has appointed a committee of clerics to begin the process for his predecessor, the late Pope John Paul II, who died on April 2. During his funeral mass on April 8, many people in the crowded St. Peter's Square shouted out, "Santo Subito," which means "Sainthood Immediately!"
The first step to sainthood is determining the "heroic" status of his faith, or "veneration." The second status is "beatification." The final step is canonization, or declaring that there is evidence that God affirms the individual's sainthood.
The process, called a cause, began today with a solemn ceremony in the St. John Lateran basilica at the Vatican under the leadership of Cardinal Camillo Ruini, a close adviser of the late pope.
Another key leader, the Rev. Giuseppe D'Alonzo, the promoter of justice for the Diocese of Rome, has the responsibility of acting as "the devil's advocate," exploring & raising all contrary arguments & evidence regarding John Paul II's beatification & sainthood. Polish Monsignor Slawomir Oder is the leader assigned as the postulator, or main advocate, for John Paul II.
Other cause members include an official church delegation from the late pope's native Poland, including retiring Archbishop of Krakow Cardinal Franciszek Macharski and his successor, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, who was also John Paul II's personal secretary. All cause members take the same oath, to "faithfully & diligently" do their work, keep their proceedings secret, & not accept "any type of gift" that might corrupt the process.
The cause first interviews various witnesses to the issue of whether John Paull II's conduct regarding his faith was "heroic," then whether any miracles can be attributed to him after his death. No authenticated miracles are necessary for him to be declared venerable. One authenticated miracle is necessary for him to be beatified, 2 for sainthood. The results of the cause's investigation into his heroic status will be turned over to the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, which appoints commissions to review and report to the current Pope, who makes the decision to declare someone venerable or to announce beatification. Declaring someone a saint is done by the pope in cosultation with the Vatican hierarchy. The entire process can take many years or even centuries.
The Lord's Servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will give them a change of heart leading to a knowledge of the truth
II Timothy 2:24-26