Top 10 religion stories of 2016

By Institute on Religion and Democracy

A lesbian pastor elected to be a United Methodist bishop, growing Evangelical seminaries and shrinking Oldline Protestant church staff made news in 2016. Below are the Institute on Religion & Democracy’s top church news stories for the year in ascending order, based on the number of page views on the IRD blog Juicy Ecumenism.

10. Episcopal Church Continues Uninterrupted Decline
Sometimes the biggest stories aren’t surprises, but confirm what is already known. Our now-annual autumn overview of the Episcopal Church’s decline charts a downward spiral that began in the early 2000s with the election of a partnered homosexual bishop – and has yet to ease up. In the Episcopal Diocese of New York, nearly 10 percent of members vanished in 2015 alone. IRD’s statistics-rich briefing on the struggling denomination was widely shared and can be viewed here.

9. United Methodists Quit Abortion Coalition
Perhaps the single largest story coming out of the 2016 United Methodist General Conference was a vote to require church boards and agencies to withdraw immediately from an organization that advocates for abortion on demand. Delegates from across the denomination adopted a proposal concluding affiliation with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, garnering coverage from Christianity Today and major secular newspapers including the Houston Chronicle. It was a massive victory for Pro-Life Methodists, and UM Action Director John Lomperis’ press release announcing the news was shared more than 1,600 times on social media. Read his comments here.

8. Financial Crunch Hits United Church of Christ
If times are tough for Oldline Protestant denominations, they are dire for the United Church of Christ. The 60-year-old denomination announced staffing changes in March, along with an internal report predicting a staggering 80 percent decline in membership by 2045. Oldline Protestant churches have been cutting national staff as their adherents’ numbers decline, but two-thirds of national staff gone in the past 16 years is a singular distinction even among the UCC’s struggling peer group. Read more here.

7. Episcopal Priest Underwent Abortion to Finish Divinity School, Later Tanked Parish
Whenever an activist Episcopal priest shows up in the news, as a general rule, scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find a dead or dying congregation. When a Boston-area Episcopal Priest submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court arguing that without having access to abortions, she might not have been able to achieve professional success, IRD published research about her parish. Despite the priest’s assertions that during her leadership the church stabilized and grew, the opposite seems to have actually occurred. Read about her sad legacy here.

6. Lesbian Bishop Election Exacerbates Tensions in United Methodist Church
In July, United Methodists in the denomination’s liberal Western Jurisdiction elected the first openly partnered gay bishop in the 13 million-member global church’s history. Pastor Karen Oliveto of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco, who is married to another woman, criticized the ministry of St. Paul and promoted America’s largest abortion provider. In campaign literature, Oliveto highlighted previously pastoring a church that chose to serve as an illegal medical marijuana dispensary. Readers were interested, and UM Action Director John Lomperis’ comments on the Oliveto election were heavily circulated.

5. The Coming Train Wreck: Progressive UMC Plans for General Conference 2016
Progressive United Methodists are organized and well-resourced, so when a gathering of liberal caucus groups made clear that legislative changes to the church’s teachings on sexuality and marriage were not on the table with the UMC’s majority coalition of U.S. Evangelicals and Global South traditionalists, progressive activists announced a strategy: “new disruptive tactics.” Katy Kiser attended the pre-conference event and authored a report that IRD published as part of our UM Voices series, drawing significant attention. You can read it all here.

4. Russell Moore to Justice Conference: Don’t be Silent on Unborn, Sexuality, and Hell
Southern Baptist Public Policy Chief Russell Moore has earned a reputation for unflinching defense of the Gospel with a gracious tone. This June, we were intrigued that he would be addressing the Justice Conference, a project of World Relief that customarily invites members of the Christian Left to champion issues related to social justice. Moore boldly laid out what it looks like to be a Gospel-centered social justice warrior. He tackled issues ranging from racial injustice, human trafficking, and refugees. But it was his mention of the sanctity of unborn life, sexual ethics, and the reality of Hell that had some in the room squirming uncomfortably in their seats.

3. Karen Oliveto’s Theology of Criticizing Jesus, Defending Demon Possession
Few United Methodists were surprised when the denomination’s liberal Western Jurisdiction elected a San Francisco pastor in a lesbian relationship to become a bishop. But Karen Oliveto’s history of heretical pronouncements and false teaching went far beyond issues of sexuality. Following her election (subsequently challenged before the church’s judicial council), John Lomperis revisited some of Oliveto’s wilder statements, which you can read here.

2. What are America’s Largest Seminaries?
Liberal seminaries affiliated with Oldline Protestant denominations have been struggling for decades. Conversely, many Evangelical institutions have witnessed growth. IRD’s Evangelical Action Director Chelsen Vicari drew from data compiled by the Association of Theological Schools to show that all ten of the top seminaries in the U.S. are Evangelical Christian, six of which are Southern Baptist. Find out which seminaries are succeeding here.

1. Sorry, Jen Hatmaker: Christians Aren’t Complicit in Orlando
Texas-based Christian author, public speaker, and reality-TV personality Jen Hatmaker has an enormous social media following among Evangelical women, with some comparing the author of 7 and For the Love: Fighting for Grace in a World of Impossible Standards to influential women’s Bible study leader Beth Moore. Hatmaker caused a stir this summer when she asserted that Christians were responsible for the attack on Orlando’s Pulse nightclub by a shooter who turned out to be a radicalized jihadist. Derryck Green’s response was widely shared across social media, making it our top story of the year.

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