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Sojourners

Church of England Names Its First Woman Bishop; Libby Lane to Assume Historic Role

The Church of England announced on Dec. 17 that Libby Lane, a parish priest from Hale, a small village outside Manchester, would become its first woman bishop, ending centuries of all-male leadership in this country’s established church.

The announcement from Downing Street, the prime minister’s official residence in London, came just a month after changes to canon law making it possible for women to assume the role of suffragan and diocesan bishops.

Lane, 48, a mother of two and the wife of an Anglican vicar, will be consecrated as the eighth bishop of Stockport, in the Diocese of Chester, at a ceremony at York Cathedral on Jan. 26. Her appointment is as a suffragan bishop — a bishop subordinate to a metropolitan or diocesan bishop.

On her surprise appointment, she said: “This is unexpected and very exciting. I’m honored and thankful to be called to serve as the next bishop of Stockport and not a little daunted to be entrusted with such a ministry.”

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2014 in Review: An Unsettling Year, with Religion in a Starring Role

For most of recorded history, Isis was an Egyptian goddess, a benevolent type who cared for widows and orphans, cured the sick and even brought the dead back to life.

This year, the world met the other ISIS.

The rise of the so-called Islamic State, variously known as ISIS or ISIL, dominated headlines in 2014 as a self-proclaimed caliphate sowed death and destruction across Iraq and Syria.  For some, the group confirmed their worst fears about Muslim extremists, bent on killing religious minorities and subjugating women in a quest for domination that included leveling villages and beheading hostages.

The terror wrought by the Islamic State reflected a sense of turbulence that upended international news in 2014. But it was not the only source of unrest. The Ebola virus in west Africa put the world on edge, and a bloody war between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza, kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria and the slaughter of more than 100 children at a military school in Pakistan added to the mix.

At home, America wrestled with police brutality as grand juries declined to prosecute officers in the deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City. From botched prison executions to a stream of desperate migrant children flooding America’s southern border, things felt troubled, disorienting, always on the verge of breaking apart.

Religion played a large role in those stories, and in other major headlines from 2014:

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If Rome Wins 2024 Summer Olympics, Vatican Could Host Competitions

Major sporting events could be held at the Vatican if Rome wins its bid to host the Summer Olympics in 2024.

Pope Francis, a keen soccer fan, is reported to be enthusiastic about the idea. He is expected to meet the head of Italy’s National Olympic Committee, Giovanni Malago, and other officials at the Vatican on Dec. 19 after a Mass to commemorate the committee’s 100th anniversary

Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, former head of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, said he believed Francis would back plans to hold events such as archery in the Vatican gardens.

He told the Florence daily La Nazione that events could also be staged at the pope’s summer palace at Castel Gandolfo outside Rome.

“It seems like a good idea, I think the pope will approve,” Saraiva Martins said.

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Alan Gross Release Hailed as Hanukkah ‘Miracle,’ First Step in ‘Normalized’ U.S.-Cuba Relations

Alan Gross, the Jewish international aid worker held on alleged spy charges in Cuba for five years, was freed on Dec. 17 — what some are calling a Hanukkah miracle on the first day of the holiday that celebrates religious freedom.

Gross, 65, of Maryland, has always claimed that he only went to Cuba to bring communications equipment to the small Jewish community left in Havana. However, the Castro government said he was part of a spy network attempting to set up a secret network for Cuban Jews. Gross was serving a 15-year sentence.

President Obama chose the Dec. 17 release as a springboard to announce a massive historic “normalization” of U.S.-Cuba relations. Meantime, in Cuba, President Raul Castro, who held a press conference in Havana at noon, was expected to release 53 Cuban political prisoners.

Obama particularly credited the “moral example of Pope Francis,” who actively encouraged Gross’ release. Francis, who held private meetings at the Vatican to secure the deal, praised the move, sending “his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the Governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history.”

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The Birth of Jesus Is Not a Sweet Story

I had just started as pastor of a large church when a key leader took me aside and said I was free to preach about anything I wanted, except homosexuality.

He didn’t want to hear any sermons addressing the issue then dominating many conversations among Christians. Keep the topic in the closet.

Sixteen years before, in a town once governed by the Klan, a leader told me not to preach about race. Too many people remembered signs saying, “Negroes must be out of town by sundown.”

Many clergy have been told, in terms ranging from kindly counsel to peremptory demand, to “keep politics out of the pulpit.”

Many a mainline pastor will attest: The one topic that Jesus addressed more than any other — wealth and power — was declared off-limits in congregations that hoped to attract wealthy constituents and their budget-saving pledges.

Many churches gave up their ethical voice in exchange for money, the very trade Jesus warned us against. The issue wasn’t partisan campaigning or endorsing specific candidates — a clear violation — but any mention at all of race, sexuality, warfare or economic injustice.

As a reader recently wrote me: “I hear enough about blacks on TV.”

So it is that Christmas becomes a sweet story and a centerpiece for family love. 

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Secular Solstice: Doing Good for Goodness’ Sake

It’s a common ritual in religious observances this time of year: Light a candle against the darkness, the winter, the uncertainty of the world.

But a newly minted observance called Secular Solstice adds its own spin. Those lighting the candles are nonbelievers — humanists, atheists, skeptics, and other freethinkers — and the candles represent no unseen divinity, but the actions and intentions of those who light them to make the world a better place.

“We live in a world beyond the reach of God,” one of the service’s many readers said as 130 or so people gathered huddled over white candles in glass votives at Humanist Hall — a purple-painted house near downtown Oakland. “It is a hard universe. If we want to build a softer universe we will have to do it ourselves.” As a choir broke into “Here Comes the Sun,” an inscription painted on the wall beamed down upon the gathered, “The world is my country, to do good is my religion.”

Secular Solstice is the handiwork of Raymond Arnold, a 28-year-old Catholic-turned-humanist who wanted to do something meaningful with friends in mid-December. He put together the first Secular Solstice — a two-hour blend of music and readings by candlelight — last year in New York, where he works as a web developer.

He struck a nerve — the first Secular Solstice was packed, and this year there will be Secular Solstices in New York, Seattle, San Diego, and Leipzig, Germany. 

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The Vatican vs. the Nuns: 3 Takeaways from the Vatican's Investigation of Women's Religious Communities

The moment was more “Kumbaya” than “Come to Jesus” on Dec. 16 as the Vatican released the much-anticipated results of an investigation of women’s religious communities in the U.S., the first of two controversial investigations of American nuns by the Roman Curia.

The 5,200-word report was largely positive, and participants at a Vatican news conference were even more effusive in their praise for each other, the process, the outcome, and prospects for future collaboration to meet serious challenges. That was a big change from how things started six years ago.

So what did we learn from this whole saga? Here are three takeaways:

1. Rome’s “War on Women” is over

“It is not a truce,” Sister Sharon Holland of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the main network of U.S. nuns, told reporters in Rome. “We are not at war.”

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Report: Vatican Investigation Ends with Praise of U.S. Nuns

The much anticipated final report of a Vatican-ordered investigation of U.S. nuns was released today without controversy.
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Cardinal Timothy Dolan Cuts Ties with Anti-Abortion Crusader Frank Pavone

In the latest clash between the Catholic hierarchy and one of the church’s leading anti-abortion crusaders, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan accused the Rev. Frank Pavone of continuing to stonewall on financial reforms, and Dolan said he is cutting ties with his group, Priests for Life.

In a Nov. 20 letter to other U.S. bishops, Dolan said he did not know if the Vatican would now step in to take action against the New York-based priest, who for years has angered various bishops by rejecting oversight of the organization by church authorities and for refusing to sort out his group’s troubled finances.

“My requests of Father Pavone were clear and simple: one, that Priests for Life undergo a forensic audit; two, that a new, independent board be established to provide oversight and accountability,” Dolan wrote in the letter, which was first reported by Catholic World News.

“Although Father Pavone initially assured me of his support, he did not cooperate. Frequent requests that he do so went unheeded. I finally asked him to comply by October 1st. He did not,” Dolan wrote.

Dolan, who had been asked by the Vatican to help Pavone restructure Priests for Life, said in the letter that he has informed Rome that “I am unable to fulfill their mandate, and want nothing further to do with the organization.”

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Rabbi David Saperstein Confirmed as U.S. Ambassador for Religious Freedom

The Senate has confirmed Rabbi David Saperstein as the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, making him the first non-Christian to hold the job.

Saperstein, who led the Reform Jewish movement’s Washington office for 40 years, focusing on social justice and religious freedom issues, was nominated by President Obama in July and confirmed by a 62-35 vote on Dec. 12.

Saperstein takes a liberal bent on domestic issues, and all but one of the votes against him came from a Republican.

“Religious freedom faces daunting and alarming challenges worldwide,” Saperstein said at his confirmation hearing in September. “If confirmed, I will do everything within my abilities and influence to engage every sector of the State Department and the rest of the U.S. government to integrate religious freedom into our nation’s statecraft and foreign policies.”

Saperstein, named the most influential rabbi in America by Newsweek magazine in 2009, will head the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, where he will be tasked with monitoring religious freedom abuses around the world.

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