Knoxville News-Sentinel

As I head out the door: Online ordinations fight in Tennessee raises old church-state question

As I head out the door: Online ordinations fight in Tennessee raises old church-state question

If you have read GetReligion for a while — several years at least — you know that when you see images of mountains in East Tennessee and North Carolina, that means that it’s finally vacation season at this here weblog.

Well, “VACATION” doesn’t mean that we close down. It just means that people come and go — not to be confused with Bobby Ross, Jr., heading to Texas Ranger games — so you may see business days with one or two posts instead of the usual three. But the cyber doors will never close. I’m about to leave my home office in one set of mountains (the Cumberlands) to hide away (near a WIFI cafe) for a couple of days in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

But before I go, let me point readers to a very interesting church-state story developing here in the Volunteer State, a story that raises a very important question that shows up in religion news every now and then. The headline: “Internet church sues Tennessee over law banning weddings by online-ordained ministers.”

That question is: What — in legal, not theological terms — is a “church”? Here is the overture, care of the Knoxville News-Sentinel:

A Seattle-based online church is suing the state of Tennessee over a new law that bars online-ordained ministers from performing weddings.

Universal Life Church Ministries filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. … The law, which states that "persons receiving online ordinations may not solemnize the rite of matrimony" was to go into effect July 1. But Chief District Judge Waverly Crenshaw scheduled a July 3 hearing in Nashville on the restraining order requested by ULCM attorneys. …

ULCM describes itself as a "non-denominational, non-profit religious organization famous worldwide for its provision of free, legal ordinations to its vast membership over the internet." It has ordained more than 20 million people, including singer-actress Lady Gaga, talk show host Stephen Colbert and actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

The bottom line is right here:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

You think Southern Baptist life is complicated? Independent Baptist world is really wild

You think Southern Baptist life is complicated? Independent Baptist world is really wild

We should deal with Westboro Baptist Church question right up front.

Was the late Pastor Fred “God Is Your Enemy“ Phelps, Sr., a Baptist?

Certainly. He was a Baptist because his small, independent flock called itself “Baptist “ and he was its leader. So there.

Next question: Is former President Bill Clinton a Baptist? The odds are 100-1 that the answer remains “yes,” since Clinton has been a member of many Southern Baptist churches during his lifetime. In 2018, Clinton made a Charlotte pilgrimage to view the casket of the late Rev. Billy Graham, paying homage to the Southern Baptist evangelist who was one of his heroes — as a Bible Belt boy and as a politico with a complex private life.

So who gets to decide who is a Baptist and who is not? To adapt a saying by the great William F. Buckley, is there a way to definitively prove that Mao Zedong wasn’t a Baptist?

Here’s the newsworthy, but related, question right now: Who gets to say who is a “Southern Baptist”? That’s the topic that dominated this week’s “Crossroads” podcast conversation — click here to tune that in — in the wake of the national Southern Baptist Convention meetings last week. That gathering in Birmingham, Ala., made lots of headlines because of the complicated, often emotional discussions of how to fight sexual abuse in SBC congregations.

Since SBC churches are autonomous, leaders of the national convention — lacking the legal ties associated with the word “denomination” — can’t order folks at the local level to take specific actions, including on issues linked to the ordination, hiring and firing of ministers.

So how can the SBC get local pastors and church leaders to crack down on sexual abuse? That was the topic of a post I wrote called, “Kick 'em out? Southern Baptists seek ways to fight sexual abuse in autonomous local churches.” Apparently, leaders at the national level have decided to adopt tactics that have been used at the “associational” (local or regional) level or in state conventions — “breaking fellowship” with congregations that cross controversial doctrinal lines. In the past, progressive Baptists protested when some associations and states used this tactic to deal with the ordination of women and, more recently, various LGBTQ ministry issues.

Now this strategy will be used with churches that fail to meet certain standards linked to preventing sexual abuse, caring for victims and handling future accusations. Thus, I wrote:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Facing the heart of Jean Vianney: Reporters should be careful when covering saints and prayer

Facing the heart of Jean Vianney: Reporters should be careful when covering saints and prayer

This post is brought to you by the letter “V” — as in “veneration.”

Trust me, as someone who has made the journey from being a Southern Baptist preacher’s son to ancient Eastern Orthodox Christianity, I am well aware that talking about prayer and the saints is a theological minefield. Part of the problem is that some Catholics do, from time to time, use language that is a bit, well, sloppy or sentimental when talking about the saints. This then lights fuses for many Protestants who are quick to attack centuries of tradition seen in ancient churches.

Now, mix in a news hook that involves “relics” and you have the potential for mistakes that can cause waves of angry emails to the newsroom.

So here is the Gannett Tennessee wire story that I want to praise. The headline in the Knoxville News-Sentinel version: “Why the (literal) heart of Saint Jean Vianney is coming to Knoxville.”

NASHVILLE — Catholics in Tennessee are lining up to see a relic of a nineteenth century French priest.

The heart of Saint Jean Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, is traveling the country and making a one-day stop at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knoxville. … On Wednesday, the heart relic was at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville.

After the morning Mass wrapped up, churchgoers stood single file in the center aisle waiting to take in the small, dark object nestled in an ornate, gold case. The relic is considered to be the physical, incorrupted heart of Vianney, who died Aug. 4, 1859.

The faithful took turns quietly kneeling before the relic under the watchful eye of a member of the Knights of Columbus. The fraternal Catholic organization is not only sponsoring the relic's seven-month tour of the U.S., but guarding it while on public display.

Right. The big word is “kneeling.” Here in the Bible Belt that kind of language, and action, can make lots of people sweat.

But the story quickly turns to the Rev. Edward Steiner, pastor of the Nashville cathedral, for an explanation of what is happening and what is NOT happening:

The Catholics who approached the relic are not worshiping it, Steiner said, but venerating it.

Please respect our Commenting Policy