The mundane, worldly rhythms of life and death, conflict and reconciliation seemed more pronounced in the religious world in 1999, a year in which no single event such as 1998's impeachment of President Clinton dominated the moral and ethical news.
At the start of 1999, it appeared the millennial hoopla over apocalyptic end-time scenarios drawn from the New Testament Book of Revelation might dominate the year's religion news. But by year's end, such theologically inspired scenarios had largely been shelved.
What millennial concerns remained focused on the technical--possible Y2K computer glitches--and the political--the threat of terrorism.
The moral debate over Clinton's sexual behavior--and the ethical significance of the public's apparent lack of outrage that led to the president's acquittal in the Senate trial--lingered into 1999, although it generated little further moral reflection.
Instead of sex, another ostensibly secular event--war--prompted extensive religious reflection. The ethnic cleansing of mostly Muslim ethnic Albanians by Christian Orthodox Serbs in Kosovo and NATO'S 78-day bombing campaign to end the practice initiated a widespread debate on how to apply the Christian just war theory in contemporary conflicts and the permissibility of armed humanitarian intervention in internal conflicts.
The religious community's role in the Kosovo conflict was most dramatically demonstrated, however, in the successful mission toBelgrade, Yugoslavia, of an interfaith delegation led by the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson of the National Rainbow Coalition. The mission led to freedom for three captured American servicemen.
The debate over the moral propriety of armed humanitarian intervention continued with the autumn United Nations involvement in the Indonesia-controlled territory of largely Catholic East Timor after the Timorese voted for independence from the world's largest Muslim nation.
As the year wound down, Pope John Paul II, in his World Day of Peace message, gave moral support to the use of force by outside institutions to protect civilians in such conflicts.
Mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders, including the pope, and their grass-roots followers also demonstrated that reports of the death of faith-based liberal social activism were greatly exaggerated by mounting the highly visible international Jubilee 2000 campaign.
The campaign seeks the forgiveness of debts of the world's poorest nations. In the United States, Congress passed legislation providing for unilateral American debt relief and Clinton, in signing the bill, singled out for praise the faith community's efforts on behalf of the proposal.
Abroad, Christian minorities found themselves in conflict with non-Christian majorities in other parts of Indonesia as well as Pakistan and India. John Paul, in his trip to the latter nation, eloquently pleaded for religious peace and denied charges Christians were involved in coercive efforts to convert Hindus to Christianity.
On the positive side, the Catholic-Protestant sectarian strife in Northern Ireland marked by three decades of violence and killing was eased, if not ultimately resolved, with the installation of a home-rule government including both Protestants and Catholics.
Along more religious institutional lines, top Lutheran and Roman Catholic leaders met in Augsburg, Germany, to sign a historic accord on the doctrine of justification--how one is made right with God--that had divided the two faiths since the Reformation of the 16th century. Lutherans also agreed, at their August Churchwide Assembly, to enter in full communion with the Episcopal Church.
The peripatetic John Paul also made ecumenical history by being the first pope to visit predominantly Christian Orthodox nations, with visits to Romania and Georgia. But at the end of the year, he acknowledged one of his disappointments was that Catholic-Orthodox relations had not made more progress.
John Paul also made a whirlwind January visit to St. Louis, where the emphasis was on youth activities. The visit was widely seen as quite possibly his last to the United States, given the pope's advanced age and frail health.
Catholic-Jewish relations, which have made great strides under John Paul, hit a bumpy patch in 1999 with a highly public debate over the role of the church, especially Pope Pius XII, during the Holocaust. Near the end of the year, the Vatican and Jewish leaders announced a joint Jewish-Catholic team of top-level scholars would study Vatican documents from the era.
Still, leaders from a host of faith traditions gathered in three separate international conferences in the last quarter of the year--in Assisi, Italy; at the World Conference on Religion and Peace in Amman, Jordan; and at the Parliament of World Religions in Capetown, South Africa--to promote interreligious tolerance and dialogue.
Christian-Muslim tensions in the Middle East, however, threatened to throw a pall over John Paul's planned visit to the region in March 2000. The tensions arose over plans for a mosque to be built adjacent to the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, which tradition says marks the spot where the angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to Jesus. The Vatican hinted John Paul might skip his visit to Nazareth if the mosque construction goes forward.
Nor was all well with mainstream ecumenism in the United States. In October, just weeks before the National Council of Churches was to celebrate its 50th anniversary, the United Methodist Church announced it was suspending its payment to the NCC until the ecumenical agency got its fiscal house in order, including taking steps to reduce a $4 million deficit.
At its Cleveland meeting the council installed civil rights leader and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young as its new president and named former Rep. Bob Edgar, D-Pa., to be general secretary, succeeding the retiring Campbell. In December the United Methodists said they would lift the suspension.
On the other side of the theological and political spectrum, the once-powerful Christian Coalition experienced a year of woe, including the departure of its top leadership, turmoil in its staff and a diminished influence on Republican Party politics.
Nor was it an easy year for the National Baptist Convention, USA, as its president, the Rev. Henry Lyons, was imprisoned after being convicted of fraud. Lyons resigned and was replaced by the Rev. Clay Shaw of Philadelphia.
Internal strife also dominated the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. In a potentially far-reaching event, a rebellion by lay members of the church, organized largely through the Internet, forced the replacement of the unpopular Archbishop Spyridon. The rebellion starkly showed the Americanization--and consequent democratization--of the traditionally rigidly hierarchical church, as well as the power of the new technologies.
The volatile debate over human sexuality engulfed a number of denominations over the year. United Methodists defrocked the Rev. Jimmy Creech and suspended the Rev. Gregory Dell from the ministry for participating in same-sex union ceremonies.
The Vatican ordered a Roman Catholic priest and nun, the Rev. Robert Nugent and Sister Jeannine Gramick, to end their ministry with homosexuals. At least two Southern Baptist congregations were suspended from their state associations for taking pro-gay stands.
The international themes of religious persecution and proselytizing also echoed in the United States. The congressionally mandated U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom began operation, issuing a series of statements critical of the treatment of religious believers in China, Sudan and elsewhere.
The April shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., where one of those killed was a student allegedly shot after she said she was a Christian, and the September shootings at a youth rally at Wedgewood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, led some evangelical leaders to ponder whether persecution of Christians had come home to America.
At the same time, the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, sparked a domestic debate over the contentious conversion issue by releasing prayer guides for its members to pray that Jews, Hindus and Muslims come to believe in Jesus.