Religiously Speaking


Frances Stebbins

Bishop Election, 500 observance make 2017 a memorable year

It’s a busy time for Virginia Lutherans, especially ones around Salem which is a center of the denomination’s activity with synod headquarters, a church college, a major retirement home and the offices for family ministries all within a few miles of each other.

After more than 15 years on the job, James Mauney is retiring as bishop, and his successor is being sought after receiving direct input from his/her future flock.

The results of a comprehensive questionnaire sent to all members of congregations throughout most of the state are in. They have been received by a committee chosen last year after Mauney announced his wish to put his traveling years behind him. The annual assembly scheduled Friday through Sunday, June 9-11, in Salem, will be the last at which he will preside.

Along with the current leadership of the state administrative body represented by a man or woman called a bishop, 2017 happens to be the 500th Anniversary of an event recorded –if somewhat inaccurately, scholars now think–of the start of the Protestant Reformation. On Halloween in 1517 a Roman Catholic monk of the order of St. Augustine, Martin Luther, nailed on the door of his parish church in Germany a list of theological points (“theses”) he wished to debate with his church’s superiors.

Out of this event, many decades and armed conflicts later in Europe, came the myriad of church groups known today. Religious in a secular world, the event still makes all the history books.

At Roanoke College, the second oldest Lutheran institution in America, this school year has been filled with a variety of guest lecturers offering old and new observations about Brother Martin, the Medieval reformer.

I’ve attend two of these, both with young women scholars the guest speakers. Both have discoursed in a style befitting the academic world but often a challenge for their hearers unversed in religious concepts.

Dr. Sarah Hinlicky-Wilson, who has presented or served as a panelist for several gatherings, is a daughter of long-time Roanoke College professor, Dr. Paul Hinlicky.

The college is proud of its department of religion and ethics, and its faculty includes several tenured professors who make their knowledge available to church folk in the valley as well as enriching their students.

Young Dr. Hinlicky on a February evening considered the connection between Luther’s view of God and how certain practices common to Pentecostals may be seen to stem from it. Visiting her family in Salem, she’s back from eight years of association with Pentecostal Christians in Strasbourg, France.

Despite a perception that Lutherans concentrate on the intellect and the need for specific beliefs, Hinlicky demonstrated that the warmth and vitality of “religion of the heart” is found in both those who worship  loudly and emotionally and others used to a more structured  and formal style.

The speaker identified three types of Pentecostals. They include the traditional dating in America from around 1900 but popularized by Californian Aimee Semple McPherson, along with a newer group called “charismatics” which caught on with many mainstream denominations in the 1960s and a poorly-defined third group found in many less-developed nations.

Sarah Hinlicky, her husband and son now live in St. Paul, Minn.  where she edits the “Luther Forum” magazine and educates as in Salem. Back to finding a bishop.

Tabulations from the questionnaire reveal that a high percentage of the respondents –more of them women –are over 50.  They want their bishop to maintain a middle-of-the road stance on controversial issues –not preach politics from the pulpit, one said emphatically.  An experienced administrator but also one who can relate to the issues of the pastors of the synod also were seen as highly important, for bishops of any denomination have usually also served congregations.

Finally, respondents strongly supported new and existing work with youth and young adults, the Power in the Spirit educational summer conference at the college and the agencies caring for people –the elderly, foster children and dysfunctional families.

Several respondents pointed out that some tiny rural congregations need to be closed or merged with others, for the cost of a fulltime or even supply pastor is realistically beyond their reach.