Journalists Rate Year's Stories

From Associated Press

Various experts may shuffle the lists of the year's top religion stories a bit, but the same stories usually show up somewhere in the upper brackets.

That is the case in 1991 in comparing the choices made by members of the Religion Newswriters Assn., made up of reporters covering religion for the secular press, and by two respected religion journals, Christianity Today and Christian Century.

Those two magazines both cited the Gulf War and its religious ramifications as the No. 1 religion story, while it was ranked fourth in the survey of news writers association members.

The religion writers put in first place the upheaval in the churches over sexual ethics, as epitomized in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which knocked down efforts to condone sex relations among homosexuals and among the unmarried.

While traditional standards were upheld, the sexuality conflict is denominationally widespread and continuing in mainline Protestantism. Christian Century, an ecumenical weekly, ranked that issue in second place.

It was ranked third by Christianity Today, an evangelical fortnightly.

Both it and the more liberal Century gave a high place to the immense reforms allowing religious freedom in eastern Europe. To Christianity Today, that was the second-place story after the Gulf War and was third for Christian Century, after the war and controversy over sexual ethics.

Members of the news writers group ranked the religion reforms in former communist areas as No. 2, after the tumult over sexuality, with third place going to the breakup of monopolistic control over the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Those important finds of more than 40 years ago--20% still remain unpublished--now have become available to scholars generally. Christianity Today ranked that story 10th, while the Century ranked it ninth.

Here are some of the other, often intertwining rankings by the three sets of religion watchers, with some distinct contrasts:

Religious concern about "right to die" and euthanasia proposals, along with controversy about Derek Humphry's suicide manual, "Final Exit." This was rated fourth both by Christianity Today and the Century, 10th by the news writers.

The start of Middle East peace talks was ranked fifth by Century, but did not make the top 10 in the Christianity Today or the news writers survey.

Suspension of participation by five Eastern Orthodox denominations in the National Council of Churches because of asserted liberal leanings by some members was ranked sixth by the Century and seventh by the news writers.

That story did not make the Christianity Today list. But the magazine ranked fifth the erosion of protection of religious freedoms as a result of a Supreme Court decision that a state need not show "compelling interest" to restrict religious practice.

Neither the Century nor the news writers included that story in their top 10.

However, all three sources included the continuing factional struggle among Southern Baptists as fundamentalists widened their control over denominational agencies and moderates formed their own fellowship, without splitting from the denomination.

The news writers rated that story as sixth while Christianity Today and the Century ranked it seventh.

Demonstrations against abortion clinics, including one leading to more than 1,000 arrests in Wichita, Kan., was the news writers' fifth-ranked story, and sixth to editors of Christianity Today. But that one did not make the Century list.

The economic squeeze on church programs and personnel and the shifting religious landscape in Latin America toward a greater Protestant presence were ranked eighth and ninth by Christianity Today.

But neither made the top 10 of the news writers or the Century.

The Century named in 10th place a special kind of story not mentioned by the others--the death of the "god" of Soviet communism.

"With its own salvation history, sacred places and revered persons, communism was 'the profession of a definite faith'--one that transfers all the functions of the church to the state," the Century said.

"With the failure of the coup against Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the icons fell, Leningrad became St. Petersburg again, and most breathtakingly, the Communist Party was dissolved.

"But the consequences of this misdirected faith have yet to expend themselves. In the uncertain present, words of Alexander Herzen written in 1851 seem eerily appropriate:

" 'For the Russian people the past is dark, the present is terrible, but for all that, it . . . has the audacity to hope; and it hopes all the more, since it possesses so little.' "

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