What the Hell!?
No Anglican Hell!!
by Conrad Goeringer
AANEWS from American Atheists

July 15, 1996

It seems that religious doctrine -- for the major churches, anyway -- is just a malleable sell-line to sucker believers and attract new members to replace dwindling ranks. After all, you'd think that if a god or gods existed, things like heaven, hell or other religious tenets would be pretty firmly established in the existential firmament, right? Not so with the Church of England. The Anglican General Synod this past weekend decided that Hell is "a state of non-being and not one of eternal torment," according to the Electronic Telegraph.

"A report which says there is no fire and brimstone beyond the grave was overwhelmingly backed ... and recommended as a 'substantial contribution to the Church'."

That's good to know. But how, possibly, could those staid Anglican officials know such a thing? And what about all those decades and centuries of teaching that hell was something out of Dante? Still, some churchmen didn't like the no-hellfire-and-brimstone approach to eternity. Rev. Andrew Dow remarked during a fierce debate within the Synod that "Many people will think it unacceptable that Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot are just snuffed out with everyone else not in Heaven ... We have to restore some element of the fear of God the Judge.

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Pope: Church to
Seek Forgiveness
in New Millennium
by Philip Pullella
Copyright © 1999 Reuters News Service

September 1, 1999

Vatican City -- Pope John Paul II said Wednesday the Catholic Church would start a new page of its history in 2000 by seeking forgiveness for its past errors, injustices and human rights offenses.

Speaking at his weekly general audience, the pope did not specifically list the church's past errors but previous Vatican documents have spoken of seeking forgiveness for its treatment of Jews, the Inquisition and human rights abuses.

"As the church looks to the great jubilee of the year 2000, she is aware of her continual need of purification and penance," he said.

"She therefore wishes to ask pardon for the sins and weaknesses of her children down the ages."

The pope said the church intended to use the millennium to "start a new page of history."

Among the church's past sins, he said, was "the use of force in order to impose the truth" -- an apparent reference to forced conversions of Jews and other people.

He also mentioned seeking pardon for "the failure to respect and defend human rights."

Catholics around the world are due to mark a day of "Request for Forgiveness" on March 8, 2000. It is one of the dozens of theme days the church has chosen for millennium celebrations, which begin Dec. 24 and end Jan. 6, 2001.

"In seeking God's forgiveness at the threshold of the third millennium, the church wishes to learn from the past," he said, adding that it did not fear the truth.

In a major document last year, the Vatican apologized for Catholics who failed to do enough to help Jews against Nazi persecution during the Holocaust and acknowledged centuries of Catholic preaching of contempt for Jews.

In an apparent reference to the Holocaust, the pope on Wednesday spoke of "the failure of not a few Christians to be discerning regarding situations of violations of human rights."

"The request for forgiveness is valid for what was not done or for the failure to speak out," he said.

Mitigating historical factors could not exonerate the church from being "profoundly sorry for the weaknesses of so many of its sons and daughters which disfigured its image," he said.

The pope has said in documents and speeches in the past that the church needed to assume responsibility for the Inquisition, marked by the torture and killing of people branded as heretics.

One of the first steps of John Paul II's papacy, which began in 1978, was to begin procedures leading to the rehabilitation in 1992 of Galileo, the Italian astronomer persecuted by the church for teaching that the Earth revolved around the sun.

The Inquisition condemned Galileo in 1633 because his teachings clashed with the Bible, which read: "God fixed the earth upon its foundation, not to be moved forever." Galileo was rehabilitated after 359 years.

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Pre-Millennium Madness or Con Game?

Church Probes Irish Lass
Who Battles Devil
in Her Kitchen
by AANEWS from American Atheists

June 18, 1996

Like the Protestant reformer Martin Luther, Christina Gallagher claims that she wrestles with Satan. She also claims that she's pals with Jesus Christ, communes with the Virgin Mary, and has horrific visions of doom and destruction concerning the upcoming millennium. For some, she has become the center of a virtual cult; and Roman Catholic Church authorities are now looking into Ms. Gallagher to see if she's plugged into the sacred cosmos, is mad, or is just running a financial con game involving religious kitsch and chain letters.

Ms. Gallagher lives on Cahill Island off the western coast of Ireland in a renovated nunnery she now calls the House of Prayer. Her claims of visions and wondrous powers have attracted a growing throng of believers -- and the just plain curious -- to this remote site. It's been good business for local merchants and hoteliers, who count thousands of new tourists flocking to Ms. Gallagher's. According to Electronic Telegraph, "hundreds of pilgrims come by plane, coach and car to see her."

During weekend "services," Christina Gallagher schmoozes with admirers and conducts prayer. There is a small chapel at the House of Prayer "decorated in blue, gold and white, festooned with orchids and lilies and overpopulated with statues of the Virgin and Christ."

There's also a religious-kitsch gift shop selling "the usual religious trinketry and bric-a-brac -- luminous rosary beads, Mother of God jigsaws," and a growing number of videos which depict Gallagher's visions. "It is gory stuff," notes the Telegraph. "The Virgin weeps blood, the Pope bleeds from a stomach wound, Christ is scourged, Hell is 'an endless sea of fire'." There are predictions of mass-starvation, nuclear war and social upheaval -- the sorts of prognostications which many social scientists expect will increase in number as society approaches the third millennium.

The Roman Catholic Church has announced that they will officially be investigating Christina Gallagher and her claims. But Cardinal Cahal Daly, the Vatican's man-in-Ireland, warns of "a proliferation of alleged visions, apparitions and messages" as we count down to the biggest New Year's Eve party ever. He told the Telegraph the church investigators will focus on Gallagher's claims of miracles cures and "stigmata", a phenomena where believers supposedly manifest wounds in their hands and feet similar to those allegedly suffered by J.C. "on the cross."

Oh, yeah, there's another twist to the story. Seems that with all of that ju-ju and mystical power at the House of Prayer, both Gallagher and her "spiritual advisor" -- identified as Father Gerard McGinnitty, want to keep the press and others at arm's distance. The building is locked-tight and has video cameras and an elaborate security alarm system, and according to the Telegraph "Islanders mutter about the profits and point to plans to expand their accommodations and build a restaurant. They also speak of a chain-letter prayer with demands for donations."

Ms. Gallagher may indeed believe that she is for real. Even so, what will she do with all of that money on January 1, 2000?

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Electronic Rituals
Online Absolution and Confessional Hot Lines?
by Conrad Goeringer

December 8, 1996

It wasn't so long ago when we reported that Catholic authorities in Europe were dismayed that a "confession software" kit was on the market, allowing computer users to describe their sins and have the appropriate penalty calculated. Apparently, church doctrine affirms the need that one confess sins to someone, in person, rather than through a chip running at 120 mHz.

But what about a Confession Hot Line?

In Dublin, Tridentine Catholic Bishop Michael Cox has begun a "healing and confession" line in one parish which offers counseling or forgiveness for the equivalent of $1.50 a minute. Callers link in to a menu which offers several options, including a "healing" line and the confession and absolution services.

Such a deal! You can be wicked, receive forgiveness for transgressions, and do so with the total anonymity of a phone call! And besides, at less than 50% the charge of most Psychic Hot Lines, it's a hell of a lot cheaper -- and just as ineffective.

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Religious Eatery Closed
(Like Ezekiel 4:12-14, this one's not for weak stomachs)
by Woody Johnson

May 28, 1996

Dobbigan, California -- County officials closed a Mexican restaurant at a retreat operated by the California-based Church of the ABC of Abraham, after a thorough inspection of the restaurant revealed a bizarre violation of the State Health and Safety Code.

Restaurante La Cucaracha ("The Cockroach") served gourmet Mexican food to church members and tourists visiting the sect's rural retreat until Sunday, when health inspectors closed the facility

Yuro County Health Department, in its official statement, cited its principal reason for shutting down the restaurant is the fact that "semen is not a food and cannot legally be served as a condiment in restaurants in California."

Members of the community believe their Leader's semen to be a sacrament, the consumption of which magically links the astral bodies of the group's membership and ensures group unity through the difficult reincarnation process.

"The condiment was not available to non-members and thus posed no threat to the community," said their lawyer, Avramel Gittleson. "Members are entitled to consume the condiment as a religious sacrament under the first amendment as well as the Religious Freedom Act of 1993."

But county officials have a different view. "We've had complaints from several former members and their guests who were served meals without full disclosure," said County Health Commissioner Mark Everett.

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But Pastor Says Congregation
Will Hold Firm To Its Traditions

Snake Kills Evangelist
by Kent Faulk
The Birmingham News Staff Writer

October 6, 1998

Macedonia, Alabama -- The congregation of a small Jackson County church where a snake-handling evangelist died from a serpent's bite this weekend won't change its practices, the church's pastor said Monday.

"We still believe in the same thing," said the Rev. Billy Summerford, pastor of Rock House Holiness Church.

The Rev. John Wayne "Punkin" Brown Jr., 34, of Parrottsville, Tennessee, died Saturday night while handling a four-foot timber rattlesnake during a sermon, preaching on for a quarter-hour after he was bitten. His wife died of a snake bite three years ago.

On Saturday, Brown was clutching the snake in his right hand when it bit him on the middle finger of his left, between the knuckle and first joint, said Jackson County Sheriff's Chief Investigator Chuck Phillips.

The Rev. Gene Sherbert, of Temple, Georgia, was next to Brown. "He looked at me and I knowed he was bit and I put it (the snake) back in the box," he said.

Brown continued to speak but faltered about 15 minutes later, Sherbert said. The 50 to 75 attending the service gathered around Brown, prayed and tried to make him comfortable by putting an electric fan above him, he said.

Brown died within minutes.

He was pronounced dead at Jackson County Hospital in Scottsboro.

The Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences took Brown's body for an autopsy to make sure he died from the snake bite and that the bite didn't trigger another problem, said Jackson County Coroner Jim Grigg.

No criminal charges are pending, Phillips said. "It's not illegal. It's part of a religious service.... It was his own snakes that bit him," he said.

Authorities have video tapes of Saturday night's service but are not releasing them.

Brown, who had been preaching at a revival since last Wednesday, was known throughout the Southeast as an evangelist who had been handling serpents since he was 17. Brown's father also is a serpent handling preacher.

Brown had been bitten 22 times before the final strike. His wife, Melinda, died in August 1995 after being bit while handling a snake. The Browns had five children.

"It was the hand of God. It was his time to go," said the Rev. Carl Porter, a serpent-handling pastor of a church in Kingston, Georgia, who came to Rock House Holiness Church within a few hours after Brown died.

"He was really looking forward to that day anyway" when he would see his wife again, Porter said.

Porter, who took home Brown's two snakes, said he plans to give them to Brown's brother who lives in Newport, Tennessee.

Summerford, who has been bitten five times while handling snakes, said his church won't change.

"The church is a believing church," he said.

Serpent handling continues to be practiced in some churches, primarily in Appalachia. The members of at least three churches on Sand Mountain handle serpents, Porter said.

Summerford's brother pastors another serpent-handling church in Jackson County. And his cousin, the Rev. Glenn Summerford, was the pastor of another -- until his conviction in 1992 for attempting to murder his wife by forcing her hand into cages of agitated rattlesnakes.

Most states, except Georgia and West Virginia, have laws prohibiting snake handling with a fine of $100 to $150, Porter said. Most, however, don't enforce it because authorities see it as a religious practice, he said.

"I believe in obeying the law of the land, but I believe God's laws come first," Porter said

As the basis for their belief, those who handle serpents cite Mark 16:17-18: "And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover."

Sherbert, who said he has been bitten 23 times and often attends the Jackson County church, doesn't believe Brown's death will faze members. "I think they will be more careful about handling serpents. I think they will wait until the Lord moves on them," he said.

"A lot of people don't understand us. We are just normal people but we believe God's word."

© 1998 The Birmingham News.

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Trouble for a
Snake-Handling Sect
by Conrad Goeringer

December 8, 1996

If you have doubts about opposing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act which guarantees just about any kind of potentially harmful religious ritual (even inflicted on kids), well, read this and grab a snakebite kit. Today's Birmingham News carries a fascinating story about the Rev. Glenn Summerford, former pastor at the Church of Jesus with Signs Following (that's the real name!), and currently a guest of the state correctional authorities. Pastor Summerford was convicted in the 1991 attempted murder of his wife, Darlene, whom he forced to hold her hand in a box full of rattlesnakes until she was bitten.

It seems that Rev. Summerford and his church believe in "snake handling," based upon the Biblical injunction that the faithful should "take up serpents." It has been estimated that as many as 15,000 persons in the country may practice this rite for religious reasons, but law officers say that the pastor's motivation for having his wife follow such an edict may have been even darker. They insist that Rev. Glenn was trying to murder his spouse, although he says that she was bitten "when her faith waivered and denied forcing her hand into the box."

Since the conviction, Rev. Summerford's congregation has disbanded. The snakes were shipped to the University of Alabama for research and experimentation, and Pastor Glenn continues his religious pleadings behind bars. Ms. Summerford, perhaps seeing an opportunity, has disappeared.

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Church of Scientology Kills
Cult Awareness Network
by Conrad Goeringer
AANEWS from American Atheists

December 8, 1996

Lawsuits have driven the Cult Awareness Network into bankruptcy. The group had been under attack for years, but the final blow seems to have been the fifty or so lawsuits filed by the Church of Scientology. Incredible, Scientology has now gained control of the actual CAN name, and according to news reports is even attempting to acquire its files. Scripps Howard News Service notes that "former members of the anti-cult organization fear that as it is absorbed by Scientology, so information about cults and their methods of control could be misused."

Scientology described CAN as "the serpent of hatred, intolerance, violence and death," and supposedly likened it to the Ku Klux Klan.

Marcia Ridin of the International Cult Education Program warns that "What is really alarming is the harassment through the legal system," referring to Scientology's legal attack which included Church members filing 12 suits against Cult Awareness Network in a one-week period. Those suits charged that CAN had denied church members access to conferences and wouldn't allow them to open local CAN offices.

Cult Awareness Network for over decades served as a resource center for information about fringe groups and mind-numbing sects, many of them religious in nature. They never did entirely succeed, though, in successfully distinguishing a "cult" from a more established religion. This writer was always uncomfortable with the slavish desire of CAN to ingratiate itself with "respectable", mainstream religious groups which often just happened to have more money and prestige than the groups they were attacking.

After all, take Scientology. That sci-fi story about Xemu and the Galactic Confederation of so-many-billions-of-years ago isn't that different from the story of the "Fall" and the cosmic soap opera pitting Jehovah and Lucifer.

CAN was also involved in a "cult deprogrammer" scandal, a situation where one of the group's volunteers kidnaped an 18-year-old member of the Life Tabernacle Church, and forced him to watch videos about destructive cults.

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