In this season of personal and corporate introspection, The Washington Post asked a number of area religious leaders what they see as the principal issues facing the institutions of organized religion in the year ahead.
Though the answers covered a lot of territory, common threads link the concerns of Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders:
The soaring divorce rate and attendant deterioration of family life.
Racism in religious institutions and the community at large.
The plight of the poor in this country and abroad.
For Episcopal Bishop John T. Walker, the problems of marriage and family life are at the top of his agenda for the year ahead. Within the church itself, he said, "the incidence of divorce is great enough that we must be concerned about its impact on family life."
Racism "both within the church and outside it" is another of Walker's concerns. "A few years ago we had a sense of satisfaction that we had solved that problem, but that is no longer true," he said.
At a variety of levels -- "in its hiring policies, in the appointment of committees, in how we function as a worshipping community inclusive of all people, we must discover how we make racial minorities in a predominantly white church feel at home . . . both in the church and in the larger community."
Walker also said the church "has a major concern for single persons of marriageable age but who are not married." Such persons -- widowed, divorced, the never-married -- "now create a very large block of people within church life."
The Episcopal bishop also cited as among his priorities for the year ahead the potential for inter-religious relationships and "the vast numbers of social ministries" such as concern for the homeless and "how does the church help its people in facing inflation and rising crime in our community?"
The Rev. Dr. Louis Evans of the National Presbyterian Church echoed Walker's concerns about marriage and the rocketing divorce rate.
"We've become so much a society of convenience that we've forgotten the covenant basis of relationships," he said. Today's sexual permissiveness is "damaging" to society at large because "by nature we are creatures of covenant." Defining covenant relationships as "the glue of a society," Evans said, "either we get back to the covenant relationship or we are doomed."
Evans who was once the pastor of Ronald Reagan and may be so again, also worries about more philosophical issues.
"Can we as a society learn to live with normal human limitations in places of leadership?" he asked. Americans, he suggested, have a "messianic, daddy-fix-it complex" when it comes to their political leaders.
"The new president comes in on a wave of disappointment that Carter hadn't 'fixed' it. Well, no president can 'fix' it." he said, and asked: "Are we as people ready to bite the bullet of leanness and responsibility?"
On another level, Evans voiced a concern expressed by nearly every religious leader.
"As we seek for a balanced budget, I am concerned that we be very wise and discreet about which programs are cut. There are still great areas of human need in this country," he said, calling for programs that tread "the narrow edge between a balanced budget and the provision of necessary human programs."
The Rev. Dr. Lawrence Jones, dean of Howard University's Divinity School, is not optimistic this will happen.
"I am really concerned that [government's] budgeting considerations will be transcendent over human considerations and that there may be an erosion of the quality of life for many, many people," he said.
Jones not only fears cutbacks in government services to the poor, but also sees little hope that proposed economic remedies will reach the large numbers of unemployed youth.
"I'm afraid that with all the emphasis on revitalization of industry, what we really are talking about is an increase in the use of computers and other technology that is not labor intensive . . . Our education program doesn't prepare people for that."
He believes that the churches may have to step up their programs of aid for the destitute.
"It may have the effect of depressing our edifice complexes" and subordinating grandiose building plans in favor of "meeting human needs."
The theologian deplored "movements like Moral Majority and the like that have the patina of religion but really are the expression of social ideas of people who wrap themselves in scriptures . . . They are lost in a Horatio Alger ideology and do not see the structural inequities" that are at the roots of so much poverty, he said.
Like Walker, Jones is concerned about racial tensions.
"I think the levels of distrust are rising," he said. "Many black people in all classes doubt the will or commitment of [the white community] to express itself with integrity concerning the quality of life for blacks."
The Rev. Mamie Williams of Calvary United Methodist Church is a bit more optimistic. Acknowledging that there has been divisiveness of class and race in the past, she predicted that "1981" is going to see a lessening of that . . . People are going to talk and discuss and learn to deal with each other."
She sees this as an opportunity for the church to show the way. "We've got to be prepared to be the leaven in the bread of society." she said.
For Roman Catholic Archbishop James A. Hickey, the overwhelming priority is the local parish.
"It is crucial that everything be geared to the strengthening of parish life, within the context of evangelism," said the archbishop, who is rounding out his sixth month here. The renewal of spiritual life is also on his agenda as is continuing support for Catholic education and the encouragement of young people to seek religious vocations.
"Poverty at home" is also on the archbishop's agenda as a concern of the church. Nationally, he said, the country must be conscious of "the need for a positive image of the United States and its concern for human rights."
Imam Khalil Abdel-Alim, local head of the American Muslim Mission, said that his main concern is that the people he leads "be more faithful to the basic principles of their religion and to translate these principles into every aspect of our life . . . There is not one set of principles for the mosque and another for business."
The Muslim leader, who has also shared in the development of inter-faith relationships in this area, looks forward to continued efforts in this field. "I would hope that the success we've had in this endeavor would extend in the coming year," he said.
For Jim Wallis, head of the Sojourner community. "The major issues confronting the church are the major issues confronting the world, because our [the church's] vocation is for the world." For him those issues boil down to two: "The gap between the rich and the poor, both at home and abroad, and nuclear war."
Wallis feels that "it is a very unfortunate thing that the well-being of the poor is not at the top of the agenda, either for the church or the nation . . . The new Christian right doesn't speak to the question of what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus in a world where half the world is hungry."
Rabbi Joshua Haberman of the Washington Hebrew Congregation sees the nation -- and the rest of the world as well -- suffering from "a radical loss of confidence, an all-pervasive sense of insecurity" stemming, he says, from "the change of mood from basic optimism to pessimism."
Like his fellow religious leaders, Haberman deplores the breakdown of the family and "the distrust of all binding commitments" whether between individuals or nations.Even the swing to conservatism in both politics and religion, he believes, has the confidence crisis at its root.
Haberman sees the cure in religion, but not in a quick-fix type of religiousity. "Religion will ring true when it reminds us of the moral limitations of human beings," he said. "Religion will ring true when it underscores the emptiness of human pride and power and teaches us the democracy of humility, namely that all of us are fallible, all of us are prone to sin and all of us are in need of redemption.
"Religion will again be heard as a saving voice when it stands uncompromisingly against violence and oppression as offensive to God . . . I think religion will be more and more respected when it demands more respect."