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A trying, triumphant year for religion

Whhhhew! 1998 is over.

Every day seemed to bring with it new questions and lessons about ethics and morals.

Just when it seemed as if the news couldn't get any wilder, it did.

The year began with leaks that President Clinton may have had a tryst with a White House intern and ended with Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt, of all people, trying to rescue the president by serving as a self-appointed moral policeman of the U.S. Congress.

Members of the Religion Newswriters Association, a group of reporters who cover religion for secular newspapers, were asked to rank the top 10 religion stories of the year.

Our own Henry Lyons, pastor of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church of St. Petersburg and president of the National Baptist Convention USA, made the list. (No. 9, if you're wondering.)

Here's the group's ranking:

1. The Monica Lewinsky-President Clinton scandal was tops because of the questions it raised about adultery, sin, confession and forgiveness.

2. Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba, where he called on Fidel Castro's government to offer new religious and political freedoms.

The country celebrated Christmas as an official holiday for the first time since 1969.

3. A United Methodist court tried and failed to convict the Rev. Jimmy Creech of Omaha, Neb., of violating church doctrine by performing a same-sex union ceremony. Later, the church's Judicial Council strengthened its law against such ceremonies.

4. The Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in Salt Lake City, issued a statement saying that wives should "submit graciously" to the "servant leadership" of their husbands.

5. The murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student in Wyoming, led to even more debate about homosexuality, including the work of ministries led by former gays and lesbians.

The killing occurred during a national advertising campaign launched by a coalition of conservative organizations. The on-going campaign claims that people choose to be gay.

6. The Vatican expressed remorse for the cowardice of some Christians during the Holocaust but continued to defend Pope Pius XII, which drew criticism from some Jewish groups.

Pope John Paul II also canonized Edith Stein, a German Jew who converted to Catholicism and died in Auschwitz.

7. The 13th Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops declared the homosexual practice incompatible with Scripture, further discouraging same-sex unions.

8. Dr. Jack Kevorkian wouldn't leave well enough alone.

He not only helped a man commit suicide by injecting the lethal medicine himself, but he also videotaped it and gave the tape to 60 Minutes to air for all the nation to see. As a result, Kevorkian was charged with murder.

9. Lyons was indicted on charges of extortion and fraud and confessed to an "improper relationship" with church aide Brenda Harris.

10. Despite appeals from the pope, broadcaster Pat Robertson and other religious leaders, Texas executed Karla Faye Tucker, a woman who turned to the Bible while on death row for killing someone with a pickax.

On the local front, Lyons was not the only hot religion story of the year. There was good news, too.

The Rev. Billy Graham honored the Tampa Bay area with a visit, choosing the Raymond James Stadium for one of only two 1998 crusades. The crowd didn't disappoint _ packing the stadium for four nights.

The Florida chapter of the Southern Baptist Convention made history by electing its first African-American president, the Rev. Elroy Barber of Hollywood, Fla.

_ Twila Decker can be reached at (727) 892-2253 or by e-mail at