Strange case of the missing Orthodox story

One of the strangest things about writing a weekly column is that funny factor called “lead time.” That’s the time that elapses between when you write the column and when it appears in print. This is an even bigger hurdle in magazine work, of course. In some journals your lead time might be six months.

Anyway, I write my “On Religion” columns on Tuesday nights and edit on Wednesday mornings for a noon deadline at the Scripps Howard News Service here in Washington. In most newspapers, the column appears on Saturday. By definition, this means that I rarely get to cover breaking news and I often end up having to frame columns in interesting ways in order to write about events in which there could be major developments during that Wednesday, Thursday, Friday “lead time” between when the column is finished and when dead-tree-pulp readers see it.

Here is why I bring this up. There was a news event last week involving the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese and its decision to quit the National Council of Churches. This presented several challenges, not the least of which was that Antioch is my church. I decided to go ahead and write the story in as straightforward a manner as I could, with as little commentary as possible, because I strive to avoid first person if at all possible. I just quoted the key people and let them speak for themselves. With WWW help, I was able to work in a crucial quote from the key figure on the left who was not available — with an attribution to Presbyterian News Service.

But I was worried crazy about “lead time.” What were the odds of no one writing the hard news version of this story during the entire week that transpired between the event and my column appearing?

Thus, I wrote a soft lead that focused on the annual rites of summer conventions, when religious groups talk about all kinds of things and rarely act on them. In this case, the Antiochian Orthodox had — like it or not — done more than talk. If you want to read the column, click here.

Then I sat back and waited for the Associated Press or someone to write the news story. The convention took place near Detroit. Surely the local media would have it. Nope. ’Tis a puzzlement.

I kept Googling the word “Antiochian” in but nobody in the MSM wrote the story until (logically enough) Kevin Eckstrom at Religion News Service covered the hard-news element.

The Antiochian Orthodox Church has decided to pull its membership from the National Council of Churches, a move that some conservatives hope will prompt other churches to leave the liberal-leaning ecumenical body.

The 339,000-member Orthodox church voted to leave the NCC on July 28 during its General Convention in Troy, Mich. The decision to leave the New York-based NCC was supported by its leader, Metropolitan Philip.

Topping a list of grievances, apparently, was the NCC’s liberal drift and actions by its outspoken general secretary, the Rev. Bob Edgar. “It got to be too much,” church spokesman the Rev. Thomas Zain told Ecumenical News International. “There was no reason to be part of it.”

By the way, the Arab-Americans in this flock would bristle at one mistake in this article, the part that said: “The Antiochian Orthodox Church traces its roots to Arab-speaking immigrants who previously belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church.”

Well now. The birth of the Church of Antioch is detailed in the Book of Acts and its first leaders were those saints called Peter and Paul. We love our sisters and brothers in Russian Orthodoxy, but Antioch is the older body. I think what RNS meant to say is that in the 19th century, Russian Orthodox missionaries reached America and there was a time — before that Russian Revolution — when all Orthodox Christians in North America, including the Arabs, were all in one body linked to Russia. Then this united body tragically broke apart as the great Russian era of Communist persecution caused lines of pain and division and then the formation of multiple Orthodox bodies in this new land.

Thus, the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church of North America shares some ties in the United States with the Russians and what is today called the Orthodox Church in America. One of the stories linked to the NCC exit is the growing momentum toward a renewal of Orthodox unity in this land.

Isn’t the religion beat complicated?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Michael

    Why did you decide to aviod mentioning that you are a member of the denomination you devoted an entire column to discussing? Since this wasn’t a hard news story, but instead a column, wouldn’t that have made some “full-disclosure” sense.

  • tmatt

    That’s a great, and fair, question and one I have discussed with editors in the past.

    If I am involved in an event I always mention that right up front or if there is some kind of official tie. I did that last week in a column about Beliefnet….

    But this article was really written very straight as a news piece. I was not a delegate at the event. Someone like E.J. Dionne doesn’t always have to mention that he is a Catholic, when writing about an event that mentions Catholicism. But if he is writing about his parish or an organization in which he plays some formal role, then, sure, he mentions it.

    Anyone else have an opinion?

  • Stolzi

    Ow!

    “What were the odds of no one writing the hard news version of this story during the entire that transpired between the event and my column appearing?”

    Please complete the sentence with the missing word/s after “entire” and also please end the italics wherever they should end – they are taking over the page!

  • tmatt

    Stolzi:

    Wanna know what is strange?

    That problem with the missing word — actually, it only appeared to be missing — and the italics only affected WINDOWS machines. My Mac showed it as OK and I assume the same was true for Doug, since he is a Mac person too.

    For the life of me, I cannot see what was wrong with the code. But I changed it anyway.

  • Michael

    I guess I wonder that unlike Dionne–who is a memebr of fairly well-known, widely-discussed denomination–yours is much more obscure and arguably interested in more attention.

    If I am writing about my local coffeeshop, it seems like I should mention that I frequent it or am a silent investor. OTOH, if I am writing about Starbucks, I don’t think I necessarily need to point out I get a latte there or have some stock.

  • tmatt

    Michael:

    You are, of course, aware that Orthodoxy is the second largest Christian flock in the world? In America, there are now between 2 and 5 million Orthodox, depending on who is doing the counting. So that is larger than the Episcopal Church, at the very least.

    Perhaps you are talking about the US context alone. I would not call 225 million believers — worldwide — obscure.

  • Michael

    I am aware of how large the Orthodox Church is, but isn’t the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese the smallest of the three major wings of the Orthodox Church in the U.S? In relative terms, 339,000 members is a far cry from the 66M Catholics and doesn’t even get the church into the top 25 largest U.S. denominations. That puts it into the more obscure.

  • tmatt

    By no means the smallest of the Orthodox and it is the denomination that has taken the lead on the unity issue and evangelism. The church has grown from about 60 parishes to 250 in a generation. About 75 percent of its clergy are converts. It, and the OCA, are the churches that are making the headlines on these issues.

  • Harris

    I suspect that some measure of the lack of coverage lies in the phrase “The church as grown… in a generation”. This segment of Orthodoxy is not part of the common or accepted story about the faith, so its actions are hard to place in a context. Since Orthodoxy doesn’t look homegrown (all those domes, incense, icons, and beards), the lesser groups get understood by the larger immigrant ones.

    Second,I would wonder if the issue of converts also gives off a different cultural sound: they would tend to sound (culturally) like conservative Protestants. We “know” about them, we understand what motivates them, and what they reject, so the story of ‘conservatives’ rejecting the NCC is like the PCA objecting to Bill Clinton. How much of a story is there? (Incidentally, the relative smallness of the group plays into this perception, as well).

    Finally, the presence of this growing group of converts, particularly from conservative Protestantism, suggests that the larger story is and will be that of the integration of Orthodoxy into the broader American context, with all its welter of tensions.

  • Michael

    I think your answer (and it’s slightly defensive and boosterish tone) raises the question of whether you should disclose your membership when writing about it. I would agree that the issue of disclosure is complicated and there aren’t any real answers, I’d be curious what your discussions with your editor have been like

  • http://blog.kevinbasil.com/ Basil

    I think the problem with the “roots” mislocution would probably be cured by properly referring to the Antiochian Archdiocese properly as an archdiocese. Then the statement would have read, “The Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America traces its roots to Arab-speaking immigrants who previously belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church.” This is pretty difficult to get right, too, because few non-Orthodox understand the whole jurisdictional confusion in the Orthodox diaspora.

    This also points to the problem of administrative unity in the US among Orthodox. If a single Orthodox church, which counted all of us among its membership, had made such a move, it certainly would have upped its importance in the MSM. I speculate, too, that perhaps it would have made more news if a different ethnicity were involved.

  • jjayson

    Poor coverage all around. The story is far more than just gay marriage. The NCC’s overt politicalization seems to get ignored and everybody is treating this as if gay marriage is the only thing involved, even those that should know better (*looks a tmatt*).

    That was probably the last straw, but not the only straw.

  • Matthias

    In fairness one must point out that the AA did not make a big effort to toot its horn about this. It did not issue an official press release announcing the withdrawal until several days after the vote, and even then the release just mentioned that issue as point #6 on a list of things that were decided.

    If the AA cares about getting noticed by the MSM (and I don’t know that it does) it’s going to have to work at it a bit.

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