How many Orthodox does it take to get a correction?

picftvcolbert01Here is another one of those situations in which I’ve read something in column A and that connected with something in column B and then that produced questions about some hard-to-define issue over in column C.

Stay with me for a minute.

Did you see Richard Cohen’s “Digital Lynch Mob” column in the Washington Post? In a column on May 4, Cohen wrote that Stephen “Truthiness” Colbert’s routine at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner wasn’t very funny.

Cohen isn’t a big President Bush fan, but he thought the comic was a bit out of line. Before Cohen knew it, he had 3,506 emails lined up in his computer telling him that he was a brain-dead GOP lapdog, and lots of things worse that than. All of this made Cohen worry that the wacko far left in the Democratic Party was going to scream so loud in the months ahead that it might freak out Middle America and save the GOP’s Congressional neck.

But that is not the point of this post. Here is what got my attention, as a journalist and professor who now spends many hours a day in cyberspace. Cohen writes:

What to make of all this? First, it’s not about Colbert. His show has an audience of about 1 million — not exactly “American Idol” numbers. Second, it marks the end of a silly pretense about interactive media: We give you our e-mail addresses and then, in theory, we have this nice chat. Forget about it. Not only is e-mail too often a kind of epistolary spitball, but there’s no way I can even read the 3,506 e-mails now backed up in my queue — seven more since I started writing this column.

But the message in this case truly is the medium.

Now stop right there. I truly believe that the blogosphere has a role to play in helping the MSM learn more about what its customers — they can also be called “citizens” — think about the news and what it all means. I wouldn’t be sitting at a keyboard typing these words into blog software if I didn’t think that. This blog would not exist if I didn’t think it had a small chance to make some difference.

Which brings me back to that Neela Banerjee story in the New York Times about the election to pick a new bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of California. To refresh your memory, this is the report in which she wrote:

The Episcopal Church is a small but rich and powerful member of the Anglican Communion, which has 77 million members, the second-largest church body in the world, and is presided over by the archbishop of Canterbury.

Too Much MailYes, ’lil ’ole Orthodox me is still a bit miffed about that.

You see, there are 1 billion or so Roman Catholics in the world, with one pope, and there are 70 million or so Anglicans in the Anglican Communion, which has many patriarchs and bishops and is led — symbolically — by the first-among-equals Archbishop of Canterbury. The problem is that there are 250 million believers in the global communion of Eastern Orthdox Christianity, which has many patriarchs and bishops and is led — symbolically — by the first-among-equals Ecumenical Patriarch in the city once known as Constantinople. Facts are such pesky things.

Now, I am sure that the Times has not received 3,528 emails from Orthodox believers (“How many Orthodox people does it take to change a lightbulb? Lightbulb? What is this lightbulb?”) complaining about this error and requesting a correction in the world’s most important newspaper. However, I did go through the Times process — see this page for Banerjee’s work and contact info — and sent email noting the error. I have heard from several other GetReligion readers who have done the same thing.

So what’s the point? People were screaming at Cohen because they disagreed with his opinions and his beliefs. The blogosphere has allowed lots of people to channel their rage in this manner. And, let’s face it, many if not most of the comments deep inside the GetReligion site are full of people arguing with each other about their religious and political beliefs.

That’s OK, I guess, but that is not the purpose of this blog. Our goal is to seek examples of ways in which journalists “get” the religion angle of stories wrong or “get” it right.

If you choose, you may join me in my mini-crusade to see if the Times will correct this error. However, if you do so, please do so because you think this is a fact that needs to be corrected and journalists are supposed to care about things like that. The blogosphere can provide heat and light. We are more interested in the latter.

P.S. I just left a telephone message at the Times national desk.

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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.

  • Martha

    Yeah! Our Pope and your Patriarch can kick the butt of their Presiding Bishop!

    Now that I’ve done my bit for ecumenism… I wish you success, but I rather fear getting anything more than a ‘Thank you for your letter now buzz off’ is out of the question.

    Getting a major newspaper to admit it made an error of fact is hard enough; getting them to put up a correction in a tiny box on page 93 requires the threat of legal action; getting them to actually take notice and not to make the same mistake again? I admire your optimism.

    Anyways… we’re missing the point. It’s not about the world out there, this big important story is about the Episcopalian Church which is an *American* church and hence of global import – oh, and it’s kind of connected to some other body of churches worldwide but that’s not important right now. Roman Catholics? That’s foreign news – don’t the Pope live all the way over there in Rome? Eastern Orthodox? Who?

    If this story was about the Anglican Communion, it would be down there on the bottom of page 93. Being about an American entity, it’s big news for American readers. Scence-setting of the ‘part of the Anglican Communion’ sort is merely the window-dressing required before they can get on to the meaty business of scandal and speculation.

    Hm – do I come across as less than convinced of media’s unwavering interest in pure fact alone?

  • S.K. Davis

    This is a bit off-topic, but I thought the joke went this way:

    Q: How many Orthodox does it take to change a lightbulb?
    A: “Change”? What is this “change”?

    (At least that’s what I learned in the catachumanate!)

  • tmatt


    You are right, of course. That’s the mystery of it all. It works as a candle joke or as a doctrinal joke. You gotta love it!

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  • Dean A. Einerson

    In the spirit of getting things right, “Episcopalian” is a noun as in “Episcopalians are Anglicans.” “Episcopal” is an adjective as in “The Episcopal Church is still the American province of the Anglican Communion.”

  • Russ

    Yes, the oversight of Orthodoxy should be noted… but doesn’t comparing the official statistics of Anglicanism and Orthodoxy come down to saying little more Russia has more people than England, since each claims nearly the entire national population as members?

  • Alice C. Linsley

    There are many expressions of Orthodoxy beside Russian. There is Syrian, Armenian, Greek, Antiochian and ermetic.

  • Catherine K.

    There are also Romanian, Bulgarian, Georgian, Japanese and yes, even American Orthodox (the Orthodox Church in America). There are other geographical divisions that could be noted here as well, but I think the point has been made.

  • C. Wingate

    Doing some arithmetic off of this page and arbitrarily assigning countries, I get a total of 330 million Orthodox. However, 80% of that is accounted for by Ethiopia, Russia, and the Ukraine. Leaving Ethiopia out gives me 255 million– a rather suspicious number.

    I don’t know what the percentage of actual believers in the former USSR and Yugoslavia is, and I suspect that it is high enough to keep Orthodoxy in second place. But the 250 million number isn’t particularly plausible.

  • Russ

    250-350 million is a typical estimate for Eastern Orthodoxy worldwide, with the largest single group by far being Russian at about 90-100 million. But these numbers are wildly inflated – the Moscow Patriarchate arrives at their total membership essentially by taking the total population of Russia and subtracting the number of Russian Muslims; everyone else is, by default, Orthodox. The same problem happens with the Greek Orthodox, etc.

    (BTW, Alice and Catherine – I do realize that Greek Orthodox are Greek, not Russian, etc., and yes there are a few thousand Japanese Orthodox, but in determining the total number of EO worldwide, Russia is by far the single most important factor. In the same way, the Church of England is the single most important factor in determining the size of the Anglican Communion, so I only mentioned England, even though there are of course Anglicans outside of England (in fact, grouping churches together geographically, the majority of Anglicans are in Africa). While we’re at it, Ethiopian, Armenian, and Syrian Orthodox are a different kind of Orthodoxy (Oriental, or non-Chalcedonian; they are, technically, heretics according to the Eastern Orthodox church) than Russian and Ukranian, so they would be counted in a different category, and “eremitic” isn’t a jurisdiction of Orthodoxy at all, but is a type of monastic life).

    So, numbers for Orthodox aren’t particularly reliable. Statistics for the Church of England are also inflated, of course, though numbers for the Anglican Communion outside of England are probaly more accurate, leading to a (slightly?) more accurate total, and probably one closer, though lower, than an accurate count of Eastern Orthodoxy.

  • Matthias

    I would hope the Orthodox have something better to do than argue about whose number concocted from a mix of wild guesses, fudges, exaggerations and outright lies is bigger than whose.

    Counting noses in churches is hard enough within one country. Counting across countries and cultures is well nigh impossible. In Nigeria the great majority of Anglicans are in church every Sunday. In England maybe 1% are. So how do you count Anglicans? Count those in church, and thereby miss a great many English who would insist they are Anglican if asked? Or count nominal members, and reap the scorn of active members?

    If I had to guess, I’d say there are probably a lot more Anglicans in church worldwide on a typical Sunday than there are Orthodox in church. This just because it is generally agreed there are tens of millions of Anglicans worshipping weekly in Nigeria and Uganda, and I can’t think of anyplace where the Orthodox could make a similar claim.

    But then again, in what sense is the Anglican Communion a church or communion except in the dreams of its advocates? The churches do not all recognize the validity of all each others’ bishops; they aren’t all officially in full communion with one another, and their primates haven’t taken communion together since 2003. So whether larger or smaller, is it a comparable body to the Orthodox Church at all?

  • Simon Sarmiento

    Don’t American newspapers have departments like this one:

  • Dave Rattigan

    Last time I thought I’d do a newspaper a favour and point out a factual error, I got a very snotty response. Phoned in and got little more than an “Umm”. So I took the liberty of emailing the editor myself, who took great offence, pointing out a factual slip in my email (I got the name of the correspondent wrong) as if it were some tit-for-tat squabble. It wasn’t even an ethical or POV issue, and it was clear my only motive was to help out the paper.

    Some editors are *so* touchy.

  • Mark V.

    Actually, there are several brands of Christians in Syria: Antiochian Orthodox (in communion with other Eastern Orthodox), the Syriac Jacobites (in communion with other Oriental Orhtodox such as the Coptic, Armenian, and Ethiopian churches), and the Melkites (Eastern Rite Catholics that split from the Orthodox Church about 200 years ago).

  • Stan F.

    Russ, et al.,

    According to

    Anglicans in U.K. number ~27 million, less than half the total population of >57 million (1991). Anglicans in Africa muster a nearly equal number (estimates from 1995-98 range 20-27 million). This leaves ~15-20 million Anglicans in the rest of the world — including North America, Australia, and South Asia (four United churches which are members of the Communion).

    Orthodox in Russia are listed at 23 million, less than a sixth of the total population of 147 million (1998). There are ~90 million Russian Orthodox worldwide, for ~67 million in diaspora.

    While all these numbers are subject to legitimate criticism, they hardly represent the inflated claims of an old-style state religion. (Recall that the Soviets drove a good many people out of Orthodoxy, via both persecution of believers and co-optation of the church hierarchy as a propaganda tool.)

    If you want a good example of a true state religion cooking its membership numbers, check out the official government number for Shinto adherents in Japan. It virtually equals the entire population — despite the fact that the vast majority of religious Japanese self-identify as either Buddhist or Christian, and those who do self-identify with Shinto generally don’t attend the government-sponsored shrines.

  • Stan F.


    Member churches of the Anglican Communion failing to recognize one another’s orders is a recent issue, prompted by the election and consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson. In response, African and other churches are collaborating with conservative congregations in the U.S. to create a second Anglican church here. This is a violation of the Communion’s agreed-upon jurisdictional boundaries for its members, and Archbishop Rowan Williams chastised the conservatives for this tactic as thoroughly as he criticised the ECUSA for electing Robinson. Both actions were seen as equal threats to the unity of the Communion. Williams’s message was very clear: disagreement is not disunity. This has been a hallmark of the Communion for most of its history.

    As for why the primates have not celebrated Eucharist together since 2003: the Lambeth Conference, held once every decade, is the only regular meeting of primates and bishops from the entire Communion. The recent special meeting of the primates to consider the Robinson consecration and its fallout was a rare exception. But the Communion does have a permanent support staff, and offices dedicated to it are present in every member church.

  • Stan F.

    retraction: there are not, according to, 67 million Russian Orthodox in diaspora. The highest estimate I found for diaspora Russian Orthodox was 3 million. I should have checked my arithmetic with their numbers. Apologies.

  • Russ

    Stan: But even if gives an estimate of 23 million (the give other larger estimates as well from different sources), these are not what the 250 million (cited above by Terry Mattingly as a hard fact) estimate is based on. Kallistos Ware (in _The Orthodox Church_) estimates 50-85 million, Wikipiedia estimates 90 million. I can’t get the official site of the Moscow Patriarchate to load, but one of the affiliated American parishes claims 109 million Orthodox in Russia. I would assume they would get a number like that from Moscow; if so, I submit that’s a clear example of an inflated claim of an old-style state religion in a country of 145 million (with 15-20 million Muslims). Or take Bulgaria as an example: the CIA factbook puts the population of Bulgaria at 7.3 million, but Ware claims 8 million Orthodox in Bulgaria.

    Along with Shinto in Japan, I woudl nominate Indonesia for the most inflated claim of religious adherence. It’s usually cited as the largest Muslim country, but some scholars claim less than half practice anything that could be recognized as orthodox Islam. When news reports make use of statistics like this, they should note some of the difficulties involved in arriving at these numbers. But, Terry Mattingly’s main point, that Eastern Orthodoxy is invisible to the news media, is valid.

  • mark

    At the papers I’ve worked for, the way to get a correction was to reach either the Ombudsperson or the reporter’s editor. Speaking very pragmatically, the reporter has little reason to take the time to get in a correction over his/her fact error, especially since most publications track the number of corrections each reporter has caused; conversely, an editor is in position of pursuing the point and running the correction if it’s warranted. Don’t bother the writer; contact his/her editor.

  • Martha

    So, tmatt, how did it go? Did you get any response to your telephone message yet?

  • Maureen

    Actually, everything I’ve ever heard anecdotally claims that there really are huge hordes of brand new Russian Orthodox. Somewhere between the fall of Communism and today, Orthodoxy (and other Christian religions) experienced a sort of Great Awakening. (I thought it would have had happened right afterward, but no.) The intelligentsia who thought they knew better suddenly found themselves swept away by God, and going to church just like their ancestors and the normal people. A lot of contemporary Russian science fiction and fantasy (and the blogs of fans and writers) touches on this topic.

    Now, this is not to say that the whole state church thing isn’t around and a bit alarming. (The Agency Formerly Known as the KGB has a parish church. Kinda creepy….) But I’m inclined to give ‘em a little benefit of the doubt.

  • C. Wingate

    Shinto is a really bad example to look at, because the whole notion of religious believers as countably committed to a single religion is conspicuously inaccurate. It’s a truism about Japanese religion that they are born Shinto and die Buddhist.

    I’ve been going over the numbers issues for years now. Episcopalians at least keep about as good a numbers as one is ever likely to find, and so do some other American mainline Protestant groups. But analyses of Orthodox numbers in the USA show enormous discrepancies between claimed membership and likely actual numbers. The chief study, generally called the HartSem report, found a four-fold exaggeration of GOArch membership and a ten-fold exaggeration of OCA membership. My analysis of the reports own numbers leads me to believe that they are about as correct as official ECUSA tallies, giving an Orthodox membership in the USA of somewhat over half ECUSA’s. What is particularly insteresting is this remark: “The most likely reason for this discrepancy is the common practice of equating Church membership with the total number of representatives of a corresponding ethnic group including second and third American generations of the original immigrants, independent of these persons actual relationship to the Orthodox Church.

    It’s clear without even counting that Catholics vastly outnumber everyone else and are the largest single religious organization in the world. It’s also clear that the Anglican Communion and the Orthodox Church are the next largest, far bigger than anyone else but definitely also-rans to the Catholic Church. When you get to the gold standard of Average Sunday Attendance (ASA), though, it’s hard to imagine that those huge Russian numbers are borne out.

    The Wikipedia article reports that the ROC has 23,000 parishes. I don’t see any reason to dispute that number; parishes are easy to count. However, let’s look at the ECUSA numbers. ECUSA has about 7000 parishes and a total reported ASA of about 800,000. This gives a per-parish ASA of somewhat over a hundred. Well, let’s be very generous and give every ROC parish an average ASA of 200. Multiply that by 23,000 and one gets a total ASA of about 5 million. Episcopalians are notoriously lax about attendance, but surely they are doing better than one out of every eighteen. And unless the average church in Russia is really big, it’s hard to imagine that their ASA is in the vicinity of, say, 50 million.

  • Maureen

    I found the part of my blog which translates an article by Ivan Moskin about this. It’s mostly talking about the literary fallout from having lots of fervent new Christians around, but nobody disagrees that there _are_ lots of them.

    ‘In the first half of the 90′s, the Church was augmented by millions of intellectuals. They said, “It’s the fashion.” Intellectuals for whom this was only fashion soon turned aside. For others, “fashion” turned into life. The spiritual flowed from the process; considerably more people began to believe than the notorious 91 million. And for the most part, they didn’t give a care how the whole world felt about their faith.

    ‘In essence, Rus had received a second baptism.

    ‘The sea of former atheist/agnostic/godless people started to ponder, which indicates their new state of soul. At all levels of existence. Including the literary one. Here’s Chekhov. Here’s Sholokhov. And here’s Panferov, even. Is God in their texts? Are there angels and demons? Is there even a hint as to the possibility of a miracle? The peace of another world? But faith indicates that all this exists. So what are Chekhov, Sholokhov, Panferov, and the rest? Realists? Not a bit of it. It’s one big lie, not realism.’

    And so on…. Admittedly, no stats. But obviously people on the ground are seeing huge numbers, whether or not those numbers are as huge as the ones claimed by the hierarchy.

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