Metropolitan Obama?

th liturgy11Every now and then, it is important to offer GetReligion readers who are not journalists a glimpse inside the workings of daily journalism.

For example, readers may have noticed that your GetReligionistas — as folks who are working or have worked in the mainstream — rarely attempt to call names when we point out errors or what we believe are weaknesses in stories.

Why not blame the reporter or reporters whose names are in the byline? Well, anyone who has ever worked in a newsroom knows that the story that appears in print is often not the story that the reporter turned in or that, at the very least, the story was cut drastically or the reporter was not given enough space to do a solid job covering the territory that the story would have needed to cover in order to be balanced and complete. Journalism is almost always a team sport.

Anyway, I bring this up because some readers have sent in the URL of a recent Washington Times report about the election of Metropolitan Jonah, the new leader of the Orthodox Church in America. Some people thought that the headline was a bit much.

Since the new metropolitan will soon be enthroned in the OCA cathedral here in Washington, D.C., this is kind of a local story. I still wonder if journalists in Dallas and Fort Worth realize that this is a major local story there, too, but nevermind. That headline said:

Orthodox leader seizes own ‘Obama moment’

Now, it really helps to know that reporters hardly ever, ever write their own headlines. You can see how some readers may have thought that comparing the leader of a highly traditional ancient faith with a liberal Democrat headed into the White House was, well, a bit too cute.

However, if you read the story you’ll note that the Obama image was being applied to the election itself, not to the man. Tricky. Here’s the lede:

They already are calling him “His Beatitude,” and comparing him to Barack Obama.

In less than a month, Metropolitan Jonah, 49, will be enthroned as the leader of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), the nation’s second-largest branch of Eastern Orthodoxy.

Some have termed Metropolitan Jonah’s election an “Obama moment” because of perceived parallels between him and the U.S. president-elect: a much younger man with little experience shaking up a corrupt status quo by coming from outside the establishment via an electrifying speech.

Maybe the headline writers thought they needed an election metaphor on A1 in story here inside the DC Beltway? After all, the body of Julia Duin’s story is dedicated to new material, drawn from an interview with the new metropolitan.

In particular, Orthodox readers will be interested in the material near the end of the report which focuses on why this monk made the decision to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy — he was raised as an Episcopalian — in the first place.

He was persuaded to join Orthodoxy through the reading of one book: “The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church” by Vladimir Lossky.

After attending St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary on Long Island, he traveled to Russia in 1993 at the age of 33 for a year to think through his future and decide whether to marry his girlfriend. If an Orthodox candidate for the priesthood wishes to marry, he must do so before ordination. Orthodox monks cannot marry at all. …

“I wanted some resolution to my dilemma, but I didn’t want to go according to my own will,” the new metropolitan remembers. “The whole spiritual life is built on obedience, respect and trust in love to your spiritual elder.”

After several months at the Valaam Monastery, on a lake island north of St. Petersburg, he was introduced to a venerable Orthodox elder known as Kyrill.

“So I asked the old man what should I do,” Metropolitan Jonah said. “Should I get married or should I become a monk? He said, ‘I know, I know.’ He blessed me and said, ‘Become a priest-monk.’”

A rather radical form of career counseling, but there you have it. Interesting reading, if you wanted a glimpse into the process that leads a young American into a monastery and then on into a leadership role that seemed to come out of nowhere.

PHOTO: OCA photo from the new metropolitan’s first Divine Liturgy after his election.

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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.

  • FW Ken

    With Orthodox and Anglican connections, you might find this about Metropolitan Jonah of interest. Apparently, he met with Bp. Iker.

  • MattK

    Some have termed Metropolitan Jonah’s election an “Obama moment”

    Who has termed it such? What parallels, other than youth? This is just silly.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I would like to have seen more comparison between the ancient celibacy rules followed strictly in the Orthodox world with the celibacy rules followed in the Latin Catholic world. After all, the chances are that far more interested Catholics will probably see this article than there are Orthodox Christians who will see it.
    I find it interesting and informative (but rarely mentioned in the news media) that many of the celibacy rules in the Christian East– and how to handle the situation of a priest who decides AFTER ordination that he wants to be married– are the same as in Latin Church:: one must step aside and cease functioning as a priest. Vows to the church community are meant to be kept– they are not on-again, off-again playthings for the individual. Yet many Latin priests who have married constantly demand to be returned to their duties and usually are totally unaware that to do so would further split apart Eastern and Western Christendom in the way they handle certain situations from when the Catholic-Orthodox Church was One.

  • Stephen A.

    Let’s look at this again:

    a much younger man with little experience shaking up a corrupt status quo by coming from outside the establishment via an electrifying speech.

    My first inclination is to say, well, what’s WRONG with the Obama comparison? Is he not about the same age as Obama? Did he NOT come from outside of the establishment? Does he not come from Chicago? Did he not come from nowhere, just as Obama did, politically? Wasn’t his election, like Obama’s, a reaction to serious and systemic scandals? Did he NOT reportedly give an electrifying speech – like Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Committee Speech “The Audacity of Hope”? (though I’d have liked to have read more about what was said in that supposedly electrifying speech.)

    In light of all this, I think it’s a fair analogy.

    I’m also struck by the fact that an editor for the Washington Times, a conservative paper if there ever was one, would make the implied analogy of positive change in this case and Obama, nationally, in a headline.

    I’m not sure if seeking to become a “priest-monk” is a radical concept in the Orthodox Church, but it’s certainly an interesting one. Obviously, it seems to me, he wasn’t being advised to become both a priest AND a monk, but (I believe) to incorporate monk-like devotion into his daily priestly routines. This reminds me a bit of how the much-maligned Opus Dei calls on Catholic laity to become devoted as priests are to their faith. But maybe that’s a stretch. I’d love to see that expanded in a future story, and I’m sure other stories will be done on this interesting man.

  • Stephen A.

    BTW: I’m also struck by his strong ties to Russia, at a time when a neo-Cold War is breaking out, at least in terms of rhetoric between the US and Russian leaders. This leader could be an important link between the two nations in the coming years.

  • Martha

    Stephen A., who’s the “they”?

    “They say” is like “Everybody says”.

    Is the “they” who are calling him “His Beatitude” (which, um, I imagine is *everyone* in the church, since it’s his title, the same way the Pope is referred to as “His Holiness”) also comparing him to Obama? Every single one of them, whoever “they” may be?

    Or was this just a handy comparison that the journalist in question came up with?

    Maybe some people, when asked to comment, said it was like Obama’s promises of change, or that having a young (for the position) man who’s a convert being chosen is like having the first African-American as President.

    But a phrase like “they say” is careless. It’s like “anonymous sources” or “highly-placed officials” or that perennial, “a senior figure in the Vatican” when was is really meant is “the first priest I could lay hands on” :-)

  • Samuel J. Howard

    “After attending St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary on Long Island”

    Has St. Vladimir’s moved? Right now it’s in Yonkers, NY, which is north of New York City, not on Long Island.

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  • Stephen A.

    Martha, I agree with your critique of the reporter’s (lazy) use of the word “they.” If it was indeed the reporter’s own analogy, that should have been made clear. Perhaps (speculation alert!) it was a priest – or several of them at the event – who didn’t want to be quoted as making a political analogy. If so, that too could have been noted, of course.

    My only point, and I stick to it, was that it seems like a valid analogy.

  • Bern

    Indeed it would have been odd, given all the paralles/similarities, for a DC-based paper, NOT to draw the analogy.

    I also agree that “some say” and “they” are not good ways to attribute anything.

    I wonder on what basis the headline is considered a bit much?

  • Jason

    In all of the coverage, I am surprised that no one has mentioned Mark Stokoe (sp?) and Because of that page’s poor navigation, I can’t get to the link, but just before the Conference began, he said that he was going to vote for Archbishop JOB of Chicago and then Bishop JONAH if there was not a 2/3rds vote on the first ballot. I recall that his idea was to force the Synod to choose between what Mark considered to be the best candidate and a newcomer with no experience. I would guess that a significant number of voters had read that ahead of time. I remember thinking on the day of the voting that it would either be +JOB or +JONAH, so I was not surprised. I would be surprised if a reporter on the ground at the convention would not have uncovered a number of people influenced by

    I also compared the event to the Obama election when telling my coworkers about it.

  • Justin

    “Obviously, it seems to me, he wasn’t being advised to become both a priest AND a monk, ”

    You are incorrect. He is both. He is a priest, and prior to becoming a bishop, was an abbott for 12 years.