Wait a minute, who wrote the icons?

Time for a dip into my GetReligion folder of guilt, that file into which I put stories that I really want to write about when I finally get a few minutes, somehow, to read them carefully and then write a post.

OK, all of you non-Orthodox readers, this is a strange one. Please hang in there with me.

On one level, this is a perfectly normal mainstream story about life in the convert-friendly era of Eastern Orthodoxy here in North America. I was particularly interested in this story because of the years that I spent covering religion in Colorado. So a beautiful new Orthodox sanctuary near the People’s Republic of Boulder caught my attention. Here’s the start of the report in The Daily Camera:

The building is brand-new, the land never before scraped, but the site in Erie where St. Luke Orthodox Christian Church now sits has roots going back nearly two millennia.

A vivid, larger than life-size image of the Virgin Mary, accompanied by a young Jesus, stretches her arms out above the altar. The Messiah — surrounded by painted prophets — gazes down from the dome inside the church’s temple, which is adorned with Byzantine arches and columns.

There’s no organ here — all music is chanted or sung a cappella. There are no statues — warm-hued iconography is the rule. Standing inside St. Luke evokes a different time, a different era.

If there is anything wrong with the start of this story, it’s the assumption that this parish is somehow strange or unique. The Camera team does not seem to realize that the growth of Father David Mustian’s flock is part of a larger phenomenon that has been going on in North America for several decades.

Yes, Orthodoxy is an old faith with roots to the birth of Christianity. So what is the news?

At first, I thought the story was going to skip the obvious question: How many of these people are converts and how many are part of a stream of ethnic believers? But, no, we are told:

Christi Ghiz, 40, has been an Orthodox Christian for 15 years. The Lafayette woman started off as a Baptist, but saw in her new faith a rich history that seemed to be fading from the Protestant services she attended. …

Ghiz said that sense of tradition is “comforting.” More than half of St. Luke’s 250 members are converts from other faiths. That includes Mustian, who converted to Orthodox Christianity from the Episcopal Church nearly 20 years ago.

“I was looking for a church that would stay the same in terms of its doctrinal beliefs, which go back to the early centuries,” said the 56-year-old Yale Divinity School graduate. “The problem with always trying to appeal to the right now means you’re quickly out of date.”

So, we are rolling along in pretty ordinary territory and suddenly things get really strange.

You see, readers never find out if St. Luke’s is part of one of the major jurisdictions of Eastern Orthodoxy — Greek, Ukrainian, Russian, Serbian, Romanian or whatever. Now, I thought this parish was part of the Antiochian Orthodox archdiocese here in North America and, sure enough, it’s easy to find that out with a few clicks of a mouse (look right here). This is a pretty standard fact to include in this kind of story.

That being the case, I was genuinely surprised when I hit this reference a few paragraphs later, in a discussion of the sanctuary’s iconography.

“Iconography is a holy tradition,” said Archbishop Gregory, an Orthodox monk from the Dormition Skete monastery outside Buena Vista. “When a person looks at an icon, their eyes want to stay on it.”

Archbishop Gregory and three of his colleagues created all of the icons for St. Luke, painting the images on canvas and then gluing them to the walls and ceiling of the temple. He said it took about six months to do the work.

Say what? There is an Orthodox archbishop residing at a monastery in Buena Vista? That had to be a mistake, thought I. Perhaps this monk had a unique title that the reporter simply misunderstood.

No, the facts are a bit stranger than that. As it turns out, this Archbishop Gregory is part of a body called the Genuine Orthodox Church of America, an old-calendar splinter church which Orthodox Wiki rather bluntly notes is “not in communion with any Orthodox body.”

So let me see if I have this straight. The iconography inside this large and lovely new Antiochian Orthodox sanctuary was written by monks from a tiny, non-canonical jurisdiction? I would love to know the story behind that transaction, although that is probably a rather inside baseball issue that would only interest the Orthodox. Maybe.

Still, it is genuinely strange that a report of this length does not include any information about the national and international roots of this large and growing parish. Strange, indeed.

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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.

  • Jerry

    If there is anything wrong with the start of this story, it’s the assumption that this parish is somehow strange or unique.

    I don’t understand that comment. To my untutored eyes, the start of the story is simply descriptive of a Christian group that is unfamiliar to the majority of readers. So what am I missing?

  • http://david-jaime-jason.blogspot.com Jason

    Archbishop Gregory has also written most of the iconography for the cathedral in Wichita, the jurisdiction St. Luke’s is in. He is one of the preeminent iconographers in the country. It may have made it a better news story, but I am glad the ethnicity question was skipped for this “who are the people in your neighborhood” story. It is distracting and provides little useful, newsworthy information. Ditto-times-10 trying to parse how Gregory is an archbishop, but not St. Luke’s Archbishop. Trying to explain that would have occupied so many inches that the issue would have hijacked the story.

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    OMG, Gregory of Buena Vista!!!!! This guy has SUCH a history, and his iconography is right in the middle of it. It’s a classic example of how sometimes you have to go the the blogo-forumo-sphere to find out the full story; there’s simply no chance that a MSM reporter, even one who has some religion beat experience, would even know to look into this guy’s past. Heck, the only reason I know is that it all went down two Kevin Bacons away from me; but if you know to look, it isn’t hard to find a lot of material on him.

  • Julia


    Gregory’s work on the Antiochan Cathedral in Wichita is gorgeous.


  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    You are close to my concerns. The “archbishop” tag should have raised a flag.

    I think the story needed two things. (1) It needed to mention the Antiochian/Palestinian connection and the history of convert-friendly parishes (even in Denver) and (2) the fact that this archbishop was not linked to the parish and, in fact, was from an independent Orthodoxy body.

    That’s all. Not a ton of info. The angle of how he ended up doing the icons is a sidebar or too complex to handle.

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Well, the story of his ecclesiological journeys would have sunk the article right then and there, because anyone who knows much of his story has to wonder (a) why he’s writing icons for “heretical” churches, and (b) why, um, orthodox Orthodox are contracting with this schismatic.

  • http://david-jaime-jason.blogspot.com Jason

    I have mixed feelings about including the Palestinian/Antiochian connection. While I understand that it should be standard journalistic practice to list such affiliations (eg Female “Roman Catholic” ordinations) It is a pain to explain. “The Church is put of the Self-Ruled Antiochian Archdiocese in America, a jurisdiction whose roots lie in Syria.” That seems to leave the reader less informed than simply describing the church as Eastern Orthodox Christian. So additional verbiage is needed–space that can go to more relevant topics. I notice one commenter did ask what Orthodox jurisdiction was being discussed, but other commenters also questioned the existence of God, so I don’t know how much emphasis we can put there.

  • Ignatius

    Wow, someone should contact the paper and get the “archbishop” point straightened out. When I read that I titled my head and said “huh?” I agree that the paper should have mentioned that the Church was under the Antiochian Patriarchate.