Covering an outspoken Orthodox shepherd

I have heard one question over and over in the past three or four days: “What do you think of the Washington Post Magazine story about the whole uproar in the Orthodox Church in America about Metropolitan JONAH?” Or words to that effect.

Many Orthodox readers then add something to the affect of this: “Don’t you think that the story was a little out of date or incomplete?” Or more words to that effect.

First let me note that many people are incorrectly saying that the piece ran in the newspaper’s Style section. That is simply inaccurate. It ran in the Sunday magazine, a section that has early, early, early deadlines compared to the rest of the daily newspaper. That is crucial, since the events and interviews on which the piece is built took place some time ago. This is not the fault of Julia Duin, the reporter, or her editors. It’s just a fact of production deadlines.

Veteran journalist Rod Dreher — an Orthodox Christian who is interviewed in the piece — offered the following words of explanation in one online forum. The “Santa Fe” reference refers to a recent meeting linked to disputes about the directions of Metropolitan JONAH’s leadership.

The piece was always was scheduled for mid-March, as far as I know. Santa Fe happened with only days before the final deadline, beyond which nothing could be changed in the text. Julia Duin and her editors were understandably concerned because of the possibility that something major could happen (e.g., +Jonah deposed) before the story ran. The point I’m trying to make here is that Duin was unable to do any reporting on the post-Santa Fe intrigue, because her advanced deadline had passed. Almost nothing that has happened since Santa Fe could have appeared in her story — something that’s not at all obvious to people reading it on the Internet, where they can’t see that it was in the magazine section, and/or people who don’t understand that because of production requirements, newspaper magazine section stories have to be “put to bed,” as we say, a lot earlier than stories appearing in the daily paper.

Now, before I go on I need to note several obvious facts. First of all, the author of the magazine piece has been a friend of my family for a quarter of a century (give or take a year or two). Dreher also has been a close friend for, oh, coming up on two decades. Trust me, I have friends, associates and even loved ones involved at almost every possible level of this story. There is much that I know that I am not going to say.

So here is what I am going to do.

I am going to highlight the heart of Duin’s report and urge you to read it on your own. There are a few nit-picking things in here that, most likely, are the result of editing (Julia certainly knows that the Catholic church does ordain some married men). There are many, many things that Duin would certainly want to update.

But she starts with a key event in this drama — the March for Life — and she also pinpoints another crucial point of contention — the metropolitan’s strong statements defending Orthodoxy and the church’s doctrine in the U.S. military chaplaincy program.

On the morning of the march, Jonah preached an uncompromising Gospel at the cathedral. “We need to see and call things what they are and not in some disguised politically correct language,” he said, dressed in resplendent gold brocade vestments, his salt-and-pepper beard making him appear like an Old Testament prophet. “Abortion is the taking of human life.”

Jonah continued: “So often, people think that if we name sin for what it is, that we’re judging people. No, we’re just pointing out reality. It is not a matter of judgment to say abortion is a sin. It is not a matter of judgment to say that homosexual activity is a sin. It is a matter of simply stating the truth of the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.”

A few hours later at the march — while 80 Orthodox seminarians from New York and Pennsylvania stood, shivering, underneath a large “Orthodox Christians for Life” sign — Jonah told his listeners to stand firm against “the plague of abortion.” He received a rousing ovation. As he swept away down the steps, various clergy kissed his hand, and Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl came up to greet him.

“He is energetic and anxious to move quickly,” said the Rev. Chad Hatfield, chancellor of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary who had accompanied several dozen students to the rally. “Jonah is not as cautious as some people would like him to be. He is bold, forthright and speaks his mind.

“Sometimes that can be messy.”

As Metropolitan Jonah already has found out.

Now, it is crucial to know that this story is unfolding on two fronts, with activists on both sides slinging digital ink with a vengeance.

The key is how to define the nature of the battle line that divides the two sides, the divide between those who see Orthodoxy as a partner for the Church or Rome and most evangelicals and an old guard who want to retain their decades of ties to the Protestant left and the National Council of Churches. Yes, there are moral issues and doctrines at stake in this fight. It is hard to see this because Orthodoxy is not going to openly change its doctrines. The question is whether these doctrines will be clearly articulated and defended — in parishes as well as in public life. At the same time, it is crucial to note that people on both sides believe that +JONAH has made administrative errors and that this very young leader needs to improve his ecclesiastical gamesmanship.

You can see the outlines in the Duin piece, which is a compliment to her skills when one considers her deadline and the degree to which key players could not afford to speak on the record. Meanwhile, you can tap into the venom behind this battle — for starters — by clicking here and then here. Then go take a shower.

By the way, please limit your comments to the actual journalism issues faced by the Post team in preparing and publishing this piece. Any other comments must be accompanied by URLs to real information. It’s Lent, folks.

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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

    In cases like this where the deadline is long passed, shouldn’t a media outlet have a side-bar story providing an update? Yes, I know the state of the print media, but surely in such cases there should have been some sort of update, however small, reflecting what had happened since the original piece was finalized.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    That simply may not be possible, without creating even LARGER gaps in the story in the form of material that you cut out to make room for the SIDEBAR.

    For a summary of the radical impact of the lead time factor in magazine journalism, see the introduction to this classic old book by Garry Wills:

    http://www.amazon.com/Lead-Time-Journalists-Garry-Wills/dp/B0017HYDH6/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1300733473&sr=1-2

  • Rod Dreher

    Thanks for this, Terry. I want to back you up on praising Duin’s reporting skills given that few people on either side would talk to her on the record. I tried to tell the people I know in the OCA that they could trust her, and should talk to her, but many of them were simply afraid to talk to a reporter, period. I remember when I was a working journalist writing about the Catholic Church scandal, a number of priests and other church workers would talk my ear off, in great detail, about this or that aspect of the scandal, something that they wanted me to write about. When I would ask them to go on the record with their startling claims — which were usually quite credible — they would almost always refuse. They had too much to lose.

    And they really did. One woman in the Midwest told me ghastly stories about clerical sexual corruption involving a bishop and a child-molesting priest who had blackmailed him — stories that checked out, as far as I was able to independently verify them, though I didn’t have enough to publish. She had been working for the bishop when all this happened, and had seen it go down with her own eyes. But she couldn’t give me her name because she still worked for the Catholic Church (though by then in another diocese), and she said that as a single mom raising children, she couldn’t afford to lose her job. So I never wrote the story, even though I believed she was telling me the truth.

    This kind of thing happened again and again. It’s really hard to be a whistleblower within a religious organization, or even to take a stand when to do so is to risk not only losing your job, but possibly your vocation.

  • Rod Dreher

    Let me add, re: Jerry’s comment, that enough of substance has happened since Duin’s story closed (boy, has it!) that the Post ought to assign her to do a follow-up for the daily paper.

  • Susan Davis

    Duin’s story is running in the “Lifestyle” section of the Washington Post website. Online, at least, it’s not clear whether it was published in the magazine or newspaper:
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/metropolitan-jonah-goes-to-washington/2011/02/24/ABnZq3l_story.html

  • Julia Duin

    Hi, this is Julia. The story was already turned in when all hell broke loose Feb. 24-25. I didn’t even learn of it til late Friday morning the 25th when I was in Houston for a long weekend. Flew back to DC Sunday, arriving 2 a.m. Monday, getting to bed around 5, up a few hours later, had just one day – the 28th – to do a rewrite with what little solid information I could get at that point. Of course I would have loved to have gotten in the drama of Hilarion flying in from Moscow last week to knock some heads together but the lead factor is close to 3 weeks and everyone did the best they could under the crazy circumstances.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I’m puzzled why a rabbi would be interviewed about–not ecumenical or interreligious (or Jewish) issues– but the internal workings of a Christian Church. The rabbi used a phrase that struck me as out of place. He talked of “balance between Christianity and activism” as if a Christian could not also very much be an activist (as in, say Dorothy Day). In fact, many activists on social or political issues are such because of their deep Christian Faith. They are not opposites that must be kept in balance. Now if he had said: “balance between spirituality (or prayer) and activism” that would make slightly more sense from a Christian perspective.
    It would also be interesting to see an article or two that looked into the problem of Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchs not having some of the authority of the Roman popes to keep organizational chaos at bay in the local Churches. I have met people that love the liturgy, art, and prayers of the Orthodox East but are repelled by what appears to be ethnic exclusivism and constant internal fighting–or as Julia just said in her comment about struggling to put the whole story together–”crazy circumstances.”

  • joye

    Do you have any links that don’t assume background knowledge of the situation? I tried those two links, and I believe you about the venom, but I am clueless about what is going on here.

    Is there an Orthodox equivalent to newsmedia such as the National Catholic Register, Zenit, National Catholic Reporter, Jewish Journal, Jewish Week, Christianity Today, etc, which are at least supposed to do or aggregate neutral fact reporting? I Googled “orthodox christian news” but I’m only finding things that look more like blogs and forums, and which have the same problem of assuming “You Should Know This Already”.

    You Should Know This Already is a syndrome I’m finding more and more in newsmedia, not just in the religious sphere. Sometimes I just give up because every piece only focuses on what the absolute latest development was. Unless it’s notable enough to get a Wikipedia page, if I missed the initial news reports, I’m hopelessly lost.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JOYE:

    I hear you. The answer, simply, is “no.”

    There is no common and accepted source. Often, all is rumors and often in other languages (try to chase Greek Orthodox news sometimes).

    You can see the difficulty that Duin had and what she pulled off in her piece — narrowly focused — is actually very close to the heart of the matter. That’s something rare in MSM coverage of the Eastern churches.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    I’m always impressed by Duin’s work. This piece is no exception.

  • http://palamas.info Fr Gregory Jensen

    Terry,

    I think the article does a good job in highlighting the tension in the OCA between the old guard and those who want to move the Church in a different direction relative to moral issues in the public square. A substantial piece of reporting that I think helps clarify the situation not only for those outside the OCA but also for those of us in the OCA.

  • Passing By

    It’s helpful to read about the deadline issues. Reading the story the other day, I thought I would like more detailed and quoted information on the objections to Met. Jonah.

    I especially appreciated that the story didn’t tell as an indictment of basic Orthodoxy, as Catholic stories often do. It simply describes current troubles.

  • ceemac

    The journalism question I would ask about this article is why was it published?

    According to the article the OCA has 85K members which is less than 10% of the Orthodox community in the US. And 85K is barely a statistical blip on the US religious landscape.

    Unless this is part of a series on tiny denominations or a series on Orthodox in general I don’t see the point.

  • Chris Jones

    ceemac,

    The significance of a particular religious body in the nation as a whole (or its newsworthiness) is not always to be correlated with its size. You can easily see this in the coverage that has been accorded the Episcopal Church and its ongoing dust-up about homosexuality over the last decade or so. ECUSA is a fairly small Church body, but between its historically disproportionate influence in America and its recent engagement with hot-button and newsworthy social issues, it gets a lot more coverage than many larger denominations — and rightly so.

    Eastern Orthodoxy is interesting for a number of reasons. First, however small its representation in the United States, it is historically a tremendously important Church body, which deserves coverage on the religion beat for that reason alone. Secondly, the engagement between immigrant subcultures and the mainstream culture is always a matter of interest in the “melting pot” (or “rainbow,” if you like) that is America, and Churches like Eastern Orthodoxy are always a locus of that engagement (as were other denominations, like my own Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, in earlier eras). Within American Orthodoxy, the OCA (and Metr Jonah in particular) represents a distinctive, and controversial, approach to that engagement.

    Perhaps Eastern Orthodoxy is not newsworthy in the “front page of the main news section” sense of “newsworthy”; but this was a religion-beat feature written by the religion editor. In that context I think it is a perfectly appropriate story.

  • Patrick Henry Reardon

    Terry

    Julia Duin—my friend for more than a quarter of a century—sent me the manuscript of her article several weeks ago, long before Mark Stokoe’s first attack on Metropolitan Jonah. She wanted to make sure about point os accuracy and her proper choice of tone.

    Julia wrote that article with the journalistic integrity we have all come to expect of her.

  • Alexander Patico

    Terry,

    You said, near the end of your piece, that “The key is how to define the nature of the battle line that divides the two sides, the divide between those who see Orthodoxy as a partner for the Church of Rome and most evangelicals and an old guard who want to retain their decades of ties to the Protestant left and the National Council of Churches.”
    While this may resonate with some, I would have to say that this dichotomy — the description of the two “camps” as you’ve given it — has not been a significant part of the dialogue going on via OCANews, OCA Truth, Orthodox Forum, Voices of Russia and other fora where the impact — and future — of Metropolitan Jonah’s tenure has been debated. There have been opposing views on how much transparency is proper, how best to move on from the era of Metro. Herman, whom should be “rehabilitated” from his coterie, whether Syosset should continue as OCA hqs., and a host of other issues, but I have seen little or nothing concerning the relationship between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, and not much more about relations with Protestants, except in the context of Metro. Jonah’s signing of the Manhattan Declaration. For example, there has not appeared to be any taking of sides based on anyone’s stance regarding abortion (one of the major political/social issues dividing progressive and conservative Christianity in America). There have been no statements I am aware of linking Metro. Jonah’s fate with his interface with the Vatican. Please clarify how you arrived at this analysis of where the “battle lines” are being drawn.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com Nancy Reyes

    is it me, or does it seem strange to you to ask a Rabbi to comment on the story?

    The emphasis on his believing in the dogmas of the church seems a bit strange…of course, they do that in Catholic stories too…

    As for the Orthodox, we need background on where all these Orthodox churches came from, why they need to move out of the ethnic churches into the mainstream, and why they are losing the younger generation (as they mainstream into US culture and often move to cities without Orthodox churches) yet gaining converts (due to their strict orthodox dogmas and the beauty of their services).

    without these facts, you won’t understand his actions.

  • Harold

    I’m curious how this article is playing and viewed by people who haven’t known Duin for decades and aren’t in the convert, pro-Jonah camp?

    I appreciate the challenge that no one wanted to talk (although there are more pro-Jonah voices than critics) and I wonder how one judges “balance” in a story that has a p.o.v. that is already favorable to its subject (which you expect in a magazine story).

    While I realize Duin was able to talk to one of Jonah’s most vocal critics, I actually found the quotes rather bland and the rest of the criticism was couched in Internet chattering. In contrast, more pro-Jonah voices were quoted and in more gushing terms.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    HAROLD:

    Duin started from a position as outsider, other than knowing other Orthodox converts (and it’s interesting that his is your bottom-line ID for that camp).

    If you look at the timeline, the anti-Jonah voices were in ramp-up time for their attack on the metropolitan at the precise time that Duin was asking them to talk. It is perfectly logical that they elected not to talk. Thus, that is not Duin’s fault. She tried to get the other voices, but they had a logical motive for silence.

  • Dn. Brian Patrick Mitchell

    I have also worked many years in journalism, and I second everything Terry has said here. The story is a solid piece of journalism and all that any editor could expect under the circumstances.

  • JWB

    It’s obviously problematic to complain that a fairly long article by newspaper standards wasn’t even longer, but I thought there could have been some helpful context in just a paragraph or two to see how other Orthodox jurisdictions in the U.S. are or are not dealing with similar issues. Do the Greek bishops ever engage with politicians or the press on hot-button subjects other than whatever aggravating thing the Turkish gov’t is doing this week? Are there differing views among the Greek Archdiocese’s clergy or laity on what their hierarchs should or shouldn’t be doing in the “public square”? Everyone’s seen that old picture of +Iakovos marching with Martin Luther King. Why did he do that, and what if anything do people think his successor should be doing of the same nature? Same questions for the Antiochians etc.

    It might also have been worth noting in just a sentence or two of background that having a massive blowup/crisis over the leadership of a primate is not unique to the OCA, as the other two largest Orthodox jurisdictions have had more or less the same thing (+Philip surviving his crisis thus far; +Spyridon not). If those prior crises can’t be easily explained with a left-wing v. right-wing narrative, does that mean that this one is different, or does it mean that (as Alexander Patico suggested above) that that’s not really the best narrative to explain what’s going on in the OCA?


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