Pod people: If Womenpriests were rabbis?

In most of our recent posts about coverage of the Womenpriests movement, such as this piece by the Divine Ms. MZ Hemingway, we have ended up discussing how journalists often struggle to grasp basic historical facts about the Roman Catholic priesthood. In particular, journalists just can’t seem to realize that the Church of Rome is a voluntary association and that to be a priest in this body one must, first and foremost, be in Communion with the pope of Rome and the bishops of that Communion.

However, in an earlier post, I voiced my concern about the degree to which journalists from the Baltimore Sun seemed to have been cooperative, if somewhat passive, participants in the public Womenpriests ordination rite that they were allegedly covering as members of the public press. Here is a flashback to a worrisome passage in the Sun coverage:

Andrea Johnson, presiding as bishop, ordained two women from Maryland, Ann Penick and Marellen Mayers, one from Pennsylvania and one from New York in the sanctuary of St. John’s United Church of Christ. The church was filled with family members — including husbands of three of the ordinands — and friends, including some who are employed by the Archdiocese of Baltimore but who support the ordination of women. Photography was limited to protect the privacy of those attending the ceremony.

Later, we learned that until recently Mayers had been employed as “a campus minister and religion instructor at a Catholic high school” until she was outed as a Womenpriests activist. The Sun team declined to click a mouse once or twice and give the name of her former school, perhaps, once again, because the journalists did not want to print information that would violate the privacy of well-placed Catholic progressives in the administration there. Might some of these people be longtime sources for the newspaper?

Anyway, this issue has continued to bug me and it is the subject of this week’s GetReligion podcast. Click here to listen or head on over to iTunes to add our weekly offerings to your iPhone/iPod queue.

Even after we recorded this broadcast, I continued to work this situation over in my mind.

I’ve been trying to find a good metaphor, a journalistic parallel case, that might help readers understand why this bothers me so much.

The following metaphor isn’t perfect, but it’s close enough — as we would say in Texas — for horse shoes and hand grenades.

So let’s say that the home mission board of the Southern Baptist Convention decided to hold a celebration in a Baltimore-area church sanctuary in which four people who are of Jewish birth and background would be ordained in order to serve in new congregations that would compete directly with local congregations that are affiliated with traditional Jewish movements.

Instead of being called pastors, however, the organizers — leaders in the Jesusrabbis movement — insist that these newly ordained ministers are not, in fact, Protestants or even “Messianic Jewish” pastors. No, they insist that the newly ordained are rabbis — period.

Now, as it turns out, the participants in this public celebration actually included recognizable leaders from the Baltimore Jewish Federation, major Jewish schools, the Jewish studies programs of local universities and even major Jewish congregations. They were there to celebrate the ordination of these new “rabbis,” cheering and applauding the rites.

And how about the news media? The event’s organizers asked the media professionals who were present to honor the privacy of these Jewish leaders who came to celebrate the ordination of these Jesusrabbis. For example, the Baltimore Sun team members agreed not to cover this important factual element of the story or even to take photos of the crowd. In a way, the Sun actually helped these Jesusrabbi movement supporters to maintain their positions in prominent local Jewish institutions, even though the overwhelming majority of local Jews would see their actions as scandalous acts of betrayal to any traditional form of the Jewish faith.

Did I mention that all of this took place in a church sanctuary in an event that was clearly open, in some sense, to the public?

But wait! If the event was secret, then that would be even more significant. The Jesusrabbi Movement even knew to invite these Jewish leaders who were acting in rebellion against their own congregations and institutions. They would had to have been, to some degree, on the inside.

So, who can imagine Sun editors cooperating in this manner in this hypothetical case, going to far as to ignore crucial news information that the public would want to know? How about other major media institutions? Would they agree to help the Jesusrabbis movement in this manner?

Enjoy the podcast. Please keep your comments focused on the journalism issues in this post.

IMAGE: Messianic Jews in worship in a congregation with Baptist roots.

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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

    I like your analogy, but would argue that rather than “JesusRabbis”, it would be more like the actual situation if the ‘ordinands’ were claiming to be Modern Orthodox WomenRabbis and were being hosted by a Reform or Liberal Jewish congregation.

    On the other hand, if a Christian body (like your hypothetical Baptists) was included in some kind of what would appear to be ceremonies aimed at prosleytising Jews, I’m quite certain the “Baltimore Sun” and all the other media reportage would include the other side of the story, with plentiful coverage of Jewish rabbis and whether they considered these “JesusRabbis” colleagues, reaction from synagogue congregations, and experts on halakha explaining why this wasn’t on to back up their opposition to such an event.

  • Jerry

    I like what you did in this piece changing the frame of reference. It helps provide a good perspective.

  • Henry

    If something like your metaphor were to occur, and they put the words “Southern Baptist” in the title without the permission of the Southern Baptist convention, it would be interesting to see if journalists would refer to the activists as “Southern Baptists”.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    I disagree. If the rites were in a Reform sanctuary, then they would have to have been claiming that the Womenrabbis were ORTHODOX rabbis.

    UCC sanctuary — Catholic priests.

    See the point?

    But that’s beside the point of the post. The issue is the SUN team’s decision to strategically cooperate with the rite.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Anticipating another question….

    Isn’t this simply protecting a source?

    No, not really. We are talking about participants in a public rite, not simply anonymous sources who provided information.

  • Amanda

    At what point can, or should, a newspaper override the names a group choses to use? Journalists seem comfortable referring to Westboro Baptist and its pastor by that name and title — there’s not anything else to use — though some journalists do helpfully note that Westboro Baptist is not affiliated with any known Baptist conventions or associations. Phelps seems to have been ordained, but query whether the church that ordained him or licensed him to gospel ministry still supports his ordination.

    “Catholic” and “priest” aren’t trademarked words. If a woman introduces herself to a journalist as a Catholic priest, how should the journalist write about this interaction? The journalist can explain why she’s not in the line of apostolic succession with Rome, but how do you caption the photo?

  • carl

    I keep thinking this is a trick question. The answer is the obvious answer. Journalists become journalists to ‘make the world a better place.’ Journalism is largely composed of self-selected liberal secularists who define ‘a better world’ in terms of secular liberal ‘theology.’ WomenPriests fits the mold of making the world a ‘better place’ according to this worldview. It strikes at particularist truth, and received doctrine. Therefore, it’s supporters will receive tactical support. The stereotypical journalist doesn’t want to see it’s proponents punished by exposure to reaction, so he discretely protects their identities.

    Your hypothetical analogy would reverse this assessment because it would be seen as an advance for ‘fundamentalist Christianity.’ (At least that is how I assume you drew the scenario. I am not sure it would matter to the Jewish community since not being a Christian is considered a necessary component of being Jewish.) This event re-enforce particular truth in the eyes of journalists who as group deny the existence of particular truth. So the group would receive no special treatment. In fact, I assume they would expose the Jewish participants simply to generate more controversy around the story. Controversy means interest, and that’s good for everybody except the individuals in question.


  • Jay Steele

    I would suggest another metaphor: a group of glbt folk of Southern Baptist heritage hold a public service of ordination for some of them to be ordained (or probably licensed since ordination likely requires a church call) SB ministers. Among the group are former SB pastors and members who have come out and lost their jobs or home in the SB.

    My guess is that this would generate the same kind of coverage from the press. Whatever the merits of the press coverage, it is a ‘story’ because many members of the media and many readers are less interested in the theology and doctrine that inform these decisions and more interested in what seem to be basic questions of fairness.

  • tmatt


    The problem with any Baptist analogy is that Baptists are so congregational that they can do just about whatever they want and it’s valid for them AS BAPTISTS.

    Also, you missed another point. The celebrants in the audience have not lost their jobs. They are still in power, in the established church that is being redefined. That’s the point.

  • Jay Steele

    Ok, so I should have said that among those in attendance was a member of the faculty at SB related seminary.

    While it is true that Baptist ecclesiology is a different beast than Roman, there is a recognized SB denomination that has some fairly clear markers about who can and cannot be ordained (or why all the much-publicized fuss over the role of women in SB). If it were reported that among those in attendance at this ordination ceremony was a member of the faculty of Southeastern Baptist T. Seminary it would be news.

    I thought the larger point was why it is that the media continues to cover these stories the way they do.

  • Dave

    Why strain at hypothetical analogies? The issues are quite clear in the story that actually happened.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Just doing my best to help people understand the precise nature of the JOURNALISTIC issue I was raising, as opposed to just more comments arguing about the Womenpriests themselves.

  • EssEm

    The issue would become bizarrely clear if we imagined that one of the female bishops got herself elected by her movement as the new and rightful Bishop of Rome. If you can cook up your own authority to ordain a woman as a Roman Catholic priest or a Roman Catholic bishop, then what’s to stop you from claiming that one of your bishop is the rightful occupant of the Roman See instead of Benedict XVI, who does not buy into the “discipleship of equals” feminism which the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement officially embraces on their website?

  • Martha

    tmatt, my point is that the UCC and the Roman Catholics are both Christian denominations, and I’m pretty sure the UCC considers themselves every bit as entitled to be described as the Church, whereas your “JesusRabbis” would be mixing Judaism and Christianity.

    Also, from the perspective of that particular UCC congregation or pastor, I imagine she and they consider that the women are genuinely priests and genuinely Roman Catholic priests, and not UCC ministers or some other form of Protestant, which is why I thought comparing Orthodox and Liberal Jewish canons on this was instructive – your point that the hypothetical women rabbis would be presenting themselves as Orthodox Rabbis (and considered so by their Liberal or Reform hosts) is exactly the one I was trying to make.