How to cover a complex religion story 101

OK, it’s finally time to mention that Ann Rodgers story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about the quest for Orthodox Christian unity here in the United States.

The story is a couple of weeks old, of course. However (a) I continue to hear from people who want to know what I thought of it (because I’m Orthodox, etc.) and (b) it truly is an example of the positive side of what we write about here in land.

I hesitated to write about the story, in part, because one of the crucial quotes in this thing is from a good friend of mine in my own parish. Also, there is this tendency to say, “This is another really fair, balanced and informed story about a really complex subject that is written by Ann Rodgers — but what’s the news in that? Ho hum.”

Well, it’s OK to write a post like this every now and then. After all, this is what religion writing looks like when it’s done by an experienced journalist with a studied commitment to working on this beat. In a perfect news world, there wouldn’t be anything really unusual about this.

The main challenge in writing about Orthodox unity in this land is that there’s so little of it. Also, unity is one of those positive subjects that everyone is supposed to be in favor of, yet many leaders have reasons to not want to see unity become a reality — but they will never say so when a journalist is listening.

Tough story, in other words. Here’s a sample:

On orders from patriarchs in Constantinople, Russia, Serbia and elsewhere, all Orthodox bishops in this country are working on a plan for one American Church.

The patriarchs say they want to approve such a plan at a yet-unscheduled Great and Holy Council of global Orthodoxy. The last such council was in A.D. 787. In 2010, 66 American bishops formed the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America, to devise the plan.

“This has great potential,” said Bishop Melchisedek of the Diocese of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania in the Orthodox Church in America, which is self-governing but has Russian roots. He cited existing differences on matters such as divorce or re-baptism of converts.

“The canon law of the church allows for only one bishop of a city, but here in Pittsburgh we have four. It’s a situation that can create unnecessary conflict. Now we have the potential for the church to speak with one voice.”

Skeptics say unity can be achieved immediately if the bishops really want it and that details could be worked out later.

The bishops assembly “is a façade,” said Cal Oren, a layman from Baltimore.

“They want us to believe that they are working together and are really unified. If they are really unified, where is the real unity? Why do we have nine bishops of New York? We don’t need more joint commissions on youth work. That just creates an excuse for never really unifying.”

Yes, Rodgers then has to step way back into the mists of church history and quickly get readers up to speed. She does so, with clear, strong language and quotes from all over the place. That’s journalism.

So how has this unity thing gone in recent decades?

In 1994, when all of the Orthodox bishops in the Americas gathered near Ligonier and called for unity, the ecumenical patriarch accused them of rebellion. …

Planning for a Great Council to redraw boundaries started in 1961. Little progress was made until the Iron Curtain fell. That freed the largest churches from persecution, and sent new waves of emigrants to the West. In 2009 the patriarchs asked the Orthodox bishops in 12 regions of the globe to plan for unity. The American bishops have asked the patriarchs to let them break into separate groups for Canada, the United States and Mexico-Central America. …

Both supporters and skeptics of the Bishops Assembly say the problem isn’t merely bureaucratic, but spiritual. In 1872 the idea of one bishop planting an ethnic church in another bishop’s territory was condemned as a nationalist heresy.

Keep reading, because things get more complex. And when you are done reading, please join your GetReligionistas in saying something like this.

Dear editors in major American newsrooms:

Please go hire someone with experience and training to work on the religion beat. See this story as an example of what can happen when skilled reporters are allowed to do their jobs.

Thank you.

PICTURE: The Orthodox bishops of North America, sort of assembled in a show of unity.

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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.

  • Melissa

    The last council of Orthodoxy was before the schism with Roman Catholicism?

    Would there be a possibility that Rome would be invited to the next council? Is there a chance that we could be united again?

  • Jerry

    I think it’s vitally important to keep pointing out the great work done, albeit by a few. Psychology has proven that positive reinforcement works so giving kudos when deserved can only be helpful.

  • John Penta

    Melissa: Not a chance. Would be nice if the Catholic Church was (both Orthodox and Catholics could do great things if they could coopersate!), but put thoughts of real cooperation, let alone unity, out of your mind.

  • John Penta

    I’ll add – Wow, this is exactly what we should see from a Godbeat story.


    Now can we please follow it up?

  • Mollie

    Thanks for highlighting this story, tmatt. I can’t recall the last time I learned so much from a single story.

  • John M

    Is this really such a complex religion story? The Christian church is plagued by this problem in every city of the world, with evangelicals being a classic example. The only difference here is the ethnic and nationalistic roots of the divisions.

    Is it possible this really only becomes worthy of a news report if the people involved actually commit themselves to making real progress toward unity and actually achieve it?

  • carl jacobs

    This story didn’t strike me as particularly complicated because it deals mostly with organization and administration. These are common concepts to which an average reader can easily relate. There were flashes of doctrine here and there, but they came and went quickly. As a Protestant, I can quote chapter and verse on every major Roman Catholic doctrine, but Orthodoxy is an opaque vaporous mist to me. This story did not help me with my lack of understanding between West and East.

    In addition, the story did not develop the ‘why’ behind the reasons for the division. There was discussion of the fact of division, and ongoing attempts to resolve it. But I was left to infer specific reasons. I initially presumed this was simply about different bishops were defending their own turf, but there were indications in the story of deeper motivations. What are the Old World conflicts? What are the doctrinal issues hinted at with brief references to liturgy, and divorce and re-baptism.

    And then there is this statement:

    There has been conflict in and between jurisdictions here. In 2010, the Antiochian diocesan bishops were demoted to auxiliaries stripped of most of their power.

    I read this sentence three times trying to get beneath the words. I was trying to answer these questions. “What is an Antiochan bishop? What is an axillary? Who stripped them of power? Why? How does this relate to the rest of the story?” There seemed to be a lot of answers in this sentence of only this part of the story had been developed.

    I don’t mean to be negative, because I enjoyed reading this story (which is almost never true about religion stories in the media) and I learned from it (which is also almost never true.) The story achieved it’s intended purpose. These are just the remaining questions I still had when I was finished.


  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    There is only so much historical depth a newspaper story can go into. I think this very good article dug as deep as it could without some editor taking a very sharp knife to it. One of the good things about the article is that I could sense no desire on the part of the writer to stick in some snarky or personal digs along the way even though there are parts of the story an unsympathetic or negative-minded reporter could have done some unwarranted opinion making with.
    It will be a long time before there can be corporate union between the East and West Church. But the way to start is to work together on areas where there is agreement and to pray together short of intercommunion –which must come last after there is a genuine union of heart, mind, and Faith.

  • Pete again

    “Orthodox (doctrine) is an opaque vaporous mist to me.”

    @carl jacobs, may I recommend a good book? It is entitled “Light from the Chritian East” by J. Payton, who is a Protestant theologian and who did NOT convert to Eastern Orthodoxy.

    It is an OUTSTANDING introduction to Orthodoxy for American Evangelicals.

  • carl

    Pete again

    Thank you for that recommendation. My perusal of reviews at Amazon showed nothing to contradict your assessment. And not just because J. Payton stands ‘firmly in the Reformed tradition.’ (Although it helped. Alot.) Indeed, the “Most Helpful critical review” convinced me of its potential value. I will try to find that book.


  • Ann Rodgers

    Thanks much for the high praise, and for the comments.
    No one was more frustrated than I was at reducing the upheaval in the Antiochian Archdiocese to a single sentence. The problem is that if I attempted to explain it further I would have to jump down a rabbit hole in pursuit of a story far longer and more complex than the Easter story on unity that I was writing. There is no simple answer to the questions that the commenter raised. David Yonke at our sister paper, the Toledo Blade, has done some running coverage:
    Even though I know the Web has largely obliterated the concept of “circulation territory,” I’ve written often enough about the Antiochians that regular readers of the Post-Gazette know that their roots are in Syria.
    Thanks again for the kudos. Have a great day everyone.

  • John Penta

    Carl Jacobs asks a good question, but I’ll spin it differently – I’m a Catholic, looking for a *Catholic* introduction to Orthodoxy deeper than what I learned in the ecumenism bit of 7th grade CCD, or for that matter in my semester or two of Byzantine history in college. Anybody have any book recommends from the Catholic side of things?

  • alypius

    John, a good place to start would be fr. Aidan Nichols book Rome and the Eastern Churches. It covers the basic history and theological differences pretty well, and is fair though written from a Catholic perspective. Great article by the way, Ann. I learned a great deal in a short amount of space.

  • John Penta

    Many thanks. Found and now on my Kindle, yay.