And now for something completely different

Warning: The following post contains highly offensive language of a doctrinal nature, whether the journalists covering this event knew it or not. Proceed with care.

I need to explain something about large-scale denominational assemblies, even though it will be old news to journalists in the GetReligion audience who regularly cover this events — especially those held by oldline Protestant flocks.

Without a doubt, the most boring parts of these events — yes, even more boring than the business sessions — are the ultra-polite addresses delivered by special guests from the outside. These are often called “greetings” and they may be delivered by local civic leaders (“Thank you for eating lots of meals in our downtown restaurants”) or by local, national or international religious dignitaries.

During the heated 1984 meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Kansas City, an Episcopal visitor suddenly appeared at the podium to say that the Baptists were welcome to tour his cathedral across the street and even to take part in services. However, he added, the cars of anyone who parked in their lots would be towed away. This drew a hearty laugh, because his remarks were refreshingly candid.

Normally, when journalists see the word “greetings” in a convention schedule, they know that it’s safe to step out and get a cup of coffee or some other legal stimulant (the nature of which depends on the denomination one is covering).

Well, something strange happened the other day during the latest national gathering of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) dedicated to discussing a variety of church issues, including, of course, the status of gay-marriage rites and the ordination of non-celibate gay, lesbian and bisexual clergy. It was not strange that the body said “no” to the former and “yes” to the latter, with a final decision to be made by presbyteries across the nation. (Click here to surf through some of the business-as-usual coverage.)

It was strange, however, that something newsworthy happened during one of those boring “greetings” by an ecumenical visitor. Here is the complete Associated Press report:

An Orthodox Church theologian who was invited to greet the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has criticized its approval of non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy.

The Reverend Siarhei Hardun of Belarus said that vote and efforts to approve gay marriage looked to him like an attempt to “invent a new religion — a sort of modern paganism.” Hardun added, “When people say that they are led and guided by the Holy Spirit to do it, I wonder if it is the same Holy Spirit that inspired the Bible.”

The Orthodox priest’s remarks drew applause from conservative Presbyterians who made similar arguments at the gathering in Minneapolis.

As you would expect, the only place one can find more extensive coverage of Father Siarhei’s remarks — which were spoken gently, but were extremely blunt — is in publications linked to the PCUSA conservatives, such as The Layman. For those who paid close attention to the doctrinal comments in his text, his words could only be called shockingly offensive.

How offensive? So offensive that covering them accurately would have raised Associated Press Stylebook issues.

For starters, Father Siarhei reminded his audience that he represented the Eastern Orthodox Church of Belarus, which means that he is part of a global communion that has “an unbroken, unchanged and unreformed tradition. And our theology has never been changed or reformed for almost 2,000 years.”

This drew a laugh from his listeners, part of a flock that has its roots in the Reformed tradition John Calvin.

Then, speaking to the leaders of a denomination that is in severe statistical decline, he noted that Orthodoxy is once again on the rise in Belarus after several generations of bloody persecution. Twenty years ago, he noted:

… “(We) had 370 Orthodox congregations and now we have over 1,500 congregations. New churches are being built everywhere. We also try to organize the social work of the church and in this we find support and assistance from the Presbyterian Church (USA). That’s why I am obliged to convey sincere gratitude on behalf of the Orthodox Church of Belarus to your church for its long standing support of our common projects in helping disabled people, lonely aged people, families with many children and other categories of those who are in need.”

This is the stuff of normal ecumenical greetings and the second half of that passage drew another round of applause.

Then Father Siarhei, searching for the right words in English, offered a few impressions of the assembly and its work. That led to these words on moral theology (the following may be from his prepared text, since the wordings in the video are slightly different):

“Christian morality is as old as Christianity itself. It doesn’t need to be invented now. Those attempts to invent new morality look for me like attempts to invent a new religion — a sort of modern paganism.

“When people say that they are led and guided by the Holy Spirit to do it, I wonder if it is the same Spirit that inspired the Bible, if it is the same Holy Spirit that inspires the Holy Orthodox Church not to change anything doctrinal or moral standards? It is really the same Spirit or perhaps there are different spirits acting in different denominations and inspiring them to develop in different directions and create different theologies and different morals?

“My desire is that all Christians should contend earnestly for the faith, which was once for all delivered to the saints, as St. Jude calls us to do (Jude 1:3). And my advice as an ecumenical advisory delegate is the following: ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ ” (Romans 12:2).

So what is this Orthodox priest saying? Note that the term Holy Spirit is capitalized in that text, but that the second reference to “different spirits” is down. That would be accurate under AP style. Why? Well, the bible of mainstream journalism saith:

gods and goddesses: Capitalize God in references to the deity of all monotheistic religions. Capitalize all noun references to the deity: God the Father, Holy Ghost, Holy Spirit, etc. …

Lowercase gods and goddesses in references to the deities of polytheistic religions.

Lowercase god, gods and goddesses in references to false gods: He made money is god.

So what is Father Siarhei saying? He is saying something highly offensive and potentially newsworthy, especially since some of the Presbyterians in the room applauded (I would assume because they understood his words and approved of them). He is saying that the divisions inside the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) may be rooted in a clash between those who are heeding the God of the Bible and those who are hearing the voices of, literally, another god. He is asking if part of the assembly is, in a very real way, possessed by a false spirit.

Whether one agrees with him or not, that is a truly radical and offensive statement. It might even be newsworthy. You think?

Did the reporters present realize what this priest had actually said?

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Wow, that’s a subtle label!

If one looks up “reform” in a dictionary, it’s obvious that, when used as a label, this is a pretty good finger-pointing word, a term that separates the good guys from the bad guys. For example, when used as a verb:

1. To improve by alteration, correction of error, or removal of defects; put into a better form or condition.

2. a. To abolish abuse or malpractice in: reform the government. b. To put an end to (a wrong). …

3. To cause (a person) to give up harmful or immoral practices; persuade to adopt a better way of life.

You get the idea. This is just as obvious when dealing with “reform” as a noun:

1. A change for the better; an improvement.

2. Correction of evils, abuses, or errors. …

So what, precisely, is a “reformer,” outside the reference in church history to Protestant Reformers? A reformer is someone who helps correct evils, abuses and errors.

So, what do you call a person who is the opposite of a “reformer”?

As it turns out, The New York Times has a simple answer to that question, at least that was the case in a recent story covering a key battle in the civil wars inside the global Anglican Communion.

LONDON – The Church of England moved another step closer to an unbridgeable schism between traditionalists and reformers … when its General Synod, or parliament, rejected a bid by the archbishop of Canterbury to strike a compromise over the ordination of women bishops aimed at preserving the increasingly fragile unity of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

The rejection of proposals aimed at accommodating those who oppose women bishops appeared to strike a serious blow to the authority of the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, whose position as archbishop of Canterbury makes him the spiritual leader of the Communion. Although he has a long-established reputation as a liberal on theological issues, the archbishop, 60, has spent much of his seven years as the Anglican leader seeking to fashion compromises with traditionalists over the role of women and gays as priests and bishops.

Wow, what a balanced, neutral lede! This leap in labeling takes us light years past the whole “moderate” vs. “fundamentalist” question that was so troubling (and rightly so) to Times editor back in 2005.

In this case, the ancient tradition of male clergy is actually identified, in the mirror, as evil and abusive and, thus, in need of reform. Take that Rome. Take that, Jerusalem, Constantinople, Moscow, Athens, etc., etc. The majority of the world’s Christians worship at altars in churches of this kind, of course. The issue of the ordination of women, and certainly the raising of women to the episcopate, also divides many of the world’s Anglicans.

Now, no matter what you think of the ordination of women, is it really a good idea for the world’s most powerful newsroom to bluntly label one side of this doctrinal debate the party of REFORM, which means that those who oppose them are the party of evil, abusive policies that need to be REFORMED? Surely there is some way to use language that is both accurate and neutral. That’s what mainstream journalists are supposed to do, right?

Later in the story, the label for the doctrinal right is cranked all the way up to “hard-line traditionalists.” However, it is pretty clear that someone at the Times has decided to completely tilt the scales in favor of the liberal Anglican establishment. Here we go again:

The proposed compromise in York was co-sponsored by the second most senior prelate in the Church of England, John Sentamu, the archbishop of York. The two men had staked their authority and prestige on winning support for their proposals, and their failure left the Church of England — and the wider Anglican Communion, with an estimated 80 million followers worldwide — facing a new low in its long battle to avert a breakup that would create two rival Anglican communions, one traditionalist and the other reformist.

So, it’s “traditionalist” vs “reformist”? That’s really subtle.

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Orthodox ‘fundamentalism’ and obscenity

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (R), Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill (C) and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I meet in Moscow's Kremlin May 25, 2010. REUTERS/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Dmitry Astakhov (RUSSIA - Tags: POLITICS RELIGION)

Apparently, a major religious obscenity trial in Moscow has been going on. I only know this thanks to a New York Times story, the Times being one of the few papers left these days that has the resources to do its own foreign coverage:

The trial of two prominent Russian intellectuals over a 2007 contemporary art exhibition at the Sakharov Museum here that included works on religious themes ended … with a guilty verdict and fines but no jail time for the defendants.

In the culmination of the trial, which began two years ago, Yuri Samodurov, 58, a former director of the Sakharov Museum, was fined 200,000 rubles (about $6,500) and Andrei Yerofeyev, 54, the show’s guest curator, was fined 150,000 rubles (about $4,800) on charges of inciting religious and ethnic hatred in an exhibition called “Forbidden Art — 2006,” which displayed works that had been banned by Russian museums. Among the offending works were a Pop Art juxtaposition of an image of Jesus appearing with McDonald’s golden arches as if in an advertisement with the words, “This is my body”; an icon of the Virgin Mary with what looks like caviar where the figures should be; and a painting of Jesus with a Mickey Mouse head. A work titled “Chechen Marilyn,” of a veiled woman with her long dress billowing up, was deemed offensive to Muslims.

The article suggests that the Russian Orthodox supporters of the obscenity charges are a pretty radical lot:

Those divergent views were well represented in the courtroom. Human rights activists and artists showed up to support the curators. Opposing them were fundamentalist Russian Orthodox activists dressed in black T-shirts decorated with the Orthodox cross, skulls and crossbones and the words “Orthodoxy or Death.”

There’s the dreaded “F” word again. Dare we ask the logical question: What is the difference between an orthodox Orthodox Christian and a fundamentalist Orthodox Christian?

Looks like the Times is catching the same disease as the Washington Post in deciding to use the word “fundamentalist” as a catch all for religious conservatives, rather than staying true to its real meaning as defined by the Associated Press stylebook.

But what jumped out about an otherwise good, nuts-and-bolts report was the lack of context about the church’s involvement in the suit. There’s some bold allegations about the church’s influence:

The prosecutor had asked for three years’ imprisonment for the defendants, a move that caused critics to warn that Russia was reliving the cultural oppression of Soviet times or, as Viktor Yerofeyev, a writer and older brother of Andrei Yerofeyev, warned, that it was becoming a Russian Orthodox version of the Islamic republic in Iran.


Andrei Yerofeyev and some of his supporters said they believed that the Kremlin had intervened to prevent a prison sentence that could tarnish Russia’s image abroad.

Officials of the Russian Orthodox Church had said in recent days that although they were offended by the exhibition and believed it was criminal, the defendants should not be imprisoned.

So we have the accusation that the church’s influence is trending toward Iran-like levels of theocracy and conjecture that the government intervened in the case to counter the church’s influence. This is pretty strong stuff, especially without knowing what the Russian laws actually say on this subject.

Also, it should be noted that the story lacks even one actual quote from a Russian Orthodox official or an outside religious expert that might counterbalance the perspective being offered by the defendants or address their accusations. Perhaps the church really has gone overboard here, but I’d feel a lot better accepting this perspective if there was even just one impartial or outside religious expert that could contextualize the church’s contemporary influence in Russia.

I really hope we see a follow-up that explains the church’s role in Russian society a bit better. That would go a long way toward illuminating what is going on here. Despite the clear suggestion the church has an out-sized or even pernicious influence, there’s a lot of smoke here but little fire.

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Brooklyn to get (another) saint?

There was a fine story in the New York Times the other day about Brooklyn, the Catholic Church and sainthood. Here’s the opening:

Brooklyn, the borough of churches and trees, Walt Whitman and Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand and Mike Tyson, has never lacked for people of distinction — except perhaps in one category.

Nobody from Brooklyn has ever been made a saint.

But at a special church service … Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn opened what is known as a “canonical inquiry” into the cause of sainthood for a Brooklyn priest, Msgr. Bernard J. Quinn.

Monsignor Quinn, who died in 1940 at age 52, championed racial equality at a time when discrimination against blacks was ubiquitous in America, even inside the Catholic Church. In the Depression-era heyday of the anti-Semitic, pro-Fascist radio broadcasts of the Rev. Charles E. Coughlin, Monsignor Quinn encountered sharp resistance from some fellow priests when he proposed ministering to Brooklyn’s growing population of blacks, many of them fleeing the Jim Crow South or migrating from the poor Caribbean countries.

It’s quite a story. A few GetReligion readers, including one who said it felt strange to praise the Times, sent me the URL and asked for a positive post about this feature.

Glad to do so. However, I must first mention one very basic problem, one linked to that sentence that states the news hook: “Nobody from Brooklyn has ever been made a saint.”

That sentence should have read: “Nobody from Brooklyn has ever been proclaimed a saint by the Catholic Church.”

You see, because of its sheer size and importance in American and the West, in general, many journalists have a tendency to see religion news through the lens of Rome (and to a lesser extent, Canterbury). When people in newsrooms think about saints, to the degree that they ever do so, they tend to think about Catholic saints.

The problem is that this does not take into account the second-largest body of Christian believers on the global scene — the churches of Eastern Orthodoxy. Thus, the Times team has overlooked the existence of St. Raphael of Brooklyn, who is a very important figure for the Orthodox here in North America, especially for those who are yearn for the creation of one, unified, pan-Orthodox expression of the faith in this land.

Back in 2000, at the time that this missionary bishop was proclaimed a saint, I wrote the following in a column for Scripps Howard:

Raphael Hawaweeny was born in 1840, while Christians were being slaughtered in the streets of Damascus. His family briefly fled to Lebanon after the martyrdom of their parish priest, St. Joseph of Damascus. … The young Raphael became a monk, but had to leave home to receive an education equal to his abilities. First, he studied with the Greeks at the School of Theology in Halki and he later did graduate studies in Kiev, Russia. Raphael spent nearly a decade in Russia, leading the Arab parish in Moscow. But it was his fierce advocacy of the rights of Arab Christians back home in the ancient church of Antioch that led to clashes with some bishops and, at one point, to his suspension from ministry as a priest.

Then he received an 1895 invitation to lead an Arab mission in yet another strange land — Brooklyn. By this point, Raphael knew Latin, classical Greek and Old Church Slavonic, while speaking Arabic, Turkish, Greek, Russian, French and English.

The missionary traveled from Montreal to Mexico City and founded 30 parishes. As his fame grew, Raphael had numerous opportunities to return home. The Antiochian synod offered him positions as a bishop in Beirut, Tripoli, Tyre, Sidon and elsewhere. But he remained with his flock, becoming a bishop in a 1904 rite in Brooklyn that made him the first Orthodox bishop consecrated in North America. He died in 1915.

So, it is simply inaccurate to say that Brooklyn doesn’t have a saint to call its own. It is accurate to say that, in the future, it may have its first saint that has received that honor from the Catholic Church.

This error would be easy to correct. I must also stress that, by raising this point, I honestly don’t want to diminish the importance of this story by the Times or the cause of those seeking canonization for Monsignor Quinn. In particular, the story does a fine job of noting the rich heritage of Catholicism in New York City. Thus, we read:

The process of canonization can take a long time. The inquiry on behalf of another New Yorker, Cardinal Terence J. Cooke, has been going on since 1984. Pierre Toussaint, the 19th-century Haitian abolitionist, former slave and devout Catholic — who, like Cooke, has been championed by the Archdiocese of New York — has been in line since 1943.

The archdiocese, which includes the Bronx, Manhattan, Staten Island and several upstate counties, can lay claim to a few saints: Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, Elizabeth Ann Seton, the Rev. Isaac Jogues and several of his fellow martyred missionaries. It has taken up the causes of another dozen potential saints, including Dorothy Day and Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.

Brooklyn has some connection to at least two other candidates: Bishop Francis X. Ford, a Maryknoll missionary who was born in Brooklyn and died in Chinese custody in 1952; and the Rev. Felix Varela, an early-19th-century human rights advocate born in Cuba who worked in Brooklyn when it was still part of the New York Archdiocese.

But the inquiry on behalf of Monsignor Quinn is the first the Brooklyn diocese, which encompasses that borough and Queens, has started since its creation in 1853, according to the diocese’s spokesman, Msgr. Kieran E. Harrington.

By all means, read it all. This was, indeed, a man whose ministry of justice and equality was — well — quite miraculous.

Still, a small correction would be helpful, as a nod to St. Raphael of, yes, Brooklyn.

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The ecumenical patriarch does what?

Every now and then I get email from regular GetReligion readers protesting the fact that we — well, me in particular — keep writing about the same subjects too much. In other words, we complain about some of the same errors in the mainstream press over and over and over (think Anglican Timeline Disease).

Take my word: It’s tough work, but someone’s got to do it.

In fact, there are times when I read a story in a major publication and I zip past errors or warped information in the text, for the simple reason that I am used to seeing them. The other day it happened to me when I was scanning a story about a significant event, at the global level, in my own church.

This New York Times story had a Moscow dateline and ran under the headline, “Orthodox Leaders Meet to Heal a Rift.” The news hook was the start of a 10-day visit to Russia by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. Here are the key background paragraphs about this fence-mending mission:

(Bartholomew) spoke after a procession from the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which was blown up at Stalin’s orders in 1931 and rebuilt in the 1990s. A mass at the Cathedral on Monday morning marked the feast day of Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius, Greek brothers who created the Cyrillic alphabet and preached to Slavs in the 9th century. Bartholomew and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church have celebrated liturgy together, in Greek and Slavonic respectively, for two days in a row since the Ecumenical patriarch’s arrival in Moscow on Saturday.

OK, we will pause briefly to note that the Orthodox call the central rite of the faith the Divine Liturgy, not the Mass. This isn’t really an error, I guess. But would reporters cover the pope and say that he observed the Lord’s Supper with the faithful? Just asking.

Back to the Times report:

The Russian Orthodox Church is the world’s largest Orthodox church, while the Ecumenical Patriarchate, now reduced to a tiny community in Istanbul, is symbolically its most important, leading millions of Orthodox Christians around the world.

The Russian church has objected when the Patriarch of Constantinople is described as the Orthodox equivalent of a Roman Catholic pope, and the churches have tangled, often bitterly, since the collapse of the Soviet Union over jurisdictional issues in Estonia and Ukraine, as well as elsewhere in Europe, where an influx of recent Russian immigrants has led to cases of splintered parishes and property disputes. Since his enthronement as Patriarch last year, Kirill has made a thaw in relations with the two historic centers of Christianity, Constantinople and Rome, a key policy.

Did you catch it? Here’s a hint. It is rare to see a major newspaper get something right and wrong in the same sentence.

So look at the first sentence in that passage again. Yes, it is accurate to say that the ecumenical patriarch plays an important symbolic role, serving as the “first among equals” in gatherings of the patriarchs of the East. This is the same as the archbishop of Canterbury, another post that journalists keep turning into a kind of pope for the Anglican Communion role.

However, note that this same sentence claims that Bartholomew’s role consists of “leading millions of Orthodox Christians around the world.” The key word is “leading.” How can he lead the Orthodox churches of the world if he is a symbolic leader, the first among equals in a church in which leadership is provided by the patriarchs as a whole, acting in a conciliar form of church government?

You can see why the leader of the world’s largest Orthodox flock would be concerned that the patriarch of the tiny flock in Istanbul is often portrayed as a kind of Orthodox pope. The Times has, once again, said that the Orthodox have one leader and that is the ecumenical patriarch.

This is wrong. Again.

I read right past that mistake, in large part because of the calming “symbolic” reference in the same sentence.

You see, it can’t be both ways. Bartholomew cannot be a symbolic “first among equals,” while “leading millions of Orthodox Christians around the world.” Right?

Yes, this is picky stuff.

Church history is picky. Government is picky. Facts are often picky, but it’s important to get them right. That’s journalism.

I will say this, the story does end with a solid piece of analysis, care of a Russian insider.

Andrei Zubov, a historian and director of a center for the study of the church and international relations at MGIMO, the Russian foreign ministry’s university, said in an interview on Friday that Patriarch Kirill is working to overcome the legacy of the Soviet past inherited by the Russian church, as evidenced by his efforts to improve relations both with Constantinople and Rome.

“Bad relations with Constantinople and bad relations with Rome were a mandatory condition of Soviet church ideology,” Mr. Zubov said, as part of the Soviet regime’s goal of counteracting centers of Christianity that were outside of its control.

“So what is happening now is namely the overcoming of the Soviet, KGB heritage, the Soviet control of the church,” he said. “This is the restoration of normal, natural relations between the churches after the unnatural relations of the Soviet period.”

The rise of the Soviet state had another major impact on Eastern Orthodoxy at the global level — undercutting efforts by the missionary bishop St. Tikhon of Moscow (another crucial player was St. Raphael of Brooklyn) to plant the faith in Orthodoxy in a way that would transcend divisions between ethnic groups.

St. Tikhon was called home to Moscow and martyred while, in North America, his dream of a unified Orthodox body collapsed.

Frankly, one would have to think that one of the topics being discussed in Moscow at the moment is the ecumenical patriarch’s refusal to recognize the role of the Orthodox Church of America, which has Russian roots and is recognized by Moscow. In fact, they may be discussing the historic assembly of all of the canonical Orthodox bishops of America, which just got underway in New York City (Facebook page is here). Where is the mainstream coverage of that event, by the way?

Reporters who cover this event might want to note, however, that the Greek Orthodox leaders say this is the FIRST such assembly, while pro-unity Orthodox leaders in a variety of other flocks, including the Orthodox Church in America, insist that this is the SECOND gathering of the Orthodox bishops in America (following a 1994 meeting opposed by the ecumenical patriarch).

Might the Times cover this historic gathering in its own back yard? If so, its reporters and editors need to find themselves some good church historians and tread carefully. This story involves complicated facts. Lots of them.

Photos: Pope Benedict XVI meets with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow leads the Divine Liturgy for Pascha (Easter in the West) this year.

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Don’t ask, don’t tell (about the chaplains)

If you are interested in church-state separation issues, and you happened to pick up one of the big American newspapers this morning, that sound you are probably hearing is the theme from “Jaws.” Here’s the top of the A1 report from the Washington Post:

President Obama has endorsed a “don’t ask, don’t tell” compromise between lawmakers and the Defense Department, the White House announced Monday, an agreement that may sidestep a key obstacle to repealing the military’s policy banning gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the armed forces.

The compromise was finalized in meetings Monday at the White House and on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers will now, within days, vote on amendments that would repeal the Clinton-era policy, with a provision ensuring that any change would not take effect until after the Pentagon completes a study about its impact on troops. That study is due to Congress by Dec. 1. …

While gay rights advocates hailed the move as a “dramatic breakthrough,” it remained uncertain whether the deal would secure enough votes to pass both houses of Congress. Republicans have vowed to maintain “don’t ask, don’t tell,” while conservative Democrats have said they would oppose a repeal unless military leaders made it clear that they approved of such a change.

In political terms, this means that everyone gets to vote before the November elections — which are expected to cut into the Democratic Party’s huge majorities on the Hill — yet the Pentagon would complete its study and announce the results after the voting is done. In other words, Bible Belt Democrats and others in red zip codes have to face the maximum amount of pressure in the campaigns. GOP leaders have to love that.

At this stage, the reporting is totally about politics — of course. Up is up. Down is down. The forces of journalistic gravity remain in effect. It’s much too early for the religion ghosts to make it into print (think about the patterns in the health-care reform news coverage).

In the Los Angeles Times report, the one conservative cultural voice that is featured in the story is from a completely predictable source and the topic, of course, is the nature of the political horse race that surrounds the bill. The reporters probably had this group’s telephone number on speed dial.

… Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, criticized the agreement as a backroom deal that “disregards the views of our troops and uses the military to advance the political agenda of a radical special interest group.”

“This rushed deal is a tacit admission that after the November election, the Democrats are likely to lose a working liberal majority,” Perkins said. “They want to get what they can now, and also far enough away from the election that it won’t be prominent in the mind of voters.”

So what is the faith-based issue that is almost certain to surface in the weeks between now and the election? Why, a clash between gay rights and religious liberty claims by traditional believers, of course. The story has already been developing, but has received minimal mainstream media coverage (click here for a short Religion News Service story). As you would expect, niche media (Baptist Press, for example) covered the story from day one.

First, it helps to know that there have been growing tensions in the past decade between conservative military chaplains (most of them evangelical Protestants, due to the basic math of who is in the military) and chaplains who are from more liturgical or liberal Protestant groups and, to a lesser degree, the Catholic Church.

This surfaced in 2005 as reports that conservatives were claiming that they faced discrimination when it came time for promotions. A year later, this conflict grew more specific — with some chaplains saying that they were being punished or shunned if and when they protested policies requiring them to pray publicly in doctrinally neutral language, meaning language that did not include references to Jesus or to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

While the conflicts focused on predictable flocks — Southern Baptists vs. Episcopalians, for example — others were affected. Many Eastern Orthodox bishops, for example, would never approve of their priests NOT praying in the name of the Holy Trinity. That simply isn’t a doctrinal option, even in a ecumenical or interfaith setting. Can these priests continue to serve as chaplains?

As you can see, there is no easy way out of this church-state maze. Either non-Christians or liberal Christians must, on occasion, hear explicitly Christian prayers, or military personal from more conservative traditions have to live without any potential by chaplains who share their faith.

The ideal military chaplain, these days, is one who is willing to serve as a kind of doctrinal Swiss Army knife, pulling out various rites and prayers and beliefs when the need arises. This is easier for some chaplains than others. How easy will this be for Muslims?

Meanwhile, how does a liberal clergyperson handle ministry to soldiers whose beliefs she or he considers intolerant? Does a traditional Catholic turn to an Episcopal woman in a collar for a blessing before heading into combat? How does a traditional shepherd handle battlefield counseling for openly gay soldiers whose beliefs and challenges (someone experiencing stress in a same-sex marriage, for example) directly violate the doctrines and traditions that the pastor or priest vowed to defend when being ordained?

Truth is, it is often impossible for a military chaplain to refer a troubled soldier to a chaplain whose foxhole is 20 or 30 miles away. There is no way to have a full range of chaplains — from Pentecostal to Wiccan, from Reform Judaism to strict forms of Islam — available in every base, let alone in every submarine. You can see why military chaplains have long been the subject of church-state conflicts, for the perfectly logical reason that these pastors work for, and answer to, both the church and the state.

Sure enough, more than 40 retired military chaplains — speaking out would be too risky for active chaplains — have issued a letter (.pdf) warning that repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” will lead to even more conflict in their ranks, with further limits on their religious liberty and ability to minister in good conscience without violating their ordination vows. And, as you would expect, voices on the left side of the debate have responded by saying these chaplains are being illogical and intolerant.

In other words, there is a story in there.

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Church of the New York Times (updated)

As the old saying goes, there are two kinds of people in the world. There are people who think that there are only two kinds of people in the world and people who do not think that there are only two kinds of people in the world. I once shared that one-liner on one of my son’s clever high-school friends and she dryly replied: “What about the people who just don’t care?” Good point.

Thus, it may not be accurate to say that, Sunday after Sunday, there are two kinds of people in the U.S. zip codes that really matter. There are people get up on Sunday morning and head off to church. Then there are people who arise and settle down to consume a different sacrament — a cup of coffee (or two) and the Sunday New York Times.

Yes, there are people who do both. But, even then, which sacred rite comes first? Which rite defines and informs the other?

I believe it was the Rev. John Stott, an evangelical Anglican intellectual (click here, please), who once said that thinking Christians should live their lives with the Bible in one hand and a good newspaper in the other. Then again, perhaps it was Karl Barth who said it first.

Anyway, I have met a few people of the pulpit and pen who pull that off, but there are many more doubters — in pulpits and in newsrooms — who have no interest in that dialogue.

As we are seeing once again, a high wall of distrust and misunderstanding stands between the Times and many religious believers, especially those in conservative Christian and Jewish groups. This is an ongoing problem and, thus, questions about religion haunted the newspaper’s crucial (and critical) self study in 2005.

Many religious traditionalists simply assume that the Times is anti-religion or, perhaps, anti-Christian. This subject is hot right now for obvious reasons as the world’s most powerful newsroom continues to its almost daily barrage of news about the Catholic church and the abuse of children, mostly teen-aged boys, by clergy. More on this in a moment.

However, is the Times anti-religion or anti-Christian? What about journalists in general? GetReligion has been wrestling with this issue since day one. Ditto for The Revealer. This discussion, for me, became rather personal in Jay Rosen’s landmark essay, “Journalism is Itself a Religion: Special Essay on Launch of The Revealer.”

At one point, Rosen states that about 90 percent of all discussions about religion and the press focus on the issue of how to improve mainstream coverage of religion news. That’s important, he noted, but:

Here and there in the discussion of religion “in” the news, there arises a trickier matter, which is the religion of the newsroom, and of the priesthood in the press. A particularly telling example began with this passage from a 1999 New York Times Magazine article about anti-abortion extremism: “It is a shared if unspoken premise of the world that most of us inhabit that absolutes do not exist and that people who claim to have found them are crazy,” wrote David Samuels.

This struck some people as dogma very close to religious dogma, and they spoke up about it. One was Terry Mattingly, a syndicated columnist of religion:

This remarkable credo was more than a statement of one journalist’s convictions, said William Proctor, a Harvard Law School graduate and former legal affairs reporter for the New York Daily News. Surely, the “world that most of us inhabit” cited by Samuels is, in fact, the culture of the New York Times and the faithful who draw inspiration from its sacred pages.

Yet here is the part that intrigued me:

But critics are wrong if they claim that the New York Times is a bastion of secularism, he stressed. In its own way, the newspaper is crusading to reform society and even to convert wayward “fundamentalists.” Thus, when listing the “deadly sins” that are opposed by the Times, he deliberately did not claim that it rejects religious faith. Instead, he said the world’s most influential newspaper condemns “the sin of religious certainty.”

In other words, it’s against newsroom religion to be an absolutist and in this sense, the Isaiah Berlin sense, the press is a liberal institution put in the uncomfortable position of being “closed” to other traditions and their truth claims — specifically, the orthodox faiths. At least according to Mattingly and his source:

“Yet here’s the irony of it all. The agenda the Times advocates is based on a set of absolute truths,” said Proctor. Its leaders are “absolutely sure that the religious groups they consider intolerant and judgmental are absolutely wrong, especially traditional Roman Catholics, evangelicals and most Orthodox Jews. And they are just as convinced that the religious groups that they consider tolerant and progressive are absolutely right.”

In other words, many journalists focus their priesthood on the defense of this orthodoxy that there can be no orthodoxies. How does the press produce fair, accurate and balanced coverage of both sides of religious controversies when — according to this doctrine — one side is automatically wrong?

This is a complex subject that makes people get rather tense, as you can see in this response by Samuels to a very early GetReligion post on this topic.

Now, after this very long introduction, please allow me to point readers toward a very provocative Commonweal essay by veteran Godbeat scribe Kenneth L. Woodward, of Newsweek fame.

Woodward is Catholic, but few people (at least that I know) would place him on the right side of the aisle when it comes to defending the church. Still, his “Church of the ‘Times’ ” piece opens with some familiar criticisms of how the Times is handling its “all-hands-on-deck drive to implicate the pope in diocesan cover-ups of abusive priests.” However, this is not the big idea of the piece. Woodward’s ultimate goal is to help dissect the mission that drives the Times team and the role that the newspaper plays in the real world.

No question, the Times’s worldview is secularist and secularizing, and as such it rivals the Catholic worldview. But that is not unusual with newspapers. What makes the Times unique — and what any Catholic bishop ought to understand — is that it is not just the nation’s self-appointed newspaper of record. It is, to paraphrase Chesterton, an institution with the soul of a church. And the church it most resembles in size, organization, internal culture, and international reach is the Roman Catholic Church.

Like the Church of Rome, the Times is a global organization. Even in these reduced economic times, the newspaper’s international network of news bureaus rivals the Vatican’s diplomatic corps. The difference is that Times bureau chiefs are better paid and, in most capitals, more influential. A report from a papal nuncio ends up in a Vatican dossier, but a report from a Times correspondent is published around the world, often with immediate repercussions. With the advent of the Internet, stories from the Times can become other outlets’ news in an ever-ramifying process of global cycling and recycling. … The pope speaks twice a year urbi et orbi (to the city and to the world), but the Times does that every day.

Does the newspaper of record have “received truths” and doctrines? Try to imagine, asks Woodward, a Times editorial that opposes any form of abortion. Does it have evangelists? Turn to the op-ed page. Does breathing the air inside the Times newsroom affect how people think and live? How about the Vatican? Woodword proclaims:

Every institution creates its own sheltering culture. The Holy See is larger, more complex, and much older than the Times, and the Roman curia is inherently more diverse than the newsroom of the Times, despite the latter’s periodic bouts of mandated diversity training. But as anyone who has covered the Vatican can tell you, its institutional culture is also inherently traditional, conservative, and self-protective. It is, after all, the last functioning Renaissance court.

As U.S. newspapers go, the Times is also a venerable institution and its hierarchy of editors, deputy and assistant editors, and copyeditors is a match for the Roman curia. The paper has been controlled by the Ochs-Sulzberger family since 1896. To those who devote their lives to it, the Times has become “a place that will shelter you the rest of your life,” as Arthur Gelb wrote in his detailed memoir, City Room. … A journalist could spend a lifetime in its newsroom without encountering a dissenter from the institutional ideology.

And what is the bottom line? Perhaps the current publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., put it best when he said: “I have the Times. That’s my religion. That’s what I believe in, and it’s a hell of a thing to hold on to.”

People have been talking about this piece for days. By all means, read it all.

It’s easy, after reading this kind of piece, to simply open a vein and engage in Times bashing. That is clearly not Woodward’s goal. That is not our goal either.

So stay sane, people. Fire away, but stick to the concepts in this post and Woodward’s actual piece.


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When your pews are in the news

GetReligion readers, I have a question for you. How many of you are part of religious congregations that have ended up in the news? Perhaps even more than once?

What happened? What went right and what went wrong? What did you learn from the experience?

Now, don’t go wild. I know that it’s easy to say that everything was messed up. In my experience, that rarely happens. What happens is that journalists — especially those with no experience or training on the religion beat — tend to get certain kinds of details right and certain kinds of details wrong.

In other words, I have seen patterns. I am interested in knowing what kinds of patterns you have seen when your church ended up on the other side of the reporter’s notebook.

Regular GetReligion readers will know that the parish I attend — Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Linthicum, Maryland — has ended up being in the news quite a bit. In part, this is because the wife of our priest is Frederica Mathewes-Green, a nationally known writer, speaker and commentator.

Then, there is the fact that our church is (a) close to the media of Washington, D.C., and (b) a perfect symbol for this era in which many Americans — especially evangelicals and former mainline Protestants — are choosing to convert into the ancient churches of the East. Our parish is at least 80 to 90 percent converts and their children. Thus, we ended up in the New York Times, which tends to get you noticed. Thus, a crew from a national Russian television network came to call. Does anyone out there speak Russian?

There’s more. A talented chanter in our parish (a young woman who may be the best choral musician I have sung with in my life) was the subject of a lovely feature on the PBS Religion & Ethics Weekly show, which ended up being amazingly popular online. Then I ended up, because of, being the subject of a Baltimore Sun profile, which drew a bit of a crowd via the folks at

It happened again the other day, with reporters at two local newspapers writing about the parish in news features linked to Easter or, as we call it in the East, Pascha. The Maryland Gazette did a short piece, based primarily on talks with Father Gregory and Frederica Mathewes-Green. Here’s a sample:

Mathewes-Green said the Parrish is largely made up of people in their 20s and 30s who were raised in different faiths.

“I think there is a big search going on today,” Mathewes-Green said. “Our congregation is devout. People are often surprised at how little a role the priest plays. Everyone has a part.” …

Tonight, when the parishioners follow Mathewes-Green back into the church they will be singing in English, Greek, Slovanic, Romanian and Arabic. Following a mass they will then go to the basement where they will be greeted with their Paschal baskets filled with meats, cheeses, wine and other things forbidden during lent.

“It’s the feasts of feasts,” said Mathewes-Green. “Russians will be drinking vodka and people will walk around with their favorite dishes asking if you would like to sample them.”

The Baltimore Sun piece by veteran reporter Jonathan Pitts was much longer and more involved and, thus, dealt with more complicated issues that are hard to keep straight. Consider this section about a service the week before Pascha:

It was the Great Vespers service of Palm Sunday, the first day of the holiest, most hopeful week of the year for the world’s 225 million Orthodox Christians, 2.6 percent of whom live in the United States. The faith blends ceremony and mystery in a way worshippers say makes their faith less a doctrine than a living thing.

But at Holy Cross, one of four parishes of its kind in Maryland, the old gives rise to the new. Most members are in their 20s and 30s. About 70 percent are converts, including former atheists, Anglicans, Catholics and Buddhists. The group embraces Caucasians, Asians and blacks, ethnic Serbs and Greeks, and occupations from research biologist to homemaker to roof repairman.

For a faith often identified with Eastern ethnic groups, at Holy Cross it has a bustling, American feel.

Now there are all kinds of things in that short passage that Orthodox Christians could spend hours discussing.

For example, Holy Cross is said to be “one of four parishes of its kind in Maryland.” But there are way more Eastern Orthodox parishes than that in the state. The global statistics are for all of Orthodoxy, but then the reference to Holy Cross seems to be to the Antiochian archdiocese alone (which has five parishes in Maryland).

Also, I know what people are talking about when they say that Orthodoxy is a “living thing” that is more than mere doctrine. However, that makes it sound as if the doctrine is not all that important or that it is evolving and changing. The bottom line is that the church is called “Orthodox” for a reason. It’s a faith that you learn by living it and that includes the doctrine that is woven into the rites, hymns, prayers, the fasting, confession and everything else. There is more to the faith than the words of the doctrines, but never less.

Now don’t get me wrong. It’s a fine and sensitive article, but there are other fine points linked to doctrine and history that are also tricky.

This is my point. Recently, I had a chance to speak to a New York City gathering of communicators from a spectrum of religious bodies. We talked about the kinds of facts and themes that are just hard for reporters to keep straight. We kept cycling back to issues of history, doctrine and law. It seems that some things are just too detailed and rich for reporters — even fine, dedicated reporters — to keep straight. Throw in a several layers of controversy about some of these topics and things can get messy.

Reporters do not like errors. Neither to the people touched by the stories. What can religious groups do to help with the process? That’s the question.

OK, I have gone on and on. But I think about this both as a journalist and as a churchman. Readers, what have you observed? Let me warn you that I will take down the usual straw-man, generalized attacks on journalists as a group and the whole profession. Be detailed. Offer URLs to stories about your congregations and movements, if you wish.


Top photo: Pascha at Holy Cross, in 2009.

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