Non-Trinitarian AP style?

rublev_trinity3Now here is a strange one.

You can call me picky, but, hey, when it comes to messing with the fine points of Trinitarian theology, the Orthodox are known to be a bit picky. So please be patient with me for a moment.

So what we have here is your basic Associated Press follow-up report about Rome’s response to the petitions by some Anglo-Catholics seeking a safe haven in these crazy times. The focus, in this one, is on the issue of whether this move represents a weakening of Rome’s commitment to celibacy for priests in the Western churches (there were dozens of stories about that angle, of course).

It’s in that context that we read the following, which contains one very strange twist that is definitely not in the Bible of journalism, the Associated Press Stylebook. Pay attention, because here we go:

On Monday, the Vatican reaffirmed its resolve to leave the celibacy requirement unchanged. … It praised priestly celibacy as “a sign and a stimulus for pastoral charity.”

Apparently seeking to squash any speculation that Rome had been courting the disaffected Anglicans, the Vatican said the “Holy Spirit” inspired Anglicans to “petition repeatedly and insistently to be received into full Catholic communion” individually and as a group.

Did you catch it, or should I say “them”? I am referring to those quote marks — call them either “scare” or “sneer” quotes — around the words “Holy Spirit.”

What do you think is going on here, precisely? Why is the existence or the activity of this one member of the Holy Trinity now subject to grammatical doubt? Has one corner of the Trinity been demoted?

Maybe this is part of a larger change in AP style. If so, are Christians now followers of “Jesus Christ”? When people survive some horrible disaster, are we supposed to report that they felt comforted by the presence of “God”? Do people now praise or express anger at “God” when wrestling with the big issues of life? I guess that when President Barack Obama ends a speech now, journalists are supposed to quote him saying: ” ‘God’ bless you and ‘God’ bless America.”

Or did someone at the AP simply decide that Rome must have had other motives in this case and, instead of being honest, these tricky voices at the Vatican attributed their actions to — well, you know — the “Holy Spirit.” It wasn’t really God’s work. It was “God,” with a wink of doubt. Or maybe someone simply messed up a larger direct quote, while cutting it down to size.

Really strange. I hope the AP style committee sees this and has second thoughts.

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Missing the point of Coptic tattoos

WristCopticCross-1When my family made the decision to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, we helped start a tiny mission in the Tennessee mountains — in Johnson City, to be precise. In the early days, Holy Resurrection Orthodox Mission included a family in with very recent roots in Egypt and its Coptic Orthodox traditions.

We learned all kinds of things, including some insider tips on making falafel and tahini and other traditional foods that come in handy during fasting seasons.

But we also learned about the often dangerous lives of Christians in the Middle East and, especially, Egypt. For example, why do Coptic Christians have those small crosses tattooed on their wrists? Our friends answered that question, the mother with tears in her eyes.

But if readers want to know the most painful answer to that question — this is a question, I admit, with several possible answers — they will not find it in a recent Global Post story that focuses on that topic.

The headline hints, in its second line: “Egypt’s Christians uphold tattoo tradition — Never mind the children’s screams: For Cairo’s Copts, tattoos are a mark of pride — and of protection.”

The story does not deliver, when it comes to information that backs that loaded word, “protection.” That makes the reader want to know, “Protection from what?” Here’s a sample of what you learn, in this case about the work of a tattoo artist named Girgis Gabriel Girgis:

Regardless the age of his human canvas, Girgis went to work — inscribing not fire-breathing dragons, fierce skulls or the gestures of star-crossed lovers, but rather simple blue-green crosses on the inside of his subjects’ wrists. The crosses are small, but they symbolize community in a country that Copts often view as hostile towards them.

Girgis’ open-air stand, just outside the church gates, has been his studio for almost two decades. For that long, he has been among the small ranks of Coptic tattooists, marking his subjects with symbols that identify Egypt’s Christian minority.

“When God chooses you for something, what you can do is just to obey his calls and do exactly what he wants you to do,” Girgis said.

Toward the end of the story, this hint of a hostile environment is repeated.

The Copts have long felt themselves a repressed minority — they are thought to make up about 10 percent of the country’s population, or 8 million people — and their tattoos can serve as a means of communal identity in a country that has a history of sectarian friction.

But note that the Copts merely “view” the Egyptian establishment as hostile and the have “long felt” that they are repressed. This is a matter of feelings and their point of view, not facts that can be reported by journalists.

Really? I realize that this is a controversial subject and that people disagree on some of the facts, but click here and explore some of the terrain covered by human-rights activists and others. Is there any real doubt that the Copts suffer from overt and covert persecution in modern Egypt?

And what does this have to do with those tattoos? Yes, they help build a sense of community in this ancient and highly symbolic flock. The Copts are, literally, the oldest Egyptian surviving community in that ancient land. On one level, the tattoo tradition must single them out for special, and often unwanted, attention in a land that in recent decades has veered closer to more radical forms of Islam.

But as our Coptic friends explained to us, those tattoos serve another purpose. They make it harder for Muslim extremists to kidnap their children and force them to convert to Islam, including forced marriages of young Christian girls to Muslim men. It’s hard to cut those crosses out of the thin skin over the veins in a human wrist. Click here for additional information on this controversial subject.

Yes, the tattoos serve as a form of identity and protection. But to fully understand this Coptic tradition, it helps to know a few of the painful details.

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American idolatry

CharltonHestonTheTenCommandmentsC101021021This past June, I commented on the popular use of the word “icon” to describe Michael Jackson. In a way, the story below is a fitting follow-up to the summer stories of the deaths of other icons, such as Farrah Fawcett and Ted Kennedy. (Don’t forget this Wall Street Journal piece that made fun of how low the “icon” bar had been set.)

In this article, ABC News’ Terry Moran looks at “Celebrity Culture and Worshipping False Idols: ‘Idols’ of Second Commandment Means Anything That Occupies Place of God, Pastor Says”:

In America these days, idols are everywhere. Music idols like Britney and Madonna. Sports idols like Jeter or Manning. Fashion idols like Gucci, Armani or Prada. We even have television shows to make our own “American Idol.”

It’s as if there is a need, a hunger in America to idolize.

But wait a minute. Isn’t that just pop culture? Modern life? Isn’t the second commandment about worshipping the golden calf and graven images?

Just what is an idol?

Pastor Mark Driscoll of the Mars Hill Church in Seattle has a clear answer.

“An idol is someone or something that occupies the place of God in your life,” he said. “[It] gives you identity, meaning, value, purpose, love, significance, security. When the Bible uses the word ‘idol’, that’s what it’s getting at.”

I couldn’t believe Nightline was running a story that looked at doctrine. Turns out this story is part of a larger series on the Ten Commandments.

Quick note — while the Bible refers to ten commandments, it doesn’t number them in a particular fashion. So while Jews, Eastern Orthodox, Reformed, Roman Catholics and Lutherans all have ten commandments, they’re numbered slightly differently. I’m Lutheran and we number them as Catholics do. So we don’t consider Exodus 20:4 (discussed above) the second commandment so much as a part of (or commentary on) the 1st Commandment (Exodus 20:3). So when the reporter refers to the graven image prohibition as the “second” commandment, he’s taking a bit of a sectarian position. Not that people tend to get worked up about the numbering. (And you really should read this 1903 letter to the editor of the New York Times to see the earliest days of what GetReligion is all about!)

Anyway, the segment on idol worship is really interesting. Driscoll talks about how alcohol, sex, food, sports, work and health can all become idols if they’re made more important than God. And he brings it back to Michael Jackson:

“When his face is on your T-shirt and when you listen to his music for hours, when you give large sums of money to him personally, when his death causes you to go into a steep depression and you have a collection of memorabilia — I think if you walked in from another culture, you would say that’s a very curious god they’ve chosen,” Driscoll said.

Driscoll also warns of the dangers misplaced worship can have on the people others idolized.

“It destroys them. Because they invariably disappoint. People can’t do what God does,” Driscoll said. “They aren’t perfect. They aren’t continually faithful. They don’t endure forever. That’s why we live in a culture that when heroes fall we’re devastated.”

It’s great to read what Protestants (and some other Christians) actually believe about the prohibition on idols rather than how the issue is typically treated in popular culture — as if it’s some archaic commandment with no relevance to today. But while Driscoll gives a very thorough look at how the commandment relates to life today, it’s still just one perspective. I would love to get some more depth to this report.

Perhaps I’m just struggling to navigate the Nightline web site, but there’s so much more that could be said about idol worship and speaking with more than one religious group is probably in order.

Also, while I consider the commandment referenced above to be part of the 1st Commandment, I don’t see any story devoted to the 1st Commandment on the web site. I wonder why. There are panels and stories and polls, as you will not be surprised to find out, about the commandment against committing adultery (‘We Can Have Big Sex’; Author discusses why her open marriage is not adulterous; Ashley Madison president says infidelity can save the save the marriage; Former sex addict speaks out against adultery in marriage, etc.).

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When the Times comes to call

HolyCrossPascha2009The New York Times ran a very old story the other day, a story about a topic that has, in fact, been around for several decades.

Still, it caught my attention for an obvious reason. It was a story about my own parish, my own priest and some of my closest friends. That isn’t something that happens every day.

Actually it was a column by Samuel G. Freedman of the School of Journalism at Columbia University, part of his ongoing series entitled “On Religion.” That also interests me, of course, since I have written a column with the same title for 21-plus years for the Scripps Howard News Service.

Freedman’s column about our parish, Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Linthicum, Md., is about two different subjects — working on two different levels.

The first level is stated in the headline: “More Protestants Find a Home in the Orthodox Antioch Church.” But that isn’t really news, in light of the headlines that greeted the influx of evangelicals into the Orthodox faith back in 1987. I think I wrote my first column about that trend in 1989, a decade before my own conversion to Orthodoxy, meaning that I can’t link to it since that precedes the online explosion called the World Wide Web (or widespread public use of the Internet). One way or another, that’s a 30-year-old story.

On a deeper level, however, this is a column about why people convert from one church to another, or from one faith to another. That brings us to the opening anecdote, which focuses on the man who stands next to me in the Holy Cross choir week after week.

Cal Oren was threading his way through the Santa Cruz Mountains of California early one evening in 1993, driving his wife, brother and three tired children back from a day of hiking amid the redwoods. As their car neared the town of Ben Lomond, Mr. Oren said, his brother pointed to a church on the roadside and said: “I’ve been inside this. It’s really neat.”

So Mr. Oren pulled to a stop, and as the children stayed in the car, the grown-ups gingerly padded into the sanctuary of Saints Peter and Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church. A lifelong Presbyterian, Mr. Oren knew virtually nothing about the Antiochians or, for that matter, Orthodox Christianity in general. He had always associated Ben Lomond with hippies, geodesic domes and marijuana fields.

As he entered, a vespers service was under way. Maybe two dozen worshipers stood, chanting psalms and hymns. Incense filled the dark air. Icons of apostles and saints hung on the walls. The ancientness and austerity stood at a time-warp remove from the evangelical circles in which Mr. Oren traveled, so modern, extroverted and assertively relevant.

“This was a Christianity I had never encountered before,” said Mr. Oren, 55, a marketing consultant in commercial construction. “I was frozen in my tracks. I felt like I was in the actual presence of God, almost as if I was in heaven. And I’m not the kind of person who gets all woo-hoo.”

The ineffable disclosure of that evening, a 15-minute glimpse into Byzantium, rattled everything certain in Mr. Oren’s spiritual life.

Freedman has the history of all of this in his column, beginning with the 1987 events. But it’s clear that he is using our parish as a metaphor — a snapshot of a phenomenon that stands for a much larger picture. As I said, the larger picture is the subject of conversion.

So don’t let my familiarity with the specific — the conversion era in Orthodoxy — cause you to turn away from a nice column about this larger subject. Please, read the column for yourself. And you may want to check out this PBS feature about our parish, featuring one of the Oren children, who has grown up to become a breathtaking singer of Byzantine chant. What will the Oren family do for an elite-media encore?

Meanwhile, I would quibble about one or two facts in the Times piece. I would say that our parish is nearly 90 percent converts, although you get into the issue of how to count the children of the converts (and there are many, many youngsters in our parish). They are “cradle Orthodox,” of course, but still part of the larger convert scene.

And what’s up with that strange final anecdote about our priest, Father Gregory Mathewes-Green? Check it out:

The unexpected evolution of the Antiochian Church has had only one drawback, at least at Holy Cross. When Father Mathewes-Green was persuaded several years ago to raise money with a church supper, people flocked to Holy Cross, expecting the savory specialties of the Levant. What they got was the culinary outcome of the priest’s former life as an Episcopalian from South Carolina: hot dogs and brownies.

The fund-raiser, all prayers and chants to the contrary, was a loser.

This has to be some kind of mistake. Anyone who knows our priest knows that he would have made barbecue under this circumstance — pulled pork, as God intended from the beginning of time. Or maybe chili. But mere hot dogs?

Talk about unorthodox. Talk about having no sense of Tradition, with a large “T.”

Photo: The faithful begin to re-enter the sanctuary after the great procession of the Divine Liturgy at Pascha, 2009. Yes, that large chandelier is swinging from the rafters, a symbol of the whole world turning upside down with the reality of the Resurrection. Used by permission of HolyCrossOnline.org

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Cracking the masonic code

the_lost_symbolI say that if you either enjoy Dan Brown’s novels or believe them to be true, you get whatever you deserve. Okay, I’ll give you Angels & Demons out of generosity but other than that, you’re on your own.

And yet . . . people, particularly those with close to zero knowledge of church history, found his DaVinci Code to be a compelling indictment of Christianity. The bigger scandal, in my view, is that they found the writing itself compelling. But I digress.

Apparently the man has a new book coming out next week and holy hell is going to break loose when it does. People think they’ve figured out that the topic will be freemasonry. My own prediction is that this is just what the freemasons needed. As the granddaughter of not one but two freemasons (and my mom was a “Daughter of Job,” too!), I’ve been well aware that the once proud secret society has seen much better days. I don’t mean to get all Pauline Kael about it, but I know only one freemason who is still living. (And I should mention that my mother and grandfather left their respective masonic affiliations upon becoming Lutheran. More on that below.)

The novel, it is rumored, will take place in Washington and so the Washington Post has a piece about how DC is about to get “Dan Browned.” That’s the term of art for the likely arrival of eleventy billion Dan Brown afficionados:

When Dan Brown comes to town, things get a little bit nutty.

Just ask Colin Glynne-Percy, director of the Rosslyn Chapel Trust, the rural Scottish church featured in “The Da Vinci Code,” which Langdon believed to be the location of the Holy Grail.

“Before the book came out, we had about 40,000 visitors a year,” Glynne-Percy says. “It went to 80,000. Then to 120,000. Then to 175,000. We had very small facilities. We had only two restrooms. We could survive on that for 40,000 but . . .” They’ve put in temporary bathrooms and added several new staff members.

The story is fun, co-bylined by Monica Hesse, and quotes various sources speculating about the book’s plot. Some think that maybe there will be something about cloning Jesus using parts of the blood-stained cross held by the secret society of Rosicruceans. And yes, writing that last sentence makes me want to weep for the country. Anyway, the Post‘s accompanying tour of masonic sites is even breezier and more fun. Although there are some troubling spots dealing with religion:

The Masons are cagey about their rituals, but otherwise they don’t seem all that secretive. Docents give free tours of the temple. Let’s pause for some Masonry 101.

Masons first appeared in Britain in the early 1400s as members of craft guilds. Their “secrets” included how to square a corner and build a cathedral. Claims of a connection to the Crusades and the Knights Templar — as suggested in “The Da Vinci Code” and the “National Treasure” movies — are the stuff of fable, historians say. In the 1600s, non-stoneworking gentlemen began joining, and Masonry became fashionable. The Masons encouraged free thought and religious tolerance. They helped invent America: George Washington, Ben Franklin, nine signers of the Declaration of Independence and 13 signers of the Constitution were Masons. Both Presidents Roosevelt and 11 other presidents besides Washington were, too. Also J. Edgar Hoover, Will Rogers, Ty Cobb, John Wayne.

For the roughly 1.5 million Masons in the United States today, Masonic life involves socializing, self-improvement and raising hundreds of millions of dollars a year for charity, Masonic leaders say.

But you only have to visit any number of anti-Masonic Web sites to find the darker claims of conspiracies to rule the world and undermine religion. A persistent rumor involves secret symbols in the map of the city.

Okay, it may seem silly to think of masons as undermining religion when the society has relatively little influence over the hearts and minds of anyone these days. But to describe them merely as supporters of “religious tolerance” gives precisely no weight to the claims and reasoning of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran and many other churches that oppose masonry on religious grounds.

Which brings me to this fascinating Religion News Service piece on the same topic — Dan Brown’s new book and masonry.

As members of a secretive brotherhood, Freemasons are no strangers to conspiracy theories. They’ve heard it all before: that they’re child-sacrificing cult members, or religious zealots plotting a New World Order with the Jews, or satanic anti-religious alien spies. . . .

Even though Brown (of “The Da Vinci Code” fame) and his publisher, Doubleday, are being tight-lipped about the book’s contents, some Masons are preparing for an onslaught of negative press. And because Brown is known for tying religious themes to his thrillers’ plots, Masons are carefully addressing common misconceptions about their religious affiliations.

“There is the basic question asked: Do you believe in God?” said Richard Fletcher, executive secretary of the Masonic Service Association of North America. “Beyond (requiring a belief in God), we’re not a religion, and we don’t pretend to be.”

The RNS piece is fantastic and well worth a read but it reminded me that if we’re all going to be Dan Browned and subjected to an onslaught of media discussion of masons, I just want to remind reporters that religious opposition to masonry is not actually related to child-sacrificing, alien-spying conspiracy theories. Also, there’s a difference between claiming not to be a religion and having religious views that Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans and other Christians find false. Without a shared definition of religion or religious, it means little to quote one side or the other. Maybe an exploration of actual views of masons and of their critics will be in order as we continue down this media juggernaut.

On that note, did you know the Amazon page for this book has a four-minute video of how the jacket for this book was made? Seriously. If there’s that much interest in this schlock, the least we can do is have some good in-depth reporting on masons and Christianity’s widespread objections to it.

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Define pluralism: NYTs in Egypt

mbrotherhoologoAn encouraging headline got me started on this memo from Cairo in Saturday’s New York Times: “Hints of Pluralism in Egyptian Religious Debates.”

Why? Because that would be pretty big news. Egypt is, like many countries in the Muslim world being run by conservative religious tradition and an autocratic ruler, not known as a place of intense religious diversity. Egypt has about 12 million Coptic Christians and a few hundred thousand Protestants, a few thousand Baha’is and less than 200 Jews. The remaining 84 percent, or so, of Egyptians are Muslim — and conversion is not encouraged.

In fact, just last week the Los Angeles Times chronicled the trials of a Muslim convert to Christianity who has been forced to live like a fugitive:

“Islam is the only thing Egyptians are 150% sure of. If you reject Islam, you shake their belief and you are an apostate, an infidel,” he says. “I can see in the eyes of Muslims how much my conversion has really hurt them.”

Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who represent about 10% of the population, have veered from coexistence to violence with the Muslim majority. Bloody clashes recently erupted between Copts and Muslims over land disputes and restrictions on churches.

But converts, such as Gohary, are even more unsettling. Islamists believe that Muslims who forsake their religion should be punished by death.

Gohary wants to be called Peter and refuses to yield. He has filed a lawsuit asking an Egyptian court to officially recognize him as a Copt by changing the denomination on his national ID card from Muslim to Christian. The court ruled against him in June, finding that Gohary’s baptism documents from the Coptic Orthodox Church were “legally invalid.” The verdict is on appeal.

And that article didn’t even mention the Muslim Brotherhood. So, like I said, hints of pluralism would be news to me and good news for many, many Egyptians.

But after reading the NYT story, which seemed surprisingly anchored by the assertions of a few like-minded liberal thinkers, I had the feeling that the headline should have replaced “hints” with “hope” and “debates” with “reality.”

Reporter Michael Slackman had couched his story’s main claim within the framework of relativity:

It is a testament to how little public debate there has been over the value of pluralism, or more specifically of the role of religion in society, that so many see the mere chance to provoke as progress. But now, more than any time in many years, there are people willing to risk challenging conventional thinking, said writers, academics and religious thinkers

Slackman offered as evidence an encouraging development for the Baha’i, a persecuted minority in a nation that officially only recognizes Muslims, Christians and Jews:

Nine years ago the state stopped issuing identification records to Bahais unless they agreed to characterize themselves as members of one of the three recognized faiths. The documents are essential for access to all government services.

An independent group, The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, won a court order on behalf of the Bahais that forced the government to issue records leaving the religious identification blank. The first cards were issued this month. While the decision was aimed specifically at solving the problem faced by the Bahai community, the case tapped into the evolving debate, said the group’s executive director, Hossam Bahgat.

“It is an unprecedented move to recognize that one can be Egyptian and not adhere to one of these three religions,” Mr. Bahgat said. Still, he remains less than optimistic; most of the public reaction to the Bahais’ legal victory was negative, Mr. Bahgat said.

OK, that’s a hint: But lets be clear about something. Pluralism, an incredibly complicated phenomena that isn’t unpacked here, involves a lot more than just being extended some of the same basic rights given to members of the majority religion. And it expects a lot of the members of a society at large.

It’s difficult to imagine Egyptian society adopting the liberal pluralism of the United States or the liberal secularism of Europe. I imagine, however, that Maher El Gohary would settle for a lot less.

That logo belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood

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One man’s story, wrapped in tricky facts

Fr-James-vesting.img_assist_custom-350x263Let me begin by expressing my deepest and most sincere sympathies for reporter Ron Cassie of The Frederick News-Post.

It’s one thing to be assigned a complicated feature story about a complicated subject — the conversion of a minister in one Protestant tradition into the oh-so-complicated world of Eastern Orthodoxy. But it’s something else to be handed a story as confusing as the journey of James K. Hamrick and his flock.

So let me start by saying that Cassie gets one big thing right — by allowing Hamrick the time and space to explain his decision. The problems in this story are almost all technical and historical. Let’s face it: This is complex stuff. Here’s the lede:

Last weekend, at a service at St. Basil the Great Orthodox Church in Poquoson, Va., Bishop Thomas Joseph ordained James K. Hamrick into the holy priesthood of the Western Rite Orthodox Church.

It was a moment Hamrick’s congregation in Lewistown has been waiting for since early spring. On April 10, his small flock at the former Charismatic Episcopal Lamb of God Church converted en masse to the Antiochian Orthodox faith, which includes both Western Rite and
Eastern Orthodox churches.

The problem is that the Western Rite Orthodox Church does not exist. Instead, the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America has a small Western Rite ministry or branch. Click here for more information on the history of that.

Note that this story also had to deal with complex issues linked to recent divisions within the Charismatic Episcopal Church — as opposed to charismatic congregations within the Episcopal Church. Or, wait, are we actually dealing with the International Communion of the Charismatic Episcopal Church? See what I mean? These kinds of problems cannot be avoided. Here’s another example:

After preparation, members went through the sacramental rite of chrismation into the Antiochian Orthodox faith. Further highlighting their transformation, the congregation adopted a new name: St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church.

This weekend, Hamrick will lead an Orthodox Sunday Mass for the first time at the church, marking the final step for the 45-year-old priest and his congregation as Maryland’s first Western Rite Orthodox church.

Actually, they were simply chrismated into Orthodoxy — period. I also need to ask someone in the Western Rite movement: Is the proper term “Mass,” or “Divine Liturgy,” as in the Eastern tradition?

Hamrick’s own story is told in very simple terms, even though it is quite complex, as well. He was born into the family of a United Methodist pastor, but pursued a career in law enforcement. In fact, as a bi-vocational priest, he still serves as assistant chief of police at the University of Maryland. This must create some interesting wardrobe issues.

Working weekdays in College Park and leading weekend services near his home in Thurmont, Hamrick is called a “bi-vocational” in the religious community.

“Other people sometimes call me ‘the pistol-packing priest,’ ” he said, with a laugh.

Handling the demands of both jobs, and what could be construed as inherent conflicts — the image of a peaceful nonviolent minister versus a policeman who may be required to deadly force — has never been an issue, Hamrick said.

“I see a lot of similarities, actually, in the two roles,” he said. “There is a similar sacred trust. Being a police officer is not contrary to my thinking of Christ as the Good Shepherd.”

But then the story has to head back to the complex issues of church history and government, in Orthodox and alternative Anglican environments. And what about Rome?

For practical reasons, he dismissed becoming a Roman Catholic priest. Being married didn’t rule him out automatically — previously married and ordained Christian ministers are sometimes admitted to Catholic seminaries — but he thought, if nothing else, the process would take an unreasonably long time given his circumstances.

Hamrick finally realized his beliefs were in more in line with the Orthodox Church, which split from the Roman Catholic Church in 1054.

The key word there is “from” and you could assemble a football stadium full of church historians to argue whether Rome left the Eastern Church or the Eastern Church left Rome without coming to much clarity. For a glimpse of all of that, click here (West) and then here (East).

LambofGodCECphotoWait, there’s more:

Hamrick disagrees with the Roman Catholic concept of papal infallibility and universal jurisdiction of the pope; he prefers the somewhat less hierarchical Orthodox structure. He said, however, that he would like to see the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches reunite.

The Orthodox are “less hierarchical”? Not really. You can say that the ancient Eastern Churches are not united around a single core hierarchy, but that does not ultimately make the system less hierarchical. I would assume that a fine detail of Hamrick’s explanation was lost. But, hey, the story doesn’t say that the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul is the “Orthodox pope.” That’s a start.

As a reader noted, while sending in the URL for this report, it would have been good to have known if any parishioners did not want to make this move and stayed with the CEC and its blending of Protestant and Catholic streams of faith. I also wondered if the reporter was actually present at the service, since Bishop Thomas is not quoted. We also needed at least one sentence explaining the Eastern Rite, in order to help readers understand the unique history of the Liturgy of St. Gregory — which is a truly ancient Western rite.

But, as you can tell, I am trying to express sympathy for the task faced by this reporter. The key is that this new priest got to tell his story — which is surrounded by details so complex that I am sure that I have left a few things out that should be mentioned. The religion beat is complicated, folks.

Photos: From the website of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.

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Iraq, vague laws and minorities

persecution-of-gays-in-iraqThat tmatt file of GetReligion guilt is getting pretty deep, in part because of two weeks of dizzying travel — a combination of vacation, work and a funeral for a loved one.

Some of this older material raises journalistic issues that I believe are really crucial. So with that in mind, let’s flash back to a recent USA Today story that pivoted on one of the crucial questions facing American officials in the wake of our second involvement in the future of Iraq. That question: Will the harsh penalties of Sharia law return, officially or unofficially? In other words, what happens to the rule of law in Iraq if the police are unwilling to stop a riot?

This is serious. Here’s the lede, which focuses on an issue that should worry everyone, not just the cultural left:

BAGHDAD – The young man turns to the camera and pleads with his tormentors.

“I’m not a terrorist,” he tells the Iraqi police who surround him. “I want you to know I am different. But I am not a terrorist.”

To some fundamentalist Iraqi Muslims, Ahmed Sadoun Saleh was worse than a terrorist. He was gay. He wore his hair long and took female hormones to grow breasts. Amused by his appearance, Iraqi police officers stopped him in December at a checkpoint in a southern Baghdad neighborhood dominated by radical Shiite militias. They groped Saleh and ridiculed him.

The assault was captured on video and circulated on cellphones throughout Baghdad, says Ali Hili, founder of London-based Iraqi LGBT, a group dedicated to protecting Iraq’s gays and lesbians. Shortly after the video was made public, Hili says Saleh contacted him, fearing for his life, and asked for his help to flee Iraq.

“Unfortunately, it was too late,” Hili says. Saleh turned up dead two months later, he says.

In the past eight months or so, activists report that 82 gay men have been killed in Iraq.

This long and highly detailed story has two major religious themes, neither one of which is explored in depth. This is, literally, tragic. Read on.

The violence has raised questions about the Iraqi government’s ability to protect a diverse range of vulnerable minority groups that also includes Christians and Kurds, especially following the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraqi cities last month.

Mithal al-Alusi, a secular, liberal Sunni legislator, is among those who blame the killings on armed militant groups such as al-Qaeda and the Mahdi Army militia. By targeting one of the most vulnerable groups in a conservative Muslim society — people whose sexual orientation is banned by Iraqi law — the militias essentially are serving notice that they remain powerful despite the U.S. and Iraqi militaries’ efforts to curtail them, al-Alusi says.

You might ask whether homosexual “orientation” is banned or whether sexual acts by gays, lesbians and bisexuals or banned. You could also ask whether these kinds of distinctions make any difference to Islamists in Iraq.

But note that the story says this is an issue of “Iraqi law.” This is never explained. You mean that national laws passed in the wake of the U.S. occupation — supposedly secular laws — make these kinds of acts against religious and cultural minorities legal? If that’s the case, why is this an issue of activity by nonofficial militias? Do regular police enforce the same laws?

Of course, another question remains unasked. What does Islamic law actually say about homosexuality? Are we actually talking about the enforcement of religious, not state, laws? Is there a difference?

The story also says a variety of minorities are being persecuted. I understand that there is little room to explore that theme, since this story has a strong — and valid — focus on the violence against gays. But it is interesting that these issues are woven together in the context of the new Iraq.

So, secular law or religious law? Read on:

Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf … says the ministry has assigned a special bureau to investigate the killings of gays; he says he knows of six gays who had been executed as of May.

Homosexuality, Khalaf says, is against the law and “is rejected by the customs of our society.” He adds, however, that offenders should be handled by the courts, not dispatched by vigilante groups.

What kind of law are we talking about? Don’t you want to know?

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