One of the mantras of modern journalism is, “Show me, don’t tell me.” In other words, when in doubt use images and information that describe people and events, not tacked-on labels that are often vague and judgmental.
At GetReligion, we keep adding another concept to that helpful advice. When in doubt, do not attach political labels to people whose primary role in life is defined by doctrine. We know that this is hard for reporters, since politics is the true religion for them and real religion is often viewed as a totally private hobby with slightly less cultural importance than, oh, reality television.
I bring this up because of the first wave of mainstream reports about the election of Metropolitan Kirill as the new patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. If you read several mainstream stories about this man, your head is going to spin. If you are Orthodox, as I am, your head may explode.
Count the labels. Let’s start with the basic Associated Press report:
The interim leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, seen as a modernizer who could seek a historic reconciliation with the Vatican and more autonomy from the state, was overwhelmingly elected patriarch Tuesday.
Metropolitan Kirill received 508 of the 700 votes cast during an all-day church congress in Moscow’s ornate Christ the Savior Cathedral, the head of the commission responsible for the election, Metropolitan Isidor, said hours after the secret ballot was over. Kirill defeated a conservative rival, Metropolitan Kliment, who received 169 votes, Isidor said.
OK, what precisely is a modernizer? (How many Orthodox Christians does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Change? What is this change?)
Well, we must assume that a modernizer is someone who values openness to other faiths — note the all important reference to the pope — and wants to distance the Russian church somewhat from the state. Note that this is the opposite of being a “conservative,” which means, well, what? Conservative Orthodox people want close ties to the Kremlin? Political ties? Cultural ties?
While we are at it, isn’t Pope Benedict XVI a wild-eyed fundamentalist who wants to take Europe back into the days before electricity? So you are a modernizer for wanting to discuss faith and doctrinal issues with Big Ben?
You see a few of the issues here. Note that later in the report we read that:
Kirill … has also promoted unity with the Roman Catholic Church against the secularism and immorality he says threatens humanity. The Vatican “rejoiced” over Kirill’s election, said its spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi. …
In Russia, Kirill is seen as a politically savvy figure who may seek a more muscular role for the church, which has served the state for much of its 1,000-year history. Church and state are officially separate under the post-Soviet constitution, but ties have tightened again since Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000.
So, he is a muscular modernizer who is opposed by conservatives. Is there some chance that the man actually wants distance from the government so that the church can focus on issues linked to doctrine, faith, religious practice and morality?
Let’s keep looking for clues over at the New York Times. Here, we start with the fact that Kirill is “outspoken,” which is the kind of thing that can be demonstrated. That’s progress:
A critic of declining moral values, Metropolitan Kirill has been involved in the ecumenical movement and has called for the Russian Orthodox Church to step up its outreach to secular society. He has also spoken in tough terms about threats to church unity, especially in Ukraine, where the Orthodox church has broken into rival groups since the collapse of the Soviet Union. …
The race for the patriarchal throne has played out almost like a contemporary political campaign, with passionate debates on Web sites and in blogs, and with tabloids and even some glossy celebrity magazines following the candidates as though they were movie stars.
There’s all kinds of information about rumors and political moves, which is understandable in the chaos that is Russia at the moment. Once again, the question is whether the reader needs to know anything about Kirill as a churchman, in terms of what he has said and done.
Thus, it is important to read:
Kirill was made archbishop of Smolensk in 1984 and metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad in 1991. In the 1990s, he and Patriarch Aleksy were accused by some critics of having served the K.G.B.
As chairman of the external relations department, he oversaw the drafting of the “social concept” of the Russian Orthodox Church, presented in 2000. It addresses church positions on social issues, including abortion, globalization and poverty. One of its most cited points allows for civil disobedience if the government violates Christian commandments.
Thank you very, very much. That collection of facts is crisp and to the point, showing some examples of doctrine affecting public issues, with no labels in there. More?
Over at the Los Angeles Times, the basic story has some more labels for us — including that “modernizer” thing again, only this time accompanied by a vague adjective:
The longtime head of the denomination’s external relations, Kirill is expected to undertake some modest modernization within the conservative confines of the church.
“On the one hand, he’s a remarkable preacher and theologist; on the other hand, he’s a diplomat experienced in huge, bureaucratic work,” said Sergei Chapnin, editor of the patriarchy’s Church Guardian newspaper. “Today the Orthodox Church is not only a spiritual but also a tremendous social force in Russia. The state cannot ignore the position of the church when we talk about the interests of its citizens.”
What in the world is a “theologist?” And I still have no clue what “modernizer” means.
For Orthodox readers, and journalists who crave hard facts, it is interesting to note the many details in this Moscow Times report and, above all, these statistics cited by Kirill himself during the meetings surrounding the election, and quoted by Interfax:
Russia has opened 234 monasteries and 244 nunneries, the CIS-countries and Baltic States — 142 monasteries and 153 nunneries, other foreign countries — three monasteries and three nunneries. Besides, the Russian Church Outside of Russia supervises over 16 monasteries and nine nunneries. There are 203 monastery representations and 65 hermitages.
The number of parishes increased fourfold for 20 years (from 6893 to 29,263 parishes), the number of dioceses — twofold (from 76 to 157), clergy — more than fourfold (from 7397 to 30,670) and the number of bishops increased almost thrice (from 74 to 203). The number of acting churches in Moscow has increased twenty-two fold — from 40 to 872. The city had only one monastery acting before 1990, now there eight monasteries, 16 monastery representations, three seminaries, two Orthodox higher education establishments.
Again, when in doubt, show us, don’t tell us. Cite some numbers, quotes, hard facts about background. Avoid the political labels.