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How to cover a complex religion story 101

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how has this unity thing gone in recent decades?

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

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

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

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

Dear editors in major American newsrooms:

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

Thank you.

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

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