In the steps of St. Tikhon

One of concepts that causes my journalism students the most grief is finding the line between making statements of personal opinion and making statements that draw logical conclusions from facts that have been stated on the record or verified in a document. It's the line between editorial writing and news, when you get right down to it.

As I tell my students, there are times when journalists are allowed to take the publicly stated equation 2+2 and make it add up to 6 -- as long as the reporter can show, in the story, where the additional information is coming from. Here is a perfect example of how this works, in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette lede written by the Godbeat veteran Ann Rodgers -- who has enough experience to get away with this kind of thing. Brace yourselves for blunt language:

BEDFORD, Texas -- The spiritual leader of the Orthodox Church in America offered to begin talks aimed at full communion with the new Anglican Church in North America, then named a series of obstacles whose removal could tear apart the hard-won unity among the 100,000 theological conservatives who broke from the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada.

"What will it take for a true ecumenical reconciliation? Because that is what I am seeking by being here today," Metropolitan Jonah said to a standing ovation from 900 people assembled in a tent on the grounds of St. Vincent Cathedral in Bedford, Texas.

Now there's history behind those words and we'll get back to them in a minute.

The key to that lede -- with its claim that Metropolitan Jonah both praised the new conservative Anglican body in North America and, at the same time, attacked its foundations -- is based on simply, clear statements of doctrine. There is no way to write a news story about this long and very complex speech without knowing a thing or two or three (or more) about church history and doctrine. Without that, the Orthodox leader was speaking in an unknown tongue.

Rodgers noted that, with a smile, Metropolitan Jonah openly admitted that he was coming to deliver bad news, as well as good news. This was an offensive speech, but not a hateful one.

The good news was that the Orthodox Church in America was no longer interested in ecumenical talks with the liberal hierarchy of the U.S. Episcopal Church. The bad news -- sure to offend many in the room, but not others -- was that Orthodoxy believes that it's impossible to mix Protestantism and ancient forms of Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Them's fighting words to people who accept the great "Anglican Compromise."

Thus, we read:

Metropolitan Jonah named several issues that he said the two churches needed to "face head on" and resolve before they can achieve full communion. Among the most volatile on his list were the Calvinist theology taught by many evangelical Anglicans and the ordination of women as priests, which the new church allows each of its dioceses to accept or reject.

"Calvinism is a condemned heresy," he said, to a smattering of applause from some Anglo-Catholics in the new church.

"For ... intercommunion of the Anglican Church and the Orthodox Church, the issue of ordination of women needs to be resolved," he said, again to applause from many of the same people.

"I believe women have a critical role to play in the church, but I do not believe it is in the [priesthood or as bishops]," he said. "Forgive me if this offends you." He called for an effort to "creatively come together to find the right context for women's ministry in the church."

Now, I understand that it's hard to get a handle on who is and who is not applauding during a speech. However, playing "spot the Anglo-Catholics" is not the key element of this story.

Tikhon_1The key is that Rodgers was able to back up that bold lede.

If you reject Calvinism, then you reject almost everyone in the low-church, Morning Prayer, red-and-black vestments wing of the global Anglican Communion. You are saying that the Protestant Reformation was, in large part, a tragic mistake, at least from the perspective of the Christian East. That's a landmine if there ever was one, in a Communion built on the claim that John Calvin and the likes of St. John Chrysostom can thrive in the same pew (actually, the issue of pews would be problematic for the Orthodox anyway).

But what about the "good news" in this speech? You see, there is history at work there, as well, history in which the roots of Orthodox in North American were -- briefly -- intertwined with those of Anglo-Catholics. There was a moment in time when Orthodoxy came very close to recognizing the validity of Anglican orders, in a manner similar to state that currently exists between Rome and the East. These ancient churches recognize each other's orders, even while living in a tragic state of broken Communion. That's a complicated matter and Metropolitan Jonah's speech provided a short sketch of the history.

Journalism being what it is, Rodgers has to hit at all of this terrain in even fewer words. The St. Tikhon she mentions was Bishop Tikhon, who came to America to start a multi-ethnic Orthodox body on this continent. However, he was called home to Moscow to become Russia's patriarch -- leading to clashes with the rising tide of Marxism and, eventually, his martyrdom. But that's another story.

(Metropolitan Jonah) spoke of St. Tikhon, a 19th-century Russian Orthodox missionary to the United States who initiated a close relationship with the Episcopal Church that later cooled.

"We need to pick up where they left off," he said. "I occupy the throne St. Tikhon held as the leader of the Orthodox Church in America. Our arms are wide open."

The Anglican Church in North America hopes to be recognized as a new province of the 80 million-member global Anglican Communion, of which the 2.1 million-member Episcopal Church is the U.S. province. The new church believes the Episcopal Church failed to uphold biblical authority and classic doctrines about matters ranging from the divinity of Jesus to biblical morality, a criticism that the Orthodox share.

The Orthodox Church in America is a self-governing daughter of the Russian Orthodox Church. Metropolitan Jonah, who was elected last year in Pittsburgh, is a convert who was raised as an Episcopalian. He spoke with humor about both traditions, warning, "I'm afraid my talk will have something to offend just about everybody."

Like I said, it's hard to write about complex historical issues in public newspapers. This is an example of how you go about doing that. Amen.

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