Covering an outspoken Orthodox shepherd

I have heard one question over and over in the past three or four days: "What do you think of the Washington Post Magazine story about the whole uproar in the Orthodox Church in America about Metropolitan JONAH?" Or words to that effect. Many Orthodox readers then add something to the affect of this: "Don't you think that the story was a little out of date or incomplete?" Or more words to that effect.

First let me note that many people are incorrectly saying that the piece ran in the newspaper's Style section. That is simply inaccurate. It ran in the Sunday magazine, a section that has early, early, early deadlines compared to the rest of the daily newspaper. That is crucial, since the events and interviews on which the piece is built took place some time ago. This is not the fault of Julia Duin, the reporter, or her editors. It's just a fact of production deadlines.

Veteran journalist Rod Dreher -- an Orthodox Christian who is interviewed in the piece -- offered the following words of explanation in one online forum. The "Santa Fe" reference refers to a recent meeting linked to disputes about the directions of Metropolitan JONAH's leadership.

The piece was always was scheduled for mid-March, as far as I know. Santa Fe happened with only days before the final deadline, beyond which nothing could be changed in the text. Julia Duin and her editors were understandably concerned because of the possibility that something major could happen (e.g., +Jonah deposed) before the story ran. The point I'm trying to make here is that Duin was unable to do any reporting on the post-Santa Fe intrigue, because her advanced deadline had passed. Almost nothing that has happened since Santa Fe could have appeared in her story -- something that's not at all obvious to people reading it on the Internet, where they can't see that it was in the magazine section, and/or people who don't understand that because of production requirements, newspaper magazine section stories have to be "put to bed," as we say, a lot earlier than stories appearing in the daily paper.

Now, before I go on I need to note several obvious facts. First of all, the author of the magazine piece has been a friend of my family for a quarter of a century (give or take a year or two). Dreher also has been a close friend for, oh, coming up on two decades. Trust me, I have friends, associates and even loved ones involved at almost every possible level of this story. There is much that I know that I am not going to say.

So here is what I am going to do.

I am going to highlight the heart of Duin's report and urge you to read it on your own. There are a few nit-picking things in here that, most likely, are the result of editing (Julia certainly knows that the Catholic church does ordain some married men). There are many, many things that Duin would certainly want to update.

But she starts with a key event in this drama -- the March for Life -- and she also pinpoints another crucial point of contention -- the metropolitan's strong statements defending Orthodoxy and the church's doctrine in the U.S. military chaplaincy program.

On the morning of the march, Jonah preached an uncompromising Gospel at the cathedral. "We need to see and call things what they are and not in some disguised politically correct language," he said, dressed in resplendent gold brocade vestments, his salt-and-pepper beard making him appear like an Old Testament prophet. "Abortion is the taking of human life."

Jonah continued: "So often, people think that if we name sin for what it is, that we're judging people. No, we're just pointing out reality. It is not a matter of judgment to say abortion is a sin. It is not a matter of judgment to say that homosexual activity is a sin. It is a matter of simply stating the truth of the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ."

A few hours later at the march -- while 80 Orthodox seminarians from New York and Pennsylvania stood, shivering, underneath a large "Orthodox Christians for Life" sign -- Jonah told his listeners to stand firm against "the plague of abortion." He received a rousing ovation. As he swept away down the steps, various clergy kissed his hand, and Washington's Cardinal Donald Wuerl came up to greet him.

"He is energetic and anxious to move quickly," said the Rev. Chad Hatfield, chancellor of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary who had accompanied several dozen students to the rally. "Jonah is not as cautious as some people would like him to be. He is bold, forthright and speaks his mind.

"Sometimes that can be messy."

As Metropolitan Jonah already has found out.

Now, it is crucial to know that this story is unfolding on two fronts, with activists on both sides slinging digital ink with a vengeance.

The key is how to define the nature of the battle line that divides the two sides, the divide between those who see Orthodoxy as a partner for the Church or Rome and most evangelicals and an old guard who want to retain their decades of ties to the Protestant left and the National Council of Churches. Yes, there are moral issues and doctrines at stake in this fight. It is hard to see this because Orthodoxy is not going to openly change its doctrines. The question is whether these doctrines will be clearly articulated and defended -- in parishes as well as in public life. At the same time, it is crucial to note that people on both sides believe that +JONAH has made administrative errors and that this very young leader needs to improve his ecclesiastical gamesmanship.

You can see the outlines in the Duin piece, which is a compliment to her skills when one considers her deadline and the degree to which key players could not afford to speak on the record. Meanwhile, you can tap into the venom behind this battle -- for starters -- by clicking here and then here. Then go take a shower.

By the way, please limit your comments to the actual journalism issues faced by the Post team in preparing and publishing this piece. Any other comments must be accompanied by URLs to real information. It's Lent, folks.

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