Warning: The following post contains highly offensive language of a doctrinal nature, whether the journalists covering this event knew it or not. Proceed with care.
I need to explain something about large-scale denominational assemblies, even though it will be old news to journalists in the GetReligion audience who regularly cover this events -- especially those held by oldline Protestant flocks.
Without a doubt, the most boring parts of these events -- yes, even more boring than the business sessions -- are the ultra-polite addresses delivered by special guests from the outside. These are often called "greetings" and they may be delivered by local civic leaders ("Thank you for eating lots of meals in our downtown restaurants") or by local, national or international religious dignitaries.
During the heated 1984 meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Kansas City, an Episcopal visitor suddenly appeared at the podium to say that the Baptists were welcome to tour his cathedral across the street and even to take part in services. However, he added, the cars of anyone who parked in their lots would be towed away. This drew a hearty laugh, because his remarks were refreshingly candid.
Normally, when journalists see the word "greetings" in a convention schedule, they know that it's safe to step out and get a cup of coffee or some other legal stimulant (the nature of which depends on the denomination one is covering).
Well, something strange happened the other day during the latest national gathering of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) dedicated to discussing a variety of church issues, including, of course, the status of gay-marriage rites and the ordination of non-celibate gay, lesbian and bisexual clergy. It was not strange that the body said "no" to the former and "yes" to the latter, with a final decision to be made by presbyteries across the nation. (Click here to surf through some of the business-as-usual coverage.)
It was strange, however, that something newsworthy happened during one of those boring "greetings" by an ecumenical visitor. Here is the complete Associated Press report:
An Orthodox Church theologian who was invited to greet the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has criticized its approval of non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy.
The Reverend Siarhei Hardun of Belarus said that vote and efforts to approve gay marriage looked to him like an attempt to "invent a new religion -- a sort of modern paganism." Hardun added, "When people say that they are led and guided by the Holy Spirit to do it, I wonder if it is the same Holy Spirit that inspired the Bible."
The Orthodox priest's remarks drew applause from conservative Presbyterians who made similar arguments at the gathering in Minneapolis.
As you would expect, the only place one can find more extensive coverage of Father Siarhei's remarks -- which were spoken gently, but were extremely blunt -- is in publications linked to the PCUSA conservatives, such as The Layman. For those who paid close attention to the doctrinal comments in his text, his words could only be called shockingly offensive.
How offensive? So offensive that covering them accurately would have raised Associated Press Stylebook issues.
For starters, Father Siarhei reminded his audience that he represented the Eastern Orthodox Church of Belarus, which means that he is part of a global communion that has "an unbroken, unchanged and unreformed tradition. And our theology has never been changed or reformed for almost 2,000 years."
This drew a laugh from his listeners, part of a flock that has its roots in the Reformed tradition John Calvin.
Then, speaking to the leaders of a denomination that is in severe statistical decline, he noted that Orthodoxy is once again on the rise in Belarus after several generations of bloody persecution. Twenty years ago, he noted:
... "(We) had 370 Orthodox congregations and now we have over 1,500 congregations. New churches are being built everywhere. We also try to organize the social work of the church and in this we find support and assistance from the Presbyterian Church (USA). That's why I am obliged to convey sincere gratitude on behalf of the Orthodox Church of Belarus to your church for its long standing support of our common projects in helping disabled people, lonely aged people, families with many children and other categories of those who are in need."
Then Father Siarhei, searching for the right words in English, offered a few impressions of the assembly and its work. That led to these words on moral theology (the following may be from his prepared text, since the wordings in the video are slightly different):
"Christian morality is as old as Christianity itself. It doesn't need to be invented now. Those attempts to invent new morality look for me like attempts to invent a new religion -- a sort of modern paganism.
"When people say that they are led and guided by the Holy Spirit to do it, I wonder if it is the same Spirit that inspired the Bible, if it is the same Holy Spirit that inspires the Holy Orthodox Church not to change anything doctrinal or moral standards? It is really the same Spirit or perhaps there are different spirits acting in different denominations and inspiring them to develop in different directions and create different theologies and different morals?
"My desire is that all Christians should contend earnestly for the faith, which was once for all delivered to the saints, as St. Jude calls us to do (Jude 1:3). And my advice as an ecumenical advisory delegate is the following: 'Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.' " (Romans 12:2).
So what is this Orthodox priest saying? Note that the term Holy Spirit is capitalized in that text, but that the second reference to "different spirits" is down. That would be accurate under AP style. Why? Well, the bible of mainstream journalism saith:
gods and goddesses: Capitalize God in references to the deity of all monotheistic religions. Capitalize all noun references to the deity: God the Father, Holy Ghost, Holy Spirit, etc. ...
Lowercase gods and goddesses in references to the deities of polytheistic religions.
Lowercase god, gods and goddesses in references to false gods: He made money is god.
So what is Father Siarhei saying? He is saying something highly offensive and potentially newsworthy, especially since some of the Presbyterians in the room applauded (I would assume because they understood his words and approved of them). He is saying that the divisions inside the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) may be rooted in a clash between those who are heeding the God of the Bible and those who are hearing the voices of, literally, another god. He is asking if part of the assembly is, in a very real way, possessed by a false spirit.
Whether one agrees with him or not, that is a truly radical and offensive statement. It might even be newsworthy. You think?
Did the reporters present realize what this priest had actually said?