When your pews are in the news

GetReligion readers, I have a question for you. How many of you are part of religious congregations that have ended up in the news? Perhaps even more than once? What happened? What went right and what went wrong? What did you learn from the experience?

Now, don't go wild. I know that it's easy to say that everything was messed up. In my experience, that rarely happens. What happens is that journalists -- especially those with no experience or training on the religion beat -- tend to get certain kinds of details right and certain kinds of details wrong.

In other words, I have seen patterns. I am interested in knowing what kinds of patterns you have seen when your church ended up on the other side of the reporter's notebook.

Regular GetReligion readers will know that the parish I attend -- Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Linthicum, Maryland -- has ended up being in the news quite a bit. In part, this is because the wife of our priest is Frederica Mathewes-Green, a nationally known writer, speaker and commentator.

Then, there is the fact that our church is (a) close to the media of Washington, D.C., and (b) a perfect symbol for this era in which many Americans -- especially evangelicals and former mainline Protestants -- are choosing to convert into the ancient churches of the East. Our parish is at least 80 to 90 percent converts and their children. Thus, we ended up in the New York Times, which tends to get you noticed. Thus, a crew from a national Russian television network came to call. Does anyone out there speak Russian?

There's more. A talented chanter in our parish (a young woman who may be the best choral musician I have sung with in my life) was the subject of a lovely feature on the PBS Religion & Ethics Weekly show, which ended up being amazingly popular online. Then I ended up, because of GetReligion.org, being the subject of a Baltimore Sun profile, which drew a bit of a crowd via the folks at Poynter.org.

It happened again the other day, with reporters at two local newspapers writing about the parish in news features linked to Easter or, as we call it in the East, Pascha. The Maryland Gazette did a short piece, based primarily on talks with Father Gregory and Frederica Mathewes-Green. Here's a sample:

Mathewes-Green said the Parrish is largely made up of people in their 20s and 30s who were raised in different faiths.

"I think there is a big search going on today," Mathewes-Green said. "Our congregation is devout. People are often surprised at how little a role the priest plays. Everyone has a part." ...

Tonight, when the parishioners follow Mathewes-Green back into the church they will be singing in English, Greek, Slovanic, Romanian and Arabic. Following a mass they will then go to the basement where they will be greeted with their Paschal baskets filled with meats, cheeses, wine and other things forbidden during lent.

"It's the feasts of feasts," said Mathewes-Green. "Russians will be drinking vodka and people will walk around with their favorite dishes asking if you would like to sample them."

The Baltimore Sun piece by veteran reporter Jonathan Pitts was much longer and more involved and, thus, dealt with more complicated issues that are hard to keep straight. Consider this section about a service the week before Pascha:

It was the Great Vespers service of Palm Sunday, the first day of the holiest, most hopeful week of the year for the world's 225 million Orthodox Christians, 2.6 percent of whom live in the United States. The faith blends ceremony and mystery in a way worshippers say makes their faith less a doctrine than a living thing.

But at Holy Cross, one of four parishes of its kind in Maryland, the old gives rise to the new. Most members are in their 20s and 30s. About 70 percent are converts, including former atheists, Anglicans, Catholics and Buddhists. The group embraces Caucasians, Asians and blacks, ethnic Serbs and Greeks, and occupations from research biologist to homemaker to roof repairman.

For a faith often identified with Eastern ethnic groups, at Holy Cross it has a bustling, American feel.

Now there are all kinds of things in that short passage that Orthodox Christians could spend hours discussing.

For example, Holy Cross is said to be "one of four parishes of its kind in Maryland." But there are way more Eastern Orthodox parishes than that in the state. The global statistics are for all of Orthodoxy, but then the reference to Holy Cross seems to be to the Antiochian archdiocese alone (which has five parishes in Maryland).

Also, I know what people are talking about when they say that Orthodoxy is a "living thing" that is more than mere doctrine. However, that makes it sound as if the doctrine is not all that important or that it is evolving and changing. The bottom line is that the church is called "Orthodox" for a reason. It's a faith that you learn by living it and that includes the doctrine that is woven into the rites, hymns, prayers, the fasting, confession and everything else. There is more to the faith than the words of the doctrines, but never less.

Now don't get me wrong. It's a fine and sensitive article, but there are other fine points linked to doctrine and history that are also tricky.

This is my point. Recently, I had a chance to speak to a New York City gathering of communicators from a spectrum of religious bodies. We talked about the kinds of facts and themes that are just hard for reporters to keep straight. We kept cycling back to issues of history, doctrine and law. It seems that some things are just too detailed and rich for reporters -- even fine, dedicated reporters -- to keep straight. Throw in a several layers of controversy about some of these topics and things can get messy.

Reporters do not like errors. Neither to the people touched by the stories. What can religious groups do to help with the process? That's the question.

OK, I have gone on and on. But I think about this both as a journalist and as a churchman. Readers, what have you observed? Let me warn you that I will take down the usual straw-man, generalized attacks on journalists as a group and the whole profession. Be detailed. Offer URLs to stories about your congregations and movements, if you wish.


Top photo: Pascha at Holy Cross, in 2009.

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