Trust me, I have the greatest of sympathies for general-assignment reporters who find themselves forced to wade into the complex details of doctrine, rite and history that are frequently served up by day-to-day events that transpire on the religion beat. This is true in religious movements ancient and new.
How is anyone supposed to make sense out of the whirling world of emerging, post-evangelical, neo-charismatic, nondenominational, free-church Protestantism, where there is often no legal or doctrinal authority higher than the pastor (ordained by who knows who) and the board of deacons-elders-presbyters-directors who hires him?
And in the ancient world, there are various forms of Orthodoxy to consider that overlap in the same regions with the competing claims of Rome. Which patriarch is on first? Who's on second? Is the man in robes on third old calendar or new, is he oriental Orthodox or canonical? Really, says who?
So pity the copy editor who drafted the following photo caption for Reuters:
Palestinian Roman Orthodox Christian girl
A Palestinian Roman Orthodox Christian girl looks at candles as they are lit inside an old cave which residents say is used as a church, in the West Bank village of Aboud near Ramallah, ahead of Christmas December, 16, 2010.
A veteran GetReligion reader was both confused and amused by this unique reference, writing: "The picture shows Palestinians lighting candles in a cave in Ramalla, but IDs them as 'Roman Orthodox'? What is Roman Orthodoxy?"
It is possible, of course, that these Palestinian Christians were simply Eastern Orthodox, most likely linked to the ancient -- to say the least -- Church of Jerusalem. Then again, they may have been Eastern Rite Catholics, part of a flock that is loyal to the pope of Rome, yet one uses rites that are almost identical to those used by the Eastern Orthodox.
Then again, the photographer or reporter at the scene may have heard a spokesperson for the church use a very ancient name that sometimes appears in Eastern Orthodox rites. Consider these few lines from the Chrismation rite used when converts enter the church:
Bishop: Hast thou renounced all ancient and modern heresies and false doctrines which are contrary to the teachings of the Holy Orthodox-Catholic Eastern Church?
Answer: I have.
Bishop: Dost thou desire to be united unto the Holy Orthodox-Catholic Eastern Church?
Answer: I desire it with all my heart.
Like I said, this is complex territory. It's easy to make mistakes, even when doing one's best not to.
Then again, there is always a chance that we are dealing with journalists who, when they see candles and people making the sign of the cross, immediately think of Rome -- no matter what.
Be careful out there, folks.