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Is Mehmet Ali Agca crazy or just a bad Catholic?: Get Religion, April 27, 2014 May 9, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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The upcoming canonizations of Blessed John XXIII and Blessed John Paul II have generated some very good press for the Roman Catholic Church. While a fewarticles have sought to punch holes in the reputations of the soon to be saints — a frequent criticism I have seen is that John Paul was negligent in disciplining the serial abuser Fr. Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ — most converge has been positive.

The German news magazine Der Spiegel published an in depth piece on the miracles associated with John Paul, that treated the issue with sympathy and empathy. It is too early to tell how outfits normally hostile to the papacy such as the BBC or the European leftist press will present this story. However, interest in the canonization outside of religious circles appears to be very high.

On Friday Vatican Radio reported that 93 nations will send official delegations to the April 27 canonization service, while two dozen heads of state and as many as 150 cardinals and 1,000 bishops will be present at the Mass.

One oddball item that caught me eye amongst the flurry of articles was an interview conducted by the Italian wire service ANSA with John Paul’s would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca. Here the lede of the story that ran with the headline: “Foiled killer said sinful to ‘deify’ John Paul”:

Pope John Paul II is not a saint, because only God can be considered holy and attempts to “deify a human being” are sinful, Ali Agca, the man who tried to assassinate the pope in 1981, said Thursday in an interview with ANSA.

The article offers some background information on Agca, who in 1981 shot and nearly killed John Paul — a crime for which he served 20 years in an Italian prison, before being deported to Turkey, where he served a further ten years imprisonment for a 1979 murder. The article further notes Agca:

 has claimed at various times that his attempted murder of the pontiff was ordered by Ayatollah Rhollah Khomeini of Iran and the Soviet-era Bulgarian Secret Police.

The piece then offers an insight into the assassin’s mind, giving him space to speak.

Agca, who was released from jail in 2010, said that he “definitely wanted to kill” John Paul II so it’s a “miracle” the pontiff survived the St. Peter’s Square attack, which shocked the world. “I have seen with indisputable evidence that on May 13, 1981, God performed a miracle in St. Peter’s Square,” …

The Turkish national added that he feels no remorse because his act was part of a “divine plan”. “There’s an immeasurable difference between a divine miracle such as my assassination attempt and a psychopathic, unjustifiable crime,” said Ali Agca. “I’m extremely happy to have been at the center of a divine plan that’s cost me 30 hellish years in solitary confinement”.

Which leads me to ask, which God? Whose divine plan? Is Agca a Muslim, Christian or something else? Is he crazy?

Upon his release from prison in Turkey in 2010 Agca claimed he was “the Christ eternal” and the Messiah. Ten years in a Turkish prison are likely to addle most people’s brains and long-distance psychiatry is a risky business.

But as a point of journalism, when the subject of an interview begins to talk about god, divine plans and the like, should not the newspaper clarify the religious tradition or belief system being offered? ANSA offers background on Agca’s past and his prison history, but in a story that focuses on religion it is silent as to the subject’s own beliefs and chosen faith.

Or, is “30 hellish years in solitary confinement” excuse enough not to press too hard upon the mind of Mehmet Ali Agca?

IMAGE: The famous encounter in which Pope John Paul II offered forgiveness to his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca.

Buddhists boldly bully buzzed Brits: GetReligion, April 25, 2014 May 9, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Buddhism, Get Religion, Press criticism.
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The obnoxious Englishman abroad is a well loved story in the British press. The opprobrium once reserved for the British football hooligan abroad has now spread to his vacationing cousins. Cheap airfares and package holidays to the beaches of the Mediterranean, Florida and points East have given the Briton abroad a reputation for boorishness, lewdness, and alcohol-fueled vulgarity.

“They scream, they sing, they fall down, they take their clothes off, they cross-dress, they vomit,” the mayor of Malia, a popular Greek resort, told the New York Times in 2008. “It is only the British people – not the Germans or the French”.

Are the British the world’s worst behaved tourists? I think Americans can still give the Brits a run for their money. Let me note the annual horror of Spring Break here in Sunny Florida in defense of my claim of American exceptionalism. Aesthetically speaking the sunburnt, tattooed, shaven-headed, bandy-legged Briton abroad is an unpleasing sight. And the men are even worse!

The British government keeps track of the bad behavior of Englishman abroad, publishing an annual report on consular support given to jailed tourists, football hooligans and other assorted louts.The British press has a love hate relationship with yobos abroad. The Daily Mail and other popular newspapers will run stories bemoaning bad behavior and vulgarity with headlines like: “Beer-swilling Britishwomen are branded the ‘ugliest in the world’.” However, British television celebrates the bad behavior with documentaries and series like Channel 4‘s “What happens in Kavos” — an English version of the soft porn “Girls gone wild” films distributed in America.

The news that a British nurse vacationing in Sri Lanka is being deported from that country due to a Buddha tattoo that state officials find to be offensive to Buddhist sensibilities is being reported along these lines — the clueless tourist acting in a way that insults the locals. The Guardian‘s story came from the French wire service AFP, which stated:

Sri Lanka has detained a female British tourist for having a Buddha tattoo on her right arm and ordered her deportation, police said on Tuesday. The unidentified woman was arrested at the country’s main international airport on Monday and appeared before a magistrate, who ordered her deportation, police said in a statement.

The statement said she had an image of the Buddha seated on a lotus flower tattooed on her right arm. “She was taken before the Negombo magistrate, who ordered her to be detained prior to deportation,” it said, adding that she was arrested shortly after her arrival on a flight from neighbouring India.

It did not say what charges were brought against her, but Sri Lanka barred another British tourist from entering the island in March last year for showing disrespect to Buddhism by having a Buddha tattooed on his arm.

Subsequent stories in the Guardian and other Western news outlets reported the woman’s name and provided a photo of the tourist showing off her Buddha tattoo. The Guardian also ran an opinion piece noting that the Buddha tattoo was offensive to Sri Lankans arguing:

The arrest and pending deportation of a 37-year-old British nurse, Naomi Coleman, from Sri Lanka for sporting a tattoo of a meditating Buddha on her right arm has once again raised the issue of tourists being woefully unaware of religious and cultural sensitivities in places they visit.

While alcohol was absent from this incident, the photos of the tattoo and its wearer, coupled with statements that the tattoo was considered offensive by Buddhists, slots this story into the ugly Briton abroad category.

But … is this all there is to say on this story? Are Buddhists offended by tattoos of the Buddha? Why is this offensive?

Could this be political chauvinism disguised as religious piety?

The Western press appears to have accepted uncritically the argument that tattoos of Buddha are offensive on religious grounds. Yet no scholars of Buddhism are questioned on this point. In its opinion piece the Guardian cites a story in the Daily News of Colombo — one of Sri Lanka’s principle newspapers — in support of the offensive to Buddhist claims that also raises political questions. The Daily News article quotes a senior Buddhist monk demanding the government ban publications printing images of Buddha.

The Mahanayake Thera during a meeting with the President pointed out that the print media material bearing the images of The Buddha were even used as serviettes at eateries and also used to wrap various consumer goods by traders.

While noting the above, the Mahanayake Thera asserted that this amounted to an act of sacrilege.

Images of Buddha according to the senior monk must be protected from sacrilege. But again we do not have an explanation of why other than the monk’s assertion that this must be so.

In April of 2010, I wrote an article for the Church of England Newspaper reporting that:

Buddhist extremists have forced the cancellation of a concert tour in Sri Lanka by the pop singer Akon, after a mob ransacked the offices of his booking agent in Colombo for insulting the Buddha. … The protesters were offended by Akon’s latest video “Sexy Chick,” which shows bikini-clad women dancing at a pool party, while in the background stands a statue of the Buddha. Jathika Bhikku Sansadaya, a Buddhist monk organization affiliated with the Sinhala nationalist party Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) demanded the government cancel the concert stating Akon had insulted Buddhism.

The government caved in to the demands of the rioters and refused to issue Akon a visa. The reason why the Church of Englan Newspaper ran the story was due to the intervention of the Anglican bishop in Colombo.

Bishop Duleep de Chickera of Colombo upbraided the police for their inaction. “Reports that the police failed to prevent the attack and did not object to some of the perpetrators of this offense being released on bail the same day, are worrying,” he said. “Such behavior implies political patronage in the attack and political interference in the investigations. When some who frame the laws of the land and some of those responsible for the enforcement of the law disregard the law, the plight of the people is critical,” he said in a statement given to the media.

The bishop argued the motivation for the protests were not religious but political. Sri Lanka’s Buddhist monks have a long history of political activism and in recent years have used perceived insults to Buddhist imagery — t-shirts, tattoos, music videos, a parcel wrapped in a newspaper that displays an image of Buddha — as a stick to beat the government and rouse their supporters.

How then should the Western press have handled the story of Naomi Coleman? Was it wise to assume that Buddhism is akin to Sunni Islam where images of the prophet or the enlightened one are forbidden? Should the assertion that this is offensive be tested by reference to a scholar of Sri Lankan Buddhism or a political analyst? Should we trust as true the statements made by the police?

The deeper story here is not the social or aesthetic faux pas of an English tourist, but the political activism of militant Buddhists in Sri Lanka. Religious offense may be the issue trumpeted by the Sri Lankan government, but could it really be Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinism at play?

Assad’s Easter and mysterious attacks on Syrian Christians: GetReligion, April 24, 2014 May 9, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Antiochian Orthodox, Get Religion, Greek Orthodox, Islam, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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Why are Syrian Christians being targeted by Islamist rebels?

The Western press cannot agree on a reason, a review of recent reports from Syria reveals.

Can we credit the explanation given by the Wall Street Journal — that the rebels do not trust Christians — as a sufficient explanation? And if so, what does that mean? Are the reports of murders, kidnappings, rapes and overt persecution of Christians in Syria by Islamist rebels motivated by religion, politics, ethnicity, nationalism or is it a lack of trust?

Is the narrative put forward byITAR-TASS, the Russian wire service and successor to the Soviet TASS News Agency — that the rebels are fanatics bent on turning Syria into a Sunni Muslim state governed by Sharia law — the truth?

On this past Monday, The Wall Street Journal ran a story on its front page under this headline:

Christians of Homs Grieve as Battle for City Intensifies

That story examined the plight of Syria’s Christians. The Journal entered into the report by looking at the death of Dutch Jesuit Father Frans van der Lugt, who had been murdered by members of an Islamist militia in the town of Homs.

The well-written article offers extensive quotes from a second Syrian Roman Catholic priest on this tragedy and notes the late priest’s attempt to bridge the divide between Christians and Muslims. In the 10th paragraph, the story opens up into a wider discussion of the plight of Syria’s Christians and recounts Assad’s Easter visit to a monastery — whether Catholic or some variety of Orthodox, that detail is left out.

While the fighting raged in Homs, President Bashar al-Assad showed up unexpectedly on Sunday in the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, about 30 miles northeast of the capital Damascus. The town was overrun by Islamist rebels in September and reclaimed by the Syrian army a week ago.

State media released video footage of Mr. Assad surveying smashed icons at the town’s damaged monasteries and quoted him as saying that “no amount of terror can ever erase our history and civilization.”

The fight over Maaloula, like the killing of Father Frans, both reflect the quandary of Syria’s Christians. Many feel an affinity for Mr. Assad. His Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, dominates the regime while the majority of Syrians—and opposition supporters—are Sunni Muslims.

Most Christians have become all the more convinced that only the regime can protect them after some rebels came under the sway of Islamic extremists who have attacked and pillaged their communities and churches and targeted priests and nuns.

Some Christians still seek to build bridges with both sides of the civil war, as Father Frans did. But in a landscape where religious and sectarian affiliations often define and shape the struggle, they find themselves under fire from both sides.

Many rebels say they don’t fully trust Christians, while regime supporters see those who reach out to the opposition as naive or traitors. Father Frans found himself in that position, say some close to him

What are we to make of these assertions — “some rebels” are Islamists, or that “many rebels say they don’t fully trust Christians?” Is that a fair, suffient or accurate statement of affairs?

A look at the Financial Times report on President al-Assad’s visit to Maaloula on Easter Sunday makes the argument that the Assad regime is playing up the Islamist angle for his political benefit. But it assumes the persecution is real.

President Bashar al-Assad made an Easter visit on Sunday to a historic Christian town recaptured by the army, in a rare appearance outside the capital that shows his growing confidence in state control around Damascus.

The visit also aims to portray him as the protector of Syrian minorities against a rebel movement led by Islamist forces.

The wire service stories also connect Christian fear of the rebels with support for Assad. AFP’s account closes with the explanation:

Syria’s large Christian minority has sought neutrality throughout the three-year war, and has viewed the Sunni-led rebels with growing concern as jihadists have flocked to their ranks.

The Los Angeles Times opens its story on the Maaloula visit noting that both Assad and the rebel leadership are courting Syria’s Christians.

But Assad appears to be winning.

DAMASCUS, Syria — President Bashar  Assad made a symbolic Easter visit Sunday to the heavily damaged town of Maaloula, a Christian landmark  enclave recaptured from Islamist rebels last week by government forces. The president’s visit, broadcast on state television, underscored his efforts  to portray himself as a defender of Christians and other minorities as he  prepares for an expected reelection bid in the midst of a devastating war now in  its fourth year.

Maaloula and several of its historic churches sustained significant damage  during heavy fighting and bombardment. Church leaders say priceless icons were  looted or destroyed during the rebel occupation of Maaloula, famous for its  preservation of Aramaic, a version of the language spoken by Jesus Christ.

“No one, no matter the extent of their terrorism, is able to erase our human  and cultural history,” Assad declared in Maaloula while in the company of senior  Christian clerics. “Maaloula will remain steadfast … in the face of the  barbarity and darkness of all who target the homeland.”

Opposition groups seeking Assad’s ouster generally dismissed the trip as a  stunt or faked. The exile-based Syrian National Coalition sent Easter greetings  to Syria’s Christians “at a time when Assad destroyed the country because of a  people who are demanding freedom.”

Comparing the reporting by Peter Oborne of the Daily Telegraph on the plight of Syria’s Christians to the the Wall Street Journal reveals the shallowness of the WSJ’spiece. Reporting on his visit to Maaloula shortly after it was recapture by government forces, Oborne writes:

Below, the village itself appeared practically deserted; most of its 5,000-strong, mainly Christian, population have fled since it first came under rebel attack, on Sept 4 last year.

According to Samir, a soldier who said he had been born in Maaloula, and joined up to defend his village, the ancient religious centre “will not change hands again because most of the young men in the village have joined the military”.

His friend, Imad, said there had been 32 churches in Maaloula and claimed that “all of them have been destroyed” – although it was clear from the vantage point near the monastery that in fact churches were still standing, albeit with signs of damage and some burning.

Anger among regime supporters at what they claim are the excesses of the rebels – who include radical Islamist insurgent groups – was palpable. “I can’t describe my feelings because the terrorists are destroying the Christian religion,” said Imad, who said he had been an electrician in Maaloula before he joined the military and the rest of his family moved to Damsacus two years ago. Samir claimed that the rebels had behaved brutally to young men of the town when they first arrived, killing many.

However, there have been no documented massacres of Christian inhabitants under the rebels’ rule of Maaloula and a group of nuns who were released last month after being kidnapped by the Islamist group, Jabhat al-Nusra, said they had been treated well.

Oborne’s article allows both sides to speak, while offering facts that put the claims in context. The complexity of the war in Syria is better served by the balanced but nuanced approach taken by the Daily Telegraph, I believe, than the shy style adopted by the WSJ. While I have no firsthand knowledge of the events unfolding in Syria, Oborne’s story just feels right — it is a first-class example of the craft of reporting.

Where does the truth lay in all of this? The WSJ piece doesn’t feel right to me. I am not saying it is incorrect, but it is incomplete.

As a stand-alone piece on the murder of Father van der Lugt, the WSJ article is great. It seems to get into trouble, however, when it moves into a wider discussion of the causes and political-religious currents of Syria’s civil war. Frankly, I am not convinced it is telling the full story. It leaves me wonder why the WSJ is being shy in examining the persecution of Christians by Muslims?

What does it mean to be transgendered in India?: GetReligion, April 18, 2014 May 9, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Buddhism, Get Religion, Hinduism, Press criticism.
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Is it possible to write intelligently about sex in the non-Western world for an American media audience? Or, is our culture so narcissistic, so incurious, so parochial that a newspaper would be wasting its time in attempting to explain the difference between our world view and their’s?

A recent spate of articles in the American press about Tuesday’s decision by the Indian Supreme Court creating a “third gender” under law prompted these musings. Stories in the Washington Post and MSNBC about the Indian court ruling are so slanted for an American audience (and these outlet’s particular audiences) that there is but a tenuous link between their reporting and reality.

The pro forma MSNBC story begins:

Transgender people in India no longer have to categorize themselves as “male” or “female” in official documents. India’s Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling Tuesday that allows hundreds of thousands of transgender people to identify themselves as a third gender. Human rights groups are lauding the decision as historic and groundbreaking.

The article follows a standard formula for legal news and provides snippets from the decision.

“It is the right of every human being to choose their gender,” the court wrote. “Recognition of transgenders as a third gender is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue,” Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan, one of the two head judges on the Supreme Court bench, told the court.

The article notes what the implication of the ruling might be:

The high court has ordered the government to allocate public sector jobs to transgender people, known as “hijras” and include them in welfare programs.

And also offers comments from a high profile transgender activist and refers to arguments made in the brief. It then offers political and legal context to the ruling and closes with a word of hope from the LGBT community.

While India now recognizes the transgender community as a third gender, the ruling only applies to transgender people and not gays, lesbians or bisexuals. In December, the Supreme Court reversed a 2009 court order that decriminalized homosexuality, reinstating a ban on gay sex. India’s general elections will be held on May 16, and LGBT rights activists hope the new parliament will repeal the anti-gay law.

All in all the structure and tone of this story is what one would expect of an MSNBC story about an American court decision on transgender issues. Voices opposed to the ruling would have provided balance and developing the apparent contradictions between this latest ruling and the December 2013 ruling criminalizing gay sex would have been welcome.

Yet, this is not a story about America, but India. And the American left-liberal model, with all of the assumptions implicit in that world view, does not work.

First off, can we assume that an American transgendered person is the same as an Indian transgendered person, or what the article calls a hijra?

According to the leading study on India’s transgendered community, With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India by Gayatri Reddy, hijras are:

phenotypic men who wear female clothing, and ideally renounce sexual desire and practice by undergoing a sacrificial emasculation — that is, the excision of the penis and testicles — dedicated to the goddess Bedhraj Mata. Subsequently they are believed to be endowed with the power to confer children on newlyweds or newborn children.

Hijras do not occupy the same place in Indian culture as the transgendered do in America. First hijras are almost exclusively male to female. Second they have a quasi-religious cultural roll in Hindu society and have been present, though on the fringes of that society, for thousands of years.

Can we also assume that gender identity in America is equal to gender identity in India? In her monograph Reddy notes that by the 3rd Century (AD or CE) the view that there were three genders was being debated in Buddhist, Brahmanical and Jain thought. For Brahmans sexual identity was founded upon the presence or absence of certain primary sexual characteristics. For Buddhists it was controlled by procreation with the impotent consigned to the third sex. But the Jains argued that biology was only one marker of sexual identity. One’s psychological gender was as important as one’s physiological gender in establishing sexual identity.

And, what is the role of Islam in all of this. Hijra is an Urdu word and Indian popular culture associates hijras with those parts of India where Muslim influence is strongest.

And, how can we understand the court’s decision’s recognizing a third sex yet upholding criminal penalties for homosexuality? I am no scholar of Indian law, but could the quasi-religious understanding of the hijras be at work? It seems India’s courts are moving in an opposite direction than America’s — in the West sexual identity is tied closely to sexual activity while the Indian courts seem to separate the two.

Let me say that the issue being addressed by this post is not the moral worth of transgendered people or the rights and wrongs of the Indian court decision. Nor am I saying that every foreign news story be accompanied by a scholarly monograph.

I am asking whether it is possible to understand the issue of the hijra without a single reference to religion in the MSNBC story? Treating this story as if it were an exotic version of Bowers v. Hardwick may come naturally to an American newspaper, but it leaves the reader ignorant of what has happened.

Francis links abortion with abuse, yet press doesn’t follow: GetReligion, April 16, 2014 May 9, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Abortion/Euthanasia/Biotechnology, Abuse, Get Religion, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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The Italian press has placed an interesting interpretation on Pope Francis’ Friday comments on the clergy abuse. It reports that in the pope’s mind clergy abuse of children is tied to the “abomination” of abortion. Look for this theme in the Anglo-American press and tell me if you can find it? I can’t.

Francis’ comments to the International Catholic Child Bureau meeting at the Vatican on April 11 received wide spread coverage. CNN reported:

Pope Francis made his strongest condemnation yet of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy on Friday, asking for forgiveness and pledging to impose penalties on “men of the church” who harm children.

“I feel compelled to personally take on all the evil which some priests — quite a few in number, obviously not compared to the number of all the priests — to personally ask for forgiveness for the damage they have done for having sexually abused children,” the Pope said in remarks quoted by Vatican Radio.

As an aside, I chose CNN’s story over the others because of its aesthetic and journalist quality. It is really quite good. To my mind Daniel Burke is one of the most highly skilled writers covering religion and this article shows why he deserves that accolade. The language is tight, conveying the story in a minimum of words.  The story is told well with very little fluff or filler. The article is balanced — offering comments from abuse activists while also allowing Francis to speak. The author’s views on the issue can be discerned by the layout of the story — paragraph placement is one of the key elements in constructing an article — yet there is no preaching or bombast in a topic (clergy abuse of children) that is often spoilt by opinion masking as news. A great job all round.

Yet, Burke is back in America and must rely on material provided by others when reporting on Rome. Has he been given the full story by his stringers in Rome?

For on the same day as the pope spoke to the International Catholic Child Bureau, he addressed a pro-life group. For the Italian press, the messages Francis offered on the clergy abuse scandal and abortion were intertwined. The lede to the story ”Pedofilia, il Papa chiede perdono per gli abusi commessi dai sacerdoti” in the Milan-based Corriere della Sera makes this clear. (N.b. with a circulation of over 350,000 Corriere della Sera is one of Italy’s largest and most influential newspapers. It’s main competitors are the Rome’s la Repubblica and Turin’s La Stampa.) It states:

Pope Francis has asked “forgiveness” for the child abuse perpetrated by men of the Church. In unambiguous tones, Francis said: “I am called to this burden” to “ask for forgiveness”, and to assure you that we will not take any “step back” in addressing this problem and seeing that “penalties will be imposed.” Children should be protected and have a family, the pontiff said. “They have a right to grow up with a father and mother.” And before that children must be protected in the womb, he added, because “the unborn child is the innocent par excellence.” Drawing upon the words of the Second Vatican Council Francis added “abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.”

The Corriere della Sera article gives a fuller picture of Francis’ views on the clergy abuse scandal than the CNN piece by stressing Francis’ argument that both are crimes against children and against God.

 

It could be argued that a pope condemning abortion is not news. However, Francis was the center of a media frenzy last year when in an interview the the Jesuit publicationAmerica, he said:

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible.” …“The teaching of the church … is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

This was interpreted by some media outlets as evidence that Francis would change, perhaps not the substance, but certainly the tone of church teachings. The New York Times lede to its September 19 story on the interview followed this line:

Six months into his papacy, Pope Francis sent shock waves through the Roman Catholic church on Thursday with the publication of his remarks that the church had grown “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and that he had chosen not to talk about those issues despite recriminations from critics.

Why the silence from the Anglo-American press on the pope’s latest abortion comments? GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly has addressed the dichotomy between the coverage and reality of Francis’ views on abortion in other posts. Is there something in the mindset of American reporters that prevents them from making the link between abuse and abortion that the Corriere della Sera has made?

Vatican Radio and the Holy See Press Office / Vatican Information Service released reports on the addresses made by the pope, but these came out in separate stories. If all you had to work with were the press releases, connecting the dots may not have been obvious to US based reporters.

The “why” should also be examined in the context of “should”. Should CNN and other news outlets linked the abortion and abuse stories? Is this an editorial step too far byCorriere della Sera? Or have they offered the insight and context expected of quality newspapers?

My imperfect knowledge of the situation does not allow me to say CNN or the Corriere della Sera had it right. My instincts though tell me the Italian report gives a broader, and ultimately better, picture of what is actually happening in Rome.

Pod people: ‘Pinko’ Pat Buchanan and the Daily Mail: Get Religion, April 10, 2014 May 9, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, Russian Orthodox.
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Heavy breathing this week from London’s Daily Mail, which has denounced American political commentator Patrick J. Buchanan as a toady of Vladimir Putin.

Yes, GetReligion readers you read that correctly, while he has escaped the pinko, secret traveler and useful idiot sobriquets due to the march of history, the Daily Mail nonetheless is calling Pat Buchanan a Russkie stooge.

The lede of the April 5 story entitled “Pat Buchanan claims GOD is on Russia’s side and that Moscow is the ‘third Rome’” pulls no punches. Not only is God on Russia’s side, but so too is GOD.

Conservative firebrand Pat Buchanan insists that God is now on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s side. The bombastic pundit’s claims in a rambling diatribe posted to a conservative website that Russia is the ‘third Rome’ and the West ‘is Gomorrah.’

‘Putin is planting Russia’s flag firmly on the side of traditional Christianity,’ Buchanan wrote in the op-ed published by Human Events, adding that his recent speeches echo those made nearly 20 years ago by Pope John Paul II — in which the pontiff also criticized the West.

The article proceeds to summarize,with evident distaste, Buchanan’s April 4 syndicated column “Who’s Side Is God on Now?”

Not quite a tabloid, or “red top” in British newspaper parlance, the Daily Mailstraddles the line between respectable and hysterical journalism. This story leans to the hysterical side — to the delight I’m sure of Buchanan, for whom this is great publicity — but to the detriment of those seeking to understand what is happening in Russia today.

The story has undergone revisions since it was first posted online. The first printing called the former Nixon speech writer a “bombastic preacher,” though subsequent editions were changed to “bombastic pundit.” What has not been updated, however, is the Daily Mail‘s claim that Buchanan is making the claims about God and Russia — when it is quite clear when reading the original piece Buchanan is reporting on what Putin believes to be Russia’s mystical destiny.

Buchanan’s voice comes toward the end of his piece when he laments a world where the leader of Russia has donned the mantle of Christian morality. Good Catholics once prayed for the conversion of Russia, but today they should pray for the conversion of America.

In this week’s Crossroads podcast, Issues, Etc., host Todd Wilken and I touched upon the poor job Western reporters have made in covering the deeper currents of the Russia-Ukraine clash. And, while being blissfully unaware of Buchanan’s column and the Daily Mail‘s coverage, we spoke of the “Third Rome” and the belief held by many Russians (including Putin it seems) that Russia has been given a mission from God to renew and redeem the world.

The GetReligion piece “No peace in our time for the Ukraine” was a “got news” story — that is a GetReligion category of a religion related news story that has somehow been overlooked by the media.

The Western press has done a good job in reporting the words of John Kerry, Angela Merkel, David Cameron and other Western leaders. Putin is painted by most newspapers as a villainous KGB thug. However, the enthusiasm shown towards then new leaders of the Ukraine has been tempered by frustration with their inability to govern their country.

All of interest to a degree, I concede, but not of significant importance. The deeper currents of religion, ethnicity and national identity, I told Todd, were not being given a proper hearing. Without the context of historical background, of the five hunded year clash between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, of the battle between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles, it was not possible to understand what was happening, beyond the level of caricature (Putin bad, protesters good).

The religion angle as essential to understanding this dispute, yet it was not being addressed by the Western press. In my GR piece I reported on Russian and Ukrainian newspaper articles that presented harsh denunciations by local church leaders of their opposite numbers. I wrote:

Reading the statements from the Russian Orthodox Church published in the Moscow newspapers and the statements of the Catholic leaders published in Kiev quite clearly demonstrates the religious dimensions of this dispute. Putin’s Moscow is the inheritor of the civilizing mission of Holy Mother Russia while the Catholic Church is the bulwark standing fast in the face of the Asiatic hordes.

Church leaders have picked up the tempo in recent days. The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Cyril I (or Kyrill or Kirill, which means Cyril) offered his strongest critique of the unrest in the Ukraine last week, comparing it to the October Revolution.

In an interview with Interfax, Cyril stated:

“Most of us can hardly imagine what revolution is. The latest events in Ukraine, terrible pictures of the revolutionary uprising in the capital, people killed, distraught spiritually and consciously – all this helps us to understand what happened in Russia back then,” the patriarch said to a small crowd following a prayer service he conducted near the relics of Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow and All Russia in Moscow’s Donskoy Monastery on Monday.

During the 1917 events “life was destroyed and this was accompanied by outrage and terrible injustice under slogans for achieving justice,” Patriarch Kirill said.

Putin may well deserve his reputation of being a thug. But Pat Buchanan’s observations about the turmoil in the East are on target.

Western leaders who compare Putin’s annexation of Crimea to Hitler’s Anschluss with Austria, who dismiss him as a “KGB thug,” who call him “the alleged thief, liar and murderer who rules Russia,” as the Wall Street Journal’s Holman Jenkins did, believe Putin’s claim to stand on higher moral ground is beyond blasphemous.

But Vladimir Putin knows exactly what he is doing, and his new claim has a venerable lineage. The ex-Communist Whittaker Chambers who exposed Alger Hiss as a Soviet spy, was, at the time of his death in 1964, writing a book on “The Third Rome.”

The first Rome was the Holy City and seat of Christianity that fell to Odoacer and his barbarians in 476 A.D. The second Rome was Constantinople, Byzantium, (today’s Istanbul), which fell to the Turks in 1453. The successor city to Byzantium, the Third Rome, the last Rome to the old believers, was — Moscow.

Putin is entering a claim that Moscow is the Godly City of today and command post of the counter-reformation against the new paganism. Putin is plugging into some of the modern world’s most powerful currents. Not only in his defiance of what much of the world sees as America’s arrogant drive for global hegemony. Not only in his tribal defense of lost Russians left behind when the USSR disintegrated.

He is also tapping into the worldwide revulsion of and resistance to the sewage of a hedonistic secular and social revolution coming out of the West.

For Western ears, whose world view arises from a secularist enlightenment based notion of democracy and social order, these claims are hard to hear. That does not make them false.

Florida Today on missing Bibles at the Missing Man Table: GetReligion, April 8, 2014 May 9, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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McCarthyism is alive and doing quite well in America, a scan of this week’s newspapers reveals. The mob mentality that promotes intolerance in the name of diversity has claimed the scalp of Mozilla CEO Brendon Eich and dominated the front pages of newspapers and the chat shows, but it has been the little things — the small local events and actions that condemn free speech, free thought and freedom of religion — I find so frightening.

An item in one of my local newspapers, Florida Today (part of the Gannett chain), illustrates the collapse of discourse in our culture — and the truly rotten state of affairs within the top ranks of our military.

The newspaper reported that the Missing Man Table in one of the dining facilities at Patrick Air Force Base had been removed after someone complained about the presence of a Bible.

The author enters into the story through the reaction of a dismayed veteran, angered over the disappearance of the table:

When Michael Tater did not see the POW/MIA Missing Man Table at the Riverside Dining Facility at Patrick Air Force Base, his reaction was of disbelief. Missing Man Tables — fully set tables left vacant for military members who didn’t return from combat — are commonplace at military and veterans organizations. One had been a fixture at Riverside. But a dispute over including a Bible as part of the display led to its removal from the dining hall.

Done right, a lede sentence that frames the issue according to the views of the man in the street makes for an interesting feature story. But care needs to be taken that the man in the street view is not being used by the author as a cloak for his own views. This is where balance and context comes into play. We hear side A, but also need to hear side B. And the two need to be placed in context.

This article is almost there — but not quite.

The story continues with a response from the base commander. Was the name withheld by the author or was the press release signed base commander? A name is necessary — especially in light of what follows.

But commanders at the base have rethought that decision. They said Friday that the table would again be displayed at Riverside, but they did not specify a time for the reintroduction of the table or what items will or will not be included on it.

“The 45th Space Wing deeply desires to honor America’s Prisoners of War (POW) and Missing in Action (MIA) personnel,” commanders said in a written statement. “Unfortunately, the Bible’s presence or absence on the table at the Riverside Dining Facility ignited controversy and division, distracting from the table’s primary purpose of honoring POWs/MIAs. Consequently, we temporarily replaced the table with the POW/MIA flag in an effort to show our continued support of these heroes while seeking an acceptable solution to the controversy.”

“After consultation with several relevant organizations, we now intend to re-introduce the POW/MIA table in a manner inclusive of all POWs/MIAs as well as Americans everywhere.” the statement said.

The remainder of the article gives voice to local reactions to the news that the Missing Man Table is being returned. But should not there be a bit more context? What do the regulations say on this point? Did the base commander act according to the rules, or did he violate them?

The blog Christianfighterpilot.com notes that in taking down the Missing Man Table due to the complaint over the presence of the bible, the base commander contradicted the military’s regulations governing such displays.

The official Department of Defense ceremony for the Missing Man Table states in part:

The single red rose, displayed in a vase, reminds us of the life of each of the missing, and the[ir] loved ones and friends of these Americans who keep the faith, awaiting answers.

The vase is tied with a red ribbon, symbol of our continued determination to account for our missing.

A slice of lemon on the bread plate is to remind us of the bitter fate of those captured and missing in a foreign land.

A pinch of salt symbolizes the tears endured by those missing and their families who seek answers.

The Bible represents the strength gained through faith to sustain those lost from our country, founded as one nation under God.

The glass is inverted — to symbolize their inability to share this evening’s [morning's/day's] toast.

The chairs are empty — they are missing.

Let us now raise our water glasses in a toast to honor America’s POW/MIAs and to the success of our efforts to account for them.

According to the DoD regulations a Bible is one of the symbols placed on the Missing Man Table — it is explicitly permitted. Yet the Patrick Air Force Base commander went beyond the regulations to censor the display.

From a journalism perspective, this story fell short. While it did a good job in offering local color, it missed the real story — the base commander’s censoring the display. We have the who, what, where, when — but Florida Today failed to ask why. Why did the base commander make a decision that appears — to this layman — to contradict the DoD regulations governing the Missing Man Table ceremony?

As the ChristianFighterPilot blog notes, it is within the base commander’s discretion not to have a Missing Man Table, but:

Choosing to censor a display, rather than defend the virtues of what the DoD has said it represents, could contribute to the perception the military is so afraid of religion or associations with Christianity that it will bend over backwards to scrub public displays of religion from within its ranks.

In an essay on Charles Dickens, George Orwell wrote that in the novelist he saw the “face of a man who is always fighting against something … the face of a man who is generously angry — in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.”

Should the press not do battle with the smelly little orthodoxies that beset our culture today? The cant, political correctness, moral cowardice and mendacity that is choking this country?  Florida Today was most likely unaware of the deeper issues at play, offering up a pleasant puff piece of a local news story. Yet, they had in their hands the ingredients for something much better — a story that if properly investigated and thought through would bring the far off stories about Brenden Eich and political correctness home to the people of Melbourne, Fla.

No peace in our time for the Ukraine: GetReligion, April 3, 2014 May 9, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Russian Orthodox, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Ukrainian Orthodox (Kiev Patriarchate), Ukrainian Orthodox (Moscow Patriarchate).
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One hundred years from now, when the history of these past few months in the Ukraine have been told and retold, what will be the key points scholars will discuss in their analysis of events? Will it be John Kerry’s or David Cameron’s or Angela Merkel’s diplomatic initiatives?

I think not. Who today remembers the names or the diplomatic moves of the French or British Foreign Ministers during the Sudeten crisis? (George Bonnett and Lord Halifax). We remember Neville Chamberlain, but not for the reasons he may have desired. While the Angl0-American newspaper fraternity focuses on the Western political angle of the Ukraine crisis, there are deeper — more profound — forces at work that have been all but ignored.

Scholars and students will likely note the peripheral noises made by the great and good of America and Western Europe, but I suspect their work will focus on the age old clash between the Catholic West and the Orthodox East. The crisis in the Ukraine is really about the interplay of religion, nationalism and politics. (Bet that came as a shock that GetReligion would bemoan the absence of religion in the news reports out of Moscow and Kiev.)

We are not alone, however, in calling attention to this so far neglected aspect of the dispute. Writing in the Washington Post last month, Henry Kissinger stated:

The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country. Russian history began in what was called Kievan-Rus. The Russian religion spread from there. Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries, and their histories were intertwined before then.

Dr. K noted:

The Ukrainians are the decisive element.They live in a country with a complex history and a polyglot composition. The Western part was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1939 , when Stalin and Hitler divided up the spoils. Crimea, 60 percent of whose population is Russian , became part of Ukraine only in 1954 , when Nikita Khrushchev, a Ukrainian by birth, awarded it as part of the 300th-year celebration of a Russian agreement with the Cossacks. The west is largely Catholic; the east largely Russian Orthodox. The west speaks Ukrainian; the east speaks mostly Russian. Any attempt by one wing of Ukraine to dominate the other — as has been the pattern — would lead eventually to civil war or break up.

We can see the clash of Catholicism vs. Orthodoxy in statements made by leaders of the two churches. Statements that have so far gone unreported in the Western secular media and have only had an airing west of the Vistula in religious newspapers.

On March 26 the Catholic news service, Asia.Net reported:

The Moscow Patriarchate strongly condemned the Greek-Catholic (Uniate) Church in Ukraine for “meddling” in politics, in the current crisis in the country. For its part, Russia continues to accuse the Ukraine of “religious intolerance,” a charge the latter sharply rejects, noting instead how all religious denominations have come together to oppose violence and express support for Europe.

It cited a broadcast made by Metropolitan Hilarion, the head of the Russian Orthodox Department for External Church Relations, on March 22 aired on the Moscow-based television network Russia 24.

According to the transcript of the interview printed on the website of the Russian Orthodox Church, Hilarion went for the jugular, attacking the Greek Catholics as a fifth column for Western interests in the Ukraine. He condemned the leader of the uniates, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk and his predecessor Lubomyr Husar for taking a:

 … very clear position from the beginning of what was a civil conflict, which grew, unfortunately, into an armed bloody conflict. They fought not just for so-called European integration, but even called for the Western countries to more actively intervene in the situation in Ukraine. Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk with Filaret (head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kiev Patriarchate) even went to the United States, to the State Department and asked for U.S. intervention in the Ukrainian case.

Hilarion went on to condemn the Greek Catholics for backing the protesters that brought down the pro-Moscow Ukrainian government. This politicking was not the mark of a true church. Orthodoxy, in contrast:

… does not get on one side of the barricades. It unites all, and when necessary, steps between the warring parties, as did the monks who came out and stood up, risking their lives, their health, to prevent bloodshed between two warring parties.

The Greek Catholics have not taken the Russian Orthodox attacks lightly. In a March 28 interview with the Kiev newspaper The Day, (translated into English by Catholic World Report) Archbishop Shevchuk hits back at Moscow, calling them tools of the Russian state.

The silence of the Moscow patriarchate is “the sign of a definite weakness,” the Ukrainian prelate says. “For whenever the Church finds herself unusually close to a specific governmental institution, whenever harmonious state-church relations turn into a sort of domination of one by the other, then, obviously, the Church becomes incapable of speaking the truth in all its fullness in specific historical circumstances. And therefore I think that this is exactly what we are seeing now.”

In other words, the Russian Orthodox Church is preaching “God save the Tsar” and the tsar is Vladimir Putin.

Reading the statements from the Russian Orthodox Church published in the Moscow newspapers and the statements of the Catholic leaders published in Kiev quite clearly demonstrates the religious dimensions of this dispute. Putin’s Moscow is the inheritor of the civilizing mission of Holy Mother Russia while the Catholic Church is the bulwark standing fast in the face of the Asiatic hordes.

One expects, of course, to see media bias in the Russian and Ukrainian newspapers. Bias is to be expected from newspapers that see this conflict as a battle of civilizations.

To my mind the real issue here is the silence of the Western press. They just don’t seem to get it.

So how many gay bishops are there in England?: GetReligion April 1, 2014  May 9, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Church of England, Get Religion, Human Sexuality --- The gay issue, Press criticism.
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Spinning a news story is not as easy as it seems. Too light a touch and an author fails to convince his audience of the merits of his cause. Too much can spin the ball out of the author’s control — touching upon so many issues and arguments that readers may become enamored with the “wrong” issue.

Take Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Aesthetically a beautiful film (and evil too), it fails as propaganda for any but the true believer because of its heavy hand.

(As an aside: Riefenstahl created the cinema-graphic technique of the long entrance. Hitler’s entrance to the rally builds and builds, tension and anticipation mount. The shots follow him through the bowels of the stadium and culminate in his entrance to the stage. Should you take delight in upsetting your political friends, compare the shots Riefenstahl used in Triumph of the Will to the staging of recent Democrat and Republican conventions — Bill Clinton followed Riefenstahl’s playbook almost scene by scene inside the convention halls.)

The key to good advocacy journalism, as it is in all things, is moderation. The best propaganda is subtle propaganda. Too many claims, too much hyperbole and you cheapen your story.

A line in a  piece published in the Daily Beast on gay clergy weddings for the Church of England illustrates the merits of moderation. Let me say at the outset that the story in the Daily Beast is an advocacy piece, published on an openly liberal website. As such, this is not normal GetReligion material. However, this is an opinion article cloaked in the mantle of a news story.

The tone, focus and editorial voice of the recent story “Meet the Gay Priest Getting Married” lauds the subject of the profile, a Church of England priest who has vowed to marry his gay partner despite being told such an act violated church rules.

But the plea for sympathy and support for the priest in his battle with a harsh and oppressive bureaucracy, was overshadowed by the article’s crucial claim that almost a third of the Church of England’s bishops are gay. The tabloids as well as the gayspecialty press picked up this statement and the issue de jour became hypocrisy on high — not the little guy fighting the good fight.

The Daily Beast reported:

The Church of England, which broke from the Vatican in 1534 so that Henry VIII could take a second wife, has often been celebrated for its accepting and open attitude. In fact, Cain estimated that a third of the clergy in London are gay. A clergyman, who did not wish to be named, claimed that at least 13 of the church’s 42 bishops were also gay, although they have not publicly acknowledged it. “Gay people have very often a heightened sensitivity to things of beauty and spirituality,” Cain suggested. “There are an awful lot of gay people in the church.”

Before I start on the gay bishop claim, let me say a word or two about the canard that England got a new church because Henry wanted a new wife. It didn’t quite work that way. Also, the Church of England does not see itself as having been founded in the 16th century. It is the same church that existed in those isles from the time of St Augustine of Canterbury (circa 6th century). But like the Orthodox some 400 years earlier, during the time of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I the Church of England declined to accept the universal authority of the Bishop of Rome in England.

And, the indigenous reform movement within the Church of England predated Henry’s divorce and remarriage to Ann Boleyn. Henry’s anger at the pope’s refusal to grant him an annulment (a refusal made on political grounds not theological) was the wedge political issue the English reformers were able to use to break free from the theological dictates of Rome. The English reformers were willing to disagree amongst themselves and with Rome over the theology of Eucharistic presence but were prepared to go to the stake over the issues of justification by faith, the Bible in the vernacular, the uniqueness of the death of Jesus and for the right to disagree over second order issues — the principle of adiaphora.

Once again, the frisson this article created, however, has not been over same-sex marriage and the clergy or even Henry VIII, it is the claim that a third of the Church of England’s bishops are gay.

Granted this appeared in the Daily Beast and the standards of attribution expected of traditional journalism is not the same as found in a mainstream newspaper. The expectations one would have of rigorous professionalism are not pertinent. But should it have printed this claim without further substantiation or explanation? Does not placing the claim into the mouth of an anonymous priest add to the impression that this is gossip?

The claim that 13 bishops are gay is not new. Changing Attitude, a gay advocacy group within the Church of England, has raised this issue over the years. However the definition of bishop in Changing Attitude’s tale is more expansive — it includes assistant and suffragan bishops and is not limited to diocesan bishops. In 1995 a gay rights group, Outrage! outed 10 Church of England bishops whom it claimed were gay, and demonstrators disrupted the consecration service of one of the 10, the Bishop of Durham, after he refused to come out of the closet.

The tale told by the Daily Beast about the Rev. Andrew Cain’s confrontation with his bishop was painful, and came close to being wicked. Towards the top of the article we read:

The priest, who oversees two parishes in North-West London, disclosed to The Daily Beast that he had been hauled in front of his bishop last week. Cain said he was summoned to the home of The Rt Revd Peter Wheatley, Bishop of Edmonton, along with a church human resources officer, and reprimanded for his open defiance of the ecclesiastical guidelines.

“He was offended about the fact that I was being public in my opposition to the bishops, and I said, ‘Well, actually I think you are wrong and I’m sorry but this is conscientious dissent,’” Cain said. “I’ve known him for 15 years—it was an extraordinarily awkward and difficult thing.”

Cain said the bishop tried to convince him to abandon his wedding plans and ordered him to stop criticizing the church’s position.

On the surface, this is merely a dressing down of Cain by his bishop. However, Bishop Wheatley is said to be one of the closeted 13.

The line that this was “an extraordinarily awkward and difficult thing” plunges home the knife of hypocrisy.

Which begs the questions behind this story: What is a gay man? Where does virtue lie? Is it someone who experiences same-sex attractions? Is it someone who experiences these attractions and acts upon them, but understands his actions to be sinful? Is it someone who experiences same-sex attractions, acts upon them, and believes these actions to be moral?

When questions were raised about his sexuality Wheatley told The Times he is “a celibate Christian living by Christian teachings.” If he is celibate does that make him gay?

Where do these 13 bishops whom the Daily Beast claims are gay stand? Are they celibate? Have they acted upon their sexual desires but believe that these actions are sinful and have repented? Do they believe homosexual acts are not sinful and feel free to act upon them so long as they keep quiet about it and not publicly contradict church teaching?

Precision in language is essential in these discussions about sexuality and marriage. The Daily Beast is what it is — an opinion journal. But that does not excuse it from fidelity to fact.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Is Christopher Senyonjo a gay martyr or gay icon?: GetReligion, March 30, 2014 April 25, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Church of the Province of Uganda, Get Religion, Press criticism.
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The Associated Press has a story out today on a former bishop of the Church of Uganda who has broken ranks over the issue of homosexuality.

For those who follow Anglican affairs the story of Bishop Christopher Senyonjo (also spelled Ssenyonjo) will not be new. The bishop is a frequent visitor to the United States and has spoken many times in public forums about his views on homosexuality.The AP story entitled “Despite new law, Ugandan cleric ministers to gays” breaks no new ground, but offers an updated profile of the bishop in light of the country’s new laws on homosexuality. Given the low state of knowledge about religion in Africa held by the general public and the controversy the Ugandan gay law has created I can understand the editorial thinking that went into commissioning and publishing this article.

“African church leaders are anti-gay. Several African countries, including Uganda, have adopted laws toughening sanctions against homosexual activities. Here is a bishop who is bucking the trend,” says editor A. “Go for it.”

The article does a nice job in quoting the bishop and gay activists in Uganda. It  fits into the wider Western media narrative about homosexuality also.

However, the article is not balanced in that it does not offer the voice or views of those who hold the contrary position. And it does not test the claims made by the bishop and his supporters.

Yes, the article cites a past statement on homosexuality by the head of the Anglican Church in Uganda, Archbishop Stanley Ntagali, but we hear nothing from the church about this issue or about Bishop Senyonjo.

Which is a shame really as a little digging would reveal that the narrative given about Bishop Senyonjo is a false one. The story states:

For ministering to homosexuals, Senyonjo has become estranged from Uganda’s Anglican church. He was barred from presiding over church events in 2006 when he wouldn’t stop urging his leaders to accept gays. The parish that he once led doesn’t even acknowledge his presence when he attends Sunday services there, underscoring how his career has suffered because of his tolerance for gays in a country where homosexuals —and those who accept them — face discrimination.

The bishop was not kicked out of the Anglican Church over his views on homosexuality. I concede that this is not the conventional wisdom. In December 2013Religion News Service ran a piece about Senyonjo that stated:

 

Ssenyonjo was defrocked 2002 for his ministry to gay men.

Gay specialty publications and a few mainstream news outlets have also repeated the claim that the bishop was defrocked over homosexualoity, but there are several dates floating about as to when this actually happened. The AP says 2006, RNS says 2002. As far as I can tell no one has ever looked at the documents or asked the Church of Uganda what it thinks happened.

I have.

Yes, Bishop Senyonjo is a vocal supporter of the normalization of homosexuality. I do not doubt he has said what has been reported and there is no evidence that he does not hold the views he propounds. This post is not about the bishop or his views. It is about reporting, and the reporting from RNS and the AP has been pretty poor.

The choice of topic and subject is not poor, I hasten to add. Rather an incurious Western media has not done the basic research expected in a news story — or they have egged the pudding a bit, and “sexed up” the story to make it even better.

In The Church of England Newspaper I have reported:

However, reports on the bishop’s background provided by his partisans have misstated his status, the Church of Uganda tells The Church of England Newspaper.  Claims the bishop was deposed in 2007 for his support for the gay community or his association with gay pressure groups are false, the church notes.

Bishop Ssenyonjo was deposed on Jan 17, 2007 by the Church of Uganda after he took part in the consecration as bishop of a former Anglican priest for the independent Charismatic Church of Uganda, the Ugandan provincial secretary told CEN.

“One of the co-consecrators was another deposed Uganda Bishop, the former bishop of North Mbale. He had been deposed because he took a second wife. So, Ssenyonjo was not deposed because of his association” with gay advocacy groups, the spokesman said, but for having conferred episcopal orders upon a priest in a church not in communion with the Church of Uganda.

It is true the bishop has sharply different views on the issue of homosexuality than his peers in the Church of Uganda. But the man portrayed in the West is not the man known in Uganda. My post does not attempt to resolve who the true Bishop Senyonjo is. A martyr to homophobic bigots or as his compatriots in Uganda believe, a retired bishop who once out of office found a group of wealthy Americans to bankroll him.

There is little doubt the bishop has become an icon for some in the West. But it is far from clear that he is a martyr. The truth is out there but it is not likely to be found when stories not checked.

Burn baby burn!: GetReligion, March 26, 2014 April 25, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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Outrage is a tricky thing. The worldview a reporter brings to the coverage of a story, such as loathing or disgust, will color his account of the incident. For an American tabloid or British redtop we expect bias, sensationalism and outrage — faux or genuine.

But when should a reporter for a quality, mainstream newspaper seek out sources who can debate why an act is or is not evil?

A story dated March 24, 2014 in the Daily Telegraph entitled “Aborted babies incinerated to heat UK hospitals” prompts me to ask, “what’s all the fuss about?”

The lede states:

The bodies of thousands of aborted and miscarried babies were incinerated as clinical waste, with some even used to heat hospitals, an investigation has found. Ten NHS trusts have admitted burning foetal remains alongside other rubbish while two others used the bodies in ‘waste-to-energy’ plants which generate power for heat. Last night the Department of Health issued an instant ban on the practice which health minister Dr Dan Poulter branded ‘totally unacceptable.’

The article summarizes the findings of a Channel 4 documentary produced by Dispatches entitled Exposing Hospital Heartache set for broadcast on March 24, summarizing its findings, and offering commentary from government health ministers. In addition to the Health Minister’s comment that “this practice is totally unacceptable,” we learn the NHS medical director has written to all state hospitals ending the practice. The Chief Inspector of Hospitals is quoted as saying:

I am disappointed trusts may not be informing or consulting women and their families. This breaches our standard on respecting and involving people who use services and I’m keen for Dispatches to share their evidence with us.

 

The issue then, according to the Chief Inspector of Hospitals, is one of respect.

Abortion in the UK is legal. The fetuses burned by the hospitals are not human beings according to the laws of Parliament and all right thinking people. Should not the NHS be lauded for its pioneering efforts at recycling and reducing Britain’s “carbon footprint”?

The bad act under discussion according to the chief inspector of hospitals is not the incinerating of dead babies but the disrespect shown to NHS clients — offending the sentiments of the tissue donors — or parents.

The assumption that under girds this article is that something terrible has happened, but we cannot identity the horror. Naming the evil is forbidden (by political correctness, by an earnest belief in the moral goodness of abortion, by a rejection of Judeo-Christian morality) and in its place we have outrage over poor customer service.

Is a fetus a baby? Or is it a lump of tissue? The law in Britain and the U.S. tells us that it is a lump of tissue. In the moral universe that permits such thinking the recycling of biological waste should be celebrated. For those who follow a different path, the incineration of babies to heat hospitals is but the compounding of an evil — akin to the Nazis making lampshades from the skins of murdered Jews with interesting tattoos.

Which takes us back to my opening journalistic question: How should a newspaper report on evil when its audience is sharply divided over the definition of evil?

DPA reports on the return of the Eternal Jew to Württemberg: GetReligion, March 21, 2014 April 25, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Judaism, Press criticism.
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What is legal is not always moral, a German court observed this past week, holding that an organization may dismiss an employee for conduct that the state affirms as being within the law but which the organization views as wrong.

This sort of story in an American context might generate a line or two of commentary, but little more in the wake of the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which held there was a “ministerial exception” to labor laws that forbade the state from interfering in church employment issues.

As the New York Times reported in 2012:

“The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in a decision that was surprising in both its sweep and its unanimity. “But so, too, is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry out their mission.”

The wire service agency DPA (Deutsche Presse-Agentur) reported last Friday on a similar case making its way through the German courts. In a story entitled “Kündigung von Religionslehrer wegen Bordell ist rechtens.”(Terminating a Religion Teacher over a Brothel is legal) the DPA lays out the facts of the case using an economy of words with only a modicum of comment in the lede, which states:

Schüler in Religion unterrichten und nebenbei Miete aus einem Bordell kassieren – darf das sein? Seine Arbeitgeber schmissen einen Lehrer deshalb raus. Zu recht, fand das Arbeitsgericht. Das letzte Wort ist allerdings noch nicht gesprochen.

Teach students in religion while collecting rent from a brothel – may that be? His employer threw him out. And rightly so held the Labour Court. But the last word has not been spoken.

The article reports a Hebrew School teacher employed by the Jewish Community in Baden-Baden was dismissed after an investigation into financial irregularities at the board disclosed the teacher owned two apartments which he let to a brothel. In affirming the dismissal, the court held this was:

… «einen ausreichend schweren Verstoß gegen die Loyalitätspflichten gegenüber seinem jüdischen Arbeitgeber aufgrund seiner Vorbildfunktion als Religionslehrer». Die Weiterbeschäftigung sei für den Arbeitgeber nicht zumutbar. …

(“a sufficiently serious breach of the duty of loyalty towards his Jewish employer for failing to exhibit the exemplary conduct expected of a teacher of religion.” It was not reasonable for the employer to continue his employment.)


The article  noted the man had taught at the schul for over twenty years and had cancelled the brothel lease once it had come to the notice of the Jewish community leaders. DPA reports the case is likely to be appealed.

In these days of Hobby Lobby and disputes over the Affordable Health Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare), the Baden-Baden schul case speaks to the issue of religious liberty in a European setting.

Has DPA has approached this story with a set of secularist notions — assuming its audience will understand the context and worldview being presented as its own? That is how I read this article.

Would the labor court have upheld the dismissal if the applicant had worked at a bank? Would it not have been helpful to add a line or two to say that the right to dismiss someone for lawful but immoral conduct applies to commercial enterprises as well as religious ones?

Or did the decision turn on the overtly religious nature of the man’s employment? The citation from the court’s ruling is ambiguous on this point. Is the “exemplary conduct expected of a teacher of religion” the same conduct expected of others? Or is the key phrase here “religion”? What if this man taught science at a state school? Would being the landlord of a brothel be grounds for dismissal? Fleshing out this distinction for a German, as well as an American audience would have improved the story.

And, what of the elephant in the room? Judaism and modern Germany? The conduct that led to the teacher’s dismissal is the stuff of Nazi fantasies — the evil amoral Jew who proclaimed public virtue while practicing secret vice. My mind turned to the 1940 Nazi propaganda classic Jud Süß as I read the article.

How might these actions have motivated the board in dismissing a Hebrew School teacher of twenty year’s standing? What subtext would a non-Jewish German reader read in this story? Or do I have Nazis on the brain?

This may be too much to ask of a wire service story, but the religion ghosts in this article are howling to be let loose.

Back in the USSR! Izvestia on the Crimea: GetReligion, March 20, 2014 April 24, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, Russian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox (Kiev Patriarchate), Ukrainian Orthodox (Moscow Patriarchate).
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Save for Mitt Romney, no one — in my opinion, at least — appears likely to benefit from the Anschluss in the Crimea. Not only has the annexation of the Crimea by Russia been a blow to the Ukraine, it has underscored the fecklessness of the EU and President Obama while also pointing to the structural weakness of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

And it is really, really bad news for the Russian Orthodox Church.

Bet that line caught you by surprise. When the crisis in the Ukraine first arose, GetReligion chided western newspapers for omitting the religion angle to the conflict. The press eventually caught up to what most Ukrainians knew about the interplay of religion, politics and ethnicity, but only after pictures of Orthodox and Catholic clergy acting as human shields to halt clashes between police and protesters in the Maidan (Independence Square) in Kiev flashed round the world via the wire services.

And when monks from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) opened their cathedral near the Maidan to the wounded, turning the church into an unofficial headquarters for the anti-Moscow protestors, even the Western press took notice.

The religion angle of the unraveling of the Ukraine continues to be under reported in the West, but it is emerging in reports out of Eastern Europe. Last week Izvestia reported that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) would not turn over its parishes in the Crimea to the Russian Orthodox Church now that the Crimea is once more part of Russia.

But before we dive into this article let’s say a few words about Izvestia. In the bad old days (good old days), from 1917 to 1991 Izvestia (which means Reports in English) was the official newspaper of record of the Presidium — the Soviet Government. Its formal title was Reports of Soviets of Peoples’ Deputies of the USSR. Pravda was the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union Izvestia was privatized but then purchased by oligarchs close to the regime. While not an official government organ, it does represent the views and voices of Putin’s regime.

Reading Izvestia and Pravda in the olden days was an art form — part astrology part psychoanalysis. There was always some truth to be found and for those with an eye and ear for the nuances of the regime Izvestia was a pretty good guide to what the people at the top believed to be true or were debating amongst themselves. (Which is not the same thing as truth itself, but I digress).

The paper still performs this role to a lesser extent. I make no claims of expertise in the intricacies of palace politics in Putin’s Russia, keeping track of the Byzantine ways of the Anglican Communion is a full time job for me, and it may well be this piece inIzvestia is a straight news story. Or does it reveal a discussion taking place within the Kremlim?

Patheos will not let me use Cyrillic script on this page, preventing me from pulling the direct lines from the story. But in a nutshell, the article says Patriarch Philaret of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) will seek to register its dioceses in the Crimea with Moscow as religious entities separate from the Moscow Patriarchate. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) — the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches located in the Ukraine and under the ecclesiastical authority of Moscow — told Izvestia that they had not decided whether to move from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (MP) to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Izvestia further states:

Archpriest Vladimir Vigilyansky of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate told Izvestia that the church has traditionally favored retaining canonical boundaries.

“Of course, the final decision on the results of the negotiations will be announced by the Russian Orthodox Church’s diplomatic department. The basis of our principles has always been such that the canonical territory [of churches] should not be changed. It should remain a sovereign entity and must always uphold the principle of not changing,” said Vigilyansky. “The Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is composed of 15 countries. “We are defending the canonical territory of all the local churches.”

After Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Russian Orthodox Church still considers these lands canonical territory of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

Now what does this all mean? Following Putin’s annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia, the Russian Orthodox Church declined to accept these regions under its authority, preferring they stay under the Georgian Orthodox Church. With Russia annexing parts of the Ukraine the question now arises what to do with the Orthodox Churches there?

If Moscow picks up the Crimean churches, they are likely to loose control over the churches under their oversight in the Ukraine proper in a nationalist backlash. At the start of the demonstrations Metropolitan Philaret wrapped the Kiev Patriarchate in the mantle of Ukrainian nationalism. And if the Moscow Patriarchate follows the Kremlin’s lead it would lose the support of its Ukrainians. But if it does not go along with Putin, it will alienate Russian nationalists, who will see their church acting against the interests of Holy Mother Russia.

Writing at the blog Portal-Credo.ru, Kseniya Doroshenko argued Putin has placed Patriarch Cyril of the Russian Orthodox Church in a “hopeless position” making the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from Moscow “inevitable”.

What we hear if we listen closely to Izvestia is the suggestion that there will be consequences to Putin’s putsch. He may pick up the Crimea but by doing so will harm Russia’s historic roll as defender of the Slavs and will weaken one of his strongest allies — the Russian Orthodox Church.

I will be the first to admit that this is Get Religion’s version of ecclesiastical Kremlinology. But for those who truly wish to understand what is transpiring east of the Vistula they need be aware of the tremendous religio-political undercurrents that are close to the surface of the Ukraine conflict.

AP sees the Catholic abuse scandal everywhere: GetReligion, March 15, 2014 April 24, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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The news of the election of Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki of Poznan as president of the Polish Catholic Bishops’ Conference has me scratching my head and asking myself “What were they thinking?”

I have nothing against Archbishop Gadecki. In fact I know little about the man. And after reading the story from the Associated Press you dear reader will know even less. The rolling of eyes and gnashing of teeth (it didn’t reach the rending of garments level of distress) I experienced came not with the archbishop but the AP.

I have seldom seen such a poor job of reporting as found in the AP story whose headline in the Buffalo News read: “Poland’s Catholic bishops pick new leader Gadecki”.

While there are no major errors of fact in this story — the man’s name was spelled correctly, he is a Catholic archbishop, and was elected to lead the Polish Episcopal Conference — you might be excused in thinking this was another story about the clergy abuse scandal.

The opportunities to make mistakes in a four paragraph story are limited. Yet in a story ostensibly about the election of Archbishop Gadecki to lead the Polish church, his name is not mentioned until the third of four paragraphs, while we get pedophilia in the opening and the close.

Here is the lede:

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland’s Roman Catholic bishops have elected a new leader to succeed Archbishop Jozef Michalik, who angered many with 2013 comments that suggested victims of pedophilia were partly to blame.

The news of the election of a new archbishop is contained in clause one, but the real story is the departure of Archbishop Michalik from office. The AP is using its editorial voice to set the tone for the story. And what we are told is the archbishop was an insensitive lout who said stupid things about the clergy abuse scandal.

The AP doubles down in the second paragraph …

Wednesday’s vote was unconnected to the controversy over Michalik, who had served 10 years — the maximum permitted — as leader of the Polish Episcopal Conference. He remains archbishop in the southeast Polish diocese of Przemysl.

… where the “don’t let the door hit you on the way out” theme is strengthened. In paragraph three we read:

Catholic commentators welcomed the election of Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, a conservative but conciliatory figure based in the western city of Poznan. Gadecki previously was deputy leader of the bishops conference.

But this amount of space devoted to Gadecki seems a bit too much for the AP as we are back to Michalik in the close.

In October, Michalik told reporters that children of divorced parents were more likely to suffer sexual abuse because they may seek “closeness with others” and encourage sexual contact. Michalik denied he meant this.

Tell me again, what was this story about? Was it a report on the election of a new leader for Poland’s Catholics? The title and the opening clause of the first sentence might suggest this to be true. Or was this article about the departure of Michalik, tainted by the ordure of the abuse scandal?

One can see the questionable news judgment the AP displayed when you compare this piece to the article on Radio Poland‘s English-language service webpage. It’s lede stated:

Archbishop of Poznan Stanislaw Gadecki was elected to the post on Wednesday afternoon, after predecessor Archbishop Jozef Michalik completed the second of a maximum two terms. “I am shaken in the face of this responsibility, which moves me from a diocesan level to a nationwide one,” Archbishop Gadecki told reporters following the election.

“The situation of the Catholic Church in Poland today is very delicate, but I will not lose courage,” he said.

This story discussed the Catholic Church’s troubles in Poland, but also lets us know a bit about Gadecki.

Commentators in the Polish press emphasized in the lead-up to the election that Archbishop Gadecki belonged neither to the circle of the conservative private station Radio Maryja, nor to the liberal faction within the Church.

And if you turn to the Polish press you can read the real story of the significance of Gadecki’s election. According to journalist Dominika Wielowieyska writing in the liberal Gazeta Wyborcza Gadecki is the right man for the Catholic Church as he will pull the bishops back from politics.

I am particularly pleased that Gadecki criticized the bishops for becoming active in political parties – especially in the PiS. (Conservative opposition party) That is already a step forward. The departing chairman Jósef Michalik once voiced the strange opinion that he didn’t see such meddling as a problem. The new chairman, by contrast, also no longer backs Radio Maryja, which makes no bones about its support for the PiS.

There is a story in the Gadecki election that I believe Western readers would find of interest in light of the American Catholic bishops recent forays into the political arena. But the AP is the news service that time forgot. They write as if a Catholic story must include references to the abuse scandal, no matter if the space given to this issue crowds out the story being covered.

This is what is called hack work. Somebody was paid to knock this story out for the AP, who then passed it on to their subscribers without giving it proper editorial scrutiny. The AP and the author made a few bucks, the readers and truth were left the poorer for this story.

Propaganda vs. journalism in PBS Catholic abuse coverage: GetReligion, March 12, 2014 April 24, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Abuse, Get Religion, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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Good Episcopalian that I am, I am ready to believe the worst about the Catholic Church.

Perhaps it was my upbringing, the culture in which I was formed, the schools where I was educated, my crowd. But accusations hurled against the Catholic Church of corruption, cruelty, mendacity — of being downright un-American –stick in the back of my mind. “Why not?”

I was also reared in Philadelphia and as a boy worshiped at the altar of the Eagles and Phillies. Longing and loss then were taught to me early on, as was support for the underdog.

Yet as much as I enjoy watching a good thrashing of the Vatican, I also am troubled by unfairness, foul play and sneakiness.

Which brings me to the documentary broadcast by PBS’s Frontline show entitled “Secrets of the Vatican“. This is an extraordinary film. It is beautifully made. I would not hesitate to say that the camera work, the musical scoring, the editing, and the writing are exquisite. Documentary film making does not get any better.

And yet, “Secrets of the Vatican” is also vile. Repulsive in that art and the extraordinary talent of its creators are put to malign purposes. It is propaganda — a film crafted to make arguments rather than to speak the truth.

At this point I must stop and respond to the cries of two competing choruses. My opening remarks about my own anti-Catholic bigotry are hyperbole designed to introduced the topic of bias. Nor am I claiming “Secrets of the Vatican” has suborned perjury from those whom it has presented on film.

It is, however, exaggerated, unbalanced, and seeks to inflame rather than inform. I do not expect a plaintiff’s attorney who specializes in clergy sexual abuse cases to present both sides of an argument in the documentary, but I would expect a film maker to do so, giving voice to the opposing side.

Catholic commentators have excoriated the film, accusing it of rehashing old stories and telling only half the tale. The popular conservative blogger Fr. Z wrote:

 The objectives of the show are to pin all responsibility for every case of clerical sexual abuse not just on local authorities but on “the Vatican”, to detach sexual abuse from homosexuality, to undermine a celibate clergy, and to convince you that there are more homosexual priests than there really are.  Finally, Pope Francis is the most wonderfullest Pope ehvurrr.

Let’s look at one vignette from the film — the claim that Catholic clergy are more likely to be child molesters than non-Catholic clergy — that illustrates my disquiet.

Frontline interviewed Dr. Martin Kafka, a Harvard University psychiatrist who has studied this issue. Kafka made the claim:

The number of Catholic clergy who are accused of or prosecuted for child and adolescent sexual abuse vastly outnumber the number of Protestant clergy.

Taken in isolation this statement could be construed to mean that reports of child abuse by Catholic clergy “vastly outnumber” reports of child abuse by Protestant clergy. That would be a statistic compiled by the FBI that would speak to reports of abuse.

However, in light of the surrounding comments, images and testimony offered by the film, the implication of Dr. Kafka’s statement is that Catholic clergy are more likely to offend than non-Catholic clergy.

 

The link comes in through the discussion of repressed sexuality and the film’s advocacy for allowing Catholic clergy to marry.

As a religion reporter I have covered the clergy abuse scandals for over a decade, but my reporting has focused on the Episcopal and Anglican churches. The Church of England, the Episcopal Church in the US, and the Anglican churches in Australia and Canada have seen their fair share of abuse cases. The scandal even touched the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church who received into the priesthood of the Episcopal Church in Nevada a laicized Catholic priest who had been disciplined for abusing children while he was a choirmaster in Missouri and Minnesota — but did not tell the parish in Las Vegas where he had been assigned about his past.

But there has never been any evidence or study that I have read that substantiates claims that Catholic clergy are more likely to offend than Protestant clergy.

The Denver Post‘s Electa Draper addressed this issue in 2010 — and I have seen nothing that would challenge her reporting.

Draper states that while no studies comparing the rate of abuse between different denominations and faiths has been made that would substantiate the claim that Catholics are more likely to offend, the insurance companies who insure churches against abuse claims do not charge Catholics higher premiums than Protestants.

Wisconsin-based Church Mutual Insurance Co. has 100,000 client churches and has seen a steady filing of about five sexual molestation cases a week for more than a decade, even though its client base has grown. “It would be incorrect to call it a Catholic problem,” said Church Mutual’s risk control manager, Rick Schaber. “We do not see one denomination above another. It’s equal. It’s also equal among large metropolitan churches and small rural churches.”

Iowa-based Guide One Center for Risk Management, which insures more than 40,000 congregations, also said Catholic churches are not considered a greater risk or charged higher premiums. “Our claims experience shows this happens evenly across denominations,” said spokeswoman Melanie Stonewall.

She also reports that the:

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children President Ernie Allen said his organization has received more than 825,000 reports of child abuse and does not see any statistical indication the Catholic Church has a greater prevalence of cases than any other setting — after accounting for the size of the church, the largest Christian denomination in the U.S. and the world.

“There is a common denominator among those who abuse children,” Allen said. “They seek out situations where they have easy access and cover. It should surprise nobody that an abuser is a teacher, coach, youth leader, pediatrician, minister, priest or rabbi.”

This is what we call reporting. What we see in “Secrets of the Vatican” is called propaganda.

No Popery please, we’re British: GetReligion, March 10, 2014  April 24, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Anglican Church of Aotearoa New Zealand & Polynesia, Get Religion, Press criticism.
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From way down under, the North Island of New Zealand to be precise, comes a charming example of how to botch a story on the Anglican Communion.

Reporters please note … while they may dress alike and their liturgy may sound alike, and they even have similar job titles … the Anglican Communion is not an English speaking version of the Catholic Church.

Sure there are Anglicans who prattle on about being Catholic and take umbrage at the suggestion they are Protestants — the three branches theory is usually trotted out at this time (which in a nutshell means there are three historic churches Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox and the rest are sects of recent origin.) Nonsense on stilts in my opinion, but I don’t want to be too cranky this early in the week, so I will stick to journalism.

The Fairfax newspaper chain in New Zealand published a story about the visit of the Archbishop of York to New Plymouth. The lede ran:

The second most powerful ranked person in the Anglican Church is supporting the move to have female bishops consecrated in the Church of England. The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, spoke in New Plymouth of his long-term support for the law change yesterday.

It was time for the controversy to be over so the Church of England could concentrate on its most pressing issue, that of poverty, he said. “I’m hoping we can get [the legislation] through and then move on to what we have committed ourselves to be doing. That must be the area that we must concentrate on most, dealing with the poor.”

Well, at least the reporter had her Times of London style book out and had the man’s name right. In the church press the first mention of the archbishop’s name would be “the Most Rev. John Sentamu”. Subsequent mentions would be “Dr. Sentamu”. The “Dr.” appelation is standard practice save for when an Anglican bishop prefers to be called bishop or archbishop instead. The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, prefers “Bishop Jefferts Schori” over “Dr. Jefferts Schori.”

The Times and other British publications would use the “Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu” style. Note the “the” is not capitalized. That is reserved for “The Queen” and other top royals. The “American style books also differ from their English cousins in the non-capitalization of “archbishop”. The New York Times or the AP would have styled him “archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu.”

A recent style error that has crept into the press in recent years is the combination of academic and clerical titles. One sees this sort of things even in diocesan press statements; “Canon Dr.” or “Bishop Dr.”. Whether this is done through ignorance (my guess), vanity (common enough amongst clergy) or an attempt to follow the German styling (Herr Prof. Dr. Dr. Schmidt) is hard to tell.

While I’m at it, the other modern affectations that drive me batty are adding a cross after the name of a cleric and referring to someone with their clergy title and first name. Fr Ted may work for television but it is an Irish diminutive that has taken root in recent years  amongst clergy across the English speaking world. Whenever I see references to “Bishop Tim” I think not of the man’s attempt to be as one with the people, but of the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail with Tim the Enchanter.

What was meant to be silly in the 1970s is now taken as a sign of street credibility.

Yes, I know that the Orthodox have long called their clerics by title and first name — but that tradition is quite distinct from the current fad in the Anglosphere. These prelates do not drop their last names, but trot out the first only when they want to be seen as being authentic.

But let’s head back down under and look at this lede. It has the name correct, but messes up the rest. Dr. Sentamu is not the “second most powerful ranked person in the Anglican Church.”

There are quite a few bishops in my experience who are bigger, stronger and faster than John Sentamu. Is there a Gladiators spin off for bishops I have missed on cable television? Perhaps on EWTN?

If the reporter is not referring to Dr. Sentamu’s physical prowess but to his authority within the Anglican Communion, this too is incorrect.

There is no pope in the Anglican world. The Archbishop of Canterbury (archbishop of Canterbury for you NYT purists) is first among equals. But who are his equals? Answer: the other 37 prelates who lead the independent provinces of the Anglican Communion.

The Archbishop of York leads the Province of York within the Church of England, one of two internal provinces (the other is Canterbury led by, you guessed it, the Archbishop of Canterbury.) The Archbishop of Canterbury is Primate of All England and one of 38 primates in the Anglican world.

If you want to rank Dr. Sentamu, who is Primate of England (note the missing “All”) he would then be number 39 — yet there are also archbishops who like Dr. Sentamu who are not primates but lead provinces within the 38 national churches. There are archbishops in West Africa, Australia and Nigeria who lead larger provinces (in terms of numbers of adherents) than the Archbishop of York — and in New Zealand there are three archbishops (who confusingly are co-primates of that church, but only one shows up to the meetings of all 38).

Dr. Sentamu is not a member of an Anglican curia–there is not one–and has no jurisdiction outside the North of England. It is incorrect to style him as the number two man in the church.

Further down the story, we see some more problems of substance.

The archbishop was visiting New Plymouth again this weekend to attend the official welcome to the 7th Bishop of Waikato and Taranaki, the Right Reverend Dr Helen-Ann Hartley.

Bishop Hartley, consecrated two weeks ago, is the first woman ordained in the Church of England before moving to New Zealand. She becomes the third woman in this country to become a bishop.

Not quite. Bishop Hartley (or Dr. Hartley) is not the “first woman ordained in the Church of England”. What I think the newspaper meant to say is that she is first Englishwoman to be consecrated as a bishop. The Church of England at present does not ordain women to the episcopate while New Zealand does. Dr. Hartley was ordained to the priesthood in the Church of England but moved to New Zealand where she was elected a bishop.

Now all of this is not of life changing importance, but when you use Catholic constructs of hierarchy to describe the workings of the Anglican Churches you are making a category mistake that misconstrues at its deepest level the ecclesiology of the two churches.

Don’t do it. Please, just don’t.

Carry on and Keep quiet when reporting on religion in China: GetReligion, March 9, 2014  April 24, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, Terrorism.
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“Why does the press soft pedal links between terrorism and Islam?” was the question under discussion in this week’s edition of Crossroads, a Get Religion podcast produced in conjunction with Lutheran Public Radio’s Issues Etc host Todd Wilken.

“I don’t know why, but it does” — pretty well sums up the show. Last week’s Kunming terror attack, which left 29 dead and almost 150 injured, was our point of entry into the debate. In the media coverage of the Kunming incident I argued it was possible to see two divergent themes. Chinese press outlets were quick to label the incident as a terrorist attack. State officials were quoted describing the attack as terrorism, while eyewitness accounts called the knife-wielding assailants as terrorists. Yet the hand of government censorship could be seen in the Chinese press accounts as no mention was made of religion or politics.

Several Western press outlets were squeamish about using the word terrorism to describe the attack — placing it in quotes or allowing it to appear only in the words of Chinese government officials. However, the Western press did shine a light (though rather dimly) on areas the Chinese government sought to keep dark. They identified the attackers as members of the Uighar minority group from Northwest China and noted the on-going ethnic tension in that part of the country between the Uighars and Han Chinese. The Western press was not as one in reporting on the Muslim faith of the Uighars. Some outlets like the New York Times mentioned Islam at the top of their stories. The Associated Press placed it in the middle of their story. CNN in the last paragraph, while the Telegraph made no mention of it at all.

The Chinese government’s silence about religious strife I observed was predictable as it reflected a long standing policy of state control/accommodation of the major religious faiths in support of the Communist Party’s official goal of promoting a harmonioussociety.

The silence about Islam and terrorism from the Western press I could not readily explain without resorting to facile nostrums of political correctness or ignorance. The specialist literature has noted the links between radical Islam and Uighar separatism, while the first day reports in the Western press described the unusual killing style adopted by the terrorists — using knives and swords they attempted to strike at the necks of their victims to decapitate them (a hallmark of Islamic terrorism).

 

Western reporting from China is a delicate business. If you look too closely into some corners you will lose your visa and have to leave the country. Though I have never reported from China I know several members of the trade who have. One conversation I had several years ago focused on the relative silence about the role of religion in Chinese life found in Western press reports. Save for the occasional specialist stories about the House Church movement, we did not hear much about religion. Was China like Japan, I asked? A country where religion plays a much smaller role in civic life than in the US?

The answer I received (admittedly given whilst chatting in an airport bar in Africa, an environment not calculated for the deepest ruminations on the craft of reporting and religion I admit) was that it was a mug’s game to try to work in the religion angle in stories from China. You were likely to displease your hosts jeopardizing your access to sources (and even the country itself) while your editors in London were uninterested in the religion angle anyway. Why go to all that bother? Stick to politics, economics — be bold about corruption but don’t pick a fight in a battle you were not likely to win — was the sage advice I received.

Over the past ten years the internet has changed the mechanics of reporting in ways I could not have predicted. Maybe the old ways of the Fleet Street hack have passed into oblivion. Perhaps, but in the Kunming affair my sense of the story is that disinterest from the Western press and hostility from the Chinese government have closed a profitable avenue of investigation. Self-censorship is not always a deliberate act.

Silence about terrorism and Islam in the Kunming attack: GetReligion, March 5, 2014  April 24, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Islam, Press criticism, Terrorism.
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What was it about the murder of 29 men, women and children on Saturday at the Kunming train station that does not qualify make it an act of terrorism? And why is the press so shy about connecting the dots on this incident to the wider campaign being waged by Islamist terrorists? Can the word terrorism no longer be used in polite company?

The first news story I saw came from the state-run Xinhua News Agency which announced that on the night of March 1, 2014 a gang invaded the central waiting room of the Kunming train station in China’s Yunnan province. Armed with knives the attackers attacked people waiting for their trains and police officers, killing 28 and in jured 113 (the numbers were later revised to 29 dead and 143 wounded.)

Police shot five of the assailants dead. The identity of the attackers was not given, but the incident was described as:

an organized, premeditated violent terrorist attack, according to the authorities.

The report stated the killers were dressed in black and attacked their victims with knives. Xinhua was able to quote eye witness accounts of the attack. saying:

Chen Guizhen, a 50-year-old woman, told Xinhua at the hospital that her husband Xiong Wenguang, 59, was killed in the attack. “Why are the terrorists so cruel? ” moaned Chen, holding her husband’s ID card in blood with her trembling hands.

So we have a group of black clad knife welding assailants rushing into a busy urban train station and randomly maiming and killing 172 people. The government describes it as a terrorist act and a witness calls the attackers terrorists. Let me go out on a limb and say the attackers were likely to have been terrorists.

Xinhua did not identify who the attackers were, but at the close of their story recounted two recent terrorist attacks. While not naming names, Xinhua implied the attack was the work of militants from northwest China’s Xinjiang province — the Muslim Uighar people.

In the first press reports many western news outlets were reticent in describing the attack as terrorism, or they placed the word “terrorist” or “terrorism” in quotes either in the title or in the body of the story.

The New York Times report described the attack in terms usually reserved for a clash between groups. A “group of assailants wielding knives stormed into a railway station” and proceeded to kill and injure scores of travelers. The NY Times identifies the “assailants” as Uighars, citing local government sources, and states:

The attack, in Yunnan Province, was far from Xinjiang, and if carried out by members of the largely Muslim Uighur minority could imply that the volatile tensions between them and the government might be spilling beyond that restive region.

But the language of the story shifts. “The violence erupted …”;  “the attack would be the worst …”; “The latest attack appears …”; “After the slashing attack, President Xi Jinping of China said …” — why the reticence in using the word terror, terrorism, terrorist?

CNN was equally shy,writing:

Members of a separatist group from Xinjiang, in northwest China, are believed to have carried out the assault, authorities said. The report referred to them as “terrorists.”

The mention of Islam is pushed to the last paragraph of the story while CNN plays the trick of having the Chinese government use the word terrorist.

The circumlocutions were such that the People’s Daily — the official Chinese Communist Party newspaper — denounced Western news reports as biased for failing to describe the attack as an act of terrorism.

The international community strongly condemned this cruel attack, but the coverage of the incident by a few Western media organizations, including CNN, Associated Press, The New York Times, and the Washington Post was dishonest and appeared to be directed by ulterior motives. Emanating from such loud advocates of “the fight against terrorism”, the coverage was insulting and has led to widespread resentment in China.

There was extensive evidence at the crime scene to leave no doubt that the Kunming Railway station attack was nothing other than a violent terrorist crime. But regardless of this evidence, some western media organizations were unwilling to use the word “terrorism” in their coverage. CNN’s report on March 3 put the word “terrorists” in quotation marks, and offered the view that “mass knife attacks” are “not unprecedented” in China. The intention here was to associate this terrorist incident with a number of attacks that occurred in 2010 and 2012, all the more disgusting because these attacks happened at schools, they were conducted by individuals who were clearly mentally disturbed, and their victims were children. None of the perpetrators had any political connections, or any political motives. The Associated Press report used the term “described by the authorities as” to qualify their use of the word “terrorists”. The New York Times and the Washington Post called the terrorists “attackers”.

The People’s Daily article is not above reproach, however. It ignores the religious aspect of the attack and argues that the relations between the majority Han Chinese and minority Uighars are good.

In their depictions of the background to the attack, CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post all ignored the significant social progress that has been made in Xinjing, instead focusing on the problem of “relations between China’s ethnic groups”

Making an editorial decision to omit the t-word by Western press agencies has stirred up the Chinese government. But where is the religion ghost? Is the demographic fact that most Uighars are Muslims sufficient to start the Islamist terrorist theme for this story? No, that is not enough.

However there is evidence of an Islamist terror connection based on how the attack unfolded that many religion reporters would have picked up from the eyewitness accounts. The first day report from the Associated Press reported that one witness saw one of the killers slash at the neck of one victim. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported:

A 20-year-old university student, Wu Yuheng, says the attackers tried to target people’s heads. One had swiped his long knife and just nicked him on the scalp.

“I was terrified … they attacked us like crazy swordsmen, and mostly they went for the head and the shoulders, those parts of the body to kill,” he said, lying on a hospital bed.

In the Spring 2005 issue of the Middle East Quarterly Timothy Furnish published an article entitled “Beheading in the name of Islam”.

Decapitation has become the latest fashion. In many ways, it sends terrorism back to the future. Unlike hijackings and car bombs, ritual beheading has a long precedent in Islamic theology and history.

Furnish argues that decapitation is one of the hallmarks of modern Islamist terrorism. In investigating these attacks, should not reporters have pushed this envelope? In all of the press reports I have read I have not seen any questions about what the killers said when they were on the rampage. Where they silent? Where they screaming unintelligible words? Were they shouting “Allahu Akbar”?

Asking whether the past actions of separatist extremist groups with suspected links to militant Islam and the unique way in which this attack was carried out point to a religion motivation in the attacks?

Perhaps that is asking too much. If the Western press is uncomfortable describing such attacks as terrorism, how can they even begin to be even less politically incorrect and look to the links to militant Islam?

Kasper family values: GetReligion, February 28, 2014  April 11, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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In a break with 1500 years of tradition a leading Vatican official announced that Catholics should now read the Bible. In an address to a gathering of prelates in Rome last week Cardinal Walter Kasper conceded Scripture might play a role in developing church doctrine. The confession came amidst internal debates over ending the automatic excommunication and damnation of divorced and remarried Catholics — a practice polling data found not to be relevant to most Catholics. The change, experts say, was an admission that the Catholic Church had been out of touch with modern thinking on sexuality — and most other important issues — for centuries.

No, this was not the lede of the Associated Press’ story entitled “Cardinals delve into divorce-remarriage debate”, but the AP did tack very close to the wind with this story on Cardinal Walter Kasper’s address to an extraordinary consistory for the family attended by approximately 150 members of the college of cardinals. The topic of Cardinal Kasper’s address , which was not released to the public, was on the church’s pastoral sacramental support for divorced and remarried Catholics.

The story comes close to hyperbole in its statements about the place of Scripture in the life of the Catholic Church, while also repeating the now rather tired bad Benedict / good Frances (or Walter Kasper) theme.

The tone of the lede sets the direction for the remainder of the story. The “liberal” Catholics are praised while “conservatives” are rubbished.

Cardinals from around the world delved head-on Thursday into one of the most vexing issues facing the church, how to find ways to provide better pastoral care for divorced and remarried Catholics who are forbidden from receiving Communion and other church sacraments. German Cardinal Walter Kasper, a pre-eminent theologian who has called for “openings and changes” in dealing with these Catholics, delivered a two-hour keynote speech to the two-day meeting, which is serving as preparation for an October summit of bishops on family issues.

What does pre-eminent mean? Eminent over whom? Is the point of comparison is the conservative Pope Benedict XVI — the one whose policies call for “openings and changes”?

And, is it correct to say that divorced and remarried Catholics are “forbidden from receiving Communion and other church sacraments?”  The AP doubles down on its assertion in the next paragraph.

Church teaching holds that unless the first marriage is annulled, or declared null and void by a church tribunal, Catholics who remarry cannot receive Communion or other sacraments because they are essentially living in sin and committing adultery. Such annulments are often impossible to get or can take years to process, a problem that has left generations of Catholics feeling shunned from their church.

Again the tone is needlessly harsh. It is correct to say that divorced and remarried Catholics may participate in the worship service of the Eucharist, but not receive.

Other sanctions include being allowed to participate in communal celebrations of Reconciliation and, visit privately with a priest in Confession but not receive absolution. They may serve as an official witness at a Catholic marriage, but not as a catechist, teacher, Godparent or Confirmation sponsor.

However, they may celebrate the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick when in danger of death and have a Catholic funeral and be buried in a Catholic cemetery, have their children baptized and enrolled in Catholic school or religious education program participate in the public spiritual and social life of the parish, but not serve in public ministries or leadership positions. The ban is not universal as the AP suggests — but it is none the less strong.

The article then shifts into the bad Benedict / good Francis mode, adding Walter Kasper to the good team. It states:

Kasper frequently cited the Bible as a source of inspiration in a signal, almost Protestant in nature, that the answer to the problem lay in scripture. He told reporters that Francis had asked him to pose questions to the 150 cardinals to begin a debate on the issue.

This could have come from the Protestant anti-Catholic song book. Catholicism is not Biblical and Catholics are ignorant mackerel snapping left footers. Their teachings float free from Scripture. Which is of course all rather silly.

It is true Scripture plays a greater role in the life of the Protestant churches than the Catholic Church, but the AP’s almost Protestant jib is unfair and unprofessional as it does not explain the role of Scripture in the development of doctrine or in the liturgy of the church. While the Protestant churches have from the beginning encouraged its members to study Scripture and its scholars dominated the field of Scriptural interpretation for centuries that changed after 1943 when Pope Pius XII issued the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu. This not only allowed Catholics to study Scripture, it encouraged them to do so. It is fair to say the Catholic Church has changed its attitude towards the study of Scripture over the last century, but the AP goes too far when it suggests that it now has discovered Scripture as a source for doctrine.

There was an opportunity here for the AP to tell a fascinating story about an issue close to the hearts of many Catholics. But it chose not to.

First printed at GetReligion.

Sausage making and news reporting on Zanzibar: GetReligion, February 27, 2014 April 11, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Anglican Church of Tanzania, Get Religion, Press criticism, Terrorism.
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Otto von Bismark’s reputed maxim: “Laws are like sausages — it is best not to see them being made …” could be applied to the crafting of a news story.

Most readers do not concern themselves with how a story came to be and accept the finished product of a news story as “the story.” In the age of the internet and declining standards and budgets for the once great news outlets this is not always a wise move.

Now approaching everything one reads with absolute skepticism is a tedious business. There will always be cranks who see the hidden hands of Freemasons, international Jewry or the vast right wing conspiracy lurking behind the text. Readers must balance their skepticism against the trust they have in the publication or author.

If Walter Cronkite said it, it had to be true. If it appears in the National Enquirer it has to be false.

But as history has shown us, the icons of of good and bad journalism, like the sayings everyone knows to be true because we’ve heard them so often, are not always so.Walter Cronkite in his broadcast of Feb 27, 1968 was wrong about the Tet Offensive, the National Enquirer was right about John Edwards in 2007, and Otto von Bismarknever said anything about laws and sausages.

These musings were prompted by a story in the Washington Post from the Religion News Service entitled “Bombs explode Zanzibar calm as religious tensions flare” where RNS bungles the lede.

In the classical Anglo-American style of reporting the lede sentence is where the voice of the author is heard. The lede lays down the tracks that sets the destination for the news train that follows. My instructors in the craft likened the process to organizing a goods train. While the lede gives the destination and names the passengers and freight, the paragraphs that follow are akin to freight cars — each with its own cargo.

Opinions are welcome, but they should be from identifiable third parties, as is analysis, but it should be identified as such. This differs from advocacy reporting where facts are interspersed with opinion throughout a story in order to convince the reader of the merits of the writer’s view.

The RNS story begins:

After months of calm in Zanzibar, two homemade bombs exploded Monday (Feb. 24) near St. Monica Anglican Cathedral and the Mercury restaurant, a popular hangout for tourists visiting the Indian Ocean archipelago.

No one was hurt, but one day earlier, four people were injured in another explosion, targeting an Assemblies of God church.

The article then proceeds to lay out the name of the suspected attackers, offer a comment from the Anglican bishop of the island, and then provide background on past attacks by Islamic militants on Christians and tourists in Zanzibar. These paragraphs are fine, but the lede I find problematic.

A disclaimer — I have visited the cathedral in Zanzibar and know its dean (the priest in charge). This having been said, the name of the cathedral is Christ Church Cathedral. St. Monica’s is the hostel next to the cathedral.

The dean emailed me shortly after the blast with news of the attack stating the bombs exploded at the entrance to the cathedral compound. In 2012 St Monica’s was damaged by a mob of Islamic militants — but this time round it was the cathedral that was attacked.

It might well be the case that the bishop quoted in the article said St Monica’s had been damaged in the blast and this was interpreted by the reporter to mean the cathedral. This is not a fatal error.

What concerns me more, however, is the opening phrase “after months of calm”. The article appears to contradict this assertion by noting an Assemblies of God church was attacked earlier in the week. But if the author means to imply that this attack came out of the blue — and broke a tranquility of the island, then he is seriously misinformed.

There has been an on-going campaign of aggression against native Christians in Zanzibar waged by the Islamic terror group named in the article. Western news sources pick up reports of European tourists, Catholic priests and Anglican cathedrals being attacked, but the harassment of the Christian minority is a daily fact of life.

Setting the direction of the story by implying the bombing of Christ Church Cathedral was an aberration that broke “months of calm” creates a false framework. While this is a wire service story and there is only so much context that can be given — it would have helped explain the story by noting there will be a referendum in April in Zanzibar on Tanzania’s new constitution. The militants want Zanzibar to secede from Tanzania and establish the island as an Islamic republic.

The story would have been improved had RNS tied the political to the religious aspects of this story.

Sausage making photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

First published at GetReligion.

Breivik the liar: GetReligion, February 23, 2014 April 11, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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The news that Anders Behring Breivik has written a letter to the Norwegian media stating his protestations of Christian faith, pro-Israel opinions and anti-Nazi convictions were a calculated lie has left me stunned.

Breivik now says his manifesto and early statements were a bluff designed to focus public and media outrage on Christians, Jews and conservatives by tainting them with his actions. His early denials of being a racist or hyper-nationalist were false, Breivik writes. He lied in order to protect the good name of the neo-Nazi movement (Yes, I find that to be incredible on several levels, but that is what he said.)

What is one to believe? It is easy to dismiss this latest prison epistle as the ravings of a madman. Save that he is not mad (according to psychiatrists). Does being merely evil make them less credible?

On July 22, 2011 the 32-year old Norwegian detonated a bomb outside an Oslo government building killing eight and then proceeded to shoot to death 69 people,  mostly teenagers, attending a Worker’s Youth League (AUF) camp on the Island of Utøya. The Oslo District Court rejected Breivik’s insanity defense and on August 24, 2012, found him guilty of murdering 77 people. He was sentenced to 21 years imprisonment, but is likely to serve a life term as he can only be released if the courts determine he is no longer a danger to society.

The narrative adopted by many press outlets was to label Breivik a “Christian fundamentalist” terrorist. My colleagues at GetReligion: Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, Terry Mattingly and Arne Fjeldsted questioned this conventional wisdom. And their concerns about the snap judgments made by many news outlets about Breivik have been proven prescient.

In her piece “The Atlantic has this terrorist all figured out” Mollie noted the welter of confusing claims and statements from the shooter, but questioned The Atlantic for its dogmatic assertion as to the man’s motives. She wrote:

But The Atlantic has figured it all out. Turns out the shooter was led to do all this by his fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity. This hasn’t been a good week for The Atlantic and religion news, but let’s see. Maybe they have something to teach us.

Note the url: http://www.theatlanticwire.com/global/2011/07/christian-fundamentalist-charged-death-toll-norway-soars-past-90/40321/. The headline? “The Christian Extremist Suspect in Norway’s Massacre”

Wow! They must really have access to some exclusive information. I can’t wait to find out what it is.

Turns out there wasn’t any.

A week out from the attack, Tmatt noted some newspapers were moving away from the Christian claims.

At this point, I think most journalists have reached the point that they know that Anders Behring Breivik (a) has self-identified as a “Christian,” (b) yet he also made it clear that he is not a Christian believer, in terms of beliefs and practice and (c) that it is bizarre to call him a “fundamentalist,” in any historic sense of the word.

The early facts indicate that this was a political radical committing an act of political terrorism for political motives, motives that happen to include some idealized vision of resurrecting some kind of old, glorified, “Christian” European culture.

Yes, I know plenty of activist and advocate journalists are sticking with the “Christianist” template. Also, there are academics who are sharpening their swords and taking the usual swings at orthodox forms of religion (“When Christianity becomes lethal“) Nevertheless, most mainstream journalists seem to be staying in the middle of things and, perhaps, waiting for facts about this terrorist and whatever ties he did or did not have to real people and institutions outside of history books and cyberspace.

Tmatt closed his piece by asking reporters to keep digging.

Well, we now know more about what he has said — the manifesto plugged that hole, for journalists. We know a bit about what he may or may not have been reading. We know nothing whatsoever about his own religious life and the practice of his faith, if he ever did so. There are no signs of institutional links or real, live clergy of any kind. Again I urge journalists to look for financial ties.

The ultimate question, in terms of religion: Was this man truly a loner, a man living out a brand of faith that he created on his own and, in the end, one in which he serves as the prophet who produces the private scriptures that guide his life and work? In other words, if he calls himself a “Christian,” where is his church, his pew, his altar and his pastor-priest?

Journalists must keep looking for the facts.


And Arne noted the initial police statement that Breivik was a Christian fundamentalist did not stand up.

The first explanation by Deputy Police Chief Roger Andresen in Oslo has been quoted by many media: “He confirmed that Mr. Breivik belongs to a Christian, fundamentalist, extreme-right environment in Norway.” (Source in Norwegian: from the newspaperAftenposten.)

However, this description may have been largely misunderstood and misinterpreted, if not simply mistaken and false.

Now, courtesy of the Gates of Vienna blog (one of the sources for his ideas Breivik claimed — falsely? — in his manifesto) the killer has written to the Norwegian press revealing his true motives. It was easy to fool the press and to channel their outrage against his  enemies, Breivik wrote. (Quotation as written)

When dealing with media psychopaths, a good way to counter their tactics is to use double-psychology, or at least so I thought. The compendium was, among other things, of a calculated and quite cynical <<gateway-design>> (the 2+?+?=6-approach), created to strengthen the ethnocentrist wing in the contra-jihad movement, by pinning the whole thing on the anti-ethnocentrist wing (many of the leaders are pro-multiculti social democrats or liberalists), while at the same time protecting and strengthening the ethnocentrist-factions. The idea was to manipulate the MSM and others so that they would launch a witch-hunt and send their <<media-rape-squads>> against our opponents. It worked quite well.

And Breivik’s alleged pro-Israel views? He writes:

I know a lot of people will be dissapointed when reading this, but my love for Israel is limited to its future function as a deportation-port for disloyal jews. I am aware of the sad fact that all available statistics confirm that only aprox. three percent of eurojews oppose multiculti (but from an anti-islamist perspective), and that only aprox. 0,2 percent support nordic indigenous rights. I wish it wasnt so… However, there is in fact a strong anti-nordicist/ethnocentrist wing within the counter-jihad movement, represented by Fjordman and his Jewish network, the EDL-leader, the SIOE-leaders, Wilders, Farage etc., but their organisations are so heavily infiltrated by nordicists and ethnocentrists that its hard to say which wing are actually controlling them.

The blogger Fjordman, who was vilified for his alleged influence upon Breivik, is part of Jewish conspiracy that includes the UKIP’s Nigel Farage and Dutch politician Geert Wilders, Breivik tells us — and it was Breivik’s intention not only to kill 77 people but to “manipulate the MSM and others so they would launch a witch-hunt … against our opponents” who include Fjordman, Farage, Wilders et al.

To add insult to injury, I have not seen this latest story covered by the Anglo-American news outlets who were so quick to speculate in the immediate aftermath of the shooting — though it is beginning to break through on the internet.

If Breivik was lying in 2011, what is to stop him from lying in 2014? Is his claim of a double-bluff a triple-bluff? Is it worth even trying to understand this man’s thinking?

Should the press ignore these latest revelations? Or should it return to a story that was misreported early on — and remains clouded? The answer for any journalist worth the name is yes — go back and dig.

First printed at GetReligion.

What’s God got to do with it — in Maidan square?: GetReligion, February 21, 2014 April 11, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Russian Orthodox, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Ukrainian Orthodox (Kiev Patriarchate), Ukrainian Orthodox (Moscow Patriarchate).
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I’ve said it oncetwice, and I’ll say it again — there is more than one Orthodox Church in the Ukraine.

Does this matter? Is this pettifogging carping — dull minded pedantry? Am I just showing off a store of useless knowledge, or Is it important to distinguish between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) (KP) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriachate) (MP) when reporting on the demonstrations in Kiev?

If you want to understand what is going on and break free from the narrative being peddled that this is a conflict over “fundamental European values” (Guardian) with the protestors “defying the post-Soviet order imposed by Russia” (Economist) in order to build what British Foreign Secretary William Hague believes will be a “free, sovereign, democratic” Ukraine — then it is important to understand the local issues driving this conflict. Contrary to what the Western European politicians want to believe, this is not a rerun of the Cold War with Angela Merkel and David Cameron replacing Ronald Reagan as the hero. What then is going on?

On page A8 this morning the Wall Street Journal ran a story entitled “CathedralTurns Into Hospital as Ukraine Protests Worsen.” Casualties from the fighting in Independence Square, or Maidan Square as it is know to the locals, have been brought to the cathedral for treatment by volunteer doctors.

The lede states:

KIEV, Ukraine – In St. Michael’s Cathedral, Orthodox priests chanting prayers have been replaced by doctors calling for medicine.

The golden-domed church has been transformed into a field hospital of sorts for protesters injured or worse in days of deadly clashes with police.

And then the story shifts to interviews and man in the street accounts from doctors, volunteers and patients being treated at the cathedral. The article is strongly written and crisply presents the sights and sounds observed by the Wall Street Journal’s man in Kiev.

 

“We’ve had four or five corpses here already today,” says Taras Semushchak, a 47-year-old surgeon from Lviv in western Ukraine. “Most had gunshot wounds from snipers and Kalashnikovs.”

Yet for all the color reporting, the article does not ask the question why are the wounded being treated at St. Michael’s? Why not at St. Sophia’s Orthodox Cathedral on Volodymyrs’ka Street? Why a cathedral in the first place?

Is this a Kievan counterpart to the Occupy Wall Street crowd seeking to use Trinity Wall Street in lower Manhattan as a base of operations? With the difference being the Episcopal Church said no while the KP said yes?

Is a better analogy St. Paul’s Cathedral in London permitting protestors to use their precincts?

In our past posts on this subject, tmatt and I have explored the religious dimensions of this story noting there are three principal churches in the Ukraine: the Moscow Patriarchate, the  Kiev Patriarchate, and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church).

The leaders of the three churches have taken differing stands on the protests, with the Kiev Patriarchate and the Greek Catholics backing the country’s realignment towards Europe, while the Moscow Patriarchate backs the president’s alignment with Vladimir Putin’s regime in Moscow. In late December the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church, including its Ukrainian bishops, released a statement condemning proposals for the Ukraine to move closer to the EU at the expense of its relations with Russia.

Speaking at the Heritage Foundation in Washington last November Patriarch Filaret of the Kiev Patriarchate urged the Ukraine to break free from Moscow and secure its political, economic and religious independence. He was reported to have said:

[T]he Ukrainian Churches would benefit from an Association Agreement. For one thing, it would place the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) in a new situation. With Ukraine committed to Europe and continued independence, that Church would have to decide which side it was on – that of Russia, or that of the Ukrainian people. By siding with Russia, the UOC-MP would assume the role of a fifth column for a hostile state. If, on the other hand, it sided with the Ukrainians, it would be obligated to unite with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate (UOC-KP) into a single Ukrainian Orthodox Church, independent of Moscow.

The Kiev Patriarchate and the Greek Catholic Church have lent their support to the demonstrations — and as the Wall Street Journal story reports, the KP has opened its churches as sanctuaries for the wounded. The Moscow Patriarchate in Kiev has backed President Yanukovich — and its calls for calm echoes the president’s public statements to date.

Leaving out the affiliation of the cathedral to the KP blurs the ethnic-religious elements of this conflict. And it makes the setting of this story meaningless. It could just as well have been a school, museum or other large civic structure.

But aside from the spiritual resonance of a cathedral serving as a hospital for the souls of the sick and a cathedral serving as a shelter for the wounded — there is a practical link between St. Michael’s, its clergy, the KP and the unfolding demonstrations in Kiev. That’s a fact. It matters.

First printed at GetReligion.

Balkan absurdist reporting by Reuters: Get Religion, February 19, 2014  April 11, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Bulgarian Orthodox, Get Religion, Islam, Press criticism.
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At Get Religion it is usually considered bad form to criticize wire service reports for lacking context. There is only so much information that a reporter can pack into a 300 word story. The absence of an explanatory sentence or two that gives the reader some clues as to the meaning of the story is seldom fatal to an article’s journalistic integrity — but it can at times lead to an article coming across as a Haiku.

This article from Reuters entitled “Bulgarian police detain 120 after mosque attack” I readily concede does not fit into the 5 – 7 – 5 sound (on) pattern of classical Japanese poetry nor the 17 syllables of contemporary English Haiku. Nevertheless the imagery created in this short piece does a great job of telling the story.

A problem with imagery, however, is that the reader must be aware of the symbolic meaning of the nouns being used. The story has a wonderful lede:

Bulgarian police detained more than 120 people on Friday after hundreds of nationalists and soccer fans attacked a mosque in the country’s second city Plovdiv, smashing its windows with stones.

Why is this wonderful you ask? On one level there is an absurdist quality to this sentence with overtones of Monty Python, Lemony Snicket and Eugene Ionescu. A mosque has been attacked by a mob casting stones. A Bulgarian mosque has been attacked by a mob casting stones. A Bulgarian mosque in Bulgaria’s second city has been attacked by a mob casting stones. A Bulgarian mosque in Bulgaria’s second city has been attacked by a mob of soccer fans and (Bulgarian?) nationalists casting stones.

Each iteration makes the story ever so slightly more ridiculous, but at the same time it conveys the absurdity of life through the incongruity of its elements and apparent absence of reason. But this is the Balkans.

The story continues:

 

Over 2,000 people had gathered outside a Plovdiv court as it heard an appeal case dealing with the return of an ancient mosque in the central city of Karlovo, taken over by the state more than 100 years ago, to Bulgaria’s Chief Mufti, the Muslim religious authority.

The soccer fans and nationalists then marched on a mosque in Plovdiv and pelted it with stones. Given the limitations of space Reuters did a great job in reporting this story. At its close the article offered two small bits of context:

Muslims make up about 13 percent of Bulgaria’s 7.3 million people. The Chief Mufti has launched some 26 court cases to try to restore Muslim ownership of 29 mosques and other property across the Balkan state, prompting some public opposition in the predominantly Orthodox Christian population.

These help the reader, but for those not au courant with the modern history of the Balkans, the incongruity of elements might make this story hard to follow. The mosque in Karlovo that served as the flashpoint for this controversy was confiscated by Tsar Ferdinand of Bulgaria after the Second Balkan War of 1913. That war saw an exodus of many Turks and Muslim Bulgarians — the Pomaks (Slav converts to Islam who speak Bulgarian but follow Turkish customs) from the region West of the River Maritsa or Evros. For Bulgarian nationalists the return of the mosque in Karlovo (which is in ruins but preserved as a historical site by the city government) is a political — ethnic — religious insult. Turkish nationalists might react in the same fashion if Hagia Sophia were returned to the Ecumenical Patriarch. An admittedly bad analogy might be if a Mexican-American group petitioned Texas for possession of the Alamo.

That might explain the nationalists in the mob. But soccer fans? In an American context that conveys images of mothers with mini-vans. In Europe it is code language of skin heads, or neo-nazis, or violent nationalists — whose energies are channeled into supporting a particular football (soccer) team and engaging in violent conflicts with the fans of other teams.

Tie all this into recent statements by the Turkish prime minister about his country’s role as a protector of Balkan Muslims, you have all the makings of a Balkan imbroglio.

How do you tell this story in less than 300 words? Reuters did a pretty good job. But it fleshing the story out with a word or two of “why” on the inter play of religion, politics and ethnicity would have made this piece even better.

IMAGE: courtesy of Shutterstock.

First printed in GetReligion.

Miscues in news on gay blessings and marriage from London: GetReligion, February 18, 2014 April 11, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Church of England, Get Religion, Press criticism.
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The Valentine’s Day statement from the House of Bishops of the Church of England on gay marriage has fluttered the Anglican dovecots.

The story received A1 treatment from the British press and it spawned commentaries and opinion pieces in the major outlets. The second day stories reported some activists were “appalled” by the news whilst others were over the moon with delight — but being British their joy did not rise to continental expressions of euphoria.

The story continues to move through the media and on Sunday the BBC had one bishop tell the Sunday Programme that clergy who violated the Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage protocol might be brought up on charges — and could well be sacked.

So what did the bishops do? A scan of the first day stories reports that they either said “no to gay marriage but yes to gay civil unions” or “no to gay marriage and no to blessing gay unions.” The first day reports were evenly divided between the “no/yes” and “no/no” schools.

The Independent interpreted the document as no/yes.  The lede  in its story entitled “Gay marriage: Church of England to offer prayers after weddings but no same-sex marriage for vicar” stated:

Gay couples will be able to have special prayers following their weddings but members of the clergy are banned from entering same-sex marriages when these become legal next month.

The Church of England issued its new pastoral guidance following a meeting of the House of Bishops to discuss the issue on Friday. Despite condemning “irrational fear of homosexuals” and saying all were “loved by God”, the document sent a clear signal separating the Church’s concept of marriage and the new legal definition. …

Civil partnerships will still be performed and vicars have been warned that married couples must be welcomed to worship and not subject to “questioning” or discrimination. Same-sex couples may ask for special prayers after being married but it will not be a service of blessing.

The Telegraph also took the no/yes line. The lede to its story entitled “Church offers prayers after same-sex weddings — but bans gay priests from marrying” stated:

Gay couples who get married will be able to ask for special prayers in the Church of England after their wedding, the bishops have agreed. But priests who are themselves in same-sex relationships or even civil partnerships will be banned from getting married when it becomes legally possible next month.

Compare this to the dispatch from Reuters which took a no/no line. Its lede stated:

Church of England priests will not be allowed to bless gay and lesbian weddings, or marry someone of the same sex themselves, according to new guidelines issued by the church, which is struggling to heal divides over homosexuality.

Why the disparate interpretations? Was this a case of the Church of England speaking out of both sides of its mouth at the same time? Offering an ambiguous statement that allows individuals to read into it what they are predisposed to find?

Perhaps. One should never underestimate the skill of the Sir Humphrey Appleby’s at Church House in churning out drivel. But in this case I believe the reporters’ suppositions as to the meaning of phrases drove their interpretations. The problem was not imprecise language from the bishops but a lack of understanding of technical language from reporters.

Here are the pertinent paragraphs:

19. As noted above, same sex weddings in church will not be possible. As with civil partnership, some same sex couples are, however, likely to seek some recognition of their new situation in the context of an act of worship.

20.   The 2005 pastoral statement said that it would not be right to produce an authorized public liturgy in connection with the registering of civil partnerships and that clergy should not provide services of blessing for those who registered civil partnerships. The House did not wish, however,  to interfere with the clergy’s pastoral discretion about when more informal kind of prayer, at the request of the couple, might be appropriate in the light of the circumstances.   The College made clear on 27 January that, just as the Church of England’s doctrine of marriage remains the same, so its pastoral and liturgical practice also remains unchanged.

21.  The same approach as commended in the 2005 statement should therefore apply to couples who enter same-sex marriage, on the assumption that any prayer will be accompanied by pastoral discussion of the church’s teaching and their reasons for departing from it. Services of blessing should not be provided. Clergy should respond pastorally and sensitively in other ways.

Paragraph 19 restates there will be no same-sex church weddings, but notes that some same-sex couples might seek to have their unions prayed for, or over, by the clergy. The bishops are not giving their permission to do so, but are stating what they acknowledge to be the “facts on the ground” in some parishes.

Paragraph 20 notes the current practice is to permit “informal” prayers offered at the discretion of the priest that are appropriate to the circumstances, while paragraph 21 states no blessings of same-sex unions will be permitted.

However, clergy are permitted to offer prayers. What exactly is a prayer in this situation? A blessing? No. A mark of approbation or thanksgiving by the church? Not according to the document. The bishops have left this crucial bit undefined, save in the negative — saying what it is not.

The emphasis missing from the Telegraph and Independent stories is that in the context of these private informal prayers, the priest is to reiterate to the same-sex couple the church’s teaching on sexuality and ask they “their reasons for departing from it.”

The assumption made by the Telegraph and Independent is that a prayer for a same-sex couple must be, by its very nature, a prayer of affirmation. That is not stated in the document, and the reference to existing teachings would make affirmation of a gay union difficult at the very least — if the priest were to honor the bishops’ guidance.

There is ambiguity here — I can’t let the bishops off that lightly — as a clergyman who will be asked to give informal private prayers by a gay couple will most likely to be known to them and would offer prayers of affirmation. He is not forbidden to do that, but must also tag on the party line as their union is not one the church believes is in line with God’s plan for mankind, is contrary to Scripture and to right reason.

Is this then a failure of the press to Get Religion? To one degree yes — Reuters and other newspaper picked up the no/no line that the Telegraph and Independentmissed. But at the same time the bishops were not as clear as they could have been.

The bigger journalism issue is not the insiders’ Anglican game — but the difficulty in communicating to the wider world the symbols and code language of religious institutions. These sorts of miscue and missteps happen all the time in reporting on the Vatican — and the farther a faith moves from the comfort and knowledge zone of reporters the more apt we are to see the gaps. The answer, of course, is to use specialist reporters to write on these topics. Which I’m afraid is not likely to happen in the near future.

First printed in GetReligion.

Camels and tigers and bears, oh my!: Get Religion, February 15, 2014 February 17, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Biblical Interpretation, Get Religion, Press criticism.
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The silly season is early this year. With editors and most top-tier reporters away in August on vacation (along with the subjects of their stories — need to set the proper precedence of seniority at the start of this story) the late summer is the time when the second team knocks out stories that leave readers asking: “what were they thinking?”

True — there are exceptions to this venerable custom. What would Easter or Christmas be without stories proclaiming what “the science” tells us about such events. Perhaps the massive snowstorms in the Northeast have kept the A-team in bed for some publications? Otherwise I would be hard pressed to explain the thinking behind the editorial line taken in a spat of stories reporting on a paper published by two archaeologists at Tel Aviv University.

The gist of the report in publications like the Huffington Post, IBT and the Fashion Times (yes the Fashion Times) among a score of others is that “No camels = No God.”

The absence of camel remains at an archeological site in Israel dated to the time of Abraham demonstrates the Bible is false — or as the Fashion Times headline tells us “Historical ERROR in Bible’s Old Testament, REVEALED: Radiocarbon Dating of Camel Bones Shows Inconsistency.”

I like the screaming ALL CAPS used for error and revealed — one need read no further to see where that story is headed.

The New York Daily News was a little more cautious in its story “Israeli archeologists’ discovery suggests the Bible is wrong about camels.” It reported:

New archeological evidence is throwing cold water on the biblical image of Abraham, Jacob and Joseph riding camels through the desert. A team of Israeli archaeologists has studied the oldest-known camel bones from this ancient period and the results are in — camels reportedly started plodding around the eastern Mediterranean region centuries after the Bible tells us they did.

After analyzing the facts from radioactive-carbon dating, Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen of Tel Aviv University claim the domesticated animal arrived on the biblical scene near the 10th century B.C. Scholars believe Abraham lived at least six centuries before that, Time reports.

Still, stories about the Jewish patriarchs contain more than 20 references to the domesticated camel, according to The New York Times. In Genesis 24, Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac. The servant traveled on his master’s camels.

I laughed out loud when I read this. Perhaps it was out of caution that its reporter might not have been able to verify the information the New York Daily News cites the New York Times for the flash news that there are camel references in Genesis.

Time does a much better job with this story. Reporter Elizabeth Dias lays out the facts and then proceeds to pour cold water on the hyperbole — taking as her target the New York Times’ account.

The New York Times, in a story about the finding today, announced, “There are too many camels in the Bible, out of time and out of place … these anachronisms are telling evidence that the Bible was written or edited long after the events it narrates and is not always reliable as verifiable history.” Behold, a mystery: the Case of the Bible’s Phantom Camels.

The discovery is actually far from new. William Foxwell Albright, the leading American archeologist and biblical scholar who confirmed the authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls, argued in the mid-1900s that camels were an anachronism. Historian Richard Bulliet of Columbia University explored the topic in his 1975 book, The Camel and the Wheel, and concluded that “the occasional mention of camels in patriarchal narratives does not mean that the domestic camels were common in the Holy Land at that period.” Biblical History 101 teaches that the texts themselves were often written centuries after the events they depict.

Time also puts this story in context, noting Biblical scholars have long been aware of apparent anomalies. It quotes a number of liberal Biblical scholars to flesh out the conundrum of Biblical history v. a Biblical faith.

The Bible has also never been a history book or a scientific textbook, explains Choon-Leong Seow, professor of Old Testament language and literature at Princeton Theological Seminary. Interpreting the Bible is a little like studying Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper, he says. Modern viewers do not consider the Christ figure in da Vinci’s painting an accurate portrait because we know it was painted centuries after the supper happened, but that does not take away from the artist’s spiritual message about Jesus’ last night with his disciples. “For us who believe that this is Scripture, Scripture is important as it has formative power, it forms the people, and it transforms,” Seow says. “It is poetic truth rather than literary truth.”

Understanding the Case of the Phantom Camel as a fight between archeological evidence and biblical narrative misses the entire spiritual point of the text, as far as scholars are concerned. Anachronisms and apocryphal elements do not mean the story is invalid, but instead give insight into the spiritual community in a given time and place. In this case, camels were a sign of wealth and developing trade routes, so it is likely that the biblical writer used the camel as a narrative device to point out power and status. “We needn’t understand these accounts as literally true, but they are very rich in meaning and interpretive power,” [Duke University's] Eric Meyers says.

I would have liked to have seen Time ask conservative Biblical scholars — say someone from the Dallas Theological Seminary — for their view on the camel controversy. It would have improved an otherwise great story.

Contradictions and difficulties with the historical veracity of the Pentateuch were a major news item at one time. That would have been in 1862 when the Anglican Bishop of Natal (South Africa) John William Colenso released the first of what became a seven part series of books examining the historicity of the first six books of the Old Testament.

Colenso, a one time mathematics teacher at Harrow and the author of the standard mathematics textbook for secondary schools in the mid-Nineteenth Century, demonstrated that some of the claims laid down in the Pentateuch were mathematically impossible. The battle has raged back and forth for the last 150 years, but some newspapers will always report the latest developments as breaking news that will shatter the foundations of faith.

It is a commonplace of the Jewish and Christian scholarly tradition that the Torah or Pentateuch was not written contemporaneously with the events it describes. Conservative scholars who follow the traditional teaching that Moses was the author of the Torah would not dispute the fact that he lived long after the events described in Genesis.

The author or authors of Genesis who transcribed the oral tradition of Abraham may have understood a word to have a meaning in their day that differed from its historical past.

Perhaps the word gamal was one such word. Could it have meant a beast of burden in Abraham’s time and by the time the stories were set down in writing a gamal came to be understood to mean the domesticated dromedary, the one-humped Camelus dromedarius?

As an aside, I find it amusing that some of the newspaper stories on this issue are assuming Abraham was a true historical figure, but the stories of camels in Genesis is a myth. Much of the historical critical Old Testament scholarship of the Twentieth century would believe the camels were real, but it was Abraham who was the myth.

Walter Beltz for example dismisses Abraham as mythical character akin to Aeneas.   … eine mythische Person… Die Gestalt Abrahams ist eine mythische Schopfung. (Walter Beltz, Gott und die Gotter: Biblische Mythologie, Aufbau-Verlag Berlin und Weimar, 1975, p. 109.) Or they have held that the accounts of Abraham’s life as portrayed in Genesis “is an inextricable tangle of history and myth.” (Manfred Barthel, Was Wirklich in der Bibel Steht, trans. by Mark Howson, What the Bible Really Says, Wings Books, 1992, p. 63.)

Time does the best job of all in presenting this story. But it too could have used a bit more balance. Better yet, read the original piece from Tel Aviv University and decide for yourself. You might be surprised in light of the press reports cited above to discover there is only one reference to the Old Testament in the paper when in the first paragraph the authors state the “Patriarchal narrative” had led some scholars to suggest an earlier date for the domestication of the camel in Israel than could be supported by their archeological finds. That’s it.

First published at Get Religion.

Muslim vs. Christian in the Central African Republic?: Get Religion, February 11, 2014 February 17, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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The pictures and reports out of Central African Republic are grim. The country is in the grips of a civil war that is pitting predominantly Muslim tribes against Christian and Animist tribes. The violence is especially fierce around the city of Bangui, the capital. The city is home to a Muslim minority of migrants from the East and North and neighboring Chad as well as soldiers of the Séléka militia of former President Michel Djotodia.

The carnage around Bangui has received great play in the French press — most likely because that is where the reporters are. Muslims have gathered at the city’s airport to seek protection from African Union and French troops, while in the city individual Muslims and Christians have been murdered by rival mobs. Le Monde and Le Figaro reported on one particularly gruesome incident, which both newspapers saw as emblematic of the country’s collapse into chaos.

The French newspapers have done a sterling job in reporting on this unfolding crisis. One of the ways their work has stood out is that they did not come to Bangui unencumbered with knowledge about the country’s past. A former French colony, the Central African Republic’s squalid history (remember Emperor Bokassa I?) is not new news. The French press has refrained from describing this as a religious civil war — but has treated the fighting as a tribal and political clash with religious overtones.

Yes, their is an al Qaeda angle, and the CAR is on the tenth parallel — the front line between Islam and Christianity in Africa. But the French press has not resorted to the easy answer of religious hatred driving this conflict.

So what’s been happening?

On Wednesday the country’s interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza, attended a military parade in the capital. A man watching the review was seized by some of the soldiers and accused of being a spy for the Séléka militia. In full view of Western reporters and some government ministers the man was beaten to death.

Le Figaro wrote:

La scène a duré de longues minutes pendant lesquelles des soldats de l’armée régulière, certains en uniforme, ont lynché à coups de pieds, de briques, de barres de fer l’un des leurs, accusé d’être un ancien Séléka, la rébellion à majorité musulmane. L’assassinat, mercredi en plein jour et en public, a engendré une fureur et un plaisir effarant dans la troupe. La vue du corps démembré a fait l’effet d’une fête.

Ce massacre d’un homme mercredi à Bangui n’était pas un simple massacre de plus dans une ville qui en a déjà connu beaucoup. C’est le symbole d’un pays qui ne parvient pas à calmer ses esprits, à juguler les vengeances. «C’est un drame, un mauvais signal. Je ne comprends même pas comment on peut être aussi bête et aussi méchant», assure, affligé, un officier français.

The scene lasted several minutes. Soldiers of the regular army, some in uniform, lynched a man they accused of being a former member of the Muslim Séléka militia, kicking him and beating him with bricks and iron bars. The assassination on Wednesday in broad daylight and in public  created a furor as well as great pleasure for the the crowd. < The sight of dismembered body created a party atmosphere.

The massacre of a man Wednesday in Bangui was not a simple killing in a city that has already experienced many more deaths. It is the symbol of a country that fails to calm his mind, to curb revenge. “This is a tragedy, a bad signal. I do not even understand how people can be so stupid and so mean,” said a distressed French officer.

The Washington Post‘s reporter in Bangui has also written of the fear gripping the city. In a story entitled “Tens of thousands of Muslims flee Christian militias in Central African Republic” published the day after the lynching, the Post offered vignettes that illustrated the dire situation facing Muslims in Bangui. These human interest angles made this piece stand out — and demonstrated the value of having a reporter on the spot. Well done.

But the article also illustrated the dilemma of reporters and editors covering a story from the ground but neglecting to offer context and history. The article begins:

Tens of thousands of Muslims are fleeing to neighboring countries by plane and truck as Christian militias stage brutal attacks, shattering the social fabric of this war-ravaged nation.

In towns and villages as well as here in the capital, Christian vigilantes wielding machetes have killed scores of Muslims, who are a minority here, and burned and looted their houses and mosques in recent days, according to witnesses, aid agencies and peacekeepers. Tens of thousands of Muslims have fled their homes.

The cycle of chaos is fast becoming one of the worst outbreaks of violence along Muslim-Christian fault lines in recent memory in sub-Saharan Africa, tensions that have also plagued countries such as Nigeria and Sudan.

The brutalities began to escalate when the country’s first Muslim leader, Michel Djotodia, stepped down and went into exile last month. Djotodia, who had seized power in a coup last March, had been under pressure from regional leaders to resign. His departure was meant to bring stability to this poor country, but humanitarian and human rights workers say there is more violence now than at any time since the coup.

The article does state the violence is not all on one side:

Christians have also been victims of violence, targeted by Muslims in this complex communal conflict that U.N. and humanitarian officials fear could implode into genocide. Several hundred thousand Christians remain in crowded, squalid camps, unable or too afraid to return home.

But attacks on Muslims in particular are intensifying, aid workers said.

To which I would write — “Yes, but … ” and point to the contrasting tone of the French stories.

The attacks on the Muslim minority are appalling, but there is no explanation from the Post as to why the attacks are taking place now — and why they are so vicious. The language used in this story — though understandable to American ears — does not paint a true picture of what is going on. It is tribe against tribe — tribes who happen to be predominantly Muslim or Christian or Animist — that is driving this.

The violence we are witnessing began not in the past few weeks but in December 2012 when a coalition of rebel groups from the eastern CAR called Séléka (primarily composed of Muslim ethnic Gula bolstered by Chadian and Sudanese volunteers) launched an assault on the government of President François Bozizé, an ethnic Gbaya.

This civil war has forced nearly one million people to flee their homes, a majority of them from the northwestern region of the CAR that borders Cameroon and Chad, with over 370,000 displaced persons now in Bangui Reuters reported last month. The U.N. reports approximately 2.2 million people, more than half of the country’s population, are in immediate need of humanitarian assistance

Following Séléka’s seizure of power in Bangui in April 2013, the organization’s leader, Michel Djotodia, was elected as interim president. Séléka, although officially disbanded by Djotodia, was accused by Human Rights Watch and several other NGOs of engaging in a regime of terror against their opponents, systematically killing, raping, torturing Gbayas (who are mostly Christian).

In response to Bozize’s ouster and the violence that followed, President Bozize organized an anti-Séléka village based militia called the anti-Balaka that are concentrated in Bangui and in the northwest, Liberation reports. Agenzia Fides reported on January 27 there were significant numbers of non-Christians, followers of animist and indigenous African religions, among the  anti-balaka militias.

… not all members of Séléka are Muslims and above all the majority of the anti Balaka militia are not Christians. These militias existed before the seizure of power of the coalition Seleka in March 2013. According to a survey published by the newspaper Ouest France, which interviewed a member of the anti Balaka, self-defense groups were created in the north of the Country at the instigation of former President Bozizé (overthrown in March 2013) to protect the people from bandits raging in the region.

“Before the anti Balaka fought street bandits because the police and the army were incapable of fighting them”, explains Fr. Jean Marius Toussaint Zoumalde, a Capuchin of the convent in Saint-Laurent in Bouar (north-west). According to the Capuchin most of the members of these militias “are animists, not Christians. Their marabouts give them amulets (gri -gris) to protect them from bullets. They are young people who for years have protected their villages and their territories”.

The anti Balaka are present in all communities whether they are animists, Christians or Muslims. But most of them are animists.

Why this excursion into CAR politics? Because the Post is not telling the full story about the war in the CAR. While American ears can hear Muslim v Christian and comprehend their meanings — I would expect most would tune out if presented with a story about the Séléka and the anti-Balaka militias.

The writers at Get Religion seek to raise omitted or distorted religion angles in news stories. That does not mean we see religion as the key issue in every story. Religion is one of many factors in human experience. The Post has, in my opinion, put too much emphasis on faith at the expense of other issues missing the nuance of the interplay between faith and politics.

First published at Get Religion.

The Guardian ridicules the saints, the Virgin and prayer: Get Religion, February 6, 2014 February 8, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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Why do we fight? Why do we write? What motivates our editor tmatt and the team at GetReligion to do what we do?

For me, as I expect it is for my colleagues, it is the love of the game. To showcase the best examples of the craft of journalism — while chiding those that fall short.

I began to follow GetReligion shortly after it went online in 2004. I was a professional acquaintance of one of its co-founders, Doug LeBlanc and a long time admirer of his work and that of the editor, Terry Mattingly. Their call to improve the craft (not police it as some critics have charged) resonated with me. When I joined three years ago I was honored by their invitation and the opportunity to participate in their work by looking at the English, European and overseas press.

I was tasked with looking at stories such as this one from last week’s Guardian entitled: “Spanish government questioned over claims of divine help in economic crisis”, with an eye towards applying the standards of classical Anglo-American journalism to the story, as well as offering American readers a window into the British and European press world.

Critics often charge The New York Times and other American newspapers with spinning the news to advance the interests of a particular party or interest group. Advocacy journalism, as it is called, violates the tenets of classical liberal journalism which rejects overt politicking. The reporter’s role is to establish the facts and let them dictate how the story is written.

European advocacy style reporting draws upon a different intellectual tradition. “All history is contemporary history,” idealist philosopher Benedetto Croce said — history exists but only in the present tense.

In this school the past has reality only in the mind of the author.

At its worst, this relativist-subjective approach leads to the Dan Rather “false but true” mindset, but most practitioners understand that the reporter must be faithful to the truth. But it is further understood that truth does not have an independent existence from the reporter’s intellectual constructs.

Advocacy reporting is the norm for many Continental newspapers, and the shading of tone to advance a particular cause is expected by most European readers. The British press remains divided on this point. Most stories in the Guardian, The Times, Telegraph, Independent and regional papers follow the classical line. Yet many stories that deal with politics, religion and what in America we call the culture wars are written from an ideological perspective.

The practical problem with this relativist approach is that it leave gaps in the story and is open to abuse. This item from the Guardian is an example. It begins:

If higher powers are helping to lift Spain out of its economic crisis, one political party wants to know exactly who they are and what they’re doing.

Amaiur, a leftwing party from the Basque country, has put a series of questions to the governing People’s party after the interior minister, Jorge Fernández Diaz, said recently he was certain that Saint Teresa was “making important intercessions” for Spain “during these tough times”.

In a letter to the government on Tuesday, Jon Iñarritu García of Amaiur asked for clarification about what help the government was getting from one of Spain’s most popular holy figures.

The article then quoted the politician as asking:

“In what ways does the minister of the interior think Saint Teresa of Avila is interceding on behalf of Spain?” he asked. “Does the government believe there are other divine and supernatural interventions affecting the current state of Spain? If so, who are they?”

“What role has the Virgin of El Rocío played in helping Spain exit the crisis?” he asked.

The article transitions with an acknowledgment that this is nonsense, but then notes that this nonsense is a weapon in the fight against reactionary clericalism. This is followed by an over the top comment equating opposition to abortion with fascism.

The letter took on a more serious tone in asking about the separation of church and state in Spain. “Does the government believe they are respecting the secular nature of the state? Does the government plan to push for a religious state?”

The increasingly blurry line between church and state in Spain has been in the headlines recently as the government moves forward with its proposal to roll back women’s access to abortion.

In an article on Diaz’s comments, El País columnist Román Orozco wrote: “If I closed my eyes … I would think I was listening to some old shirt of the Falange.” Saint Teresa was a favourite of General Franco, who kept her hand by his bed until his death.

As journalism this is garbage. It leads one to ask what the Guardian has against St Theresa? There is no pretense of balance or factual reporting here. The author takes what he acknowledges to be an absurdity and uses it to slam those who do not share his ideological views. It is simply an exercise in hyperbole that ignores facts or context.

In his 1946 essay, “Why I Write”, George Orwell stated, “every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism.”

The totalitarianism we face today in the West comes not from Stalinism or Fascism. It arises in the the cant, hypocrisy and moral dishonesty of our intellectual and philosophical worlds. It is in challenging the orthodoxies of left and right, that one can find the best Guardian reporting. But the Guardian at times represents the ugliest impulses of our intellectual lives.

Does this article deserve condemnation? It is riddled with errors, condescending towards it subject, and is entirely predictable. And, it is malicious.

That unfashionable poet, Edna St Vincent Millay, wrote in her “Dirge Without Music:

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

A journalist who takes his craft seriously, who is not resigned to the world around him, who writes with moral purpose (but without moralizing) prepares stories that are a joy to read. This article is not one of them.

And why do we write? To speak out against the totalitarianism of small minds and corrupt reporting.

First published in GetReligion.

Tweeting Mohammad: Get Religion, February 3, 2014 February 3, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Islam, Press criticism.
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The Mohammad cartoon controversy has resurfaced over the past week with a flutter over a tweet.

The British press appears to have come down on the side of Maajid Nawaz. Newspaper articles, opinion pieces and television chat shows have defended his right to share a cartoon depicting Jesus and Mohammad. But they have also ceded the moral high ground to his opponents — Islamist extremists — by declining to publish a copy of the cartoon that has led to death threats and calls for Nawaz to be blacklisted by the Liberal Democratic Party for Islamophobia.

What we are seeing in the British media — newspapers and television (this has not been a problem for radio) — in the Jesus and Mo controversy is a replay of past disputes over Danish and French cartoons. Freedom of speech and courage in the face of religious intolerance is championed by the press — up to a point.

The point appears to be whether being courageous could get you killed or even worse, earn the displeasure of the bien pensant chattering classes.

The Telegraph gives a good overview of the affair.

A Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate has received death threats after posting a cartoon image of Jesus and the Prophet Mohammed on Twitter. Muslim politician Maajid Nawaz tweeted a picture of a t-shirt with a crudely-drawn cartoon entitled ‘Jesus and Mo’ which he describes as an “innocuous” and inoffensive.

However the image has caused fury among some members of the Islamic community who believe images of the prophet Muhammed are forbidden. More than 7,000 people have now signed a petition calling for the Liberal Democrats to suspend Mr Nawaz. Some have even suggested a fatwa should be placed on him while others have threatened they would be “glad to cut your neck off”.

The Guardian summarized Nawaz’s motives in this subtitle to their story:

Lib Dem candidate says he aimed to defend his religion ‘against those who have hijacked it because they shout the loudest’

It explained:

The row blew up after Nawaz took part in a BBC debate where two students were wearing t-shirts depicting a stick figures of stick figure of Jesus saying “Hi” to a stick figure called Mo, who replied: “How you doin’?”

The politician, who is founder of the Quilliam Foundation, an anti-extremist think-tank, tweeted what he believes is a “bland” image and stated that “as a Muslim, I did not feel threatened by it. My God is greater than that”.

Both stories are sympathetic and are topped by striking photos of Nawaz, who is  running to be an MP for Hampstead and Kilburn. But neither article reproduces the cartoon that has led to the threats against his life. In their defence, it could be argued that a photo of Nawaz, rather than the offending cartoon was more appropriate as the article focused on the politician’s travails over the cartoon, not on the cartoon itself. A week argument but an argument none the less.

Television was not blessed with this excuse. During the debate on The Big Questions which sparked the row, the BBC declined to show members of the audience who were wearing “Jesus and Mo” t-shirts. This censorship, avoidance, prudence (take your pick) led Nawaz to tweet a photo of the cartoon — leading to twitter threats to cut off his head.
Newsnight discussed the controversy over censorship, but decided not to show a copy of the cartoon. Newswatch also discussed the “Jesus and Mo” controversy, noting that complaints had been raised by viewers over its failure to show the cartoon. But Newswatch also declined to show the cartoon. Zero for three for the BBC.

The best (from a cognoscenti  of hypocrisy’s point of view) was Channel 4′s handling of the subject. It broadcast the cartoon, sans Mo. This prompted the popular British blogger, Archbishop Cranmer to write:

[This] censoring images of Mohammed establishes a narrow Sunni-sharia compliance: it is, effectively, a blasphemy code adopted by the state broadcasters.

The columnist for The Times, Janice Turner, excoriated the BBC and Channel 4 in an excellent piece entitled “Show us Jesus & Mo. It’s the price of freedom”. It was:

hard to watch Wednesday’s Newsnight without concluding that Britain has become a very strange place. We saw an artist so frightened for his life that his face and even his voice were disguised. We saw his hand sketching the Christian prophet in a crown of thorns, but forbidden to draw the Muslim one. An 11-minute film debated a drawing at the heart of a national controversy but at no point could we see it.

Turner further reported:

When challenged, Newsnight’s editor, Ian Katz, said that there was “no clear journalistic case to use” the cartoon, and that “describing” it was sufficient. (TV news will get a whole lot cheaper if we needn’t send a camera crew to war-ravaged Damascus: let’s just have it described by Jeremy Bowen.) Any depiction of Muhammad, Katz argued, “causes great offence to many, not just extremists” and to run it would be “journalistic machismo”.

She aptly summarized the journalistic and moral issues at play.

Mr Nawaz’s frustration is understandable. In banning the image, the BBC cast him as the faux-Muslim, his opponents as the rational, majority voice that must be heeded.

How can moderate Muslims be expected to speak out, if they are cast as apostates by national TV? Those who have not yet made up their minds will see angry offence as the default position. They hear it proclaimed by the deceptively reasonable Mohammed Shafiq, the Lib Dem, whose Ramadhan Foundation hosts homophobic speakers, and that hot-air balloon Mo Ansar, who argues that gender-divided public meetings are just like BBQs where guys cluster around the grill while wives chat with the kids. No biggie.

The BBC and Channel 4 are guilty of cant and hypocrisy. They are daring when it is safe to be daring, but cowards when it comes to militant Islam. Are the Guardian and Telegraph guilty of cant as well? They preach freedom of speech, but by refusing to show the Jesus and Mo cartoon are they not also ceding the moral high ground to the enemies of free speech?

First printed in Get Religion.

Memory and revolution in Kiev: Get Religion, January 29, 2014 January 30, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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All Ukraine, All the time is not our moto at GetReligion. Though you may be excused for thinking it might be as tmatt and I have knocked out a number of stories looking at the reporting coming out of Kiev this week.

I returned to Kiev once more in this week’s Crossroads podcast. I spoke with Issues, Etc. host Todd Wilken about the religion angle to the protests in the Ukraine, arguing that the demonstrations were not intelligible without reference to the country’s political and religious history.

As tmatt has noted there have been some wonderful images coming out of the protests, especially those that showcase Orthodox clergy standing between protestors and the riot police — seeking to prevent bloodshed. There has also been some sharp political reporting as well.

The report on the funeral of protestor shot and killed, allegedly, by the security services, picked up the political symbolism of red and white banners waved by some mourners (the banned flag of Belorussia). But the religious symbolism of holding the memorial service at the cathedral of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) rather than at the neighboring Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) escaped Western reporters.

At its most basic level, this is a conflict of nationalism with religious overtones– Russophile Ukrainians (including those who belong to the Moscow led church) against Europhile Ukrainians (including those who belong to the Kiev led church).

But the analogy is not exact.

 

In the podcast I recounted how in the Stalinist era the Orthodox clergy across the Soviet Union and many lay men and women were executed or imprisoned for their faith. St Michael’s Cathedral (the location of the funeral mentioned in the story cited above) was demolished on Stalin’s orders and only rebuilt after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church as well as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church were forcibly incorporated into the Russian Orthodox Church by the Soviet state.

Yet all religious believers were persecuted during the Soviet era. Hence the split between the Kiev and Moscow Patriarchates cannot be boiled down to one church being pro-Soviet or less tainted by collaboration than the other during the Soviet era.

Nor is this a rehash of the Nineteenth century clash between Slavophiles and Westernizers. While this intellectual battle continues to resonate within Russian/Ukrainian intellectual life — it was of consuming importance to the late Alexander Solzhenitsyn — both Orthodox churches come squarely down on the Slavophile side and reject the moral (but not economic innovations) of Western Europe.

Is it then simply a dispute over Ukraine’s economic future? Should it be tied to Russia or join the EU?

Not really. Economics is a proxy for politics which is a proxy for religion which is informed by memory. I would argue the roots of the dispute go back to the country’s experiences in the Twentieth century, especially the Holodomor, the famine engineered by Stalin in the early 1930s to break the Ukraine.

Germany has not yet finished the conversation about its Nazi past — the Ukraine is only just starting to discuss the calamities of the Twentieth century. What we are seeing today is the outworking of the traumas of the past.

First printed in Get Religion.

So what is happening with Anglican gay marriage?: Get Religion, January 28, 2013 January 30, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Church of England, Get Religion, Press criticism.
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Wire service reporting takes a special skill that not all writers posses. In less than 300 words, for most stories, a reporter must present the relevant facts and sufficient context to allow a reader to understand the story, while also be entertaining and interesting.

A problem arises when a wire service story substitutes analysis or opinion for news. While some stories are labeled news analysis or opinion — and as such it is proper to load a story with the author’s views of what should be rather than what is — when a news story substitutes opinion for journalism we have a problem.

An item from the Religion News Service that came across my desk yesterday illustrates this peril. In a story entitled “Church of England’s bishops defer gay marriage decision” that came in at a little under 300 words, RNS devotes only half of the story to reporting on what happened at the meeting of the Church of England’s House of Bishops and what they said and the balance to what RNS thinks we should think about the story.

And RNS neglects to mention the most news worthy portions of the report — that the bishops are hopelessly divided over the issue of homosexuality.

The lede is rather anodyne, but does mention one fact from the report:

CANTERBURY, England (RNS) With little more than two months to go before Britain’s first same-sex marriage, the College of Bishops issued a statement saying that “no change” to the Church of England’s teaching on marriage is proposed or envisioned.

Next comes a sentence providing the setting:

The statement came after an all-day meeting at Church House in central London Monday (Jan. 27) attended by 90 bishops and eight women participant observers.

And then a paragraph on the purpose:

The aim of the meeting was to discuss the recommendationsof the Pilling Report on human sexuality that was published in 2013. That report was the result of a recommendation made by church leaders at the end of the Lambeth Conference in 2008 that Anglicans should embark on a discussion process to help heal the rift on the subject of full rights for Christian homosexuals.

Followed by a quote from the report on what happens next:

“The House of Bishops will be meeting again next month to consider its approach when same sex marriage becomes lawful in England and Wales,” the statement reads.

The story breaks down as news at this point as it turns to argument and opinion with selected polling data, extraneous information about what is happening in Africa and Scotland (items that might be independent stories but no tie is provided to the bishops’ meeting or evidence that it had any relevance to their debate), and closes with an opinion from a Guardian columnist notoriously hostile to the Church of England’s current position.

That is it. Compare this story to the piece that appeared in the Telegraph. Admittedly twice as long as the RNS piece, the Telegraph piece conveyed vastly more information and hardly any commentary.

The key facts of the report, the items with which the Telegraph led its story, were never mentioned by RNS.

The Church of England’s bishops have finally reached agreement on homosexuality – by saying that they might never be able to agree.

They emerged from a frank, day-long meeting behind closed doors, discussing their response to radical proposals to offer wedding-style blessing services for gay couples, and admitted they are deeply divided over the issues and are likely to remain so for years to come.

In a joint statement on behalf of the 90 bishops who attended, they said that “the best they could hope for was “good disagreement”.

The announcement effectively kicks proposals trumpeted before Christmas as a solution to the Church’s wrangles over homosexuality into the long grass.

Even if RNS wanted to keep the story focused on the “no change” angle, they neglected to provide the context that would have explained the importance of this angle. While the bishops do not expect a change to the marriage liturgy — which has not been under consideration — the Pilling Report (the document the bishops discussed) has proposed allowing clergy to perform blessings of same-sex unions.

In short, gay marriage which had been off the table remains off the table, while gay blessings remains a live issue — over which the bishops are hopelessly divided.

Rather than push its own views on the inherent goodness and inevitability of gay marriage in the second half of the story, it may have been better to have offered analysis on the meaning of the fact reported in the opening sentence. Or, they could have stuck to the facts like the Telegraph. Better yet, they could have simply reprinted the bishop’s statement and then supplied a commentary piece labeled as a commentary piece. I’m afraid that this is not a good outing for RNS as a reader will left in the dark as to what is happening with gay marriage in the Church of England.

First printed in Get Religion.

Finding a faith angle in the Ukraine: Get Religion, January 27, 2014 January 30, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Ukrainian Orthodox (Kiev Patriarchate), Ukrainian Orthodox (Moscow Patriarchate).
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A spate of wire service photos from the demonstrations in Kiev may have awakened the Western press to the religious element in the protests. As GetReligion‘s editor tmatt has noted, photojournalism has led the way.

The pictures from Kiev are telling a fascinating story — but unless you know what you are seeing and can interpret the images or place them in their political and religious context, you will not understand what is happening.

The “Eurorevolution” as some Ukrainian newspapers have dubbed the protests is about economics, politics, national identity, and religion. It is being articulated in protests over a trade agreements. Yet the dispute has as just as much to do with the Soviet past and the present battle over gay rights in Russia.

However, the press has so far been unable to get its head round all this. The stories I have seen rarely address more than one of these topics at a time and then do so from an American/English perspective.

Even when there is a direct religion angle to the news, as in this story printed on Jan 27, 2014 on the website of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, western reporters on the ground appear to be unaware of the symbolism (or perhaps iconography as we are talking about the Orthodox) of what they are reporting.

The ABC story entitled “Ukraine protests: Thousands mourn slain protester in Kiev as opposition rejects president’s bid to end unrest” is an example of the Western press’ lack of comprehension of the forces at work. It states in its sub-headline:

Thousands of people have packed into a church in Kiev for the funeral of a young protester shot dead during clashes in the Ukrainian capital last week.

Then the lede reports on the clashes, notes the calls by protestors for the president to step down and then moves to the funeral of one protestor killed in clashes with the security services.

There have been violent clashes in Kiev as demonstrators demand president Viktor Yanukovych stand down for pulling out of a free trade deal with the European Union in favour of closer economic ties with Russia, Ukraine’s former Soviet overlord. The fate of the government remains unclear, with demonstrators vowing to continue protests despite the president’s offer to give top jobs to opposition leaders.

The opposition called off a massive Sunday rally out of respect for the funeral of Mikhail Zhyznevsky, whose coffin was borne through the streets of Kiev before his burial. Zhyznevsky, a Belarussian living in Ukraine, was one of three people officially recognised by the prosecutor’s office as having died from gunshot wounds after clashes last week.

Mourners spilled over into a square outside Saint Michael’s Cathedral on what would have been his 26th birthday, many bringing flowers and waving Ukrainian flags with black ribbons.

The article goes into details of the funeral noting the presence of the chief opposition leaders, and then notes the political symbolism of some of the flags flown at the funeral.

Some red and white nationalist flags from before Belarus became a Soviet republic – currently banned by the country’s authoritarian regime – were also seen at the ceremony.

The article then closes out with reports on the street protests. All of this I assume is correct, but the story leaves out so many pieces of the puzzle that a anglophone reader will not truly understand what is happening.

Among the things the ABC neglects to mention is what sort of church St Michael’s may be. It belongs to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kiev Patriarchate — not the larger Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate.

As I noted in a report last year on GetReligion, there are three principal churches in the Ukraine. One under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church, or Moscow Patriarchate; an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church or the Kiev Patriarchate; and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.

The leaders of the three churches have taken differing stands on the protests, with the Kiev Patriarchate and the Greek Catholics backing the country’s realignment towards Europe, while the Moscow Patriarchate backs the president’s alignment with Vladimir Putin’s regime in Moscow. In late December the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church, including its Ukrainian bishops, released a statement condemning proposals for the Ukraine to move closer to the EU at the expense of its relations with Russia.

 

God was on Russia’s side and God wanted the Ukraine to be linked, forever, with Russia. Faith should determine whether the Ukraine joined the EU or a Russian customs union, the Russian bishops said.

We call upon all to remember: the emancipation of morals will with time fully destroy a people, depriving their and each one’s soul of purity and integrity. As far back as the 4th century, St. John Chrysostom warned: “When families are broken, cities and states will fall”. It is as if the voice of the teacher of the Early Church speaks to our contemporaries. And the holy martyr Metropolitan Vladimir (Bogoyavlensky) of Kiev and Galich noted in his works: “The whole human society is based on the family and in it, like a building in its foundation, it finds its solidity and stability”. That is why it is so important today that we stand for the immutable, God-given moral law concerning both family life and all the spheres of human existence including that of the development of society and state.

What are the Russian bishops talking about? Gay rights.

For the Moscow Patriarchate, the EU’s support for gay rights compared to Russia’s distaste for them should dictate how the Ukraine ordered its economic affairs. There is much much more to it that this — but that is the issue the Russian Orthodox Church has chosen to contest in the fight over an economic customs union.

The Kiev Patriarchate has been equally blunt. In a November speech in Washington Patriarch Filaret of the Kiev Patriarchate was reported to have said the Moscow Patriarchate’s opposition to the Ukraine’s opening to the EU was treasonous:

[T]he Ukrainian Churches would benefit from an Association Agreement. For one thing, it would place the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) in a new situation. With Ukraine committed to Europe and continued independence, that Church would have to decide which side it was on – that of Russia, or that of the Ukrainian people. By siding with Russia, the UOC-MP would assume the role of a fifth column for a hostile state. If, on the other hand, it sided with the Ukrainians, it would be obligated to unite with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate (UOC-KP) into a single Ukrainian Orthodox Church, independent of Moscow.

It is not just the bishops who are linking the political struggle with religion. On Jan 23 Interfax reported the far-right Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, believed the battle in the Ukraine was between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Partition of the Ukraine into an eastern Russian client state and a western European state was the way forward, he argued.

Russians and Russified Ukrainians, and Westerners, who always live in Austro-Hungary, will always be enemies. The only solution is to divide Ukraine based on the civilization principle: Catholics in the West and Orthodox Christians in the East. Otherwise this bloodbath will last a long time.

Before we go too far afield let’s head back to the ABC and St. Michael’s. The article picks up the political – nationalist significance of flags, but overlooks the symbolism of the funeral setting. The original St Michael’s Cathedral was demolished on the orders of Joseph Stalin in 1936, one of the many attempts to destroy religion and Ukrainian nationalism by the Soviet regime.

The cathedral where the service was held was rebuilt in 1999. Holding the funeral of an anti-Moscow protestor at the iconic structure of Ukrainian nationalism and religious identity sends a message, which the ABC missed.

Now I am not arguing that the Kiev protests should be covered as a religion news story. What I am saying is that a good reporter should be as aware of religious symbolism as political symbolism. Religion may not play a part in the iconography of western reporters, but to ignore it in their accounts of the Ukrainian demonstrations misses a major part of this story.

First printed in Get Religion.

Does adultery = prostitution for the WPost?: Get Religion, January 24, 2014 January 30, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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Nothing optional—from homosexuality to adultery—is ever made punishable unless those who do the prohibiting (and exact the fierce punishments) have a repressed desire to participate. As Shakespeare put it in King Lear, the policeman who lashes the whore has a hot need to use her for the very offense for which he plies the lash.

Christopher Hitchens. God is not great: How religions poison everything. (2008) p 40.

A religion ghost rattled its chains in a national security story published by the Washington Post last week entitled: “Navy’s second-ranking civilian resigns amid criminal investigation.” The Post bookends a story about fraud with a sex angle — that equates adultery with prostitution.

It reports a senior Pentagon official has resigned following a probe into a questionable procurement deal. However, the Undersecretary of the Navy was not fired for fraud, but for adultery.

An intensifying criminal investigation of an alleged contracting scheme involving a top-secret Navy project has resulted in the forced resignation of the service’s second-ranking civilian leader, according to officials and court documents. Robert C. Martinage, the acting undersecretary of the Navy, stepped down after his boss, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, asked for his resignation “following a loss of confidence in [his] abilities to effectively perform his duties,” according to a statement the Navy released Wednesday.

Navy officials said Martinage was pressured to quit after investigators looking into his role in the top-secret program discovered that he was having an affair.

The article then relates details of a criminal probe into contracting abuses and we hear no more about adultery, though the Post attempts to pull sex back into the story frame in the closing paragraphs.

 

The silencer investigation is one of two unfolding Navy scandals involving alleged contracting fraud and illicit sex.

In the other case, the Justice Department has arrested two Navy commanders on charges of giving sensitive information to a major Singapore-based defense contractor in exchange for prostitutes, cash bribes and luxury travel. A senior Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent arrested in the same case pleaded guilty to similar charges last month.

Martinage’s resignation was triggered by the fraud probe, but the reason for his dismissal was his adultery. Like David Petraeus before him, Martinage was forced to resign for engaging in behavior considered immoral and unlawful by the armed services. Where he in another branch of government, though his wife would be incensed, I would be surprised if he would have been forced out.

My criticisms are not with the Post‘s reporting on the procurement scandal. Rather it is with the lack of interest in the adultery angle used to dump Martinage in light of major stories like the Petreaus scandal, “Don’t ask, Don’t tell”, as well as less well publicized incidents such as the Malmstrom missile base drug and cheating scandal. The religion ghost I see in this story is the unquestioned assumption that there are two standards of morality for government service, two different rights and wrongs. While it may be there is the right way, the wrong way and the navy way of doing things, the services nevertheless draw upon Americans to man their ranks who have been inculcated with a different moral worldview.

These dueling moralities were discussed time and again when the topic was homosexuality — “Don’t ask, Don’t tell.” Should not the Post have raised an eyebrow in its story when a senior government official was dismissed on a morals charge? Was adultery the stick with which to beat Martinage, when the real reason may have been alleged corruption or political in-fighting?

And, Is adultery comparable to prostitution? The Post links the Martinage case to the bribery of serving officers though the procurement of prostitutes by a contractor by labeling both “illicit sex”. Is this fair? Is this true?

Is the Post making a moral judgement in this case that it would not make in similar non-navy circumstances, or is it restating the navy’s view or right and wrong?

Is there not a whiff in this story of Christopher Hitchen’s warning of the hypocrisy of moralism?

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

First printed in Get Religion.

Schiavo Redux: Get Religion, January 21, 2014 January 30, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Abortion/Euthanasia/Biotechnology, Get Religion.
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A French court has ordered a Reims hospital to provide nutrition and hydration to 38-year old quadriplegic Vincent Lambert, who has been in a state of minimal consciousness (en état de conscience minimale) for five years following a motorcycle accident.

Last Thursday a tribunal administratif overruled the wishes of the hospital, Lambert’s wife and some of his siblings who wanted to cut off intravenous feeding. The court sided with his parents and his other siblings, who as observant Catholics, objected to euthanizing him. Le Monde reports the Lambert case will reopen the contentious debate about euthanasia, the value of life and human dignity in France.

Have we not heard this before?

The Lambert case has a number of parallels with Terri Schiavo saga in America: a spouse ready to move on vs. Catholic parents not ready to let go; no clear statement of the patient’s wishes, conflicting medical terminology of persistent vegetative state v. minimal consciousness; political intervention by Congress and partisan debates in the French parliament; and a high profile role played by Catholic bishops. While it is early days yet, the most striking difference is the different decisions reached by the courts.

In Florida the courts came down on the side of death, even though the presumption of the law is in favor of life, while in France they have chosen life, even though euthanasia is legal.

The hospital authorities can now appeal against the decision before France’s Constitutional Council. The French press reports the Lambert case comes amidst a growing social and political debate over legalizing assisted suicide and euthanasia. President Francois Hollande this week entered into the fray, saying he favored the legalization of euthanasia, but covered his bases by saying it was appropriate only under strict government scrutiny.

A 2005 law permits passive euthanasia, where a person causes death by withholding or withdrawing treatment necessary to maintain life. According to Aujourd’hui en France the court ruled against death as Lambert’s condition was not terminal.

Le tribunal a notamment «jugé que la poursuite du traitement n’était ni inutile, ni disproportionnée et n’avait pas pour objectif le seul maintien artificiel de la vie et a donc suspendu la décision d’interrompre le traitement». La juridiction a par ailleurs estimé que «c’est à tort que le CHU de Reims avait considéré que M. Lambert pouvait être regardé comme ayant manifesté sa volonté d’interrompre ce traitement».

The court’s ruling “held that continuing treatment was neither unnecessary nor disproportionate and was not intended only for the artificial preservation of life and accordingly suspended the decision to stop treatment.” The court further held that “it is wrong for [the hospital] to have decided that Mr. Lambert could have been regarded as having expressed a desire to discontinue treatment.”

Le Figaro explained the court in Chalons-en-Champagne ruled against ending Lambert’s life as he was neither “sick nor at the end of life … “, « ni malade ni en fin de vie ».

The French newspapers I have seen have done an excellent job is covering this story. The Aujourd’hui en France story quotes doctors and family members on both sides of the debate, a spokesman for the French Episcopal Conference, and the politician who introduced the 2005 euthanasia law to parliament.

Le Figaro and Le Monde are equally even handed in the sourcing of their stories and in the description of Lambert’s condition and the court ruling.

How different the French reporting on Vincent Lambert has been so far compared to the job the American press did with the Terri Schiavo case. It will be fascinating to see if the New York Times and other outlets on this side of the Atlantic pick up the story, and whether they use the phrase “brain dead” — a legal not medical term the French press have so far avoided.

First printed in Get Religion.

Where’s the religion at Washington’s National Cathedral?: Get Religion, January 16, 2014 January 16, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, The Episcopal Church, Washington.
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The financial difficulties facing the Washington National Cathedral were the subject of a local news item in the Washington Post this week.

The basic story line is valid: “cathedral short of cash seeks creative ways to generate income.” But as  GetReligion editor tmatt observed in an an impromptu story conference, this piece had journalistic “holes you can drive a ’60s VW Microbus through… .”

The few errors in Anglican polity found in the story would likely distress only the perpetually aggrieved, but the real difficulty is that the Post declined to ask or explore the question: “why?”

It assumes the worldview of the liberal wing of mainline churches, making this the measure of all things religious. By not asking “why” this story could just as well be written about the troubles facing the local symphony orchestra or art museum.

I was hesitant in taking this story, however, as my theological sympathies are not with the cathedral’s leadership. The Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of the Diocese of Washington’s cathedral, last year told the Post he was a “non-theistic Christian.” The Aug 1, 2013 story in the Style section penned by Sally Quinn quoted him as saying:

Jesus doesn’t use the word God very much,” he says. “He talks about his Father.”

Hall explains: “Where I am now, how do I understand Jesus as a son of God that’s not magical? I’m trying to figure out Jesus as a son of God and a fully human being, if he has both fully human and a fully divine set of chromosomes. .?.?. He’s not some kind of superman coming down. God is present in all human beings. Jesus was an extraordinary human being. Jesus didn’t try to convert. He just had people at his table.”

It is the glory, or the curse, of Anglicanism that the ranks of its clergy contain men and women who think this way — and others who see this as nonsense.

The divide is not merely local or new — in 2009 I interviewed the Argentine leader of the Anglican churches in southern South America and he told me that meaningful debate between left and right was not possible. He and his conservative colleagues from Africa, India and Asia believed the leader of the American Episcopal church was “not a Christian” as they understood the term.

The disdain does not go one way. Liberal American and English Anglicans have described the theological and intellectual worldview of their third world confreres as being one step above witchcraft.

The split between left and right, liberals and conservatives, progressives and traditionalists — none of these terms adequately describes the combatants — did not arise in 2003 with the election of a “gay” bishop in the Episcopal Church. While there have always been factions within the Anglican world for centuries — high/low, Evangelical/Anglo-Catholic — the latest Anglican wars began in the 30s and hit their stride in the 60s.

Fights over women clergy, premarital sex, abortion, euthanasia, contraception/family planning, divorce and remarriage, pacifism, the revision of the Book of Common Prayer, Vietnam and the civil rights movement and its various permutations of race, gender, class, ethnicity and sexual orientation have been debated ever since.

The temptation I faced was to cloak my criticisms of the underlying issues in the story with the cover of discussing proper journalism and write about bad religion rather than bad journalism. Hence, my reluctance to jump on this story.

What then is the GetReligion angle? What holes are there in this story through which I may drive my VW microbus? The lede states:

When Congress authorized the creation of Washington National Cathedral in 1893, it envisioned a national spiritual home. Decades later, it became a setting for presidential funerals, sermons by the likes of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and worship services for epic national tragedies such as Newtown and Sept. 11.

But would it have thought of tai chi and yoga mats?

The article describes a program of events and activities designed to bring people into the cathedral. The story then moves to context:

As mellow as it all sounds, the week-long public program — “Seeing Deeper” — is part of a highly orchestrated drive by the nation’s second-largest cathedral to remake itself and survive in an era when religious institutions are struggling. And what’s more institutional than a huge cathedral?

Washington National Cathedral, one of the Episcopal Church’s three major U.S. cathedrals, was already forced to halve its $27 million budget in the mid-2000s because of falling revenue before an earthquake in 2011 caused damage tallying an additional $26 million. Although it is now in the black, it must raise its roughly $13 million annual operating budget as well as the remaining $19 million for earthquake repairs.

And then moves to a discussion of the dean’s plans to raise income and attendance and to be a voice for progressive values in Washington.

What is missing from this story, though, is a nod to the reasons for the cash shortfall — apart from the occasional earthquake and economic downturn.

The article makes this assertion:

Experts say cathedrals across Europe and the United States have had to remake themselves as religious affiliation has become much looser and financial models built on membership have broken down.

But we do not hear from the experts. Is this true for all cathedrals, or just Episcopal ones? How is the Catholic cathedral in Washington doing? How are other Episcopal cathedrals handling the new faith environment Dean Hall describes in the piece? These questions should have been raised, or at least acknowledged.

Where are the facts and figures about the Washington National Cathedral’s attendance and income? They are easily found on the national Episcopal Church’s website. It reports “pledge and plate income”, the amount of money the cathedral (whose formal name is the Cathedral of SS Peter & Paul) collected from its parishioners has grown from $400,000 p.a. in 2002 to $2 million in $2012.

At the same time Sunday attendance grew over the last ten years. The figures for Dean Hall’s first year in office have not been published, but should not the story have spoken to these issues.

And, have the Anglican wars played a part in the cathedral’s financial problems? While the amount of money generated by those worshiping on site has grown, giving to support the cathedral from the wider Episcopal world has fallen off. Why?  The article states fundraising was easier for the cathedral when it sought to finish construction — an 82 year building campaign.

Could the cathedral’s whole-hearted adoption of the progressive religious and political agenda have anything to do with the little old ladies in Alabama cutting back on their gifts? The article does not ask this question.

As written, the article could have described the problems facing any graying urban institution. Swap out the names and you could recycle this as a story about an art museum, library, orchestra, ballet or other worthy cultural institution. Perhaps the real story here is that the Washington National Cathedral is not seen as a religious institution by the Post but as a temple of ethical culture?

First printed at Get Religion.

WPost whoppers about the Muslim Brotherhood: Get Religion, January 14, 2014 January 16, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Islam, Press criticism.
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Claims of bias and inaccurate reporting have dogged the Western press’s coverage of Egypt since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. A story in this week’s Washington Post entitled “In Egypt, many shrug as freedoms disappear” will do little to restore confidence.

The article eschews the classical news story format in favor of an impressions and perceptions style. Its lede states:

The charges are often vague. The evidence is elusive. Arrests occur swiftly, and the convictions follow. And there is little transparency in what analysts have called the harshest political crackdown in Egypt in decades.

But many Egyptians say they are all right with that.

There is a growing sense here in the Arab world’s largest country that the best path to stability — after three years of political turmoil — might be to do things the military’s way: crush the Islamists who made people angry enough to support a coup; silence dissent; and ask very few questions.

The article begins with an opinion as to the mood of the Egyptian people. Is this then a news analysis article or a news article?

If a news article facts and figures should follow to support the claims in the lede. What “evidence”? How many arrests and convictions? Who is being arrested and why? Which analysts claim the army’s rule has led to the “harshest political crackdown in Egypt in decades”? Who is being censored and why? These details are mostly absent.

A thematic diagram of this story suggests this is an opinion piece — a commentary offering the author’s view of the meaning of events, rather than a report on events. Following the lede we have a quote from a government spokesman defending the violent crackdown; a man in the street supporting the crackdown and a Washington-based expert explaining popular support for the crackdown.

This all leads to the central argument of the story.

The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties captured the lion’s share of the vote in Egypt’s first democratic elections two years ago. The Brotherhood had renounced violence decades earlier and gained popularity by establishing a vast network of charitable organizations.

These days, those images of benign Islamist leadership have been erased from many minds by the hyper-nationalist rhetoric promoted by the government, which has portrayed Brotherhood members as bloodthirsty terrorists bent on destroying the nation.

An assortment of disconnected facts are presented to support this argument, coupled with further pro-Brotherhood arguments from the Washington Post. Assertions are piled on assertions and dubious statements presented uncritically.

The government’s crackdown has been so pervasive — and the cult of support for military leader Abdel Fatah al-Sissi so far-reaching — that the Brotherhood has likened Egypt’s transgression to “fascism,” as have some liberal observers.

Is labeling support for al-Sissi a “cult” fair? Fascism? Is citing a foreign diplomat as a “liberal” observer appropriate? The US embassy and the former ambassador have been denounced for its pro-Brotherhood statements and have little credibility in Egypt — are Western diplomats an appropriate source on this point?

The article closes with a pessimistic quote from an Egypt expert at Harvard. Given six decades of military rule following the overthrow of King Farouk it was foolish to expect Egypt to take to democracy, he argues.

No mention of the reasons for the popular revolt against the Brotherhood are given in this story. Not only does the Washington Post not “get politics” in Egypt, it does not “get religion”.

There is no sense of context or balance in this Washington Post piece.It is ill-informed, in-curious and overtly partisan. As a news story it is an embarrassment to the Post. Not quite Walter Duranty material — but it does come close in that it too places ideology above reality.

Comparing the tone, style and use of facts in this story to a similar item published by the avowedly pro-Muslim Brotherhood Al Jazeera network will not dispel concerns the Western press are flacks who believe the Muslim Brotherhood is a force for good in Egypt.

Thirty million Egyptians would tend to disagree with this sentiment — that is how many people took to the streets to demand the army step in and remove the Muslim Brotherhood government. Egypt’s Christians along with the other religious minorities who were persecuted by the Muslim Brotherhood — e.g., murdered, churches burnt, schools ransacked — are also likely to take issue with this whitewash.

Arab commentators have also denounced the American press for offering what they see as a false narrative. Writing in the Egypt’s largest circulation daily newspaper, the pro-government al-Ahram, Abdel-Moneim Said wrote:

The one-sided version of post-30 June realities in Egypt that The New York Times presents is nothing short of a travesty.

Al-Ahram accused the Times of ignorance and deliberate bias. It viewed the unfolding political scene in Egypt through ideological lenses.

The NYT’s original sin is that it refuses to recognize the mass uprising on 30 June 2013 as a revolution whereas it does recognize as such the January 2011 uprising, which succeeded in overthrowing a tyrannical regime, even though the number of people who participated in that revolution were about half as many as those who took part in the 30 June demonstrations. In both cases, it was the military that shifted the balances on the ground and that channeled a massive grassroots movement into political processes that brought the country back from the brink of conflict and civil war. But the NYT doesn’t see it that way. In its opinion, the military’s intervention in the first case was not a coup because it eventually brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power whereas its intervention in the second case was a coup because it ushered the Muslim Brotherhood out of power and into forms of “resistance.” Not only do such double standards obscure the truth, they also give way to a number of historical misconceptions regarding the idea of “revolution” or mass uprising in general, and what has happened in Egypt in particular.

No mention of religion appears in this piece save as a descriptor for the Brotherhood. Perhaps the cult like support from the Copts for al-Sissi may have something to do with the Brotherhood’s persecution and pogroms against Egypt’s Christians? Failing to discuss religion when writing about political Islam is an oversight. Is the Washington Post guilty too of propounding a revisionist history of the Arab Spring? Is it a shill for the Muslim Brotherhood’s view of Egypt’s recent history? If this article is an example of the Post‘s reporting from Egypt, then it is guilty as charged.

First printed in Get Religion.

No sex please, we’re Indian: Get Religion, January 9, 2014 January 9, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Hinduism, Press criticism.
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Rape and religion returned to the front pages of India’s newspapers this week after a judge in Delhi stated premarital sex was sinful.

The Hindu reported:

Pre-marital sex is “immoral” and against the “tenets of every religion”, a Delhi court has said while holding that every act of sexual intercourse between two adults on the promise of marriage does not become rape. Additional Sessions Judge Virender Bhat also held that a woman, especially grown up, educated and office-going, who has sexual intercourse on the assurance of marriage does so “at her own peril”.

According to The Times of India, Judge Bhat, who presides over a court set up last year in response to the nationally publicized gang rape and murder wrote:

When a grown up woman subjects herself to sexual intercourse with a friend or colleague on the latter’s promise that he would marry her, she does so at her own peril. She must be taken to understand the consequences of her act and must know that there is no guarantee that the boy would fulfil his promise. He may or may not do so. She must understand that she is engaging in an act which not only is immoral but also against the tenets of every religion. No religion in the world allows pre-marital sex.

The BBC picked up this story as well. It added this explanation for Western audiences in its story “Indian judge says pre-marital sex ‘against religion’”:

Pre-marital sex remains a cultural taboo in India. Last year, a court in Delhi said live-in relationships were immoral and an “infamous product of Western culture”.

But the BBC goes no further in offering context or an explanation (it appears to be a re-write of an AFP story, which may be a mitigating factor). Even though the lede and headline of the BBC story makes explicit reference to religion, this angle is not developed. This criticism does not fall only on the BBC, the Indian press has also shied away from developing the religious angle to this story and has been content to publish only the judge’s obiter ditca.

The press has not remained silent in discussing Judge Bhat’s remarks — but the conversation has been channeled into discussions of gender and women’s rights.

Why the reticence? In a series of GetReligion posts, TMatt has addressed whether the Indian press avoids reporting on the religion and caste angles to a story. In a 2010 post entitled “Life and death (and faith) in India,” he wrote:

… I was struck by one consistent response from the audience, which I would estimate was about 50 percent Hindu, 25 percent Muslim and 25 percent Christian. When asked what was the greatest obstacle to accurate, mainstream coverage of events and trends in religion, the response of one young Muslim male was blunt. When our media cover religion news, he said, more people end up dead. Other students repeated this theme during our meetings.

In other words, when journalists cover religion stories, this only makes the conflicts worse. It is better to either ignore them or to downplay them, masking the nature of the conflicts behind phrases such as “community conflicts” or saying that the events are cased by disputes about “culture” or “Indian values.”

The Indian press as well as the BBC and the wire service reports on Judge Bhat’s decision are continuing this trend of avoiding religion in reporting. An in depth article from the Wall Street Journal last November entitled “Indian Rape Law Offers Desperate Last Resort” sticks to culture only.

While the Indian press may be restrained to report on religion, should the BBC frame the story in a faith-free atmosphere? Were India a fiercely secular society, such an omission might be justified. But it is not — nor are the rates of pre-marital sex comparable to the West. A study by the International Institute for Population Studies estimated that 3 per cent of women had engaged in pre-marital sex.

Why? Perhaps it is because sexuality for a woman in the Vedic tradition of Hindu culture is controlled by her age and marital status. It frames virginity, chastity and celibacy as being appropriate for distinct periods of life. Virginity is expected of a woman before marriage and chastity is expected within marriage. Celibacy, as signaled by an ascetic withdrawal from the obligations of marriage and family life, takes place at the end of life with abstinence being a liberation of the self from worldly attachments. While Tantric cults exalted women in worship, their sexual mores did not extend to a modern notion of female sexual autonomy. While the ideal seldom governs the real, it must be stated that pre-marital sex simply does not work within the Hindu worldview.

Discussions of sexuality in India seem to go in two directions: blame the English and the golden past.

As the BBC noted an Indian court blames the penchant for some to engage in premarital sex as an “infamous product of Western culture.” Homosexuality and the country’s sodomy laws are also laid at the door of the British too.

Or we go to the opposite extreme and hear of a mythologized past where openness and a lack of hypocrisy ruled. This is the Kama Sutra narrative, but it is not history. It is more a product of the nationalist aspirations of the rising middle classes. A macedoine of anti-colonialism with a dash of “Orientalism”, seasoned with a repressed Westerners and liberated Orientals. However the Kama Sutra narrative of Indian sexuality is largely irrelevant to an understanding of its modern manifestations and as sociologist Sanjay Srivastava of the Institute of Economic Growth in Delhi writes:

is best confined to expensive coffee table books of our ‘glorious’ past that was supposedly destroyed by foreign invaders.

There is no middle ground in reporting on sex in India. Silence or secularism governs the discussion. While this may be the environment in which the Indian press must work, should we not expect more of the BBC and the western wire services?

First printed in Get Religion.

Is new Calvinism new news for the New York Times?: Get Religion, January 6, 2014 January 6, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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Mark Antony:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him;
The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones,
So let it be with Caesar …

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare. Act 3, Scene 2.

Should we bury the New York Times today, or praise it for reporting on the resurgence of Calvinism?

Mind you, the Times does not have the story wrong, but it’s timing is bit off. This story has been making the rounds of the religious and secular press for close to a decade, while claims of a Calvinist revival have appeared every few generations in America.

Has the New York Times made the same error as the Washington Post, which last month reported as new news the interest in liturgy by non-liturgical Christians? Or, has the Times gathered the disparate elements of this story and repackaged it for a secular, theologically illiterate audience?

In the circles in which I travel, this story was greeted with ridicule. The Institute on Religion and Democracy’s  Barton Gingerich (with pith and vim) encapsulated the views of  the critics.

Johnny-Come-freaking-Lately. The Restless and Reformed Movement has been running at full steam for at least half a decade now. Remember when religion reporters for newspapers had to, you know, keep on the cutting edge of things?

Ridicule or praise? Perhaps snark? Which shall it be?

The article entitled “Evangelicals Find Themselves in the Midst of a Calvinist Revival” published in the January 4, 2014 edition reports:

Evangelicalism is in the midst of a Calvinist revival. Increasing numbers of preachers and professors teach the views of the 16th-century French reformer. Mark Driscoll, John Piper and Tim Keller — megachurch preachers and important evangelical authors — are all Calvinist. Attendance at Calvin-influenced worship conferences and churches is up, particularly among worshipers in their 20s and 30s.

The article defines its terms stating:

Calvinism is a theological orientation, not a denomination or organization. The Puritans were Calvinist. Presbyterians descend from Scottish Calvinists. Many early Baptists were Calvinist. But in the 19th century, Protestantism moved toward the non-Calvinist belief that humans must consent to their own salvation — an optimistic, quintessentially American belief. In the United States today, one large denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, is unapologetically Calvinist.

Also, it briefly mentions the battle over Calvinism within the Southern Baptist Convention, noting that “in the last 30 years or so, Calvinists have gained prominence in other branches of Protestantism.”

Support for the Times‘ thesis comes through an interview with Mark Dever of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, a “man in the street”, Collin Hansen, the author of “Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey With the New Calvinists” and academics who in turn condemn the phenomena and opine that it might catch on even in liberal denominations. (Oh, and as an aside, why has the Times dropped the use of the honorific “the Rev.”? It does not appear in this story but several ordained ministers are quoted or cited. Get an Associated Press Stylebook, people.)

 

The article closes out with a quote from a doctoral student working on the topic of the new Calvinists.

“Ten years ago, everyone was talking about the ‘emergent church,’ ” Mr. Vermurlen said. “And five years ago, people were talking about the ‘missional church.’ And now ‘new Calvinism.’ I don’t want to say the new Calvinism is a fad, but I’m wondering if this is one of those things American evangelicals want to talk about for five years, and then they’ll go on living their lives and planting their churches. Or is this something we’ll see 10 or 20 years from now?”

All well and good — but Collin Hansen’s book was published in 2008 and in 2006 he was writing about this topic in articles published in Christianity Today.

In 2009 Time magazine listed Calvinism as one of the 10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now.” The article stated:

Calvinism is back, and not just musically. John Calvin’s 16th century reply to medieval Catholicism’s buy-your-way-out-of-purgatory excesses is Evangelicalism’s latest success story, complete with an utterly sovereign and micromanaging deity, sinful and puny humanity, and the combination’s logical consequence, predestination: the belief that before time’s dawn, God decided whom he would save (or not), unaffected by any subsequent human action or decision.

Time‘s 2009 story makes the same general points as its 1947 article “Religion: Calvinist Comeback?”, which posited a new interest among younger clergy in traditional Reformed doctrines. And on a personal note — when I was a student in the 80′s and 90s the Calvinist comeback was a lively topic of debate. I distinctly recall (then Fr. but later Cardinal) Avery Dulles waxing lyrical on the errors of the new Calvinism from across the tables at Mory’s. New and neo-Calvinism was then engaged in a battle with Narrative Theology or the Yale School for the minds of conservative theological students — a battle that still is being waged today between the Calvinists and the followers of Stanley Hauerwas or Alasdair MacIntyre.

How then is this new news? Did the Times err in ending its story with the fad quote? While the top of the story mentions that this has been an issue for thirty years, the close leaves the impression that this is a new issue. The criticisms that this a “late to the story” story would not be as compelling were it not for this closing paragraph.

The story as it stands, however, falls short. While there are ample quotes about this phenomena along with a brief discussion of its merits, the New York Times erred in not placing this story in a wider historical context, nor addressing what to knowledgeable readers is the obvious problem of this being an old story.

Verdict: I have come to bury Caesar the Times, not to praise him it.

First printed in Get Religion.

Francis the homophile: Get Religion, January 3, 2014 January 6, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Human Sexuality --- The gay issue, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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With but a few exceptions, the “Francis is nicer than Benedict” meme continues to entrance the Anglophone press.

It appears that many who were once hostile to the Catholic Church have been encouraged to see in the new pontiff a reflection of their own social and political desires. Some of these assertions about what the pope believes and what he will do as head of the Catholic Church have bordered on the fantastic.

In choosing the pope as its “person of the year”, Time magazine’s editor Nancy Gibb wrote Francis had:

done something remarkable: he has not changed the words, but he’s changed the music.

The new pope was a kinder, gentler man, Time believed, who had rejected “church dogma.” He was teaching a softer, more inclusive Catholicism, noting his:

focus on compassion, along with a general aura of merriment not always associated with princes of the church, has made Francis something of a rock star.

This is rather mild compared to some liberal paeans to the pontiff. The Guardian‘s Jonathan Freedland quipped “Francis could replace Obama as the pin-up on every liberal and leftist wall.”

When the gay-lifestyle magazine, The Advocate, named Francis its “person of the year”, it explained its choice by stating:

Pope Francis’s stark change in rhetoric from his two predecessors — both who were at one time or another among The Advocate‘s annual Phobie Awards — makes what he’s done in 2013 all the more daring. First there’s Pope John Paul II, who gay rights activists protested during a highly publicized visit to the United States in 1987 because of what had become known as the “Rat Letter” — an unprecedented damning of homosexuality as “intrinsically evil.” It was written by one of his cardinals, Joseph Ratzinger, who went on to become Pope Benedict XVI. Since 1978, one of those two men had commanded the influence of the Vatican — until this year. …

The Advocate saw in Francis the potential for change in church teaching.

Francis’s view on how the Catholic Church should approach LGBT people was best explained in his own words during an in-depth interview with America magazine in September. He recalled, “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person.”

While these stories have focused on Francis in the context of feature or “people” stories, the meme has also made its way into straight news reporting. A story in Saturday’s  Independent illustrates the Francis effect on reporters. “Pope Francis tripled crowds at Vatican during 2013″  should have been a straightforward story. It begins with:

Pope Francis attracted over 6.6 million viewers to his audiences, Masses and other events in Vatican City in 2013. Since being elected for the position in March, the first Jesuit Pope attracted almost triple the number of visitors that gathered to watch former Pope Benedict XVI speak at Vatican City in the whole of 2012.

The story shifts as it then notes Francis had been named by Time and The Advocate as their “person of the year” with a quote used as a segue to what it sees as the pope’s contradictory statements on homosexuality.

However, his track-record as a champion for gay rights in the Catholic Church was marred after he apparently expressed “shock” at gay adoption in December 2013. The Bishop of Malta alleged that Pope Francis gave him his blessing to “speak out” against the Maltese Civil Unions Bill that aims to legalise gay adoption, in his Christmas Sermon.

The first half of the story prompts me to ask, so what? What does the rise in visitors to St Peter’s Square mean? Is this a gauge for something, if so what? What happened to the number of visitors to St Peter’s when Benedict became pope? Why is this news, and not a “fun fact”?

Should we assume, as The Independent does, that the changing tone on homosexuality has prompted a rise in the number of visitors to the Vatican? The Independent may think this to be the case, but from where does the evidence or authority for this assertion arise?

The second half of the story is bizarre. The Independent assumes Francis is a “champion for gay rights”. What does that mean? Is he pushing for a change in doctrine or discipline? When did this happen?  Or has The Independent confused style with substance?

The two parts to this piece, short as it is, do not hang together as a news story. There is no context, no balance, no sourcing to this piece. Though presented as a news story, it is an editorial making the argument that the church should get with the times and ditch its old fashioned teachings on human sexuality — “See how the people flock to Francis because he is a champion of gay rights!”

Should any news story make the assumptions The Independent makes about Pope Francis? Not if they want to practice quality journalism. It has confused fantasy with reality.

First printed in Get Religion.

Haaretz and Jewish resistance to the Holocaust: Get Religion, December 31, 2013 January 5, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Judaism, Press criticism.
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Do you remember Tom Lehrer, the composer/comedian/mathematician? I have long loved his music, which I discovered as a young boy when exploring my parent’s record collection.

A recent article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz set spinning in my head one of Lehrer’s LPs this Christmas and to the embarrassment of my children I broke into song, serenading them with the refrain from Lehrer’s satiric gem National Brotherhood Week (1965).

Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,
And the Catholics hate the Protestants,
And the Hindus hate the Moslems,
And everybody hates the Jews.

My fertile mind however, added an additional line — “And Haaretz does too!”

Hates the Jews that is.

How else can one explain this article, “The Myth of the Warsaw Ghetto” published last week in the leftist Israeli daily? Writing on the website of Commentary magazine, Eugene Kontorovich summarized the article’s thesis, stating that Haaretz believed that if:

the fighters had not been so uppity, if they had not made a fuss–then the Nazis, who had already murdered 500,000 Jews of Warsaw, might have let the remaining 50,000 live. Maybe! It is not a new argument. Rather, the author amazingly resurrects and endorses the arguments of the Judernat, the Jewish collaboration government of the Ghetto. With every new deportation, they urged restrain with increasing urgency–maybe they will let the rest of us live, and if you fight, all the past deportations would be a sacrifice in vain.

Haaretz’ story discusses the controversy over the number of Jews who fought and the number of Nazis killed, and also offers its view of the political and national symbolism of the Warsaw uprising for modern-day Israel. The article concludes:

The 50,000 or so Jews who remained in the Warsaw Ghetto after the transports of 1942 had survived, as in other ghettos in occupied Poland, largely because they worked in factories for Germany. Many of these factories were owned and managed by Germans, who negotiated with the German authorities and the SS to hold on to their workers.

In light of all this, the Jews’ belief grew that somehow they could survive. They had two bad options: Flee the ghetto to the hostile Polish side or continue working in the German factories. Both options meant living day to day in the hope the war would end quickly.

At the end of the war, hundreds of thousands of Jews survived in Poland and Germany. In Warsaw alone the number of survivors is estimated at about 25,000. Death in battle, as the ghetto fighters planned, did not keep with the intentions of the vast majority of Jews remaining. … Thus the question has never been raised: What right did a small group of young people have to decide the fate of the 50,000 Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto?

Commentary was scathing in its response. Haaretz had:

shown that it exists in a world entirely divorced from any Jewish consensus, and cannot claim the title of loyal opposition. It has crossed all prior bounds of decency and published a criticism of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, calling it a “myth,” and accusing its heroes of being responsible for the ultimate liquidation of the Ghetto. Despite disagreements on diplomatic, territorial, and religious issues, the memory of the Holocaust–its heroes and victims–had been the great unifying porch in post-War Jewish consciousness. Now the Holocaust is fair game too.

It concluded:

There can be no more terrible case of “blaming the victim” than laying any responsibility for the liquidation of the Ghetto at the feet of the fighters. It is true, the Jewish “communal leadership”–and the rabbis–opposed the uprising. That is what made it brave. The Judenrat had no right to decide if residents of the Ghetto died in gas chambers or fighting for their freedom.

Fascinating stuff — but where is the Get Religion hook? It comes in the absence of any mention of religion in the Haaretz story, ascribing all of the symbolism and memory evoked by the Uprising in political and ideological terms. No faith component to this story is offered. And, the Holocaust I would argue was one of the most profound events in terms of its impact of Judaism and Christianity in the modern era.

Commentary‘s statements too are incomplete on this point. Was it true that all Jewish religious leaders supported the Judenrat in opposing the Uprising? This thesis is challenged by a recent article in the Jerusalem Post.

The last rabbi in the Warsaw Ghetto” states that the campaign of extermination by Nazis prompted a rethinking of traditional Jewish responses to persecution.

In a meeting of the Warsaw Jewish leadership in January 1943, Rabbi [Menachem] Ziemba declared that traditional martyrdom in the face of persecution was no longer a viable response. He argued that “sanctification of the Divine Name” must manifest itself in resistance to the enemy. “In the present,” Ziemba told the ghetto leaders, “we are faced by an arch foe, whose unparalleled ruthlessness and total annihilation purposes know no bounds.

Halachah [Jewish law] demands that we fight and resist to the very end with unequaled determination and valor for the sake of Sanctification of the Divine Name.”

My impression from the Haaretz article of Jewish self-hatred is given a political twist by Commentary.

Ultimately, the article’s target is not really the Holocaust. The author objects to the glorification of the glorified by the Zionist movement in the early years of the state. Perhaps the fighters should have awaited deportation and seen themselves as “sacrifices for peace,” to use the buzzword of the Second Intifada.

No doubt this is why Haaretz has, somewhat oddly for a newspaper, chosen to revisit the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The newspaper has long tried to persuade Jews in Israel that they need no longer fight–they can trust someone to save them. John Kerry is coming to Jerusalem next month with just such a pitch. In order to advance their political agenda, the newspaper does not stop at besmirching one of the proudest pages of our history, nor at aligning themselves with the most shameful, the Judenrat.

The sanctified memory of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is not based on its military significance, its size–or its conformity to the Zionist ethos. Rather, it is the considered, consensus judgment of Jewish history that the fighters were right.

While I would not go so far as Commentary in calling this article “vile”, it is deeply problematic. Here I speak not of the questions of how many Jews fought, how many Nazis died, and how the Uprising shaped the new state of Israel’s psyche — the problems laid out by the Commentary piece. Rather it is the question of historical revisionism and journalism.

Viewing one of the seminal events of the modern era in political/secular terms, ignoring facts and views that challenge a thesis renders the story incomplete.

First printed in Get Religion.

WPost discovers the bleeding obvious about liturgy: Get Religion, December 27, 2013 January 5, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Hymnody/Liturgy, Press criticism.
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Basil Fawlty: Can’t we get you on Mastermind, Sybil? Next contestant: Mrs. Sybil Fawlty from Torquay. Specialist subject – the bleeding obvious.

Fawlty Towers: Basil the Rat (#2.6)” (1979)

The Washington Post reports some progressive Christians are unsatisfied with contemporary worship and are seeking more traditional ways to do church.

The article “Americans turning to ancient music, practices to experience their faith” highlights the sense of incompleteness, of liturgical inadequacy felt by some Christians this Christmas.

It begins:

In our of-the-minute culture, Santa seems old-fashioned. But Christians are exploring far older ways of observing the holiday.

In the living room this week along with the pile of presents, there’s more likely to be a wreath or calendar marking Advent, the month leading up to Christmas that symbolizes the waiting period before Jesus’s birth. Christmas services largely dominated by contemporary music are mixing in centuries-old chants and other a cappella sounds. Holiday sermons on topics such as prayer, meditation and finding a way to observe the Sabbath are becoming more common.

These early — some use the term “ancient” — spiritual practices are an effort to bring what feels to some like greater authenticity to perhaps the most thoroughly commercialized of religious holidays, say pastors, religious music experts and other worship-watchers.

I find this article problematic. On the surface a reader unacquainted with this topic might assume this is a balanced story reporting on a new trend in American religion.

It offers vignettes that illustrate the phenomena and offers four voices to flesh out the story: Ed Stetzer, Brian McLaren, Nadia Bolz-Weber and a “man in the street,” or more precisely a lay Catholic woman from suburban Washington. A knowledgeable Washington Post reader might know that one of these voices is conservative: Stetzer, while McLaren and Bolz-Weber are progressive Christians.

As an aside, why does the Post omit “the Rev” before the names of the three clergy on first mention? And, is Brian McLaren an Evangelical? Is that the label he gives to himself, or is it a descriptor given him by the Post? But that is a battle for another day.

Adding Stetzer into the mix to balance McLaren and Bolz-Weber gives the impression of balance, and the pithy quotes offered by the three would lead one to believe that a cultural-religious trend is emerging in American religious life.

My concern is that this trend is about 175 years old. The article is written from a perspective that the progressive wing of the old main line churches is the fulcrum around which American religious life pivots.

“Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail” is an article that has been written several hundred times over the past fifty years, reporting on Christians from non-liturgical traditions entering the Episcopal Church due to its liturgy.

Episcopalians and other Protestants have been entering the Catholic Church since the time of John Henry Newman in large part because of a belief in the inadequacies of their tradition measured against the doctrine, discipline and worship of Rome.

And the Orthodox Churches in America over the past twenty five years  have seen an influx of ex-Protestants who are drawn to that tradition’s “ancient” liturgies and spiritual vigor.

All of what the Post describes about the dissatisfaction some are finding in their “seeker” friendly churches has been reported for decades.

Nor is this a phenomena of movement between faith traditions. Renewing the Catholic Church through the reform of its liturgy was one of, if not the greatest achievement of the papacy of Benedict XVI (from this Episcopalian’s perspective).

When he issued his Summorum Pontificum , allowing the older form of Mass t0 be used once more, Benedict restored to the church the liturgy that had shaped that church’s life for centuries — words that shaped Catholic culture, informed its teaching, instructed its arts and nourished its saints (and even a few sinners).

In a 2006 interview with Zenit, the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus spoke of the necessity of reforming modern Catholic worship:

Q: A major theme in your book is the importance of a revitalized liturgy for renewing Catholic life. How do you see that occurring?

Father Neuhaus: Don’t get me started. The banality of liturgical texts, the unsingability of music that is deservedly unsung, the hackneyed New American Bible prescribed for use in the lectionary, the stripped-down architecture devoted to absence rather than Presence, the homiletical shoddiness.

Where to begin? A “high church” Lutheran or Anglican – and I was the former – braces himself upon becoming a Catholic.

The heart of what went wrong, however, and the real need for a “reform of the reform” lies in the fatal misstep of constructing the liturgical action around our putatively amazing selves rather than around the surpassing wonder of what Christ is doing in the Eucharist.

The battle over liturgy and the aesthetics of worship recounted by Fr. Neuhaus is a live topic in many denominations.  But there is so much more to this than the latest liturgical spats.

Carved above the entrance way to a theological college I once attended was the phrase: Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. The phrase is often expanded to Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. Lex Vivendi and interpreted to mean: “As we Worship, So we Believe, So we Live.” Worship reveals what we believe. It is who we are. It is the foundation of our Christian identity.

In an April 15, 2010 address to the Catholic bishops of Brazil gathered in Rome, Benedict said:

Worship, however, cannot come from our imagination: that would be a cry in the darkness or mere self-affirmation. True liturgy supposes that God responds and shows us how we can adore Him. … The Church lives in His presence and its reason for being and existing is to expand His presence in the world.

What the Post has picked up round the beltway — what Benedict told the Brazilian bishops — what Anglicans are seeking to find through the Book of Common Prayer, is the divine presence.

Was the Washington Post unaware of the wider context of liturgical renewal and reform? Or is its worldview so narrow that it cannot see anything? Have they only just now discovered, as Basil Fawlty would say, the “bleeding obvious” about liturgy and church life?

First printed in Get Religion.

Time’s betrayal of liberalism: Get Religion, December 23, 2013 January 5, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Human Sexuality --- The gay issue, Press criticism.
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Pod PeopleTime magazine’s exercise in gay agitprop was the focus of  Thursday’s Get Religion’s Crossroads podcast. This extraordinarily unprofessional and illiberal article violated just about all of the standards of professional journalism — without resorting to alliteration, I enumerated its failings in my story “Time takes sides in India’s sex wars” as:

unbalanced, excessive adjectives and adverbs, open support of one side of an argument, short of key facts, lacking context, and stylistically flat.

But Lutheran Public Radio’s Todd Wilken and I are likely to disappoint our audience as we did not discuss the underlying issue: decriminalizing same-sex carnal relations in India. We kept the focus of our discussion on journalism and political theory. I grant you a discussion of the importance of Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination to modern reporting will not set the SEO world aflame as would a talk about the moral rights and wrongs of sodomy, but for those who value journalism and its importance to culture — this is hot stuff.

Julia Duin – one of the stars of the religion beat at Washington Times for many years and now a professor of journalism — commented on the original post that the Time story would not have seen the light of day at the Washington Times. “It’s so depressing to see this” sort of story in a quality publication, she wrote.

 When I wrote for the Washington Times -a much more conservative place – reporters were not allowed to put their opinion into their work. Seems like the bias only leans one way. This for reporters, mind you, not for columnists. I see liberal reporters scoffing at conservative values. I never see the opposite.

Is this merely an ideological fracas? Am I throwing around words like “agitprop” out of political pique? Why is this bad reporting?

American journalism is founded upon a methodology best articulated by the German historian Leopold von Ranke. It is a scientific objective worldview that sees the task of the journalist (like the historian) to report what actually happened (wie es eigentlich gewesen). In this school of writing, the journalist must set aside his own views and present a story on its own terms, to establish what the facts are and let the facts dictate the story. In the Time piece we see ideology dictate the story.

Trilling called upon liberalism to examine its own pieties and commonplaces — good journalism does this too.

First printed in Get Religion.

The Independent asks why report when you can reprint PR?: Get Religion, December 19, 2013 January 5, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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How do you respond to a smear? If you are the Independent you respond with a smear of your own, it seems.

The London-based daily has picked up a story from the web and without doing any investigation of its own, has concluded that what it reads on the internet is true. One would hope that they would know better than that. Or, might this be a British example of the Dan Rather school of journalism — a story that is so good that even though it is false,  it should be true.

The left leaning newspaper published an article this week entitled “UK evangelist says Tom Daley ‘is gay because his father died’”. (Tom Daley is a British sportsman who recently announced he was bi-sexual.) Reporters are seldom responsible for the headlines placed atop their stories, but this title does set the tone for the journalistic errors that follow.

An evangelist is different from an evangelical.  The subject of this story, Andrea Minichiello Williams, is an attorney by trade — not a cleric or lay preacher — and the founder of Christian Concern, a conservative Christian evangelical advocacy group. Confusing evangelist and evangelical is a common error, but it presages the troubles that are to come.

The lede states:

The head of a British evangelical Christian lobby group has angered gay rights campaigners by urging Jamaica to keep same-sex intercourse illegal and reportedly suggesting  that Tom Daley is in a relationship with a man because his father died. To the dismay of mainstream church leaders Andrea Minichiello Williams, the founder of Christian Concern, spoke at conference in Jamaica to lobby against the repeal of the Caribbean island’s controversial law banning gay sex.

Let us unpack this. Mrs. Williams, is the head of evangelical group (not an evangelist), who “apparently” urged Jamaicans not to change their country’s sodomy laws.  Her words have led to “dismay”, not in Jamaica, but among gay activists — no surprise there — and “mainstream church leaders”, e.g., more than one and not just activists on the margins.  We need to wait and see who these “mainstream” leaders are, but cognoscenti of Anglican affairs will see an allusion here. One of the chief conservative evangelical lobbying groups is “Anglican Mainstream.” Is the Independent being clever? Are they suggesting a rift within the conservative wing of the church?

The editorial voice of this article is that it is somehow beyond the pale to oppose the reform of sodomy laws. While this may be the received wisdom in the offices of the Independent, the world does not march to that tune. From this month’s ruling by the Indian Supreme Court that there is no constitutional right to gay sex, to Judge Antonin Scalia’s dissents in Bowers v Hardwick and Lawrence v Texas, there is an intellectually respectable body of opinion that disagrees with the innovations endorsed by the Independent.

This is not to say the Independent must raise the objections to its thinking each time it goes off on this issue, but a degree of self-awareness on the part of the newspaper would prevent it from making the silly errors found in this story.

After laying out the controversy, the article then goes on to quote Mrs. Williams. But the quotes are followed by the caveat that they have been taken from BuzzFeed. They are further hedged about with phrases such as “reportedly illustrated” and “she is said to have added …”.

The Independent provides a hyperlink to the BuzzFeed story, but cites no other sources. It does include a quote from Christian Concern saying Mrs. Williams was “unavailable due to a private matter.”

The story then moves to commentary and provides a “mainstream” critic, the Bishop of Chichester, the Rt. Rev. Martin Warner. Perhaps bishops count as multiple sources? What the Independent implied the bishop said is at odds, however, with the statement released by the bishop. It wrote:

Yesterday Martin Warner, the Bishop of Chichester, where Mrs Williams was elected to the General Synod in 2011, condemned the comments.

He told the Independent that they had “no sanction in the Church of England” and that they “should be rejected as offensive and unacceptable”.

Bishop Warner did not condemn Mrs. Williams or her comments — he condemned incitement to homophobia. He said:

The comments by Andrea Minichiello Williams about the decriminalisation of same sex intercourse in Jamaica have no sanction in the Church of England or the diocese of Chichester.  Insofar as such comments incite homophobia, they should be rejected as offensive and unacceptable.

The Christian Church is widely perceived as homophobic and intolerant of those for whom same sex attraction is the foundation of their emotional lives.  It is urgent, therefore, that Christians find legitimate ways to affirm and demonstrate the conviction that the glory of God is innate in every human being, and the mercy of God embraces each of us indiscriminately.

Note the use of the word “insofar” — The Independent is shading the bishop’s words here. It has either misconstrued what was said, or cherry picked phrases  from the statement to support its editorial voice.

We see this shading of facts in the use of comments. Quotes condemning what the Independent concedes are alleged statements made by Mrs. Williams are offered, but there is no voice offered in support for retaining Jamaica’s sodomy laws. As most of the article is taken from the press release of a gay lobbying group the lack of balance is understandable — why do the hard work of reporting when someone else hands you a press release you can reprint?

Now to forestall comments from the perpetually outraged, this post is not about the rights or wrongs of Jamaican sodomy laws. It is about journalism. And as journalism this article stinks. What we have is a re-written press release passed off as original reporting. The Independent will not stand behind the quotes it says might have been said by Mrs. Williams, but is happy to reprint the comments attacking her.

And when a quote is not sufficiently rigorous for its tastes, it improves it by omitting key phrases that put the words in their context. This story is an embarrassment to the craft of journalism.

N.b., should you be of a mind to debate the issues or go deeper into this story, blogger Peter Ould has done the investigative reporting that the Independent could not be bother to do.

First printed in Get Religion.

Time takes sides in India’s sex wars: Get Religion, December 13, 2013 December 13, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Human Sexuality --- The gay issue, Press criticism.
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Time magazine reports India’s Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the nation’s colonial era “sodomy laws”, ruling there is no “right” under the constitution to same-sex carnal relations. The court ruled that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code could be repealed but only by the legislature not judicial fiat.

Time is not too happy about this. The magazine’s editorial voice can be heard through out “Homosexuality is Criminal Again as India’s Top Court Reinstates Ban”.  The lede states:

In a surprise move, India’s top court on Wednesday reversed a landmark judgment by a lower court decriminalizing homosexuality in the country. The court said that the law regarding homosexuality could only be changed by the government. “The legislature must consider deleting this provision (Section 377) from law as per the recommendations of the attorney general,” Justice GS Singhvi, the head of the two-judge Supreme Court bench said in Wednesday’s ruling.

In 2009, the Delhi High Court had overturned an archaic colonial law (section 377 of the Indian Penal Code) that made gay sex an offense punishable by up to life imprisonment. Wednesday’s decision shocked many because while anticipation was high not many expected India’s top court, which in the past upheld many progressive rights judgments often going against the government and popular discourse, to revoke such a forward looking judgment.

“Archaic” is also used in the subheading of the story to describe the law. The commentary in the second sentence of this paragraph is not quite accurate. The Attorney General of India had argued in favor of overturning the law — there is a hint of this in the quote from the court’s ruling, but nothing further.

The Hindu, one of India’s leading daily newspapers, noted the attorney general called the sodomy law a British import.

Mr. Vahanvati had said “the introduction of Section 377 in the IPC was not a reflection of existing Indian values and traditions, rather it was imposed upon Indian society by the colonisers due to their moral values. The Indian society prevalent before the enactment of the IPC had a much greater tolerance for homosexuality than its British counterpart, which at this time under the influence of Victorian morality and values in regard to family and the procreative nature of sex.”

Time makes its views clear in this paragraph.

While activists vow to challenge the ruling, the decision to decriminalize homosexuality is now in the hands of New Delhi. And while the good news is that the government has recently changed its position on the issue, arguing for it in the court pointing out that the anti-gay law in the country was archaic and that Indian society has grown more tolerant towards homosexuality, the bad news is that the country is heading for general polls in a few months and a much embattled coalition government is striving hard to retain power. It is thus highly unlikely that gay rights will take center stage in Indian Parliament any time soon.

“Good news”? That does cross the line dividing news and commentary.

There is also a lack of balance. Time quotes the South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, a “veteran LGBT activist” and other “[s]tunned LGBT activists”, but offers no voices in support of the decision, or an explanation of the legal principles offered by the court in its decision.

What then is going on in this story? Was there a breakdown in Time’s back office that permitted an ill-written story barely distinguishable from a press release making it through the editorial process?

It is not as if no voices in support of maintaining the law are present. When the Delhi court struck down the law in 2009, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian leaders held a joint press conference denouncing the decision. Times‘ argument that a general election campaign will see this issue disappear from the public eye due to its unpopularity implies politicians support keeping the law — and The Hindu reports some will even campaign on this point.

Is the attorney general correct in saying laws banning consensual same-sex carnal relations are un-Indian and merely a vestige of the Raj? Or does the near unanimous voice of opprobrium from India’s religions for homosexual acts and the political classes desire to campaign on this issue speak to an Indian cultural and religious aversion to gay sex?

Or, are we seeing the “new normal” of reporting on social issues? As my colleagues at Get Religion have shown, balance is not a requirement for many mainstream media outlets when reporting on social issues. Bill Keller of the New York Times has stated his paper strives to be impartial when covering politics, but does not feel this same need when reporting on social issues. As TMatt has wrote at Get Religion, Keller believes that:

When covering debates on politics, it’s crucial for Times journalists to be balanced and fair to stakeholders on both sides. But when it comes to matters of moral and social issues, Bill Keller argues that it’s only natural for scribes in the world’s most powerful newsroom to view events through what he considers a liberal, intellectual and tolerant lens.

There is nothing really new in Keller’s worldview. Sixty three years ago Lionel Trilling wrote in the preface to The Liberal Imagination “It is one of the tendencies of liberalism to simplify.”

In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism or to reaction. Such impulses are certainly very strong, perhaps even stronger than most of us know. But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.

The state of American intellectual life has changed little, and I fear it has worsened. Trilling believed there should be an interplay of ideas between left and right for “it is not conducive to the real strength of liberalism that it should occupy the intellectual field alone.”

Citing John Stuart Mill’s essay on Coleridge, Trilling wrote:

Mill, at odds with Coleridge all down the intellectual and political line [wrote Trilling], nevertheless urged all liberals to become acquainted with this powerful conservative mind. He said that the power of every true partisan of liberalism should be, “Lord, enlighten thou our enemies… ; sharpen their wits, give acuteness to their perceptions and consecutiveness and clearness to their reasoning powers. We are in danger from their folly, not from their wisdom: their weakness is what fills us with apprehension, not their strength.”…What Mill meant, of course, was that the intellectual pressure which an opponent like Coleridge could exert would force liberals to examine their position for its weaknesses and complacencies.

Time’s report on the court battle in India over Section 377 reflects the complacency that Trilling fought so hard, unsuccessfully, to halt in American letters. By not engaging with ideas uncongenial to its own thinking Time has become sloppy, stale and predictable — all but valueless as reporting and rather tepid, even insipid, as polemic.

Please hear what I am saying in this post — I am not discussing the merits of the court decision, but Time magazine’s reporting on the court decision. As journalism this story fails the test — unbalanced, excessive adjectives and adverbs, open support of one side of an argument, short of key facts, lacking context, and stylistically flat.

Now if the story had been presented as “liberal outrage over Indian court decision” essay or news analysis piece, my criticisms would not be as sharp. However, Time has packaged this story as a news piece. Sunk in their complacencies, Time and many other media outlets are small-minded and provincial. They serve as exemplars of the mindset ascribed to the late New Yorker movie critic Pauline Kael: “I can’t believe Nixon won. I don’t know anyone who voted for him.”

First printed in Get Religion.

AP reports he did have sexual relations with that woman: Get Religion, December 10, 2013 December 11, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Abuse, Get Religion, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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“Can a bad person be a good theologian,” asked Mark Oppenheimer in the lede of an October column on the scandals surrounding John Howard Yoder. Should private failings overshadow public achievement?

This question has been asked of prominent figures ranging from T.S. Eliot to Bill Clinton to Mike Tyson. Is the aesthetic value of the Wasteland diminished by Eliot’s anti-Semitism, or the former president’s accomplishments wiped away by his claim he “did not have sexual relations with that woman”? Does biting Evander Holyfield’s ear or being convicted of rape undo sporting achievements? Will Pete Rose ever be inducted into the baseball hall of fame?

Religious leaders are held to a different standard, Oppenheimer wrote:

All of us fall short of our ideals, of course. But there is a common-sense expectation that religious professionals should try to behave as they counsel others to behave. They may not be perfect, but they should not be louts or jerks.

By that standard, few have failed as egregiously as John Howard Yoder, America’s most influential pacifist theologian. In his teaching at Notre Dame and elsewhere, and in books like “The Politics of Jesus,” published in 1972, Mr. Yoder, a Mennonite Christian, helped thousands formulate their opposition to violence. Yet, as he admitted before his death in 1997, he groped many women or pressured them to have physical contact, although never sexual intercourse.

Oppenheimer does not cast stones, but he pulls no punches in discussing Yoder’s flaws. He does not call him a hypocrite, but asks whether interpretations of his work should be colored by  personal failings. This week MennoMedia, the publishing agency for Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada, announced it will add a disclaimer to new editions of Yoder’s books that speak to his history of sexual harassment and abuse.

These musings on celebrity right and wrong were prompted by an Associated Press article reporting on the marriage of a former Catholic priest who left the Legion of Christ under a cloud. The article begins:

Thomas Williams, the onetime public face of the disgraced Legion of Christ religious order who left the priesthood after admitting he fathered a child, is getting married this weekend to the child’s mother, The Associated Press has learned. The bride is the daughter of former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Mary Ann Glendon, one of Pope Francis’ top advisers.

The second paragraph notes Glendon’s position as President of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences and names his wife to be — Elizabeth Lev. It then moves back to Williams.

Williams, a moral theologian, author, lecturer and U.S. television personality, admitted last year that he had fathered a child several years earlier. At the time, Williams apologized for “this grave transgression” against his vows of celibacy and said he had stayed on as a priest because he hoped to move beyond “this sin in my past” to do good work for the church. …

Towards the end of the article the Legion of Christ scandals are recounted and Williams’ fall from grace is placed against the order’s larger problems. The article closes on a curious note, however.

The Legion said the numbers indicate that less than 1 percent of the 1,133 priests ordained in the 72-year history of the order had been found guilty by a church trial of abuse, and less than 4 percent had been abused. A Legion spokesman said he didn’t know what the percentage was for the current number of Legion priests.

One percent of priests are abusers and four percent have been the subject of abuse? And what is the unknown percentage, abusers or victims? Should “abused” in the second clause of the first sentence be “accused”, or is the AP setting the two numbers against each other?

That technical point aside, my discomfort with this story comes in the middle of the piece when it shifts style, moving from reporting to commentary.

Asked for comment Thursday, Lev confirmed the wedding plans in an email, adding: “We have no intention of ever discussing our personal life in this forum.”

She had initially denied an intimate relationship with Williams, though they frequently appeared together in American circles in Rome, particularly with visiting U.S. student and Catholic tour groups.

Their wedding closes a circle of sorts, even as it raises some uncomfortable questions: Who beyond Williams’ superior in the church knew about the child while the couple tried to cover it up? Was Williams already in a relationship with Lev when she became a regular contributor to the magazine he published? And did the family ties to Williams influence Glendon in her defense of the Legion and its disgraced founder despite credible reports that the founder was a pedophile?

Who is asking these questions? And for that matter, why the move to the “‘enquiring‘ minds want to know style”? While asking out loud these questions may titillate some readers, to me they speak to the reporter’s frustration of not being able to get past the “no comment” email.

There is no balance to this article. By that I do not mean a “yes he did, no he didn’t” exchange, but an appreciation of Williams’ work as a moral theologian. Was he a clerical hack and hypocrite, or did he produce valuable work? The article does not ask nor answer this question — leaving it the level of a “moral theologian” who was caught engaging in immoral practices.

The degree of vehemence in this piece may lead one to suspect personal animus. Why else would the AP omit the news that their child has Downs syndrome. The Daily Mail, which takes great delight in exposing the foibles of naughty clergy, found time in its piece to applaud Williams for having done the right thing in marrying the mother of his disabled child.

Yet the story the AP has reported is true. Where then is the line between a harsh but fair report and a hatchet job?

In this instance the back story of the scandals at the Legion of Christ do have a place, as does Williams’ personal fall. Yet a complete story would tell us about human failing and redemption.

There is no context in this story, only anger. Not moral outrage at a priest failing in his vows, but a cartoonish depiction of one man’s fall. There is no humanity, no decency in the tone and presentation of this story. It is a hatchet job.

First published in Get Religion

Is the media missing out on African-American church news?: Get Religion, December 6, 2013 December 9, 2013

Posted by geoconger in African Methodist Episcopal Church, Get Religion, Press criticism.
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Hell hath no fury like a reporter scorned, is my version of the traditional proverb.

Last night the Los Angeles Times had me going. A report on the lawsuits surrounding the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles — a major player in the city’s African-American community — in a story entitled “Judge dismisses defamation lawsuit filed by ex-First AME pastor” had me working the phones, calling lawyers and sources in California to track down news that was new to me. And for a reporter whose beat includes church law to be caught flat footed was quite a comeuppance.

Had I missed a major story? Here’s the lede:

A Los Angeles County judge dismissed a defamation lawsuit by the former pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church, who alleged he suffered emotional distress when he was removed from the helm of Los Angeles’ oldest black church.

Last December the paper reported the church filed suit against its former pastor the Rev. John Hunter, his wife and a group of other church officials and directors of affiliated corporations. It said:

Hunter has had a rocky tenure at the church. Since taking over First AME in 2004, Hunter has been sued for sexual harassment, a civil claim that was settled for an undisclosed amount. The Times reported in 2008 that an internal audit found he charged $122,000 in jewelry, family vacations and clothing to the church’s credit card. He later agreed to a nine-year repayment plan.

He earned a generous salary during his tenure, lived in a $2-million home and drove a Mercedes-Benz paid for by the church. His wife earned $147,000 a year running nonprofit organizations connected to the 19,000-member congregation. But over the last few years, the hilltop church in the West Adams district has fallen into debt. The church owes nearly $500,000 to creditors and some vendors say they have not been paid in more than a year.

The latest LA Times story reports on Hunter’s counter-suit, where he alleged First AME had:

“embarked upon a campaign to discredit and defame” him “by asserting maliciously false and inflammatory statements as well as taking steps to publicly humiliate him.”

This story is light on context. First AME has over 19,000 members and plays an active role in the community with numerous charitable and educational programs for at risk youth and the disadvantaged. Perhaps readers would have known this, but the importance of the church in the community was not spelled.

While the apparent disinterest by the LA Times was a point of concern, what set off my new news alarm was this statement in paragraph five.

On Wednesday, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Holly Kendig granted the church’s motion to dismiss the case brought by Hunter on grounds that a recent Supreme Court case limited the state’s action when dealing with religious affairs.

What court decision? Which Supreme Court? California or the U.S.? Covering the Episcopal Church has led me to write dozens upon dozens of stories on the litigation between it and conservative breakaway groups. Most of the cases have involved congregations seeking to withdraw from what they describe as “liberal” dioceses — including three cases in Los Angeles and Orange County, Cal., as well as dioceses seeking to leave the national Episcopal Church — including the Diocese of San Joaquin (covering California’s inland empire).

If the California Supreme Court had handed down a ruling that limited power of the courts to adjudicate church disputes this was major news. And quite an embarrassment for me. It is part of my job to follow these issues and not be surprised. Hence the flurry of emails and telephone calls to California from me asking to be let in on the secret.

One of my canon lawyer contacts responded:

I’m not sure what the case is to which the court had reference. If it’s the California Supreme Court, there are no “recent rulings” from it (of which I am aware) that could affect such a suit. Most likely the case meant is the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Hosannah-Tabor case — which does not affect any of the Episcopal withdrawal cases (though [the Episcopal Church's lawyers] would like it to).

In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 565 U.S. ___ (2012), the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that federal discrimination laws do not apply to religious organizations’ selection of religious leaders. Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts held:

the Establishment Clause prevents the Government from appointing ministers, and the Free Exercise Clause prevents it from interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select their own.

Nothing to do with church property disputes then. My professional crisis was averted and my ego assuaged. Perhaps I read too much into the Times‘ account, but its explanation of the court’s decision was inadequate. Hell hath no fury like a reporter scorned when he sees a major story slip away.

The pedant in me must point out that this phrase too is not quite right. The line is from William Congreve’s tragedy The Mourning Bride (1697), III, 8: “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, / Nor Hell a fury like a woman scorned.”

But given the ink expended on the Episcopal Church cases by the LA Times over the past decade, it seems somewhat miserly to cover a story about a major African-American church (whose membership is comparable in size to the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles) with such a paltry article.

Tell me Get Religion readers are the historically African-American churches under covered in the press? Are the mainline churches over exposed? Should the LA Times have put a bit more effort and information into its report?

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

First printed in GetReligion.

Reporters: beware of Greeks bearing gay gifts: Get Religion, December 5, 2013 December 5, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Greek Orthodox.
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The essence of life, its meanings, symbols and motives, can be found in television; reporting on the condition of man is reducible to vignettes from Seinfeld and Yes Minister.

This profundity came to me late last night as I perused The Guardian‘s report on the political and civil debate over same-sex unions in Greece. As my colleagues at Get Religion have shown, balance is not a requirement for many mainstream media outlets when reporting on gay marriage. The article “Bishop threatens to excommunicate Greek MPs who vote for gay unions” is unbalanced with only one side of the debate presented.

That is a commonplace of European-style advocacy reporting and The Guardian is not shy in proclaiming its leftist credentials. However in this instance the reporter’s desire to preach overcame her news gathering skills. Presented with a golden opportunity of promoting the rightness of the cause of gay marriage in the face of intolerance, The Guardian neglected to do its home work. It did not ask basic questions that would have provided essential context.

But first, let us turn to the canon of journalistic scripture. Reading from episode 19, series 3 number 5, of Yes Minister, “The Bed of Nails” recounts Jim Hacker’s acceptance of the gift of “Transport Supremo” from the prime minister. Hacker is delighted to be offered the job of developing an “Integrated Transport”‘ policy for Britain. The episode recounts his discovery the Supremo post is fraught with peril and might end his career. Sir Humphrey and Bernard urge the minister to think through the implications of what he has been offered as danger lies ahead.

Hacker: Furthermore, Sir Mark thinks there may be votes in it, and if so, I don’t intend to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Sir Humphrey: I put it to you, Minister that you are looking a Trojan Horse in the mouth.

Hacker: You mean, if I look closely at this gift horse, I would find it’s full of Trojans?

Bernard: If you had looked the Trojan Horse in the mouth, Minister, you would have found Greeks inside.

Odd look from Hacker… Bernard: Well, the point is it was the Greeks who gave the Trojan Horse to the Trojans, so technically, it wasn’t a Trojan Horse at all, it was a Greek Horse. Hence the tag timeo Danaos et dona ferentes which you will recall, is usually and somewhat inaccurately translated as Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Or doubtless, you would have recalled, had you not attended the LSE.

Hacker: Yes well I’m sure Greek tags are all right in their way, but can we stick to the point, please?

Bernard: Sorry. Sorry, Greek tags?

Hacker: Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. I suppose the EEC equivalent would be Beware of Greeks bearing an olive oil surplus!

Sir Humphrey: Excellent, Minister!

Bernard: Ah. Oh. Well, the point is minister, that just as the Trojan Horse was in fact Greek, what you describe as a Greek tag is in fact Latin. It’s obvious, really: the Greeks would never suggest bewaring of themselves, if one could use such a participle, ‘bewaring’, that is. And it’s clearly Latin, not because timeo ends in -o, because the Greek first person also ends in -o. Though actually, there is a Greek word ?????, meaning ‘I honour’. But the -os ending is a nominative singular termination of the second declension in Greek, and an accusative plural in Latin, of course. Though actually ‘Danaos’ is not only the Greek for Greek, its also the Latin for Greek, it’s very interesting really.

The moral of the story is that sometimes something that is too good to be true, is too good to be true. This can be seen in The Guardian story about Metropolitan Seraphim of Piraeus.

The Guardian reports:

A leading Greek bishop has warned lawmakers that they risk incurring the wrath of God – and will be excommunicated – if they vote in favour of legalising same-sex partnerships. In a letter lambasting homosexuality as “an insult to God and man”, the Metropolitan of Piraeus, Seraphim, pleaded with the country’s deputy prime minister, Evangelos Venizelos, not to condone gay unions.

The article discusses the content of a public letter released by Seraphim, whom The Guardian describes as a “57-year-old former monk, a prominent personality in Greece’s powerful Orthodox church” and offers a response from liberal critics. True to form, the article is one-sided. We hear from a spokesman for the Socialist Party, who likens the bishop to the Taliban, and from a gay activist. The Church of Greece is offered a chance to say they are against same-sex unions, but no argument is proffered against gay unions — save for Metropolitan Seraphim’s jeremiad.

The article then closes out with references to European court rulings endorsing gay unions and a slam at the country’s backward stance on gay issues. All rather predictable from The Guardian and pretty much as one would expect. But there is more to this story that The Guardian did not report, or did not know.

Who exactly is Seraphim? How influential is he? How should we weight his words? These questions are not asked nor answered — leaving the impression that Greece is a priest ridden small-minded country. A little research, or knowledge of the Greek religious scene, would reveal that Seraphim has form. In 2011 I reported:

Jews are to blame for a host of the world’s ills, from homosexuality to the Holocaust, a Greek Orthodox Church leader told an Athens television programme last month.

In a Dec 20 interview broadcast on the MEGA television network, Metropolitan Seraphim of Piraeus laid the blame for Greece’s financial meltdown on an international Zionist conspiracy and a cabal of Jewish bankers who sought to “enslave Greece and Christian Orthodoxy.”

I grant you The Church of England Newspaper is not a must read for journalists. Sadly the paper’s circulation has not changed in recent years. When it started in 1828 it numbered around 12,000 subscribers and I think its current numbers are about the same –perhaps we should prune the circulation list. Nonetheless Seraphim’s views on Jews, (he believes Hitler was a tool of a Zionist conspiracy), have been reported in the New York Times and other English-language outlets.

Would it have put Seraphim’s letter in context if readers knew of his fantasies about a Jewish world conspiracy? Would his views on Freemasons and the nefarious influence of secret societies seeking to create a new world order provide context to his views on civil unions?

Presented with a golden opportunity of a crazed cleric denouncing politicians who would support same-sex unions, The Guardian ran an advocacy story that boiled down to its essence said: “See how opponents of gay marriage think. You can dismiss all objections to gay marriage because the argument does not rise above Seraphim’s silliness.”

I am not seeking to address the question of the rights or wrongs of gay marriage in this post. What I am discussing is journalism. What a good newspaper should have done in this case it to note Seraphim’s other controversial views in its description of the cleric. Context is key and the omission of important information, whether through ignorance or editorial design, colors a story.

In short, readers you cannot trust The Guardian‘s account to give you a full and balanced picture. If you are looking to reinforce preexisting prejudices, you have something here that will do quite nicely. But it is not journalism.

Reporters — a story that is too good to be true, should be investigated — as it may well be too good to be true.

First printed in Get Religion.

Viva la Eurorévolution: Get Religion, December 3, 2013 December 3, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Ukrainian Orthodox (Kiev Patriarchate), Ukrainian Orthodox (Moscow Patriarchate).
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Religion ghosts haunt the stories out of Kiev this week, but the Western press has yet to hear their shrieks.

The events unfolding across the Ukraine — protests against the government’s move away from Europe towards Russia — are not faith stories as defined by editorial desks in London and New York, but the clash of nationalism and politics in Eastern Europe cannot be understood without reference to religion.

The Guardian‘s reporter in Kiev has described the scene on Monday morning:

Throngs of anti-government protesters remained in control of parts of central Kiev on Monday morning, as police kept their distance and Viktor Yanukovych’s government pondered its next move. After huge protests on Sunday, during which several hundred thousand people took to the streets of Kiev to call for the president’s removal, protesters erected makeshift barricades around Independence Square – the hub of the 2004 Orange Revolution. Nearby, the main City Hall building was taken over by protesters without police resistance on Sunday evening.

Many of the windows were smashed and “Revolution HQ” was daubed in black paint on its stone Stalinist facade. Inside, hundreds of people milled around receiving refreshments; many who had travelled from the regions to Kiev were sleeping on the floor.

The independent Eastern European press has characterized the street protests as a revolution.  Lviv’s Vissoki Zamok, stated that nine years after the Orange Revolution, “the Eurorevolution” was underway.

It is symbolic that on December 1, the anniversary of the referendum in favor of independence that took place 22 years ago, Ukraine was once again the theater of mass demonstrations in support of its sovereignty, the rights of its citizens and its European future.

Why is this happening? Protestors have taken to the streets to denounce President Viktor Yanukovych for refusing to sign an association and free-trade agreement with the European Union at the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius on November 29.

In a front page above-the-fold editorial on Monday the Parisian daily Le Monde stated:

Demonstrations of love for the European Union are sufficiently rare these days for them to be rather arresting. Absorbed by the debt crisis, the struggle for more growth and lower unemployment, the rise of populism and the management of its enlargement, the union has forgotten that it retains a formidable power of attraction. For people who do not benefit from the rule of law, Europe symbolizes the hope for freedom, democracy, and modernity.

This is the message sent to us by tens of thousands of Ukrainians who have been gathering day after day to protest on the squares of Kiev and the other cities of the country.

Reading Le Monde‘s editorial and related news coverage one might think les citoyens of Kiev were linked arm in arm marching to the seats of power singing La Marseillaise. But an American might well ask why a trade treaty would spark such an uproar. What is going on here?

It is in the secondary stories that we see glimpses of the religion ghosts. Reuters reports that when attacked by riot police, some protestors took refuge in an Orthodox cathedral and barricaded themselves inside a monastery.

Around 100 Ukrainian pro-EU protesters took refuge from police batons and biting cold on Saturday inside the walls of a central Kiev monastery. With a barricade of benches pushed up against a gate to keep police out, protesters – who had rallied against President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision to reject a pact with the European Union – checked their wounds in the pre-dawn light.

Some attended a 6 a.m. service in the lilac and gold St. Michael’s Cathedral on the monastery grounds after which a group of bearded, black-robed monks approached protesters to hear of their encounters with police and urge them not to seek revenge. “They gave us tea to warm us up, told us to keep our spirits strong and told us not to fight evil with evil,” said Roman Tsado, 25, a native of Kiev, who said police beat him on his legs as they cleared the pro-EU rally.

Further down in the story Reuters tells us what sort of church it was that gave shelter to the protestors.

The Ukrainian Orthodox cathedral, where the faithful light candles before gilded icons of saints, was destroyed during the religious purges of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and rebuilt after independence.

What Reuters neglects to mention is which Ukrainian Orthodox church belongs to. St Michael’s belongs to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kiev Patriarchate — not the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate.

What of it you might well ask. There are three principal churches in the Ukraine. One under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church, or Moscow Patriarchate; an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church or the Kiev Patriarchate; and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.

And the three churches have taken differing stands on the protests, with the Kiev Patriarchate and the Greek Catholics backing the country’s realignment towards Europe, while the Moscow Patriarchate backs the president’s alignment with Vladimir Putin’s regime in Moscow.

Speaking at the Heritage Foundation in Washington last month Patriarch Filaret of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) was reported to have said:

[T]he Ukrainian Churches would benefit from an Association Agreement. For one thing, it would place the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) in a new situation. With Ukraine committed to Europe and continued independence, that Church would have to decide which side it was on – that of Russia, or that of the Ukrainian people. By siding with Russia, the UOC-MP would assume the role of a fifth column for a hostile state. If, on the other hand, it sided with the Ukrainians, it would be obligated to unite with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate (UOC-KP) into a single Ukrainian Orthodox Church, independent of Moscow.

Statements released by the three churches in the wake of the uprising illustrate these religio-political calculations. The Kiev Patriarchate and the Greek Catholic Church have lent their support to the demonstrations — and as Reuters reports opened its churches to protestors as a safe haven from the police. The Moscow Patriarchate in Kiev has backed President Yanukovich — and its call for calm echoes the president’s public statements to date.

By raising these religion points, I am not stating the Eurorevolution is being driven by religion. I am arguing that a well rounded news report should touch upon the religion angles in this story — provide the context for a Western reader to understand. Not all of the protestors are motivated by religious fervor — but religion lies close below the surface of national politics east of the Oder and a good reporter should relate this information to his readers.

First printed in Get Religion

As on a darkling plain – Prozac and France: Get Religion, November 29, 2013 November 29, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach, stanza 3, (1867)

More bad news for France.

The lede in the back cover story (page 22) in the Nov 26, 2013 issue of Le Monde reports: « La France a perdu un record. Mais personne ne s’en plaindra. » (France has lost a record, but no one will be complaining.)

The article entitled « La France n’est plus leader dans la consommation d’antidépresseurs » reports La belle France has lost its coveted status as Europe’s number one country for pill-popping.

Parmi les champions d’Europe de la consommation d’antidépresseurs en tout genre, le pays est maintenant largement distancé dans sa fringale de psychotropes. Selon le rapport 2013 de l’Organisation de coopération et de développement économiques (OCDE) sur la santé (« Health at a Glance 2013 ») publié le 21 novembre, l’Hexagone se situe même sous la moyenne des 23 pays du classement, ex aequo avec l’Allemagne ! Une prouesse au pays de la « sinistrose ».

Once among the European champions in the consumption of antidepressants, the country has lost ground in its consumption of psychotropic munchies. According to the 2013 report “Health at a Glance” from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development published on Nov 21, l’Hexagone (France) is even below average of the 23 countries ranked, and is tied with the land of gloom, Germany. Quite a accomplishment!

The article reports that France is tied with Germany and Slovenia in 15th place in consuming 50 doses per 1000 people per day, while Iceland reigns supreme with 106 doses per day. The French are now less depressed than the Danes (4), Swedes (5), Portuguese (6), British (7), Belgians (9),  Spanish (10), Norwegians (11),  and Luxembourgers (12).

Greece did not turn in any data, the article adds, but notes the number of suicides in that country has risen 45 per cent from 2007 to 2011.

It is in its discussion of the “why” — why the increase in the use of antidepressants that this piece strays into Get Religion land.  Quoting Gaétan Lafortune, the coordinator of the report, Le Monde writes:

La crise? « l’idée que la récession, le chômage ont plongé certains individus dans une profonde détres se », note M. Lafortune.

The crisis? “We can not rule out the idea that the recession and unemployment has plunged individuals into deep depression,” notes Mr. Lafortune.

However, he adds that in Germany where there is “almost full employment” the use of “antidepressants increased by 46 per cent between 2007 and 2011″, while the “lucky country” of Australia is second on the list of antidepressant consumers. Le Monde further muses on the apparent lack of correlation between economic well-being and consumption of antidepressants, finally coming to the conclusion the increase is due to the lack of stigma surrounding mental illness and over prescription of pills by physicians.

Perhaps, but is there not a religion ghost here as well? Could, or should, Le Monde have addressed the question whether the decline of religious faith, the moral ennui and entropy that has taken hold of Europe been considered? Would the discussion of the “why” been improved by a question or comment or two from psychologists or religious leaders addressing the issue of the meaning of life?

France is after all the land of Sartre, Camus and existentialism. Whether it was couched in faith, philosophy or psychology this story would have been stronger with a discussion of the “why” that moved beyond materialism.

“[F]or the world, which seems,” Matthew Arnold wrote in stanza four of Dover Beach,

To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night

First posted in Get Religion.

CBS discovers the Catholic priest shortage: Get Religion, November 26, 2013 November 26, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Anglican Ordinariate, Get Religion, The Episcopal Church.
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I am reaching back a bit into my guilt file — stories I want to cover but for one reason or another have not touched. But the recent flurry of news stories about women priests and the Catholic clergy shortage led me to pull this item out of my bag.

The CBS Evening News reported earlier this year that there is a shortage of Roman Catholic priests in the United States. This may be news to some, I suppose, but the story has been getting a bit long in the tooth. However, the news “hook” CBS used in its segment was that the church was using Anglicans to plug the gap — hence the title: “Catholic Church turns to Anglicans to fill U.S. priest shortage.”

Yes, there is a shortage of Catholic priests in the United States.

No, the shortfall is not being met by using Anglicans.

Catholic dioceses in the U.S. and Europe are importing priests from India, Africa and Asia to meet pressing pastoral needs — this story has been told hundreds of times over the past few years in the secular press. A recent example of such stories is this well written piece in Der Spiegel reporting on an Indian priest’s acculturation to Germany.

The article begins with a recitation of the problem, profiling a Milwaukee priest who has the pastoral charge of seven congregations.

Sunday is anything but a day of rest for Father Tim Kitzke. On the Sunday we followed him, the priest said Mass at three different Milwaukee churches, held a luncheon for dozens of parishioners and baptized a baby. Kitzke and one other priest are in charge of seven churches in the Milwaukee Archdiocese. There used to be a time when 14 priests covered the seven churches. “It’s not only — maybe not the old model … but it’s the old reality,” he says.

The number of Roman Catholic priests in the United States has steadily dropped from nearly 59,000 in 1975 to just under 39,000 last year. But the number of Catholics in the United States has increased by 17 million. Asked if he worries, Kitzke says, “Definitely, yes, we obviously need more priests — that goes without saying, we need more vocations.”

The segment offers facts and figures on the priest shortage and then transitions to a former Episcopal priest who joined the Catholic Church and has since been ordained a Catholic priest.

(more…)

Mau-mauing The Times of London: Get Religion, November 21, 2013 November 21, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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The Archbishop of Canterbury has stated the Church of England was  moving away from using faith as a criteria for admission to its church-supported schools, The Times of London reported last week.

And the newspaper caught hell for it. The Church of England’s press office said this was untrue — a “creative piece of writing.”

Was this a he said/she said (or wrote) dispute? The “he” being Justin Welby the archbishop of Canterbury and the “she” Ruth Gledhill, The Times‘ star religion reporter. Or was this a case of what the archbishop said was not exactly what he meant? Were his words taken out of context? Did The Times deserve the drubbing it was given?

At this point — a week after the story entitled “Church in ‘move away’ from school selection” (behind a paywall I’m afraid) — a newspaper reader is not likely to be any the wiser as to what happened. The Church of England’s press office and the Lambeth Palace press office have thrown up such a wall of flak round the interview that the archbishop’s original statement is moot. The content of the denials are now the story — or the official line from the church.

On Nov. 14, 2013 The Times reported:

Church of England faith schools are moving away from selecting pupils on the basis of their religion, the Archbishop of Canterbury has revealed.

The Most Rev Justin Welby said that selection was not necessarily the key to good results and believes that throwing open the doors to all-comers can help the Church achieve its mission to alleviate poverty.

Church of England schools are not analogous to Catholic parochial schools in the U.S. They are not private schools funded by tuition and supported by a sponsoring denomination. In England they are state funded. The Church of England explains:

The English system of education has been built in partnership with the Christian churches. The Churches were the first providers of schools, funding building and staff costs through voluntary donations. The State gradually became convinced that it had a duty to provide education and gradually assumed a larger part of the task. But Government has always recognised that Church schools are important partners in providing education for all. That partnership enables the State to use  around  8,000 school buildings and sites owned by the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church free of charge, but in return successive governments, irrespective of political party, have continued to provide financial support for church schools.

Some parents choose Church schools because they want to have their children educated in accordance with their Christian belief, others because it is the nearest school or because it is a school which takes spiritual as well as social, moral and cultural development seriously. Whatever the reason, Church of England schools are committed to offering high quality education to the whole community and are part of the Church’s commitment to serving the common good. Taxpayer’s money is therefore being used to provide high quality education for tax payer’s children.

Many Church of England schools, which educate a quarter of England’s primary school children, are over subscribed. Removing faith, or lessening its importance,  from among the selection criteria for prospective students, would be a game changer in the admissions game.

Shortly after the story went live on The Times website, the archbishop’s interim press officer sent an email blast to religion reporters, saying the report was untrue.

In the course of a wide ranging interview for The Times on the subject of tackling poverty, the Archbishop of Canterbury was asked about the role of schools. He praised the work of church schools especially in areas of highest deprivation, and stressed the importance of home, family and excellent school leadership.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has issued the following statement regarding selection criteria for church schools: “I fully support the current policy for schools to set their own admissions criteria, including the criterion of faith. Nothing in my wider comments to The Times on this subject should be seen as “revealing” any changes nor dissenting from current policy.”    The Most Revd Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Director of Communications for the Church of England issued a further denial, which stated in part:

The (erroneous) story in today’s Times Newspaper claiming that the Church of England ‘moving away’ from selecting school pupils based on religion was a creative piece of writing. So creative in fact that the Lambeth Palace issued a statement correcting the story which reads … The Archbishop himself douses the story in the Times with cold water …

The director of communications then went on to cite statistics about church schools and their roll in British education. These responses prompted confusion within the press as to what was said and what was important — other newspapers reported the change, the denials, both, or offered opinions as to why the change was a good idea.

All of which prompted musings on the roll of P.R. flacks or flaks.

Once a pejorative term, “flak” had its roots in the German word “fliegerabwehrkanone” — anti-aircraft gun. Its meaning as a noun has evolved over time to mean criticism: “I took a lot of flak over that statement”. And is also used an adjective to refer to a publicist who seeks to deflect adverse publicity.

“Flack”, the dictionaries tell me, has a close meaning but different history. Gene Flack, a 1930′s Hollywood press agent extraordinaire, is credited with being one source. Credit is also given to Tom Wolfe author of “Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers” — “flack” being slang for “flak catcher”. Traditionally, a flack created flack (a publicist created publicity) while a flak deflected flak (press officer deflected criticisms). Now the words are all but interchangeable.

In The Times interview aftermath we see both sides of the trade — deflection of an unpopular story (church schools changing admissions policies) and creation of an alternative (church schools are the best schools in Britain). But what did the archbishop actually say?

Ruth Gledhill published the transcript of the interview, indicating the archbishop’s flaks/flacks doth protest too much.

What you are seeing in the Church schools is a deeper and deeper commitment to the common good. There’s a steady move away from faith-based entry tests. They are not selective in terms of education. And they are focusing, particularly the new church academies – and you can see that in diocese after diocese – are focusing on the areas of highest deprivation where the Church school adds the most enormous value. … What is absolutely clear is home and family is essential. Really good school leadership is absolutely critical. It is not necessary to select to get a really good school. There are unbelievably brilliant schools that are entirely open to all applicants without selection criteria apart from residence, where you live, and which produce staggeringly good results.

Did Lambeth Palace and the Church of England press office mau-mau Ruth Gledhill? Did the flacks throw up a barrage of flak to deflect criticism and to offer an alternate interpretation of what the archbishop said? My sense of things is that Ruth Gledhill has been treated unfairly.

She reported what the archbishop said. Perhaps it was not what he meant to say?

First published in Get Religion.

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