One of the hardest things to explain to newsroom managers, when you’re making a case for them to hire a religion-beat pro, is the astonishing level of complexity that exists in religion news — in terms of the doctrines, rites, structures, history and language of the religious groups that simply must be covered.
Take, for example, the word “bishop.” What does this term mean in (a) the Church of Rome, (b) the United Methodist Church, (c) the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, (d) various Pentecostal denominations and (e) the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (formerly known to newsroom pros as the “Mormons.”)
While we’re at it, what does “evangelical” mean in the title of the ELCA, one of America’s most doctrinally progressive-liberal flocks?
Words matter. So you just knew we were in for a rough ride, journalistically speaking, when headlines like this one began to sprout online: “Peeping Tom in Nashville Store Turns Out to Be High-Ranking Mormon Leader.” Things got really rough when local-TV news kicked in.
Now, I realize that this particular headline ran at a Patheos advocacy site called — Friendly Atheist. But this online post did combine lots of the issues and stumbles one could find elsewhere. Let us attend:
It’s bad enough that a man in an H&M retail store inside the Opry Mills shopping center in Nashville, Tennessee was caught spying on a woman whom he led into a dressing room (apparently acting like a sales rep).
It’s even worse that the man’s wife attempted to stop the woman from calling police.
But the kicker? The man in question, Stephen Murdock, is a Mormon bishop.
Combine the present-tense reference to this man bing a bishop with the phrase “High-Ranking Mormon Leader” and it would appear that a member of the church’s national hierarchy had fallen.
Here is how The New York Post summed up the crucial information about Murdock’s standing:
A high-ranking member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was busted taking photos of a woman in a store’s dressing room, according to police and church officials.
Steven Murdock, 55, a Mormon high councilor and one-time bishop, encouraged a woman to use an empty changing stall at an H&M in a Nashville mall, where she then saw a phone camera pointed at her, according to an arrest affidavit obtained by the Nashville Tennessean.
Like I said, religion-news can get complicated. The term “high councilor” sounds really important, especially when combined with another “high-ranking” reference.
I really liked the unintentional humor in this headline: “Police: Man who filmed woman in Tennessee dressing room is high member of LDS church.”
So he is not a “leader,” he’s just a “member” and he is “high.” (Where are we, Colorado?) Here’s the top of that TV-website report:
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WZTV) — The man Nashville police say took photos of a woman in an Opry Mills Mall dressing room in Nashville, Tennessee is a prominent leader with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Stephen Murdock posted bail after his arrest last Tuesday after police say he took photos of a woman at H&M. … Murdock is a high councilor with the LDS Church, WZTV has confirmed.
So Murdock is a “member” who is also a “prominent leader.”
I am happy to report that the Associated Press — in the report that I now see online — introduced a crucial word to this drama. Can you spot it? And check out the helpful material from a Latter-day Saint spokesperson:
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Utah man who serves as a local leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is accused of illegally photographing a woman in Tennessee in a mall dressing room. …
Church spokesman Eric Hawkins said in an email that Murdock served as a high councilor, which is a volunteer position helping with the administration of several local congregations. He also previously served as a bishop of a local congregation, another volunteer position.
The word “local” is used twice and the word “volunteer” is also important. Thank you, AP.
Religion New Service followed up with a bit of an explainer report that, well, kind of went GetReligion on the whole situation. The key is that it is made very clear that we are not talking about a national-level leader in this global flock.
This solid passage is long and a bit complicated.
Despite his title of “high councilman,” Murdock was far from a prominent figure in the church, as some media reports have suggested.
“The references to him as a ‘high-ranking’ church leader are confusing, because that’s not the case,” explained Matthew Bowman, chairman of the Mormon studies program at Claremont Graduate University. “His position was only that of a midlevel local leader.”
Murdock had spent several years serving as a bishop at his congregation in Holladay, a Salt Lake City suburb. This position, as a lay leader of a single local congregation, or ward, was unpaid.
Later selected to become a stake high councilman, Murdock became one of 12 high priests on a high council for one of Utah’s nearly 600 stakes, or groups of several wards.
“High councilmen, which is what he was, are the second layer of leadership in a stake” below the stake presidency, said Bowman, who compared a stake to a Catholic diocese. “That’s far from being an actual high-up leader in the church.”
Murdock did not receive a salary or have any formal religious education and likely worked a separate day job, Bowman said.
While some media reports noted that he was an ordained high priest in the church, all councilmen are “high priests” and all Mormon men are ordained to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ priesthood.
Welcome to the religion-news beat: Things can get complicated really fast.