The ecumenical patriarch does what?

Every now and then I get email from regular GetReligion readers protesting the fact that we — well, me in particular — keep writing about the same subjects too much. In other words, we complain about some of the same errors in the mainstream press over and over and over (think Anglican Timeline Disease).

Take my word: It’s tough work, but someone’s got to do it.

In fact, there are times when I read a story in a major publication and I zip past errors or warped information in the text, for the simple reason that I am used to seeing them. The other day it happened to me when I was scanning a story about a significant event, at the global level, in my own church.

This New York Times story had a Moscow dateline and ran under the headline, “Orthodox Leaders Meet to Heal a Rift.” The news hook was the start of a 10-day visit to Russia by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. Here are the key background paragraphs about this fence-mending mission:

(Bartholomew) spoke after a procession from the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which was blown up at Stalin’s orders in 1931 and rebuilt in the 1990s. A mass at the Cathedral on Monday morning marked the feast day of Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius, Greek brothers who created the Cyrillic alphabet and preached to Slavs in the 9th century. Bartholomew and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church have celebrated liturgy together, in Greek and Slavonic respectively, for two days in a row since the Ecumenical patriarch’s arrival in Moscow on Saturday.

OK, we will pause briefly to note that the Orthodox call the central rite of the faith the Divine Liturgy, not the Mass. This isn’t really an error, I guess. But would reporters cover the pope and say that he observed the Lord’s Supper with the faithful? Just asking.

Back to the Times report:

The Russian Orthodox Church is the world’s largest Orthodox church, while the Ecumenical Patriarchate, now reduced to a tiny community in Istanbul, is symbolically its most important, leading millions of Orthodox Christians around the world.

The Russian church has objected when the Patriarch of Constantinople is described as the Orthodox equivalent of a Roman Catholic pope, and the churches have tangled, often bitterly, since the collapse of the Soviet Union over jurisdictional issues in Estonia and Ukraine, as well as elsewhere in Europe, where an influx of recent Russian immigrants has led to cases of splintered parishes and property disputes. Since his enthronement as Patriarch last year, Kirill has made a thaw in relations with the two historic centers of Christianity, Constantinople and Rome, a key policy.

Did you catch it? Here’s a hint. It is rare to see a major newspaper get something right and wrong in the same sentence.

So look at the first sentence in that passage again. Yes, it is accurate to say that the ecumenical patriarch plays an important symbolic role, serving as the “first among equals” in gatherings of the patriarchs of the East. This is the same as the archbishop of Canterbury, another post that journalists keep turning into a kind of pope for the Anglican Communion role.

However, note that this same sentence claims that Bartholomew’s role consists of “leading millions of Orthodox Christians around the world.” The key word is “leading.” How can he lead the Orthodox churches of the world if he is a symbolic leader, the first among equals in a church in which leadership is provided by the patriarchs as a whole, acting in a conciliar form of church government?

You can see why the leader of the world’s largest Orthodox flock would be concerned that the patriarch of the tiny flock in Istanbul is often portrayed as a kind of Orthodox pope. The Times has, once again, said that the Orthodox have one leader and that is the ecumenical patriarch.

This is wrong. Again.

I read right past that mistake, in large part because of the calming “symbolic” reference in the same sentence.

You see, it can’t be both ways. Bartholomew cannot be a symbolic “first among equals,” while “leading millions of Orthodox Christians around the world.” Right?

Yes, this is picky stuff.

Church history is picky. Government is picky. Facts are often picky, but it’s important to get them right. That’s journalism.

I will say this, the story does end with a solid piece of analysis, care of a Russian insider.

Andrei Zubov, a historian and director of a center for the study of the church and international relations at MGIMO, the Russian foreign ministry’s university, said in an interview on Friday that Patriarch Kirill is working to overcome the legacy of the Soviet past inherited by the Russian church, as evidenced by his efforts to improve relations both with Constantinople and Rome.

“Bad relations with Constantinople and bad relations with Rome were a mandatory condition of Soviet church ideology,” Mr. Zubov said, as part of the Soviet regime’s goal of counteracting centers of Christianity that were outside of its control.

“So what is happening now is namely the overcoming of the Soviet, KGB heritage, the Soviet control of the church,” he said. “This is the restoration of normal, natural relations between the churches after the unnatural relations of the Soviet period.”

The rise of the Soviet state had another major impact on Eastern Orthodoxy at the global level — undercutting efforts by the missionary bishop St. Tikhon of Moscow (another crucial player was St. Raphael of Brooklyn) to plant the faith in Orthodoxy in a way that would transcend divisions between ethnic groups.

St. Tikhon was called home to Moscow and martyred while, in North America, his dream of a unified Orthodox body collapsed.

Frankly, one would have to think that one of the topics being discussed in Moscow at the moment is the ecumenical patriarch’s refusal to recognize the role of the Orthodox Church of America, which has Russian roots and is recognized by Moscow. In fact, they may be discussing the historic assembly of all of the canonical Orthodox bishops of America, which just got underway in New York City (Facebook page is here). Where is the mainstream coverage of that event, by the way?

Reporters who cover this event might want to note, however, that the Greek Orthodox leaders say this is the FIRST such assembly, while pro-unity Orthodox leaders in a variety of other flocks, including the Orthodox Church in America, insist that this is the SECOND gathering of the Orthodox bishops in America (following a 1994 meeting opposed by the ecumenical patriarch).

Might the Times cover this historic gathering in its own back yard? If so, its reporters and editors need to find themselves some good church historians and tread carefully. This story involves complicated facts. Lots of them.

Photos: Pope Benedict XVI meets with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow leads the Divine Liturgy for Pascha (Easter in the West) this year.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Martha

    “(W)ould reporters cover the pope and say that he observed the Lord’s Supper with the faithful?”

    tmatt, don’t ask those sort of questions. Here’s a snippet from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon at a service in London to mark the 150th anniversary of the Ritualism Riots:

    “And, in the wonderful words of one 19th century newspaper, some of the more dedicated of them even “practiced celibacy in the open streets”.

  • Jerry

    Certainly a leader can be taken as indicated. But another definition of leader is inspirational. Someone can lead by example or inspire others without having formal authority over them.

    I wonder also if the stories author’s first language is English based her name. I know people who learn English as a second language often use words in different ways than we’d expect.

    You’re probably right that the reporter assumed a hierarchy but it is possible that the word leader was used more in the inspirational rather than governance sense.

    I’ll defer to you about whether the inspirational sense could be accurate.

  • Rachel

    Are there millions of Orthodox Christians truly under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch? The sentence might not be false, if he is in fact the leader of millions of Orthodox Christians around the world – just not *all* Orthodox Christians around the world. Even if not technically false, it would still be kind of misleading, though.

  • tmatt


    He is NOT the patriarch of millions of believers. The church in Istanbul, and some branches linked to it, are tragically small and quite persecuted.

    You might explore some of these links.

  • Conchúr


    If I am not mistaken there are approximately 3.5 million Orthodox worldwide directly under the omophor of Constantinople.

  • MattK

    1. Many Orthodox have trouble understanding the role of the Ecumenical Patriarch. I don’t really expect the MSM to get it. Even using the word “symbolic” doesn’t work when you consider how the Orthodox use the word symbol.

    2. I am more than a little bit surprised the MSM isn’t covering the episcopal assmbley. But maybe they haven’t been told it is going on. Did anyone tell them that an event was going on that deserves reporting?

  • Rachel

    I know that in Turkey, the number of Orthodox Christians is miniscule, and that their situation is very sad. But if you count in GOARCH and and the other various groups abroad that are under the Ecumenical Patriarch, I thought they might add up to at least a couple million.

    I know that church statistics are notoriously difficult to get accurate, but if Wikipedia’s estimate that GOARCH has 1.5 million members, and OrthodoxWiki’s estimate that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in Australia has over 360,000 members, are anywhere near accurate, it’s at least pretty close.

  • Randall Mark
  • John Pack Lambert

    American Orthdoxy is still seen as a religion full of immigrants.

    This is partly because there are Greek Orthdox, Romanian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and Serbian Orthodox Churches. They are still by and large ethnic Greeks, Serbs and Romanians living in America, not ethnic Americans practicing Orthodoxy.

    At least this is the impression I get from the outside. I live in the north suburbs of Detroit, we have many domed Orthodox Churches, but they are inseperable from specific national identities.

    What the Orthodox need is an American Patriarch who can boldly speak as an American Patriarch.

    I am not sure the current media would recognize such a person. To a large extent the media has so fully embraced racializing all issues, speaking of whites, blacks and maybe Hispanic and Asians (but acting as if Native Americans and Pacific Islanders are non-existent) that the very real fact that Serbians, Russians, Greeks, Armenians and Christian Arabs are not “white Americans” at least to some extent is totally ignored.

    As late as 2000 the majority of Arabs in the US were Christian, and I think Chaldeans and Assyrians were not in this count. They varied between Marionite and Melkite Catholics on the one hand and Eastern and Oriental Orthodox on the other, with a possible inclusion of the Copts (who do not see the Ecumenical Patriarch as having any authority) as well, but they were there. There have been significant Arab Christian communities in the US since the 1880s or so, although many descendants of the earliest such immigrants were subsummed into the larger American culture and lost their individual identity.

    Personally I think they should add an “are you Arabic or Middle Eastern” question to the census that would be non-mutually exclusive with the Hispanic/Latino question.

    Probably living in Metro-Detroit I am more sensitive to this issue than I would be elsewhere in the country, but if the reason to count race and ethnicity is to prevent discrimination, than we should count it in the most heavily profiled and discriminated against group.

    In some ways though both Islam and Orthodox Christianity face being called old-fashion in their building methods. Many religion writers fail to accept the fact that architectural form of buildings is often a direct result of religious imperatives.

  • str

    I don’t think this is a major mistake in the article.

    The Patriarch of Constantinople is the head of the Greek Orthodox Church* (doesn’t that qualify for millions?) and he is the honorary head of all the Eastern Orthodox churches. The verb “lead” doesn’t make it any less honorary.

    (*I know about the Church of Greece and its Archbishop but that doesn’t make the Patriarch any less of head of the Greek Orthodox ChurcH.)

    “First among equals” is an empty term in that regard as the Pope is also first among equals – however, he really IS first, he is not simply called first and ignored otherwise.

    Furthermore, I am not certain that “leadership is provided by the patriarchs as a whole” is accurate.

    First of all, what about bishops and metropolitans – don’t they “provide leadership” too? And secondly, the Eastern Orthodoxy is not a unified lead by a couple of patriarchs. There is one Greek Orthodox Church, one Russian Orthodox Church, one Serbian Orthodox church, one Bulgarian Orthodox Church etc. each with their own Patriarch or Archbishop. They do not jointly govern their combined churches but govern their own respective churches

  • str

    I checked the figures and found that within the Greek-Orthodox Church, the Patriarchate of Constantinople has a flock of 3.5 million. That’s not counting the other Patriarchates of the GOC, over which the Patriarch of Constantinople presides indirectly.

  • ctd

    I also think that the article was accurate enough. He is a leader, even if not in a direct, administrative, formal sense.

    If the article had not pointed out that, despite this leadership, he is really “first among equals,” it would have been inaccurate. If it had stated only that he was symbolically “first among equals” and not stated that he, in practice, is a leader, it also would have been inaccurate.

    It seems to me that the reporter got it mostly right.

  • Julia Duin

    As to whether the MSM was told about the Orthodox gathering, the answer is – no. I was talking last Tuesday with another reporter and we realized the Greek Archdiocese had come out with *nothing* announcing it, much less how to cover it. That is, the locale, the time, what language it’s being conducted in, etc. Then on Wednesday the archdiocese came out with a very short press release that said little.
    I’ve been out this week cuz of surgery; another religion writer who often covers Orthodox issues also is out because of medical stuff and I am guessing everyone else simply was not told about it. Am totally puzzled as to why the Greek Archdiocese blew this one; then again, when the Ecumenical Patriarch was in town several months ago, I found out about it via the folks at one of his speaking venues. The Archdiocese had not informed me. A lot of media would be open to covering such events but it’d really help if someone informed us.

  • John Pack Lambert

    In a lot of ways the Greek Orthodox do not want this meeting covered.

    They do not want to loose another integral part of the Greek Orthodox Church, and they are still Greek first, Orthodox second.

    Also, what chance is there that they will accept open union with a group that calls itself the “Macedonian Orthodox Church”. Refusal to accept the right of Slavs to that name is very deep, yet they have multiple parishes in the US.

  • tmatt

    John Pack Lambert:

    This is a textbook example of a comment not to make at GetReligion.

    It has nothing to do with journalism.

    It is your opinion, with no visible signs (source URLs, etc.) of information that supports it or links that might aid reporters covering the story.

    Please take these comments elsewhere.