Did ‘the’ leader of the Orthodox attend the Rome rites?

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So, let’s assume that you are a Catholic leader and you pick up your morning newspaper and it contains a story in which Pope Francis is described as “a leader” of the world’s Catholic Christians.

What would you think? Is the phrase “a leader” — implying one among many equals — an accurate way to describe the unique, singular, authoritative role played in global Catholicism by the occupant of St. Peter’s throne? The answer, of course, is “no.”

So, let’s assume that you are an Anglican Christian, perhaps a leader in one of the rapidly growing churches of Africa, and you pick up your paper and it contains a story in which the Archbishop of Canterbury is described as “the leader of the world’s Anglican Christians.” Note the singular nature of the word “the.”

What would you think? Is the phrase “the leader” — implying a unique, singular, authoritative role over Anglicans around the world — an accurate way to describe the symbolic “first among equals (primus inter pares)” role that the Archbishop of Canterbury has historically played in Anglicanism? The answer, of course, is “no.”

Since many GetReligion readers are aware that I am an Eastern Orthodox layman, it’s probably easy to understand where I am headed with all of this.

In it’s coverage of the inaugural Mass for Pope Francis, The Washington Post reported:

Perhaps the most notable sign of the optimism accompanying the beginning of Francis’s pontificate was the presence of Bartholomew I, the Istanbul-based leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians. He was the first Orthodox Christian patriarch to attend a papal inauguration since the great schism between Orthodoxy and Catholicism nearly a millennium ago.

Now, the presence of Patriarch Bartholomew I at this service was certainly interesting and historically significant. And, truth be told, there is some question whether the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople has ever attended such a rite in Rome. His strategic decision to attend was certainly noticed in Moscow and in other centers of Orthodox leadership, since Bartholomew has recently been going out of his way to present himself as a kind of Orthodox pope.

The problem is that this reference to him as “the” singular leader of the “world’s Orthodox Christians” is simply inaccurate.

Once again, you are dealing with a form of symbolic leadership that is best described as “first among equals.” His authority is primary over his own small, struggling and, frankly, persecuted Istanbul-based church. He is a very important Orthodox leader, but his authority does not trump that of other Orthodox patriarchs in the life and affairs of their churches — as does the pope’s ultimate authority in the Catholic Church.

So how should journalists refer to this Orthodox leader?

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