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

Did ‘the’ leader of the Orthodox attend the Rome rites? March 20, 2013

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?

A story from Religion News Service tried a different wording:

The Mass was attended by six sovereigns and 32 heads of state. The U.S. was represented by Vice President Joe Biden, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, among others.

For the first time in a thousand years, the papal installation was attended by the spiritual leader of Eastern Orthodoxy, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. Bartholomew is often dubbed the “Green Patriarch” for his environmental activism.

This “spiritual leader” image is better, but still flawed. It makes it sound as if Bartholomew has “spiritual,” as opposed to “real,” authority among the global Orthodox. That doesn’t really work when you are dealing with a Communion in which, frankly, spiritual leadership is as real as life gets. Patriarchs are the spiritual fathers of their large, ancient flocks. That’s the whole point.

What wording would be accurate, if reporters don’t want to actually accurately cite the ancient “first among equals” reality?

So, any Orthodox readers who are out there, what is the most accurate one-word descriptor, if journalists must limit themselves to one word? Is the patriarch of Istanbul the “symbolic” leader of the Orthodox? Is that better? How about the “main” leader of the Orthodox (as in the video at the top of this post)?

Yes, this picky issue is important. In fact, it is important precisely because the Eastern Orthodox would acknowledge that the Pope of Rome was once the “first among equals” of all the ancient patriarchs, before he claimed — here is the point of the Great Schism of 1054 — that his primacy was universal over all of the ancient churches. Period.

To some degree, journalists needed to explain some of this historic realities in order to let readers know why it was so important, so symbolic, for Patriarch Bartholomew to attend this historic rite at the Vatican and that he joined Pope Francis in praying at the tomb of St. Peter.

These kinds of facts matter.

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