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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43 responses to “Did ‘the’ leader of the Orthodox attend the Rome rites?”

  1. I think you are splitting too fine a hair. Not all leaders have the same level of authority. “First among equals” is a fancy way of saying that someone has powers and responsibilities that others do not have.

    Which is one way of describing the leader. There is after all, only one “first.” Even among equals.

    The polity of the Southern Baptist Convention makes the Anglican Communion look as rigidly hierarchical as the Vatican. But I’d have no qualms about referring to the SBC’s president in a piece for general readership as the leader of his denomination.

    If the exact nature of that leadership is relevant to the report, yeah, go into it. But for the purposes of this kind of story, the point is that the designated “first among equals” among the world’s Orthodox churches — the leader — showed up to celebrate the new pope. For a general readership, at least, the specifics of how he does or does not exercise that leadership is pretty much inside baseball.

  2. Sorry, Jeff, you are simply wrong on this one in terms of the history and anyone in Moscow, Damascus, etc., would tell you that. The Anglicans care about the distinction as well.

    The patriarch of of Istanbul does not have leadership authority over the other Eastern Orthodox churches and it is wrong to say that he does. It’s inaccurate. His leadership is symbolic, but not authoritative. To understand the degree to which his presence was important, or not, one must know the facts.

    As Poynter.org would say, you need to care about the views of the stakeholders here, the people whose traditions you are describing.

    The pope is not A Catholic leader. The patriarch is not THE leader of the Orthodox, unless you describe what you mean. To compare him to the pope is simply wrong, as this story did by context.

    • Would it be correct to say that the Patriarch of Constantinople is “THE symbolic leader of the Orthodox Churches?”

      As a Catholic who has only a vague understanding of the Orthodox Churches, I would find calling him “A leader” at least as question-raising as “The leader”. Does he have any authority at all outside the Church of Constantinople? Does he share some kind of authority with other Orthodox bishops and/or patriarchs? In what sense is he “first” even among equals?

      Or more succinctly, how do the Orthodox themselves describe his role? And is there a more-or-less pithy way to describe it for the sake of the news readership?

      • He has very little authority outside of his own Patriarchate, even symbolic authority (whatever that means). Personally, even though I am Orthodox, I don’t look to him for any leadership at all.

        If all of the Patriarchs got together, he would get to chair the meeting. The Patriarchate of Constinople is ranked first because it was, long ago, the imperial capital and the fact that the Turks installed whomever the Patriarch was under their ruler as the head of the Christian Millet in the Ottoman Empire.

        Rome was originally first among equals until they let the title go to their heads a bit just as Pat. Bartholomew seems to be doing now.

        There is no accurate one word modifier for his office. The best description would simply be to say he is the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople. However, there a large number of readers who would wonder where in the world that was. The fact is that most of the readers of the article neither know nor care who he is or why is being there is significant.

  3. Then you’ve got the whole business about Rome, second Rome in Constantinople and third Rome in Moscow.
    The West pretty much agrees about the original Rome. The East doesn’t agree on 2nd or 3rd Rome.
    Much of the East defers to Moscow, not Constantinople. Others don’t defer to either.
    How can a reporter say something that will be accepted by all in the East?

    • All the East agrees on the 2nd Rome, “New Rome.” Even the Third Rome. Hence why it is “Third.”

      Constantinople is at the top of every diptych. That includes those in Moscow.

      Define “defer.”

  4. I’ll bet no Patriarch from Constantinople has ever been to an installation of a Bishop of Rome, but he might have sent a representative. In ancient days when travel was difficult and dangerous, I don’t think Popes or Patriarchs took such long trips very often.

  5. Um. “His leadership is symbolic, but not authoritative.” Um. That means he has leadership. Symbolic? Well, yes. We are talking about religions, here. Symbols matter there even more than most other places.

    I’m not saying you’re wrong, Terry. Far from it. But this is one topic, I say with real respect, that you may know too much about. For the average reader, the takeaway is that the point guy of this particular religion was at that particular event. The *leader*, symbolic or what have you. The exact nature of that leadership for most readers is as far in the weeds as “filioque.” Unless it is a story about the specific history of the Orthodox Church and its relationship to Rome and its internal polity. Which this was not.

    This sort of shorthand is often necessary in any story where there’s anything technical being discussed and always, inevitably, flattens nuance.

    And often hacks off the real experts…1:-{)>

  6. Julia, Patriarchs have not attended the installation of Rome bishops since the Great Schism when the latter officially became heterodox. Why would they have recognized bishops who had left the Church? And we don’t have an equivalent of Rome. No Orthodox Patriarch, not even the Ecumenical one, has leadership of the Orthodox Church (the Ecumenical Patriarch’s role is to promote unity among the bishops and he only has direct jurisdiction in his own patriachate). We find that notion preposterous. By the way, there are many who accuse Bartholomew of succumbing to the heresy of ecumenism because of his participating in pan-religious praying and making speeches about union between the Church and Rome (the “sister churches” theory).
    This is just another example of journalists talking about things they know very little about. Unless they wrote that on purpose. Indeed, an average reader will understand that the Orthodox “leader” participates in something heterodox and is there representing the entire Orthodox Church. Which is false and serves a progressive agenda.

  7. I’m not disagreeing with your point. But I’m agreeing with some earlier critique of your post. I was excited that the media noticed he was there and mentioned the historical significance of his attendance. They could have easily missed that. So they do get some points off their scorecard for not knowing this important, albeit easy to miss fact. So I would have written this post in as the “media almost got it right” rather than wording it as negatively as you did.

  8. JoFro:

    Other than expressing a rejection for the facts of church history, what is your point?

    The pope is the leader of his church. He is not the first among equals, because they are not equals.

    The ecumenical patriarch has a symbolic, ritual role, but no more power or authority. He has equals, which means a wording is needed — as in Anglicanism — that shows the difference, so that readers are not given inaccurate information.

    There is no justification for inaccuracy. That’s bad journalism.

    • Normally, I’d think this is hair-splitting too, but it’s actually obviously a teaching moment.

      Nobody here learned what tmatt is trying to tell us about Orthodoxy by reading these articles. The journalists didn’t know themselves, and therefore failed to educate us.

      Journalism is supposed to inform. Every screw-up matters.

  9. JULIA:

    I know of no one in the east, not even the most pro-Moscow voices, who would deny the symbolic role of the EP as the first among equals. What I am asking is how to say this, accurately, in a journalistic setting.

  10. JERRY:

    I tend to be negative about factual errors. They tend to lead to people disrespecting the press.

  11. JEFFREY:

    If the story had called him the symbolic leader of the Orthodoxy, I would have accepted that as imperfect, but not an outright error. What they published is simply wrong, in terms of history and church structure.

  12. TMATT: I have read opinions from the Russians that the EP’s day is past and they have the authority now. That may not be accepted by all parties, but to many, in East Europe particularly, the Russians are acting as if they have the authority now. Whether you call it first among equals or something else.
    My comment was meant to convey my opinion that there is no way to describe the Ecumenical Patriarch that is going to pass muster with all Orthodox churches. Maybe a journalist should say “a leader”.

  13. I have to agree with tmatt. The fact of the matter is that the Patriarch of Constantinople is not THE leader of the Orthodox Church. He is A leader, but not THE leader. There is perhaps (and I speak here as a Roman Catholic who has some slight familiarity with Orthodoxy and nothing more, so I could very well be wrong on this), an argument to be made that since he leads the Orthodox Church in the Second Rome that there is some sort of primacy, but that’s a pretty big leap to which the people in Moscow and elsewhere would not take too kindly. But the plain fact is that the Patriarch of Constantinople is not THE leader of the Orthodox Church and a news report that states he is, is wrong.

  14. first among equals is more accurately described as a place of honor among the other sees. It becomes a reality when an ecumenical council is formed and then he would preside,nothing more. He cannot go into another jurisdiction with any authority.

  15. There frequently are stories calling the Archbishop of Canterbury “the head of the Anglican Communion”, no matter how often they tell people that there isn’t one.

  16. I am not a native English speaker so I may get this wrong, but couldn’t the ‘the’ be because of the ‘Istanbul-based’ modifier ? The line does not necessarily imply that he is the only leader of the Orthodox Church but only that he is the one leader that is based in Istanbul.

  17. STEVE:
    Senior would be Jerusalem or Antioch/Damascus.

    The comparison to Canterbury is actually quite strong. If the patriarchs meet, the EP calls the meeting but his authority in the meeting is not greater.

    The Russians have asked if the Turkish government has so compromised the church in Istanbul that there might be some need to “move on” somehow. That question has been asked, but never answered. No one questions that the symbolic “first among equals” tradition stands.

    This was a very important and hopeful event. No one doubts that. But to understand what it meant still requires getting the basic facts right.

    • You forgot Alexandria.

      “Senior” in a title doesn’t mean “older”/”foremost in age”, just “foremost in rank.”

      “Dean of the Orthodox Churches” would be as accurate and succinct as we can expect, given the audience. “Lead patriarch” could be a contender. “Head Patriarch” (like “Head Nurse”) is perhaps too misleading.

      Maybe if we Orthodox made ourselves known more, we wouldn’t have to engage in such nit picking.

  18. My experience is that in most cases where there’s an insiders take, journalists tend more towards Claude Rains “round up the usual story line” and can appear sloppy about many things, but nevertheless get the names right. In other words, they do what they see as their job… not what we’d like them to. 😉 And they got the “who was there…” bit, but if you want them to understand it? OMG… you’d need clergy to go down that road… like the NYTimes who had a Jesuit write on Benedict’s retirement in the Op-Eds some weeks back. I haven’t checked ZENIT.ORG since the election… but did try my own hand at your trial rephrasing: “…the presence of Bartholomew I, who by tradition presides in love over the world’s Orthodox Christians.” And yet I’m not sure that’s a fix. Maybe it would be better: “… the presence of Bartholemew I, who presides over Orthodox Christians as though herding cats…” which while getting at it in some aspects nevertheless remains awkward. And as much as the Russians haggle over the diptychs, even assuming a solution the wordsmitthing is still stuck.

  19. How about “representative” as in:
    Bartholomew I, the Istanbul-based representative of the world’s Orthodox Christians.

  20. This is one of the constants of popular religious understanding where there is even that much. Most people will think the Immaculate Conception refers to the Virgin Birth, and most people who think of that patriarch at all will think he’s the “Orthodox Pope”. The Patriarch himself will do awfully little to dispel that error. To explain that to the Orthodox a bishop is a bishop just doesn’t compute to the press or to a great number of laymen. The idea that the other big crowd of Christians doesn’t have a one and only CEO is hard to grasp. Orthodox do not have a Bishop of Earth as the Roman Catholics do. They have mere bishops and mere bishops of big cities (and where big cities used to be). A meeting between the Bishop of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople (with a local congregation smaller than a great number of Catholic and Orthodox parishes in the US) is very asymmetric. The Pope really can be said to represent all of the Catholics, not so at all for the Patriarch.

    • Everyone seems to overlook the blatant fact that exaggeration of the EP’s role (“Pope of the Orthodox”) originates in the Phanar and serves that jurisdiction’s goal of self-preservation in the face of its untenability as an Orthodox Christian Patriarchate based in Istanbul. The vulnerability of the Phanar necessitates self-aggrandizing rhetoric in its PR – construction of an attractive fantasy to counter the bleak reality: the very purpose and existence of the Phanar has long been seriously mooted. The desperation of the Phanar’s Primate leads him to increasingly grandiose self-definition – universal jurisdiction in “barbarian lands” (e.g. that forlorn outpost at the fringe of civilization known as the USA); resolver of inter-Orthodox conflicts that were created only by the Phanar’s own flouting of canonical order against other Patriarchates; the list goes on… To put it briefly, the rhetoric is ‘self-serving’ and does more to obfuscate the internal order of the Orthodox Church than any ignorant or lazy journalist could. In fact, the Phanar relies on these negative qualities of media wonks in order to propagandize its putative importance.

  21. It is very clear to me that the issue of primacy both in the Roman Church and the Orthodox Churches needs to be examined. The concept of “protos” in the ancient canons is clear. However, primacy is exercised differently in each of the Patriarchates, including that of Rome. The issue with the Roman primacy is that it evolved into immediate and universal jurisdiction. The concept of a bishop over the Church is acceptable to Orthodox up to the point of a patriarchate but not beyond. (i.e. Not over other patriarchs) On the patriarchal level an ancient order of precedence obtains. That would be restored when the Church of Rome unites again with the other Patriarchates.

  22. For what it’s worth, here’s another example which in this case did use “main leader”. But given that the vast majority of readers don’t know about the Orthodox church, something might be exactly right factually but confuse and mislead in practice. And to explain the theological significance of his role would have resulted in a different story. To not explain the precision of the word choice would leave people confused. Because, for example, I still wonder to what degree he’s considered the titular head of the Orthodox community because I am not fully versed in the structure and meaning of his title.

    On Wednesday, Pope Francis met with another Christian leader, the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I…

    The main leader of the Orthodox Church said…


  23. There’s another line in the video clip that, I think, is a much bigger error. Starting at 0:28, we hear

    About one thousand years ago, the Orthodox Patriarch and the Pope didn’t speak to one another: they had EXCOMMUNICATED one other respectively. But eventually the reconciliation process began…

    Apparently the reporter thinks that excommunication is simply giving someone the silent treatment.

  24. Greetings. First time here.
    The ecumenical patriarch should be described as first among
    Equals with a primacy of honor. All orthodox, including
    Moscow recognize this. At pan orthodox services patriarch
    Bartholomew gets the first place in church before other
    Primates and when all the primates-patriarchs meet the
    Ecumenical patriarch presides over the meeting with the
    Honorary seat. In the diptychs his name is commemorated
    The description as “spiritual leader” of orthodox Christians
    Is inaccurate and should be dropped since it gives the
    Non orthodox misleading impressions of a papal like status.
    A blessed lent to all

  25. The word “Patriarch” should be enough, if correctly understood. A patriarch is a father, a head. A body is not much without a head, as a head is not much without a body.

  26. I actually think it doesn’t make much difference how Patriarch Bartholomew is referred to in these stories. What, short of a primer on Orthodox ecclesiology, would actually convey the status, “chairman of the board of directors with rights to hear appeals”? That’s not the story. The story is an Orthodox hierarch attending an actual service (Mass) in which a heterodox hierarch is installed. That’s uncanonical and, in a more honest and conscientious age, subject Patriarch Bartholomew to deposition and excommunication. What “the” vs. “a” means pales in comparison to that. Perhaps it all depends upon what the meaning of “is” is.

    • Very good point there, Mr. Pennington – if Patr. Bartholomew acts in a way that is canonically questionable (liturgical celebration with heterodox), he certainly cannot do so as representative of all Orthodox, especially of those outside his jurisdiction. The fact that he acts unilaterally rather than collegially proves that he has no authority other than that of a very small jurisdiction, where his personal activity attains to an ongoing propaganda campaign for the sake prolonging a very tenuous existence. He was certainly not present in Rome as representative of all other Patriarchates – though to lazy and ignorant journalists and their audience it may appear so.
      Symbolic public acts are nearly all that is left to His All-Holiness, since the Phanar runs so few institutions besides Greek parishes mostly clustered in the United States. The relevance of such acts among Orthodox remains insignificant and has no reflection on their Church life. By playing a lowest-common-denominator game such as this media manipulation, the Phanar actually contextualizes itself in a hall of mirrors where nothing is ultimately substantial. Meanwhile, the Moscow Patriarchate is the obvious real, functioning center of Orthodox Church life, and will continue to be so no matter how the Phanar postures on the flimsy stage of a fickle Western media.

  27. It appears that both Benedict and Francis themselves have spoken in terms such as primacy and presiding in charity over other churches. Media, even Rome Reports, is not catching up. Benedict is on record as saying that the East should not be expected to accept any aspect of the Papacy that did not exist before the split between East and West. Francis speaks of himself almost exclusively as Bishop of Rome, not Pope – which is not a formal title in any case. Things are changing and the press will need to get the basics in order to understand what is evolving. Not that the media should choose between East and West, but that they get the basic issues in play.

  28. HONORIFIC is probably the word you want, if it is necessary to keep it to one word.

    The problem also lies in that there is no one “Orthodox Church” as there is “Catholic Church.” The use of “church” to describe all of Orthodoxy is somewhat figurative, but it is coextensive with “Catholicism” when speaking of the Roman Church. “The honorific leader of the world’s Eastern Orthodox Churches” or “The honorific leader of Eastern Orthodoxy” would probably be best – but this implies a reporter who understands exactly what is meant by “Eastern Orthodox” to begin with. The history is ancient, and so not much on people’s radar.

    (Also, I know emotions run deep on this issue, but I must say that I am saddened by the tone of some of the comments.)

  29. I opt for the “spiritual leader” choice. I’m sorry, but I don’t have space to devote a sentence or two to Orthodox ecclesiology in a story that is primarily about the pope. And yes, it’s correct that he doesn’t have “real” power over the other patriarches in the sense of being able to tell them what to do. It’s not textbook but its close enough for daily journalism.
    I believe it was a news release from the Ecumenical Patriarchate that descibed it as the first time the ecumenical patriarch had attended the inauguration of a pope since 1054. I saw it on the Web at the time, having a hard time finding it now . . . .

  30. I would just call Bartholomew “Ecumenical Patriarch” and leave it at that . . . nice and vague.

  31. I think the phrase you are looking for is the “senior” leader of Orthodox Christians.

    I think that comes as close to being both accurate (ie the rankings of the patriarchates) yet bite sized enough for modern journalists.

    That’s the word I’d use in attempting to convey the “first among equals” position in telegraphic style.

    Hope that helps.

    Dean Calvert

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