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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