Every couple of centuries or so, the leaders of Christianity's ancient Orthodox churches get together to talk about issues of theology or church governance. It helps if everyone agrees that there is some kind of crisis that simply has to be addressed.
It also helps if everyone shows up. The whole point is for the church to speak as one body.
That's been rather complicated, you might say, since the Great East-West Schism of 1054. The ancient church of Rome has held its own great councils, after that ecclesiastical earthquake. The ancient churches of the East have not.
That's why it's rather important that, for 50 years, Orthodox leaders have been wrestling with the idea of a Pan-Orthodox Council. After a 1,000-year gap, there may some items of business to discuss. You think?
That council is now days away -- if it takes place. Several Orthodox churches have already pulled out or suggested that they plan to do so, for reasons that some might call "Byzantine." It's especially crucial that the ancient church of Antioch -- involved in a tussle with the symbolic, but now tiny and oppressed, church of Constantinople -- has called for a delay until painful problems can be resolved.
The meeting is supposed to happen in Crete. Why Crete? Because pretty much everyone agrees that it cannot, for myriad reasons, safely be held in Istanbul, in the allegedly secular state of Turkey.
It you were looking for a symbol of all of that, you might cite the issue of Ramadan prayers being broadcast from inside Hagia Sophia (click here for background), a once great Christian cathedral that is now a UNESCO historic site. For decades it has been considered neutral ground for Muslims and Christians, serving a massive cultural icon and museum.
Here's the question that "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I discussed in this week's GetReligion podcast: Have you been hearing about any of this in news coverage here in America? Click here to tune that in.
So where would one need to go to find mainstream news coverage of this international story?
Well, try Malaysia, as in The Malaysia Herald. Here's a sample:
BEIRUT: The Pan-Orthodox council in Crete is compromised. It was set to take place from 18 to 27 June with all 14 patriarchates and Orthodox Churches present. Now, less than two weeks before the start, the Patriarchate of Antioch called for its postponement, arguing that it is contrary to the Orthodox conciliar tradition because of the failure to find “an acceptable solution to the jurisdictional conflict that opposes it to Jerusalem over Qatar Orthodox".
The Church of Antioch has broken with Jerusalem Patriarchate, after the latter appointed a bishop in Qatar, which is not within its jurisdiction.
"If the Council convenes whilst two apostolic churches are not in communion with each other, this means that the participation in the synodical sessions is possible without taking part in the Holy Eucharist, which deprives the Council of its ecclesiological character and grants it an administrative quality, contradictory to the steadfast Orthodox synodical tradition,” said a statement issued by Secretariat of the Antiochian Holy Synod. “This requires an atmosphere of love and brotherhood in Christ” and a show of “unity of the Orthodox Church” that is missing. We know that the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew 1st had proposed that such a secondary issue be taken up at the end of the great council.
The Orthodox Church of Bulgaria is also out and there are rumblings in Serbia. Meanwhile, the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church -- far and away the dominant Orthodox flock -- pulls out then talk of a Pan-Orthodox Council would be really, really strange.
If the Ecumenical Patriarch proceeded with the meeting, and claimed that it held some kind of doctrinal authority, then we (yes, I am an Orthodox layman) could have a major problem on our hands. Oh, and it also doesn't help that some people keep playing to the press by calling this gathering a kind of "Orthodox Vatican II." I'm not even sure that the endangered circle of bishops surrounding the Ecumenical Patriarch -- whose actual church in Turkey now includes about 2,000 surviving Greek members -- think that is the case.
So why isn't any of this a story in the American press, even in the back pages of major newspapers? Let me toss out a few theories.
* Maybe there are editors who are still thinking: So who are the Eastern Orthodox? Are those the folks who are kind of like Catholics, but not really?
* Journalists still struggle to "get" religion news. You may have read about that. At the same time, American news consumers really don't care much about foreign news -- unless lots of Americans are dead or at risk. So what kind of coverage do we normally see of religion news on the other side of the planet?
* It's news when Christians somewhere limit the rights of Muslims. It isn't news when Muslims limit the freedom of Christians and members of other religious minorities, especially in a strategic land -- in terms of economics and the U.S. military -- such as Turkey.
* Pope Francis has not spoken out, yet, on the Hagia Sophia issue or the Pan-Orthodox Council. Some journalists may -- repeat, MAY -- notice when he says something, especially if the statement is linked to an LGBT issue of some kind.
* How many newsrooms have religion-beat professionals? How many have religion-beat professionals with travel budgets? How many newsrooms still have serious foreign desks, with correspondents in key locations (think Istanbul or Athens)?
Anyone have other theories?