Byzantine maneuvers: There's more to this Orthodox council story than Russia vs. Istanbul

Anyone who has worked on the religion beat for a decade or two probably knows the answer to this "lightbulb" joke, because it has been around forever (which is kind of the point).

Question: How many Orthodox Christians does it take to change a lightbulb?

The answer is: Lightbulb? What is this "lightbulb"? (The point is that lightbulbs are modernist inventions that some heterodox folks might use in place of beeswax candles.)

However, I have heard another punchline for this joke that is highly relevant to the struggles that some journalists are having as they try to cover the long-delayed, and now stalled, Pan-Orthodox Council, which was supposed to open this week in Crete (previous post here).

So ask that lightbulb question again, but this time answer: Change? What is this "change"?

I have received emails asking me what is going on with the gathering in Crete. Most of these emails include a phrase similar to this: "What is Russia up to?" Well, there's no question that the Church of Russia -- far and away the world's largest Orthodox body -- is a big player. But to understand what many Orthodox people think about this gathering, you need to think about that lightbulb joke and then ponder how they would respond to this headline that ran the other day at Crux.

Leading cleric says Orthodox Church’s ‘Vatican II’ is a go

Disaster! Yes, a theological adviser to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople said something like that. That headline is a perfect summation of the fears that many Orthodox people, and not just leaders in Moscow, have about this meeting. They believe it's part of a larger effort by Patriarch Bartholomew to present himself, in press coverage and in reality, as a kind of Orthodox pope who will help Orthodoxy adapt to the modern world.

Journalists do not have to agree with that fear, of course. But they need to understand it if they want to grasp what is happening in this story. There is more to this story than a showdown -- expressed in political language, naturally -- between Moscow and Istanbul.

So what is going on? That earlier Crux story noted:

Recently, two of the fourteen Orthodox churches have floated boycotting -- the Bulgarians, because they’re upset over some of the documents up for discussion and also the seating arrangements, and the Patriarchate of Antioch, over a jurisdictional dispute involving Qatar.

That reference to Antioch is crucial, since the Qatar dispute is actually a major escalation in decades of tensions between Arab Christians and the Greek bishops that rule them, operating in a system that is ultimately propped up by the Ecumenical Patriarch. Suffice it to say that leaders of the embattled Antiochian church, under siege in Damascus, do not think highly of Istanbul's efforts to claim control of additional chunks of the Arab world.

So the boycott by the Church of Antioch is huge. Yes, I say that as someone who has spent nearly two decades as a member of Antiochian Orthodox churches.

But there is another crucial issue here. In Orthodoxy, claims of doctrinal authority are based on the worldwide church managing to find unity as a whole. Yes, that makes change hard. Change? What is this "change"? Tradition!

So how does a Pan-Orthodox Council do its work if three, four or more churches refuse to take part? That makes a unanimous voice impossible. Nevertheless, the the Ecumenical Patriarch's handlers have continued to insist that this council will have universal, global authority no matter who does or doesn't show up. Why? Because Patriarch Bartholomew says so, sort of like, well, a pope (as opposed to the first among equals)?

 So how is the press handling this? Here is a crucial chunk of the current Associated Press story:

Orthodox church leaders haven’t held such a meeting since the year 787, when the last of the seven councils recognized by both Orthodox and Catholics, was held. The “great schism” then split the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox in 1054 amid disputes over the Vatican’s power.
The Moscow Patriarchate said it can’t attend the meeting because other Orthodox churches, the Bulgarian church, the Georgian church and the Syria-based Antioch Patriarchate refused to take part and the Serbian Orthodox Church also called for the council to be postponed.
The four churches pointed to disagreements over the Council’s agenda and the documents drafted for the meeting.

So what is wrong with the documents, especially the one on marriage and family? Who prepared the documents and what kind of authority do they have? If anyone sees a press report that even asks these questions, please let me know.

Meanwhile, here is the Orthodox gospel according to The New York Times:

While it did not rule out participating in a future gathering, the Moscow Patriarchate, the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, said late Monday that it was “impossible to participate” in the council because not all Orthodox churches would be present. At least four branches of the Orthodox faith, mostly with historically close ties to Russia, like the Serbian Orthodox Church, had complained about aspects of the Crete council and indicated that they might stay away.
The Russian decision threw into doubt the opening of the gathering and highlighted longstanding doctrinal disagreements among Orthodox Christians as well as a struggle over the direction of the church between the Moscow Patriarchate and a rival leadership based in Istanbul, the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.

A rival leadership based in Istanbul? That's one way to put it, if one wants to see these debates in terms of political structures, alone.

Check out this summary material and note the lack of attribution clauses for any of this information, including an alleged mind-meld with the Russian hierarchy:

Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, which has a single, undisputed leader in the pope, the Orthodox or Eastern branch of Christianity is divided into self-governing provinces, each with its own leadership. As heir to the traditions of the original Orthodox, or Byzantine, church, based in Constantinople before the 15th-century Muslim conquest of the city, the Istanbul-based patriarch has traditionally been viewed as the “first among equals” by the Orthodox faithful, a role that has long nettled Russian church leaders.
The Russian Orthodox Church, which also controls affiliated branches of Orthodoxy in much of the former Soviet Union, has many more followers than the Istanbul-based hierarchy.

Well, yes. There are an estimated 2,000 Orthodox Christians left in Istanbul and, under the thumb of the Turkish government, the Church of Constantinople is not even allowed to operate a seminary to prepare priests and monks. It's hard to have your own bishops if you don't have a seminary.

 Meanwhile, the Church of Russia claims -- repeat, "claims" -- an estimated 150 million members. So that would be 2,000 believers as opposed to 150 million? I guess that could mildly be described as "many more" followers. You think?

Stay tuned. There is much more "political" news to come, I am sure, about Russia's attempts to derail the "Orthodox Vatican II," thus throwing a wrench into Orthodox efforts to be more open to changes in the modern world.

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