Bitter news with roots 1,000 years old: Russian Orthodox Church cuts Istanbul ties

Anyone who has studied the history of Orthodox Christianity knows the details of this story, as well as arguments about its significance.

As the first Christian millennium was drawing to a close, something big happened among the East Slavic and Finnic tribes of Europe. As always, the change involved economics, culture, military might and, last but not least, religion.

Here is a typical short take on this complicated subject:

The chronicles report that the Great Prince of Kiev sent embassies around the world to find the faith that best suited his nation and people. Travelling from nation to nation they visited Muslims and Jews at worship observing their forms of worship and pondering the way of life that each religion taught. The emissaries judged neither of these worthy religions suitable for Russ. Finally, they visited the city of Constantinople and attended Divine Liturgy in the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia. … They breathlessly reported back to Kiev that in Hagia Sophia they were unable to tell if they were on earth or in heaven.

Thus, Prince Vladimir was baptized In 988 and commanded his whole nation to follow his conversion to Orthodoxy.

Just in case you missed it, one of the key words in this account is “Kiev.”

In the past week or so, I have received all kinds of contacts asking for my take on mainstream news coverage of the split that has taken place between the giant Russian Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Patriarch based — with a tiny, persecuted flock — in Istanbul.

To be blunt, this topic is so complex that most of the Orthodox folks that I know think it would be next to impossible for journalists to handle it in a few inches of type or sound bites. Many of the Orthodox are reading the transcripts of statements by Orthodox leaders and that’s that.

However, I would like to note a few key issues that news consumers should watch for, when reading about this important story. Yes, please note that I say this as someone who is a convert into the ancient Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church, and someone who now worships in a Bible belt parish that — while largely made up of converts — has some important Russian roots.

As always, the Associated Press coverage of this story is crucial, since this is the news that will run in most newspapers. Here is the version at The New York Times. Alas, the headline there is a perfect example of one of the problems that readers will see, over and over:

Russian Orthodox Church Breaks Ties With Orthodoxy's Leader

Here is the crucial point that readers must grasp. Yes, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I is the “first among equals” and the symbolic leader of the world’s Orthodox patriarchs. However, the leader of the besieged church in Istanbul is not an Orthodox version of the Pope of Rome. Neither is the patriarch in Moscow.

Orthodoxy does not have a leader who can snap his fingers and make changes in church doctrine and settle complicated issues linked to life in the various “autocephalous” churches in the communion. The conciliar nature of Orthodoxy has, through the centuries, faced other clashes of this kind and, to be blunt, it often takes quite a bit of time for the church’s leaders around the world to sort them out.

Once again: The Ecumenical Patriarch is not the pope. This is a key issue in this story and journalists must let readers know that.

You can see how this basic misunderstanding shapes the overture of the basic AP report:

MOSCOW — The Russian Orthodox Church decided … to sever ties with the leader of the worldwide Orthodox community after his decision to grant Ukrainian clerics independence from the Moscow Patriarchate.

Metropolitan Hilarion said the Russian church's Holy Synod resolved to "''break the Eucharistic communion" with the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Under the leadership of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the patriarchate last week removed its condemnation of leaders of schismatic Orthodox churches in Ukraine. The decision marked a step toward establishing an ecclesiastically independent — or autocephalous — church in Ukraine.

Here is the same mistake, as seen in a Radio Liberty report on this topic:

The Holy Synod was called by Moscow Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, after the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, who is considered the leader of the worldwide Orthodox community, on October 11 agreed to recognize the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

“The” leader of the global Orthodox churches? Singular?

Here’s another big word — “schismatic.”

In this case, we are dealing with matters of church order, more than details of doctrine (although issues of communion are obviously linked to doctrines about the nature of the church). This is not a battle over the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth or fine points in the Nicene Creed.

Please hear me say this: I don’t know how AP could have summed up the history of Orthodoxy in Russia in a few accurate paragraphs that would satisfy people on both sides of this dispute. However, it is crucial that something be said in news reports about why key players in this drama, especially Patriarch Filaret (Denysenko) of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate, were considered schismatics in the first place. Click here for a 1992 Washington Post report on some of the roots of this fight.

Moving on. Here is another key issue that must be addressed. Read carefully:

Ukraine currently has three Orthodox communities — one answering to the Russian Orthodox Church and two schismatic churches. … Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who is running for re-election in a March vote, has pushed Bartholomew to grant independence to the Ukrainian church.

Ukrainian Orthodox Church Archbishop Yevstratiy denounced the Holy Synod's decision to sever ties with the Orthodox Church leader regarded as a "first among equals" as a move toward "self-isolation."

Yes, there are three churches in Ukraine and they have names. Here is how I described that tragic reality, after my first visit to Kiev in 2009. I was discussing the role of Orthodox clergy in a public event in an emotional setting, the Bykivnya forest in which Joseph Stalin’s secret police buried 100,000 Ukrainian victims.

In the Ukrainian media, photographs and video images showed the clergy, with their dramatic banners and colorful vestments. However, in their reporting, journalists never mentioned what the clergy said or did.

Media reports also failed to mention which Orthodoxy body or bodies were represented. This is an important gap, because of the tense and complicated nature of the religious marketplace in this historically Eastern Orthodox culture.

Did clergy from the giant Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) take part?

Or were the priests drawn from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate), born after the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991?

Were there clergy from a small third flock, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, born early in the 20th century?

These details matter, to say the least. However, note that AP identified a key player as “Ukrainian Orthodox Church Archbishop Yevstratiy.” Well, to which of the three churches is he linked?

The answer: Archbishop Yevstratiy is the spokesman for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate).

It doesn’t help readers when AP editors pin the definitive title — the “Ukrainian Orthodox Church” — on a leader in one of the churches involved in this dispute. That would assume that the Ecumenical Patriarch has the power that he claims to have, in terms of granting autocephaly. That would assume that this dispute has already been settled.

Associated Press editors don’t get to make that decision. Meanwhile, they should require their reporters to cover the claims of leaders on both sides, while making the identities clear.

Obviously, I could go on and on, citing details that will be hard for journalists to handle in small amounts of space. But let me stress another issue journalists should emphasize as this drama unfolds. Let’s return to the AP report:

The Russian church voiced concern that the Istanbul-based patriarchate's action would deepen the religious rift in Ukraine and could spur the schismatic branches to try to take over church buildings.

The Russian Orthodox Church expects Poroshenko to make good on his pledge that the Ukrainian government would ensure respect for the choices of those who want to retain unity with the Russian church.

Yes, “church buildings” matter.

But there is one “building,” one awesome holy site, that is absolutely crucial — the stunning Kiev-Pechersk Monastery (or the Monastery of the Kiev Caves).

Founded in 1051, this giant network of churches and caves is one of the most important monastic communities in all of Orthodoxy. For Russian Orthodox believers, this turns Kiev into a cornerstone of the faith, something like Jerusalem.

What will happen to the sanctuaries deep inside the caves, where the winding tunnels contain the glass tombs containing the incorrupt bodies of many saints? Right now, the monks at this monastery are loyal to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate). Will the powers that be in Kiev test that?

Yes, journalists cannot cover this fight without mentioning politics and the secular details. But the sacred facts are just as important. The Orthodox have long attention spans.

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