It's hard to cover bitter tensions in Kiev, Moscow and Constantinople while ignoring church history

It is hard to evaluate the journalistic quality of a New York Times report about a complicated, emotional religious dispute with 1,000 years worth of history when the report — when push comes to shove — is a one-sided look at its contemporary political implications.

Once again, politics trumps church history and doctrine. Surprised?

I am referring to the clash in Ukraine between Orthodox Christians who back centuries of ecclessiastical ties between Kiev and Moscow and those who support the bid by President Petro O. Poroshenko, with the backing of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, to create an independent, canonical Ukrainian church. Here’s the overture for the recent report in the Times:

MOSCOW — Ukraine took a major step on Saturday toward establishing its own, autonomous Orthodox Church, setting the stage for increased tensions with Russia by altering a centuries-old religious tradition under which the Kiev church answered to Moscow.

Some 190 bishops, priests and other church figures spent the day closeted in St. Sophia’s Cathedral in downtown Kiev to elect the newly unified Ukrainian church’s head, Metropolitan Epiphanius. He is scheduled to travel in January to Istanbul, the historical seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church, to receive an official order granting autonomy.

Hundreds of supporters of the move cheered and some wept as President Petro O. Poroshenko, who had attended the session, emerged from the cathedral to announce that Ukraine had a new church leader.

Quoting from the national poet, Taras Shevchenko, Mr. Poroshenko said that “Ukraine will no longer drink Moscow poison from the Moscow cup,” and he called on supporters to remember the day’s events as “the final acquisition of independence from Russia.”

The assumption here is, of course, that (a) the tiny, endangered church in Constantinople has the power — there is no Vatican in Orthodox polity — to create an “autocephalous” Ukrainian church that will be recognized as valid by Orthodox churches around the world. Oh, and (b), the heart of this story is a conflict between Russian President Vladimir Putin and modern Europe, representing the free world.

Political sizzle always trumps church history. The Times report acknowledges this with a brief nod.

The step toward independence is sure to antagonize both Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, who have pursued a “Russian World” alliance of states bound to Moscow by tradition, culture and religion.

“What kind of church is this?” Mr. Poroshenko said in his speech, noting that he would travel with the new leader of the Ukrainian church to collect the autonomy order, known as the Tomos of Autocephaly. “This is a church without Putin. What kind of church is this? It is a church without Kirill. What kind of church is this? It is a church without prayers for the Russian government and Russian military.”

Russia has criticized the move toward autonomy for months, calling it a campaign ploy by Mr. Poroshenko, who faces a difficult re-election in March. That impression was fed by Mr. Poroshenko’s speech, which was devoted to the break with Russia.

So what matters more, the contemporary “Russian World” alliance gambit or 1,000 years of church history linking Kiev and the rise of Orthodox Christianity in the Slavic world?

The following paragraph is the closest the story comes to offering material representing the views of Moscow and a significant block of Orthodox churches around the world:

“Not a word about Christ, just ‘Farewell, unwashed Russia’ and so forth,” wrote Sergei Chapnin, a Russian religious scholar and frequent critic of the Moscow church hierarchy, on Facebook.

That quote is significant, in part because it admits that there are many, many Putin critics who still recognize the importance that Kiev plays in the history of Russia and the Orthodox world.

In other words, for most Orthodox believers this story isn’t about Putin and politics. If anything, this story is about 1,000 years of church history symbolized by the medieval Monastery of the Kiev Caves (A site I have visited twice) and its many saints.

I must admit that I laughed out loud — the bitter kind — the first time I read this paragraph:

One new source of tension will be the division of valuable church property in Ukraine, including a historic monastery in the center of Kiev.

A “new” source of tension?

Well, that’s like saying that the status of Jerusalem is a “new” issue in agonzing conflicts about the future of Israel and the Middle East.

Obviously, I should stress that I have strong feelings about all of this — since I am a convert to Orthodox Christianity. So let me put my cards on the table, by pointing readers to my recent Universal syndicate column about this conflict.

Please read it all, and note that my summary of key issues in this story opens with a personal confession.

Speaking as an Orthodox convert (I joined the ancient Antiochian Orthodox Church and now attend a Bible Belt parish with Russian roots), I think it's important for anyone following this byzantine drama to know that:

* The historic ties between Kiev and Russian Orthodoxy are more than talking points in arguments involving the United States, the European Union, the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The Moscow Patriarchate's decision to sever communion with the Patriarchate of Constantinople is just the latest example of centuries of tension between Moscow and Istanbul.

* Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I is called the "first among equals," the symbolic leader of Orthodox patriarchs. But he is not an Orthodox pope, even if The New York Times prints a headline proclaiming, "Russian Orthodox Church Breaks Ties With Orthodoxy's Leader."

Eastern Orthodoxy doesn't have a central leader who can snap his fingers and change doctrine, or settle global conflicts. To be blunt, it often takes Orthodox leaders a long time to solve these kinds of ecclesiastical puzzles.

* Ukraine currently has three Orthodox bodies – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) created in 1991 and the small Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, born early in the 20th century. The news right now is that the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople has lifted an old condemnation of schismatic Orthodox leaders in Ukraine, taking a big step toward validating the claims of Patriarch Filaret of the Kiev Patriarchate.

* This is complicated, treacherous territory for inexperienced reporters. A recent Associated Press report, for example, quoted a "Ukrainian Orthodox Church" leader – without identifying which of the three churches he was representing.

Picky details of this kind are crucial. For example, it will be important – in the days, months or years ahead – to note which national Orthodox churches continue to support Moscow and which ones back the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the current Ukrainian government. Orthodox leaders in Syria and Serbia have signaled continuing support for Moscow.

Events unfolding in the YEARS ahead? Yes, the gears of Orthodox polity move slowly — even if the New York Times has already spoken.

With all of that history in mind, here is the top of my “On Religion” column, which I skipped over earlier.

The great prince Vladimir had a problem in the year 986, while striving to build unity in the Kievan Rus, his network of Eastern Slavic and Finnic tribes.

The old pagan gods and goddesses were not enough. So the prince dispatched ambassadors to investigate Islam, Judaism, Catholicism and the Orthodox faith of the Christian East.

When they returned to Kiev, their report included this passage about Byzantium: "We went into the Greek lands, and we were led into a place where they serve their God, and we did not know where we were, in heaven or on earth. … All we know is that God lives there with people and their service is better than in any other country. … We cannot remain any more in paganism."

So Vladimir surrendered his concubines and was baptized in 988, while commanding his people to convert. Orthodoxy came to the lands of the Rus.

This early chronicle was, according to church tradition, written by St. Nestor of the great Kiev-Pechersk Monastery, founded in 1051. Pilgrims continue to flock to the Monastery of the Kiev Caves to see its beautiful churches, soaring bell tower, the labyrinthine underground tunnels and the incorrupt bodies of many saints.

Note the importance of the word "Kiev" in that spiritual and national narrative.

My journalism question is simple: Is it possible for Western newsrooms to cover the views of Orthodox leaders on both sides of this dispute? Will many even try?

It will — I admit — be crucial for reporters to seek out the views of Orthodox scholars and leaders who oppose Putin, yet understand the significance of Kiev in the narrative of Orthodox history in Russia and the Slavic world.

The goal? There is no need to ignore the contemporary politics. The goal is to grasp the fact that history, doctrine and church polity cannot be ignored when covering story with factual roots that are 1,000 years old.

FIRST IMAGE: Several sanctuaries located in the Monastery of the Kiev Caves.

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