More spilled ink, as global Byzantine puzzle games continue with the Orthodox in Ukraine

More spilled ink, as global Byzantine puzzle games continue with the Orthodox in Ukraine

I know that this will be hard for many journalists think about the following concepts without their heads exploding, but let’s give it a try. After all, the events unfolding at Orthodox altars in Ukraine are very important and may take years or decades to settle — not that readers would know that from reading mainstream news reports on the schism.


First and foremost: There is no Eastern Orthodox pope, no one shepherd who can snap his fingers and make Orthodox disputes vanish.

Yes, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin are key players in the current drama. However, this dispute between Moscow and Constantinople transcends politics and enters the world of doctrine and church polity. The ties that bind between Kiev and Moscow are far older than the current politics of Europe and Russia.

Yes, it is true that are are arguments about whether the Ecumenical Patriarch — based at the tiny, embattled Orthodox church in Turkey — has the power to grant “autocephaly” (creating an autonomous national church) in Ukraine. However, these debates are not, ultimately, between Poroshenko and Putin — they are between Patriarch Bartholomew and the rest of the world’s Orthodox patriarchs.

With that in mind, before we turn to the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Christianity Today, let’s pause for a recent word from the ancient church of Antioch.

Responding to Patriarch Bartholomew’s request to recognize the results of December 15’s “unification council” and the nationalist Ukrainian church created there, His Beatitude Patriarch John X of Antioch urged Pat. Bartholomew to stop the process of granting autocephaly until a pan-Orthodox solution could be found to the Ukrainian crisis. 

In other words, this Ukrainian issue is creating a global Orthodox crisis. Thus, it will require a global Orthodox solution. Repeat: There is no Orthodox pope.

Additional information:

The Patriarch of Constantinople sent letters of appeal to recognize the Ukrainian church to all the primates of the Local Orthodox Churches on December 24. The request has thus far been explicitly denied by the Polish and  Serbian Churches. 

In his response, Pat. John emphasized that the events surrounding the creation of the new church cause concern not only because of the disunion they create in the Orthodox world, but also because the opinion of the Local Orthodox Churches was not taken into account by Constantinople. …

Journalists: Please look for this. The issue here is not what churches remain in Communion with Moscow or the Ecumenical Patriarch. The issue is how many other patriarchs declare themselves to be in Communion with this alleged new church in Kiev. This is what matters to the Orthodox, not whether Kiev is in Communion with the U.S. State Department and the European Union.

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After the Waffle House shootings: It's hard to separate tragedy and faith in Bible Belt life

After the Waffle House shootings: It's hard to separate tragedy and faith in Bible Belt life

It's been a crazy week, in terms of religion-beat life. Thus, I have not had the time to address the media coverage of the Waffle House shooting in the Nashville area.

Yes, Tennesseans are still talking about that second tragedy in the Antioch area.

I have found it interesting that folks in this neck of the woods are talking more about James Shaw -- the 29-year-old hero in this drama -- than they are the young and very troubled man who did the shooting. Can we officially say that this is progress? Sad progress, but progress of some kind.

If you read through some of the coverage -- national and regional -- there is one quick religion angle to be covered in this story. However, I think there is another religion theme in this story that deserved coverage. Hold that thought.

First, care of Nashville Public Radio, the #DUH religion angle, from the Bible Belt point of view. The headline: "Waffle House Shooting Hero Goes From The Hospital To Church." Let's pick this up after the time-sensitive, newsy lede:

James Shaw was discharged from the hospital Sunday morning, freshly bandaged up from a bullet grazing his elbow and a burned hand from grabbing the smoking hot barrel of an AR-15. And where did he go?

"He didn't skip church to be laid up," Rev. Aaron Marble said, as he prayed over Shaw's family at Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church. "But instead [he] went through this experience and got to come to church to give God praise."

Still dressed in a slim-fitting khaki suit, turtle neck and tasseled loafers, the young father, who works for AT&T, spoke at a police press conference.

"If you would ask me, I'm actually not a greatly religious person," Shaw said. "But I know that in a tenth of a second, something was with me to run through that door and get the gun from him."

When talking about this with locals here in Oak Ridge, I have heard several people simply say: "Of course he went to church."

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

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.

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Got news? Will anyone cover that historic, and now shaky, Orthodox council in Crete?

Got news? Will anyone cover that historic, and now shaky, Orthodox council in Crete?

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?

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Concerning other little-known religious 'genocides' on the edges of the news

Concerning other little-known religious 'genocides' on the edges of the news

Pope Francis infuriated the government of Turkey by using the word “genocide” leading up to April 24, the 100th anniversary of the start of the mass murder of as many as 1.5 million Armenians in what was then the Ottoman Empire. That atrocity, amid the chaos and rivalries of World War One, is often regarded as the forerunner and inspiration for Nazi efforts to exterminate the Jews of Europe.

In the April 15 issue of The Christian Century, Baylor University historian Philip Jenkins reports on another 2015 centennial that major media have ignored -- the “Sayfo” (“sword” year) memorialized by Christian Assyrians. Among other events, historians will examine this at the Free University of Berlin June 24-28. During that dying era of the empire with its historic Muslim Caliphate, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Greeks were also killed during the “Pontic” ethnic cleansing.

The hatred toward all three Christian groups a century ago finds unnerving echoes in current attacks by Muslim fanatics in the Mideast and Africa, most recently the video beheadings of Ethiopian Christians in Libya. Assyrians are also  victimized once again, now by ISIS under its purported restoration of the Caliphate in Syria and Iraq. The Assyrians’ story is part of the over-all emptying out of Christianity across the Mideast.

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Memory eternal: A giant of Orthodoxy has died

Let me state right up front that, as a member of an Antiochian Orthodox parish, this post hits close to home. However, this is also a story that is linked to one of the most important news trends in our world today, which is the growing state of chaos in Syria and the plight of religious minorities in the wider Middle East.

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