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.

Yes, let me state the obvious: There are ties between Syria and Russia and politics are real, and they matter. However, what Patriarch John X of Antioch is saying is true, in terms of centuries of Orthodox polity.

Now, let’s turn to the new report in the Wall Street Journal (with a firewall, of course) with a double-decker headline that proclaims:

New Ukrainian Church Officially Recognized, Gains Independence From Russia

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I grants the Orthodox Church of Ukraine a decree of independence

Everything in this headline is built on the assumption that there is an Orthodox pope and that Bartholomew has the power to take this action. Alas, there is no way to fix that top headline, but the readout should have said the following, if the goal was accuracy: “Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I attempts to grant the Orthodox Church of Ukraine independence.”

Everything that can be debated in this story — almost line for line — is linked to this issue. Let’s walk through this a bit:

ISTANBUL — Orthodox Christianity’s foremost leader presented Ukraine’s new church with a decree of independence, ignoring Russian claims that its church has sole authority there and handing Ukraine a victory in its attempts to diminish Russia’s influence.

Foremost? Is that a proper spin on “first among EQUALS”? Also, is the Russian church saying it has “sole authority” here or that the historic union of Kiev and Moscow is an issue that the whole church must decide?

Journalists: Please look for this. Pay attention to which national churches seek a global solution and which ones accept the claims of Istanbul.

Later on in the story, there is this. Read carefully:

Ukrainian officials said the local arm of the Russian Orthodox Church was spreading pro-Russian propaganda, and many believers switched allegiance to a Ukrainian-led church called the Kiev Patriarchate even though it wasn’t recognized by other Orthodox churches.

Ah, a crucial point. Why wasn’t the Kiev Patriarchate recognized by other Orthodox churches? Why was that relatively new body known, globally, as a church in schism?

Bishops from the Kiev Patriarchate, the Russian church and another unrecognized church met in December to form the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and elected 39-year-old Epifaniy as their leader. Epifaniy switched between Ukrainian and Greek in a speech Sunday. “We were divided, but now we are united,” he said.

Whoa. Here is a paragraph with a massive hole in it that WSJ editors must correct, in the name of basic journalism.

First, consider this material from an earlier “On Religion” column I wrote about this dispute:

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.

OK, after the recent events, there are now TWO Orthodox bodies in Ukraine. But note that the WSJ claims that bishops from the “Russian church” took part in the creation of the new “Orthodox Church of Ukraine.”

If that was true, that would be a fact of great significance. However, note the following in a far-superior Christianity Today news feature on the drama in Ukraine. There are points in this feature that Orthodox thinkers might debate, but it’s crucial that it offers a debate with TWO SIDES. What a concept!

Bartholomew asked the three Orthodox entities in Ukraine — the Moscow-affiliated patriarchate and the two schismatic Ukrainian bodies — to dissolve. On December 15, they would gather for a unity synod to create one new church, electing their own autocephalous patriarch.

All but 2 of the 90 Moscow bishops boycotted, and the new Ukrainian patriarch, Epiphanius, prayed to “complete the unification of Ukrainian Orthodoxy, for an end to the war, and for a just peace in Ukraine.”

Wait a minute! But the Wall Street Journal implied that the Moscow Patriarchate bishops took part.

Is that an accurate statement if only two of the 90 bishops in that body crossed over to take part in that meeting? Isn’t that a rather crucial piece of information to include in the basic facts of the story?

So let me repeat: There are currently TWO Orthodox bodies in Ukraine. Which of the two is recognized by Orthodox patriarchs elsewhere?

Forget Moscow and Istanbul, for a moment. Once again, we are talking about Communion inside a global church (that has no pope).

For another example of this “Orthodox pope” syndrome, see the earlier story on this topic at The New York Times. I have no idea how to critique this long, complex story that is built totally on the view that all religious disputes are, essentially, matters of politics and that is that.

But do heed the following statements:

Speaking at his annual news conference in Moscow in December, Mr. Putin signaled Russia’s determination to resist the rupture, warning that any redistribution of property as part of the fissure “could turn into a heavy dispute, if not bloodshed.”

Then later, there is this perfect statement of the gospel according to the Gray Lady:

Behind a flurry of archaic fire-and-brimstone insults and arcane quarrels over canonical law lies a thoroughly modern fight over money, property, political power and identity, both Russian and Ukrainian. …

Which group controls which property, however, now risks turning into a free-for-all as the new church seeks to assert authority, aided by the Ukrainian security service and politicians.

This is a nod to a real and potentially life-and-death question: What happens if the Ukrainian military is used to seize sanctuaries containing flocks loyal to the traditional union of Kiev and Moscow?

These are, after all, the Orthodox altars that for centuries have been recognized as part of the Orthodox Communion — including during the era of the three Ukrainian churches (now two). Here is how the Times states that:

The Kiev Monastery of the Caves, where catacombs contain the remains of saints revered in Russia and Ukraine, for example, is owned by the Ukrainian state but occupied by followers of the Moscow patriarch under a long lease. The Ukrainian authorities recently conducted an inventory and searched the home of its abbot.

”Occupied” by followers of Moscow? In terms of church polity, this is something like saying that the Vatican State is inside of borders of Italy, but it is currently occupied by followers of Pope Francis. There’s way more history involved than that.

Journalists: Please look for this. Ask what it will take for Ukrainian military units to remove the bishops, priests and monks from the caves and sanctuaries of their 1,000-year old monastery.

Yes, you can then ask how Moscow will respond to that course of action. That is a reality, even though the beliefs and traditions of the holy monastics in those caves have nothing to do with Putin and Poroshenko.

Now, do you see why it is important for journalists to pay attention to what the world’s Orthodox patriarchs have to say, in terms of preventing this stand-off between the Rus and Bartholomew? It’s possible that accurate, informed, journalism might help prevent tragedy.

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