Vol. 1 No. 2 - Nativity 2006
Telling the Truth in Istanbul:
1054 All Over Again?
"If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free." - John 8:31-32
Media coverage of the recent visit by Benedict XVI to Istanbul illustrated vividly the great gap between popular illusion and Christian reality.
For instance, consider the repeated references to Patriarch Bartholomew as "spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians". For the ninety percent of Orthodox Christians not under the jurisdiction of the bishop in Istanbul, this seemed as strange as describing the American president as the Leader of North America. Clearly, the Patriarch lays claim to an ancient see, one which is now numerically bereft of faithful, but which still claims jurisdiction over all Orthodox in so-called "barbarian lands" (apparently places like Russia, the United States, and Canada).
This claim to a kind of semi-universal authority is propped up by supporters in the West, who emblazon the Patriarchal standard on their letterheads, but who do not muster the energy to advocate a return to the monarchy of the Byzantine Empire which gave the Patriarch his title in the first place. Even in its far-flung holdings in Europe, Canada, and the United States, the Orthodox who are under the Patriarchate of Constantinople are in speedy decline, a result of low birth rates and severely limited mission work.
It is of course the mystique of this office, not the realities, which make her worthy of a visit by the Roman Catholic leader. Without question, Benedict XVI is the magnet of media attention around the world. It is this mythology of the Patriarchal office - a mythology paralleling the Roman Catholic claim to the universal authority of one bishop - which makes the Latin "vicar of Christ" so eager for "ecumenical" dialogue, and eventually, eucharistic union.
The bishop in Istanbul is somehow seen by Rome as the key to this unity, and the Patriarch is eager to oblige. Life in Turkey has not been easy for the Orthodox minority and their local spiritual leader (for so he is, like any bishop in his home city). Numerous assassination attempts, coupled with micromanagement of patriarchal affairs by the Turkish government, make it easy to understand the reasons one would welcome media attention in the Phanar (the enclosure that houses the Patriarchal offices). It is much more difficult to lob molotov cocktails through the back window of the Phanar while the Papal motorcade is parked outside. This is at least part of the reason the Roman Catholic leader was greeted at the Phanar by the singing of "Many Years" by the Patriarchal chanters, a practice strictly reserved for visiting Orthodox bishops. Apparently, they were especially happy to see him.
This is of course the very thing which makes the visit of Benedict XVI such a temptation. Just as in 1054, when the prospect of one, all-powerful bishop who would protect the Church made the West bow the knee to Rome, it is now increasingly apparent that His Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew finds great comfort in the friendship of the Roman Catholic leader. The added flattery at the thought that the unique position of one Orthodox bishop's relationship with Rome provides the key to some kind of Orthodox-Catholic union is particularly seductive.
In reality, the influence of the Patriarchal throne is limited and waning. Most Orthodox Christians worldwide are either under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Moscow, or of some other independent jurisdictions. Sadly, and somewhat dishonestly, many even in the Church would gloss over this fact. The mythology of Byzantium - not its reality - brings with it the reward that the worldly mind always seeks: the reward of being somebody important.
Yet being somebody important - in imagination or in reality - brings with it giant responsibilities, particularly for Orthodox Christians. Firstly, one is obliged to tell the truth, about friends and opponents, about peers and those who are smaller or "less important". Secondly, one is called upon to deal with diplomatic relations based on integrity, and not on gaining opportunities to enhance personal reputation or power.
However much attention the media gives to the wooing of the Patriarch by the Roman Catholics, the outcome of the affair has far more limited implications than either of the participating sides would like to believe. Those who support their increasingly close relationship need to start being honest about this. Should this friendship turn into a marriage (i.e. should the Patriarch sign a union with Rome), most Orthodox Christians in the world would not be obligated to follow suit, and in fact, many (if not most) would deal with such a union as it should be handled: as a schism from the Church, in which those bishops, clergy, and laity who join in, depart from the Church, Her holy orders, and Her Communion.
Those in North America who seek such a union must be honest with themselves and with others, that the results of their efforts could well be the further isolation of the Patriarchate, rather than the enhancement of its prestige and position. The results would certainly produce a greater disunity amoung Orthodox Christians - quite possible a Schism - rather than the "unity of love" for which these advocates hope.
Christian love means telling the truth. Just as it behooves all Orthodox to be clear that the Patriarch is not the "spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians" (i.e. an Orthodox "Pope"), it would also serve well the peace of the Church in North America for Her hierarchs and clergy to speak forcefully and honestly to the faithful about the consequences of such a false union, its historic and catastrophic implications for the Church, and its destructive implications for the harmony and unity of brotherly love amoung Orthodox Christians in North America. Any other message is simply less than honest.
Father Geoffrey Korz, (Nativity, 2006)
© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2007.