Friday, January 25, 2008

The Unorthodox Patriarch

January 25, 2008;
Page W11

Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, can be regarded as the "pope," or at least the symbol of unity, of Orthodox Christianity. The denomination's 300 million or so adherents make it the second-largest body of Christians in the world, after Roman Catholicism. The 67-year-old Bartholomew also represents one of Christianity's most ancient branches as the latest in a line of 270 archbishops of his city -- modern Istanbul -- that traces itself back to the apostle St. Andrew, brother of St. Peter, in a part of the world where the Christian faith has existed since New Testament times.

In December 2006, Bartholomew, patriarch since 1991, was thrust under the world-wide media spotlight when he celebrated the Orthodox Divine Liturgy with Pope Benedict XVI. The two met in the tiny Church of St. George in the equally tiny patriarchal compound in Istanbul, all that remains of an Eastern Christian civilization on the Bosporus so glistening and powerful that for more than 1,500 years Constantinople called itself the "new Rome."

Now Bartholomew has a forthcoming book, in English, "Encountering the Mystery: Perennial Values of the Orthodox Church" (Random House). It purports to be a primer to Orthodoxy, with short chapters on ritual, theology, icons and so forth. What it really is, perhaps inadvertently, is a telling glimpse into the mindset of a church that, venerable and spiritually appealing though it may be, is in a state of crisis. And the book reveals the jarringly secular-sounding ideological positions its leader seemingly feels compelled to take in order to cultivate the sympathy of a Western European political order that is at best indifferent to Christianity.

The Orthodox community, rooted mostly in Russia and Eastern Europe, is in "apparently irreversible demographic decline," as religious historian Philip Jenkins wrote in 2006, thanks to falling birthrates, cultural secularization, turf battles between the various ethnically focused Orthodox churches, and past communist ravages. The historic Christian communities in the Islamic-dominated world -- some Orthodox -- have fared even worse, their numbers reduced as members frantically immigrate to the West under pressure from terrorism, persecution and religious discrimination. The historic fate of Christianity in Islamic-majority lands has been cultural annihilation, whether gradual over the centuries or, as in recent decades, swift.

Nowhere does the plight of Christians look so pitiful as in Turkey, nominally secular but 99% Muslim. At the turn of the 20th century, some 500,000 Orthodox Christians, mostly ethnic Greeks, lived in Constantinople, where they constituted half the city's residents, and millions more resided elsewhere in what is now Turkey. Today, Bartholomew has only about 4,000 mostly elderly fellow believers (2,000 in Istanbul) left in Turkey's 71 million-plus population. The quasi-militaristic regime of Kemal Ataturk that supplanted the Ottoman Empire during the 1920s forcibly Westernized the country's institutions but also made Islam an essential component of the Turkish national identity that it relentlessly promoted.

"Kemalist ideology regarded Christianity as Greek and thus foreign," says Greek Orthodox writer Joshua TreviƱo. The result was a series of official and unofficial ethnic cleansings, population transfers, massacres and pogroms in Turkey, such as the wholesale destruction of Orthodox churches in 1955. The murders of a Catholic priest in 2006 and of an Armenian Christian journalist and three evangelicals, two of whom were Turkish converts, in 2007, together with threats and assaults against other Christian clergy by ultra-nationalists and Islamic militants, indicate that such anti-Christian animus is far from dead. Furthermore, the current government refuses to allow the reopening of Turkey's sole Greek Orthodox seminary, closed in 1971, which means that there have been no replacements for Turkey's aging Orthodox priests and -- since Turkish law requires the patriarch to be a Turkish citizen -- no likely replacement for Bartholomew himself, whose death may well mean the extinction of his 2,000-year-old see.

Nonetheless, Bartholomew devotes the bulk of his book to anything but the mortal threat to his own religion in his own country. High on his list of favorite topics, most with only a tangential relationship to Orthodoxy, is the environment. He has won the nickname "the Green Patriarch" for the decade or so he has preached the ecological gospel, largely to liberal secular audiences in the West. "Encountering the Mystery" is in large part a collection of eco-friendly platitudes about global warming ("At stake is not just our ability to live in a sustainable way but our very survival") and globalization, adorned with a bit of theological window-dressing, that today's secular progressives love to read.

On first reading, this exercise in fiddling while the new Rome burns seems pathetic, presenting a picture of a church leader so intimidated by his country's Islamic majority that he cannot speak up for his dwindling flock even as its members are murdered at his doorstep. Bartholomew's book presents an eerie mirror image of the concerns of aging, culturally exhausted, post-Christian Western Europe, happy to blather on at conferences about carbon emissions and diversity but unwilling to confront its own demographic crisis in the face of youthful, rapidly growing and culturally antagonistic Muslim populations. The suicide of the West meets the homicide of the East.

On the other hand, Bartholomew's "green" crusade across Western Europe may actually represent a shrewd last-ditch effort to secure a visible profile and powerful protectors for his beleaguered church. The patriarch has been an incessant lobbyist for Turkey's admission to the European Union, and his hope has been that the EU will condition Turkey's entry on greater religious freedoms for all faiths.

Orthodox Christianity is not dead yet. Its famous monastery on Mount Athos in Greece has enjoyed new growth recently, and in America some Orthodox churches are drawing converts attracted by the glorious liturgy and ancient traditions. It is unfortunate that Orthodoxy's spiritual leader feels compelled to position the Orthodox with a Western Europe that is, in fact, spiritually dead.

Ms. Allen is the author of "The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus."

This article raises serious questions about the leadership of the Ecumenical Patriarch, the future of the patriarchal see and the health of Orthodoxy in Eastern Europe.

In the context of recent conversation with friends and coleagues on the journey to the Ancient Faith, full of idealism and the fervor of new discovery and conversion, this article strikes a sobering note. The crises prompted by globalization, secularism, changing demographics and politics aparently are no respecters of antiquity, beauty , orthodox belief nor apostolic lineage and pose a challenge to the whole of Christendom.

It did me good to read this article, surely there is some bias in it, but also elements of truth that should cause me to pray and to ponder. How is the faith to survive in the modern world unless, aided by the power of the Holy Spirit we can bypass the barriers, boxes and limitations placed around us? Maybe the unusual approach of His Beatitude is an attempt to address issues beyond the boxes other would put him in which in time could give results beyond what we expected.

The interesting note reporting growth in the Americas and at Athos is refreshing. Maybe it is a testimony to the Holy Spirit's sense of humor ...He goes where he chooses despite demographics! It definitely is a reminder that God's life defies predictions of death and can crop up in the least likely of places. Despite all, even the seeming Un-Orthodoxy of the patriarch's style... Orthodoxy is not dead.




Fr Matt Mirabile said...

Great Post Seraph. I was going to mention this trend as well. As much as I am a fan of orthodox spirituality it does raise serious issues. Why is the church of martyrs not producing any in Turkey? Why, if Orthodoxy is so right and true (and in many respects I believe it is) does it miss the mark so far in transmitting a vibrant and contagious faith to its adherents? While converts are zealous the run of the mill Orthodox person is usually best described as a cultural or nominal Christian. I think the problem lies, in part, in presenting an austere spirituality that seems out of reach to most people, except to the Monks. As in the Roman church, people don't think they can live like the Saints so they settle for mediocrity. the beauty of our post-protestant orthodoxy (can I call it that?) is that we can take people from a real commitment to Christ and eventually lead them into true orthodox spirituality.

Fr. Matt

Seraphim said...

The various situations the Orthodox world finds itself in are complex and nuanced, to say the least. The question "why doesn't it transmit a vibrant, contagious faith" is one that requires the unpacking, so to speak, of centuries of history, leafing through pages of complicated political and economical troubles; and both physical and legislative persecution. Would this not have an effect on the vibrant faith of Christians?

The largest percentage of Orthodox believers today are still--by history's standards--newly released from the chains of communism, which, in its atheistic regime and program, sought to eliminate all religion. In many ways, they are just beginning to find themselves again. The Church in Russia, for instance, was not allowed to hold catechism classes, Sunday school classes, evangelize in any way or print Christian literature; and this was the case for decades and decades and decades. Only now, in the last ten years or so, has the Russian Church come back to some health. Many young people are taking up this "austere faith," and not simply as converts.

We must be circumspect in how we judge Christians of history and other locales, especially here in the West. Why doesn't the Church in Turkey produce martyrs? What an unfair question this is. We would do better to ask: Why aren't there Christian martyrs in the United States, the UK, or Western Europe? Why are there so many run-of-the-mill, cultural Christians in the Bible Belt?

I would recommend, if you haven't already, reading Timothy Ware's book "The Orthodox Church." It presents many of the complexities and nuances I refer to in ample detail and in honesty, bumps and warts shown in tandem with glories and riches. No disrespect to Fr Matt, but I write this to challenge his presuppositions and admonish anyone interested to do some research.

seraph said...

Fr. Matt and Seraphim:

Thank you very much for yur comments.