Religion In The News - Summer 1998, Vol. 1, No. 1

The Patriarch's Visit:  Pouring Oil on Troubled Waters

By Andrew Walsh

Over the past two decades, coverage of the travels of major foreign religious leaders has evolved into a distinct journalistic art form, one that blends evocations of swirling incense and the ecstasy of believers with gimlet-eyed assessments of logistics, message-packaging, and diplomatic impact.

Following the lead of Pope John Paul II, everyone from the Dalai Lama to the Archbishop of Canterbury to Archbishop Desmond Tutu has tried his hand at the religio-political pilgrimage. For such religious leaders, these global tours carry with them opportunities to raise their group’s profile and to shape public perceptions and policies. They also carry the risk of public failure, or perhaps even worse, of being overlooked entirely. Last fall, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, senior Greek Orthodox bishop and "first among equals" of the bishops leading the world’s 15 autonomous Orthodox Churches, broke into the pilgrimage big leagues with his month-long, 16-city visit to the United States. Faced with the impending final collapse of the Orthodox population in Turkey, post-communist uncertainties in Eastern Europe, and near insurrection among his 1.5 million followers in the United States, Bartholomew needed to make an impressive showing in his first pastoral visit to these shores. And, by most measures, he scored a coup. His people flocked to see him and he snagged unprecedented notice from the non-Orthodox world.

On October 19, the patriarch flew into Andrews Air Force Base, where, the Washington Post reported, he "received a welcome usually reserved for presidents, prime ministers, and kings." He discussed freedom of religion with President Clinton at the White House, received the Congressional Medal of Freedom at the Capitol, and was given a state dinner by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

The patriarchal party was stunned. "No one at the patriarchate had anticipated the flood of attention bestowed on Bartholomew by both the media and official Washington," the Greek-American magazine Odyssey later reported. Previous pastoral visits by Orthodox prelates from Russia, Syria, Greece, and Eastern Europe had attracted scant public attention. The 1990 visit of Bartholomew’s predecessor, Patriarch Dimitrios II-the first ever by a sitting Ecumenical Patriarch-was a particularly spectacular public relations flop.

Given Bartholomew’s dramatic descent on Washington, it’s not surprising that extensive media coverage followed-although the visit never received significant national television coverage. And, despite their relative unfamiliarity with Orthodox Christianity in the United States, the complexity of the issues that Bartholomew invoked, and the challenges of dealing with Orthodox sources unaccustomed to aggressive press coverage, American journalists did a solid job covering the trip. Strong coverage was provided by religion reporters at such major newspapers as the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. But several regional metropolitan papers, notably the Pittsburgh Press-Gazette and the Cleveland Plain Dealer, went well beyond the call of duty. Located in centers of Orthodox population, they provided outstanding and sustained coverage that carried the story past the mechanics of the patriarchal visit and into a serious exploration of current issues and controversies among the Orthodox in America.

What accounted for the dramatic increase in attention? Apart from savvier advance work by Church officials, some credit must go to Bartholomew’s adroit use of Byzantine ceremonial. The triumph of atmosphere and style was part of the patriarchal plan-the Boston Globe reported that it took more than 40 vehicles to transport the patriarchal entourage’s luggage from Logan Airport to a downtown hotel.

As hymns swelled in the background, Lynn Neary of NPR whispered this description of Bartholomew’s visit to an Orthodox church on 16th Street in Washington: "The rich liturgy of the Orthodox Church was on display at Saint Constantine and Helen’s, as the ecumenical patriarch entered the church. Flanked by black robed clergy and altar boys carrying gilded crosses, Bartholomew made his way down the aisle in a mist of incense." Indeed, story after story bathed in the surging waves of Greek chanting, the phalanxes of clergy processing in heavily embroidered vestments, incense, icons, and the eloquent rumblings of Bartholomew himself, a man whose very deep voice emerges from a disconcertingly short body. Journalists found Bartholomew’s Byzantine manner so intriguing that coverage sometimes burst out of the news columns. On the front of the Washington Post’s Style section, Roxanne Roberts’ account of a Library of Congress dinner for the 57-year-old patriarch oscillated between irony and adulation. Surrounded by "black robed Orthodox monks, who moved like a flock of ravens," Bartholomew cut "quite an impressive figure: the long black robes topped by a hat and veil, the white beard, the black walking stick."

Bartholomew was a good show, but there were better reasons for the extensive coverage: In the course of doing routine reporting for background stories, reporters encountered a major upheaval over the patriarchate’s apparent efforts to reestablish patriarchal control over the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

In cities where the patriarch stopped only for a day or a few hours, reporters turned in stories that emphasized the stock in trade of religious pilgrimages: ceremonies, cheering crowds, and tight schedules. In cities where the patriarch lingered, journalists dug deeper and reported substantial stories on the struggles of the Orthodox to define their future in America and their worries about a patriarchal crackdown. On October 4, the Los Angeles Times carried a typical headline on a preview story: "Orthodox Leader to Visit Amid Tensions."

Bartholomew faces tough challenges: Only a few thousand Greeks remain in Istanbul. So the patriarchate’s future depends on its strong connection to its flourishing dependencies in North America, Western Europe, and Australia. In all of these places, however, Greek immigrants and their descendents are assimilating. In the United States, other non-Greek, Orthodox jurisdictions already have embraced American identity and called for the creation of an independent American Orthodoxy. Ann Rodgers-Melnick of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in the most extensive analysis produced during Bartholomew’s trip, traced the patriarch’s urgent concerns about the loyalty of his American archdiocese to a pan-Orthodox meeting of American bishops in 1994 in Ligonier, Pennsylvania. The Ligonier meeting produced a document that called for a "single, united American Orthodox church" under the token control of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Bartholomew, Rodgers-Melnick reported, had been caught off-guard and responded by pressuring the sitting Greek Orthodox archbishop in the Americas, Iakovos Coucouzes, into retirement.

Under Iakovos, who served as archbishop from 1959 to 1996, the American archdiocese had enjoyed substantial, if informal, autonomy. In 1996, the patriarchate replaced him with an American-born hierarch, Spyridon George, a man with a clear record of loyalty to Constantinople and a mandate to reestablish obedience to the patriarchate.

In his first year in office, Spyridon ordered a series of dramatic institutional changes and reassignments that overturned decades of customary practice. He said he was merely upholding historic Orthodox norms by insisting on clerical control but by the summer of 1997 the number of vocal dissidents was growing rapidly and anti-Spyridon movements were forming.

At the center of the debate were Spyridon’s unilateral decisions to close an orphanage formally owned by a women’s charitable group and to fire four long-serving priest-professors at the church’s seminary in Brookline, Massachusetts. Spyridon’s critics leaked the seminary story to the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Boston Globe, charging that the archbishop had violated tenure rules, the seminary’s by-laws, and the archdiocesan charter, and that the archbishop was acting to punish faculty for exposing a homosexual scandal at the seminary. Spyridon, who hotly denied the charges, argued that as archbishop he has unilateral authority to assign priests and that he acted to improve the academic and spiritual atmosphere of the seminary. He later told John Dart of the Los Angeles Times that the disputes in the archdiocese were unavoidable symptoms of transition after the 37-year reign of his predecessor. "A newcomer comes in and brings in his own people, and certain people have to go. Whether they are satisfied or not is secondary really. What is important is whether the work of the church goes forward." However one views the merits of the disputes in the Archdiocese, opposition to Spyridon’s decisions has spread rapidly in the United States. Until May, Spyridon refused to meet with dissidents or to discuss their charges in detail. While some clergy have given Spyridon vocal support, others have complained privately of intimidation.

Normally, disputes within inward-looking and hierarchical religious organizations present journalists with substantial obstacles. There are too few sources and too much smoke. But in this case, reporters quickly discovered that the Internet gave them easy access to articulate dissenters and to a wide range of documents.

Last summer, computer-savvy critics of Spyridon created a World Wide Web site, Voithia (Greek for "help"), designed to break an information bottleneck. The Greek Orthodox are a relatively small group spread thinly across the United States, and until Voithia appeared, the archdiocese held an effective monopoly on communications.

In fact, the Voithia Web site ( had altered the dynamic of church life even before Bartholomew’s arrival. It has consistently placed Spyridon and his supporters on the defensive. Information, translations of Greek language journalism, rumors, assertions, proposals, analyses, angry exchanges of letters, and reports of conflicts among the disputants now flash around the country. All of these documents, and the e-mail addresses of hundreds of involved lay people, were available to journalists-although, so far, reporters haven’t made much explicit mention of the network or probed the significance of the network itself. The evidence suggests, however, that new electronic technology is rapidly reshaping the organizational dymanics of American religious groups. Without Voithia, Bartholomew and Spyridon would have had much quieter sailing. It’s Martin Luther and the printing press all over again.

The extraordinary intensity and rapid escalation of conflict last summer undoubtedly affected the patriarch’s autumn tour. Bartholemew attracted good crowds, crowds that made clear their fundamental affection for the patriarchate. But in a month of travel heavily punctuated by sermons and speeches, he made only veiled references to the church’s internal disputes. His silence was observed and reported almost immediately. "Greek Orthodox clergymen and lay people who hoped to get some sense of his attitudes towards the controversial issues swirling within their church had to do some pretty creative exegesis of his remarks," the Chicago Tribune’s Steve Kloehn remarked in a column on October 24. "The patriarch isn’t talking in-house politics."

Kloehn also noted that Bartholomew, on the second day of his American journey, suddenly cancelled all of his scheduled press interviews. He never rescheduled them, giving interviews only at the end of his tour to several journalists working for Greek-language publications. In the months following the patriarch’s trip, the pressure has continued to build within the Greek Archdiocese. In April, for example, a group of more than 400 laity- including many longstanding lay leaders-met in Chicago to found a national lay advocacy group called GOAL (Greek Orthodox American Leaders). They passed a series of reform resolutions and called on Spyridon to resign. Undoubtedly, some sort of climax will be reached in July, when the biennial national clergy-laity conference convenes in Orlando. But now it’s harder to tell what’s going on. Coverage of the conflict among the Orthodox in the general media dwindled as soon as the patriarch returned to Istanbul in November.

Stories like the patriarchal visit are often suspect in newsrooms, where they are seen, quite reasonably, as media events, not news. In this case, the event became a peg on which to hang real news. That’s as it should be--a model melding of hoopla and serious journalism. In the silence that has followed, however, it’s hard not to think that reporters have dropped the ball.

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  - Summer 1998, Vol. 1, No. 1 ]