Christianity Today - January 2, 2000

America's Greek Orthodox Leader Hopes Church's Divisions Are Healing

Archbishop Demetrios pushing for more available, participatory church

by Chris Herlinger
Ecumenical News International, in New York | January 1, 2000

Four months after taking up his post as head of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Archbishop Demetrios says he hopes the sometimes rancorous and bitter divisions that plagued the 1.5 million-member church in recent years are starting to heal.
In a recent interview with Ecumenical News International (ENI), the 71-year-old archbishop struck the same conciliatory tone that marked his enthronement last September, when he took over from his beleaguered predecessor, Archbishop Spyridon, and urged church members to look towards the future rather than dwell on recent problems.

Archbishop Spyridon resigned in August. Much of his three years as church head were troubled by complaints from laity and clergy that his leadership style was too autocratic and at odds with America's democratic traditions. Relations with Archbishop Spyridon had become so strained that some of his most vocal opponents had talked openly of establishing a Greek Orthodox church in the United States independent of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, to which the archdiocese belongs.

However, such suggestions ended with Spyridon's departure and the arrival of Archbishop Demetrios.

"What happened, happened," Archbishop Demetrios told ENI in an interview at the archdiocese's headquarters, not far from New York City's Central Park.

Taking a decidedly historical and philosophical approach to the recent problems, Archbishop Demetrios, a Harvard-educated New Testament scholar, pointed out that the early Christian church was no stranger to controversy, and that struggling with problems, including those in its own ranks, formed part of the church's "continuity" as an institution.

"There are periods of difficulties," he said. "We have to face them, and then look toward the future."

A courtly, dignified and seemingly modest man, the archbishop said he did not believe anyone involved in the recent struggles acted out of bad faith or wanted to hurt the church. "There might be opposing opinions, but in most cases, these are misunderstandings rather than selfish motivations," he said.
However, while not directly criticizing his predecessor, Archbishop Demetrios said one of the "obvious" and "detectable" lessons from the controversy was the need for better communication between the archbishop and other church members.

"The nexus of communication is contact," said Archbishop Demetrios, who has vowed to make himself more available and accessible to the media, particularly the Greek-American press which avidly covers news of the archdiocese. "To be in an 'ivory tower' isn't good," he said.

Archbishop Demetrios is well acquainted with the nuances of American culture and religious traditions. A native of Thessaloniki, Greece, he came to the US in 1965 to study at Harvard University, where he completed his doctorate in 1972. From 1983 to 1993 he taught biblical studies and Christian origins at the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Massachusetts.

Alluding to the challenges of remaining true to Orthodox tradition amid a culture "of constant change," Archbishop Demetrios said Americans "don't like boring, stagnant situations." He added that the US harbored "a strong participatory" character which, at the level of individual churches, tended to create a strong role for the laity. Such a balance was fine, he said, as long as lay leaders remained "ecclesiastically sound."

While the church had to uphold its gospel teachings, he said, "you don't offer the gospel in the abstract. You have to offer something that is alive in a specific given situation." The church, he said, "is of a specific time and place" and its role "is to give its message in particular social contexts."

In the US that was a particular challenge because of cultural and religious traditions that had been transplanted from Greece. Perhaps the most obvious example is the continued use of the Greek language in liturgy.

Archbishop Demetrios said rigidity about liturgical issues could not be imposed in a church in which so many members were several generations removed from their Greek immigrant ancestors. "One has to be inclusive, not exclusive," he said.

At the same time, he said, "it would be wrong to get rid of Greek entirely."

While acknowledging past tensions between Orthodox churches and some of the pronouncements and policies of the U.S. National Council of Churches (NCC), the nation's biggest ecumenical agency, Archbishop Demetrios said he looked forward to warm relations with the NCC and with other leaders of US churches and denominations, as well as with representatives of non-Christian traditions.
Unlike his predecessor, Demetrios apparently has general support from the laity and clergy within his church. Robert G. Stephanopoulos, Dean of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New York City, who was temporarily suspended under Spyridon, told ENI that Demetrios was "a consensus-builder, and he's interested in bringing everyone together…. He's maintaining the unity that is most important right now."

[ Christianity Today - - January 2, 2000 ]