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World Policy Journal - June 22, 2001

Constantinople’s Last Hurrah: Turkey and the Ecumenical Patriarchate

By By Whit Mason

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Simmering Rebellions

Ironically, as if his travails in Turkey were not enough, Patriarch Bartholomew is currently facing simmering rebellions among two of his most important constituencies: North Americans say he is too conservative, while the monks on Mount Athos say he is too worldly.

In 1994, Bartholomew caught wind of a move in the American archdiocese to consider autonomy. The Patriarch responded by retiring the legendary Archbishop Iakovos, who had been head of the Orthodox Church in America for 37 years. |In his place, Bartholomew appointed Spyridon, the first American-born bishop ever to hold the post. In making the appointment, Bartholomew was clear about his intentions: "You bear many qualifications, the crowning qualification ... is your unlimited fidelity and devotion to this venerable Ecumenical Throne... It was to this last virtue of yours over all others that the Mother Church looked when reaching her decision. For even if one of her hierarchs has every talent, every qualification, and all other virtues, but does not have unlimited devotion and blind loyalty and lifelong gratitude, he is nothing, nothing is gained, he is nothing but a noisy gong, or a clanging cymbal."

Unfortunately, loyalty to the Patriarchate seems to have been Spyridon's only strong suit. During his three-year tenure, his authoritarian style-along with a number of financial scandals-angered and alienated many Greek Americans and caused an unprecedented crisis in the American church. Tarasios told me that the Patriarch had had high hopes that Spyridon's American roots would make him a natural for the job. "But after high school Spyridon had gone to Europe, and by the time Bartholomew appointed him, he'd come to look down on Americans as inferior. He also had an autocratic style, which went out with hoopskirts. Nowadays you have to be a pastor, a shepherd." Even his English was stuck in a time warp. 'He used to say things were 'groovy' and he called his enemies 'goons.'" In short, said Tarasios, "he bombed."

Hostility toward Spyridon galvanized a group of articulate and well-heeled Greek Americans, who pushed for the archbishop's removal. Bartholomew removed Spyridon in 1999.
By then, though, the laity's critique had become more radical. Its president wrote: "Developing the church within the cultural norms of the democratic, pluralistic society in which we live respects fair play, parliamentary procedure, due process, the separation of church and state. It is within this dynamic that Orthodox Christianity in America has developed and flourished."

Father Tarasios gave me the Patriarchate's argument against this. Says Tarasios: "The Church in the U.S. is too young and too divided to be autocephalous. [Its] connection with the Ecumenical Patriarchate gives the Orthodox Church in America authenticity, history, continuity, and tradition. The Ecumenical Patriarch helps it keep its bearings in the New World. Its connection to Istanbul is an anchor. Without it, it will become assimilated." The Patriarch's other unruly flock, the monks of Mount Athos, are following a long tradition of holding the Patriarch to the straight Orthodox line. "Monks are always conservative," said Tarasios. "They see themselves as watchdogs of the faith."

This does not mean, according to Tarasios, that their concerns about Bartholomew are necessarily justified. "Patriarch Bartholomew has always said fanaticism of any kind is wrong and pursued dialogue with other Christians. Monks don't like ecumenicism. They say canon law is clear: you don't pray with heretics. In their minds this seems to leave no room for dialogue. If the Patriarch argues that other faiths have things to offer, the monks say he's weak. The monks seem to be afraid that someone along the line-- some patriarch--will be duped."

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[ World Policy Journal - June 22, 2001 - pp. 61-62