Orthodox Christian Laity - August 19, 2002

The Strong Scent of Independence Attracts Stealth Charter Assault

By Steven P. Stamatis

Most of the Orthodox of Greek descent in America look upon church independence and unity much like the notion of motorized vehicles was viewed in the 1850s: “a great idea to consider, but not for us, not now.” We feel this way, perhaps, because we have not found it necessary to think it through or even to ponder it. Why? Because life in the United States is already complex and hurried; we set aside a couple hours a week or fortnight for prayer, reflection and bonding with good friends and relations. The Church appears to be functioning fine for most of us. Sure, if you look close enough, the problems are there. But we have enough of our own. Besides, why tinker with something we know little about?

The above thinking filtered into the consciousness of the laity throughout the 60s and early 70s to create a general apathy regarding church administration. It was successful in convincing lay people (many of them newly arrived immigrants) that their role was confined to raising money, tending to roof leaks, cooking souvlakia, passing trays during services and generally donating services and money. They assumed this station in the life of the church with the belief that matters of faith and general church policy was not for them to question. They have grown comfortable separated from church irregularities; and when gross indiscretions found their way into the mainstream media, the laity was able to just look away. And this was fine with the hierarchy!

It is this abdication of the laity's rightful role in the affairs of church governance that fanned the fires of an imperial-style clericalism which blossomed in the 90s with patriarchal leadership. As it was left unchallenged, today it has become the laity's most formidable dilemma giving rise to cries of self-governance--a mission that was unimaginable five years ago.

The fact is, you may not find a hierarch in the Orthodox Church who would be opposed to the “concept” of autocephaly in America. They realize it is long overdue, but when pressed for a time line, they say "we're not ready for it…not now" and conveniently defer to the infinite wisdom of the Church to define the agenda.

Historically, the church recognizes that self governance represents the fulfillment of growth toward ecclesiastic maturity in a region over a period of time. Some eparchies achieved autocephaly from the Mother Church for the asking, as in the case of Russia. Others had to seize it. One need only to look at smaller independent churches like in Albania, Cyprus, Finland or even Greece to realize that the church in the United States far surpasses their ministries in community programs, stewardship, education, philanthropy, missions-- continuously for most of the 20th Century.

With more than 500 communities and 8 dioceses with bishops, an archbishop in place, the GOA has more than fully developed. It is not only capable of governing its own affairs, it has been doing just that for most of its existence with the exception of appointing its own bishops and archbishop.

Many church leaders believe that a declaration of autocephaly is supposed to be a keynote event; it’s a joyous occasion very much like the consecration of a church.

The 2000-year-old Mother Church is supposed to rejoice when a young offspring in a far-off land has blossomed in the name of Orthodoxy. It is supposed to be pleased that the church in America has established churches all over the land to glorify the faith according to the spiritual legacy it inherited. Well, it really is pleased. So much so, that it doesn’t want to let go! Unlike the smaller eparchies, the church in America has matured into a coveted "Golden Goose" which the Patriarchate is poised to wrap and drag back to the Middle Ages.

In addition to the canonical expectation of autocephaly for a mature church, more practical reasons come forth to support the case for America. For over 100 years the Patriarchate remained in the sidelines quietly and allowed the church in America to grow and evolve as it met the changing needs of the faithful. Unlike the Catholic Church, it offered little administrative guidance and no funding. But our Patriarchate was on hand to bless the ministries as they developed as well as to endorse the clergy-laity proceedings throughout the years with predictable approval. Its relationship to the church in America has often been characterized as one of “benign neglect.”

But that’s all changed since the 90s when the Patriarchate realized the "Child" church had grown up and wants to break away. Hence, it adopted a more aggressive colonial attitude toward the church in America. We further owe this dramatic change in policy to Archbishop Iakovos' ill-fated attempt to bring the church into the modern era in 1994 in Ligoneer, Pa. Many still wonder why it took him so long to begin that noble initiative--it came too late with too little support.

This growing phenomenon of control took on an unmistakable imperial presence in an American Church not accustomed to this kind of leadership. Moreover, the Patriarchate also entertained second thoughts about the nature of a laity-driven church which has been the reason for its success but at variance with the imperial hierarchical formula of absolute authority.  |And this new authoritarian format of administration was resurrected from the ashes of Byzantium and delivered to Americans by the messenger, former Archbishop Spyridon—and we all know how well that went!

In spite of this setback, the church (Patriarchate) remains steadfast in its resolve to shackle the American Church with the redirection of the administrative focus to the hierarchy and depreciation of the role of the laity. In addition, it has put the laity on notice in subtle, indirect ways that it condemns efforts aimed at Orthodox unity and autocephaly. Archbishop Demetrios has already sounded the death knell for Orthodox unity with his media statement that these “controversies” began in the nineties but have since calmed, so the emphasis is on “cooperation” instead of unity. Demetrios also, as chairman of SCOBA, a council of Orthodox jurisdictional bishops, extracted from the council a statement that promises to expand cooperative efforts instead of seeking Orthodox unity.

In the meantime, Orthodox Christian Laity (OCL) is on a path of independence for the Greek Orthodox Church here and subsequent unification with other canonical Orthodox jurisdictions, while the Patriarchate through the GOA hierarchy has restructured the charter to secure that none of these initiatives see the light of day. In other words, OCL is concerned about attaining independence so the church can move forward unencumbered with Old World foreign influence in America while the Patriarchate is focused on flexing muscle here to highjack the Church back into the Dark Ages.

What is not clear at this time is, when the water boils over, who's side is the American hierarchy on? We reverently refer to them as "Our hierarchy" but we're no longer secure that they represent the people they serve since their promotion to Metropolitans by the Patriarch. This elevation assigned them to ancient Asia Minor provinces under the omophor of the Church of Constantinople thereby cementing their allegiance directly to the Patriarch instead of the Archbishop.

Although most of these bishops are fluent in English and are American bred having gone to universities here and steeped in the American culture, their hearts really belong to the Old World and their attention, indelibly fixed to the drone of a bygone era. No wonder the laity is beginning to sense betrayal from their own bishops who have sold out to a usurping Mother Church which refuses to set free her own fully grown progeny.

But hope endures. The laity have faith that their hierarchy will be guided by the Holy Spirit to act in the interests of what is right for the Church in America. It is hoped the bishops will realize that the spiritual well-being of the faithful here should be their primary obligation.

Even though it appears that the issues at hand are irreconcilable, many believe there are those in both camps who have the capacity and the will to come together not to “negotiate” but rather to openly discuss America’s needs in an atmosphere of peace and love. The laity has been begging for the opportunity, but the hierarchy has been silent. To those who come forward during such debate and offer trite clichés like ‘This kind of talk is disruptive to the order of the church and the church may become divided,’ please know that anyone with just a superficial understanding of the problems in the GOA would realize that the church is already divided.

Many are reluctant to face these issues because of a nurtured belief that challenging church hierarchy is risky business which can lead to spiritual turmoil. They were brought up to respect and not question clergy, especially bishops, and have cultivated a disdain for church politics, an arena viewed as an unequal playing field. The point here is this is not merely church "politics." This is a hostile takeover!

The reconstruction of this mysterious and long awaited “Charter” (a process which has cleverly side-stepped the laity and clergy alike) must have collected countless wax droppings from two years of burning night-time candles to draft this document to the Patriarch's liking.

After many meetings and long deliberations, the faithful stand by to receive the news--reminiscent of the laity's vigil in St. Peter's Square while awaiting the new Catholic Pontiff to emerge, But, what follows for us is silence, a hierarchical silence which has given rise to rumors, false information and leaks of unauthorized copies. Three million plus GOA orthodox find themselves holding a 1977 document that has been discarded by the hierarchy …perhaps 10 years ago, no one knows for sure. And now we are all facing East, patiently waiting for the white smoke from the Islamic spires of Istanbul to herald the advent of the celebrated “Charter.”

Perhaps the real surprise may be that there won't be an unveiling or any announcement about a "New Charter"--that may just invite too much lay scrutiny. No, monarchs usually don't work that way; they just put in place what they want and expect compliance. Especially since this new document was finalized back in June, 2001 and considered effective immediately! Done Deal!

So, we learn that the new charter replaced the official 1977 document five months ago. It's just that nobody found it necessary to tell anyone! A tempting response to this treatment would be for the American community to assemble with its own hierarchy, elect a patriarch, declare itself independent and five months later, send a post card to the Phanar. Of course, the laity would not consider such an act, but it sure hurts to see our leader do the same to us with such facility.

Since the Patriarchate has exercised its full canonical powers over the church in America as well as micromanaging the activities of the archdiocese by appointing individuals to key positions, it is inviting the laity here to think about exercising its profound power: the power of the purse! The faithful here lose sight of the fact that we pay the bills.

The unilateral decision to change the 1977 charter or even to convene to discuss changes without the consent of the Clergy-Laity Congress, already violates the existing constitution itself. It also mocks the very institution founded on the Orthodox principle of “syndiakonia,” over 75 years ago where the faithful and its clergy came together to maintain an orderly administration in the life of the church. The hierarchy is hoping that their behavior will help the laity to understand that yes, the ground rules for the administration of the church were changed without our input, the matter is non-negotiable, and we just have to get used to it!

Fortunately, a procedure of governance is already in place, constructed by many decades of hard work and synergy between hierarchy, clergy and laity. The Clergy-Laity Congress stands as a biennial reminder that our Holy Archdiocese was incorporated in the state of New York, and as such, must comply with certain regulations that govern the church's behavior toward its members and their money. The laity wagons have already circled this long-standing institution to protect it from the assault built into the new charter that is sure to come.

Fortunately, the church here has grown expressly because of the intensity and dedication of purpose of the laity--an irrefutable historical phenomenon that can never be dwarfed or taken away!

Fortunately, there are enough Americans of Greek descent who will not allow the Church in America to become a foreign fiefdom governed by bishops who no longer represent the people who attend their dinners, bankroll their projects and pay all the bills. Even Metropolitan Anthony in San Francisco is realistic enough to admit: "The people pay our salary. Thus, we have a responsibility and we accountable to them."

The resolution for self-governance in the United States was introduced by Orthodox Christian Laity because it finally realized it is the ONLY answer for us, for many reasons that have already been expressed by gifted lay and clergy in the past three years. The call is difficult to ignore, irresponsible to refute its canonical merits and impossible to discard. There is no going back now!

There's a definite scent of independence in the air.


[ OCL - ocl.org/steven_stamatis.htm - August 19, 2002 ]