Chicago Tribune - February 04, 2004

Parishioners file suit against Greek Orthodox archdiocese

Some in U.S. worry about autonomy

By H. Gregory Meyer, Tribune staff reporter

More than two dozen prominent Greek Orthodox parishioners filed suit against their American archdiocese Tuesday over interpretations of its charter, a move that reflected stateside tensions with the faith's patriarch in Istanbul and the uncertainties of leading an ancient tradition into the 21st Century.

The lawsuit, filed in Manhattan, names as defendants the New York City-based Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and its leader, Archbishop Demetrios.

At issue is whether church hierarchy should have obtained the assent of its Clergy-Laity Congress when a new charter was drawn up in 2002.

Beneath the suit's legalistic veneer are deeper questions about the relationship between lay American parishioners and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, whose recent moves have weakened the autonomy of the American church and its laity, the critics say.

"The genius and success of the Orthodox Church in America is in the harnessing of the energies and the dedication and the faith of lay people," said Peter Marudas, a Baltimore parishioner who is on the advisory board of the Orthodox Christian Laity group, which is funding legal expenses. "We would hope that the patriarchate would recognize that and not suffocate it to its own detriment."

Some of the 1.5 million Greek Orthodox parishioners in the United States have been questioning the direction of an American church that was founded by immigrants but now must survive in a different era, said Elizabeth Prodromou, a professor at Boston University and an expert on Greek Orthodox politics.

"This lawsuit is in some ways the culmination of a decade of internal soul-searching within the Greek Orthodox diocese," she said. "It tells us that Orthodoxy is pretty much like most other mainstream religious traditions in this country: They're trying to come to terms with how to function in a very pluralized and highly competitive religious free market. That's the bedrock issue that is driving these questions about governance and leadership."

Issues on the table include the role of laity, increased control from Istanbul, intermarriage with non-Orthodox Americans and management of church finances, Marudas said

The new charter supersedes a 1977 version. Among the changes, according to the lawsuit, was language removing the Clergy-Laity Congress as a party to any further amendments.

If left unchallenged, Marudas said, the new charter could set a precedent allowing the patriarch to change the charter "tomorrow, and the day after, or every 10 minutes."

At a congress in 2002, delegates had also sought the power to nominate candidates for archbishop for later confirmation in Istanbul. But the new charter made such appointments the "exclusive privilege" of the Istanbul hierarchy, leaving the Americans the right to submit opinions. | The U.S. archdiocese's most recently departed archbishop, Spyridon, stepped down under a cloud of controversy in 1999.

Whether civil authorities will agree to adjudicate this ecclesiastical dispute remains to be seen.

"It doesn't seem to contain anything that we haven't heard for some years already," said Bishop Savas, chancellor of the New York-based archdiocese. "We feel that the case has no merit and it will be thrown out by the court."

Supporters of the suit said the archdiocese has violated what amounts to bylaws, which requires intervention from a civil court.

Regardless of the outcome, the suit will put the issue front and center for the next Clergy-Laity Congress scheduled for New York in July.

"This action is going to be very controversial," said Rev. Angelo Artemas, pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Orthodox Church in north suburban Glenview.

Two parishioners from the church joined the suit as plaintiffs, and last fall about 150 of its 3,500 parishioners passed a resolution asking that the 2004 congress vote on the charter.

The suit does not seek monetary damages but asks a judge to reimpose the conditions of the 1977 charter.

[ Chicago Tribune - February 04, 2004 ]