The Church and the Patriarch's Charter

-- by Tolly Kizilos

The new charter “granted” to us by the Patriarch of Constantinople is an affront to the participative ethos of the Orthodox Church because it shows total disregard for the will of the laity and the priests of our Church. The Patriarch’s rejection of the recommendations of the Clergy-Laity Congress last July is tantamount to a denial of the approval function of the laity and the priests of our Church, and thus a denial of the very spirit of Orthodoxy, which relies upon laity and clergy working together for its decision-making process. Even in matters of dogma, let alone matters of governance, the laity must approve what the leaders of the Church propose.

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The equal partnership of laity and clergy in the Orthodox Church has been abundantly clear throughout our history, and there are many examples of laity’s rejection of the Patriarchs’ and hierarchs’ proposals and decisions. The clergy can propose, but the laity must approve, or the proposals are rejected. In the Orthodox Church, only Jesus Christ can make decisions without consulting anyone else; the Patriarch of Constantinople cannot. The Body of Christ, the Church, is not just the Patriarch, not just the bishops, not just the priests; it is all of these and the people of the Faith. The cavalier unilateralism of the Patriarch and his hierarchs is why the new charter must be rejected.

The problem we face as a Church, however, is much broader than the charter we finally can somehow craft after negotiation with its authors. Our problem has to do with the survival of the Greek Orthodox Church of America, not the words of the charter. To arrive at changes in the culture and the practices of our Church, to rid the institution of the Church from the encrustations of various traditions, so that the Holy Tradition can be preserved, all of us, laity and clergy, at all levels must engage in serious debates, knowing that the consensus we finally reach will prevail. We cannot do that, if we are worried about what the “Throne” at the Phanar will say. Furthermore, we cannot continue to call ourselves a diaspora because it suits the Patriarch’s financial and territorial interests to define our Church as a group of immature Christians who need his steady hand, if they are to grow spiritually. All Christians baptized by the Holy Spirit are spiritually equal and, therefore, equally mature or immature.

Our Church is in need of inspired leadership by fearless men and women dedicated to the spiritual needs of the faithful, not insecure men who know next to nothing about us and their primary concern is to maintain control of their fiefdoms with frantic efforts. If the Patriarch and his hierarchs could trust the love and generosity of the members of the Greek Orthodox Church of America, they could end up with more power and more wealth for the worthy projects of the Church, than they can ever hope to get by their clumsy maneuvers in trying to control our Church.

We need leaders who encourage us to debate freely what, if any, changes are needed to secure the future of the Greek Orthodox Church of America: we may choose to remain an ethnic Church, or be Orthodox without an ethnic identification; we may decide to welcome non-Greeks wholeheartedly, or stick to our ethnic character and keep the non-Greek members in, out of convenience, as we have often done; the Church may choose to continue the prohibition of having girl acolytes and women deacons and priests, or it may want to change some of these prohibitions; the Body of Christ, the entire Church, may decide to let just a few people choose its bishops and archbishops, based on “blind” loyalty, seniority, language and favoritism, or it may decide to define a process that respects, honors and celebrates the participation of all members of the Church in these crucial decisions and values servant leadership, as Christ did (Mark 9:35). There are many issues to discuss under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in parishes across the land, but we cannot do that without independent leaders, and without freedom and trust that our communities’ decisions will be respected in the end.

In short, we need autocephaly. Without it, no such meaningful discussion can take place, and no decisions can be either made or implemented.

It used to be that most members of the Greek Orthodox Church of America didn’t want to be bothered with charters and bishop selection and autocephaly. They just wanted harmony in running the Church, the liturgy on Sunday and the sacraments and the rites of the Church. These are what one priest called the “hatch them, match them and dispatch them” functions of the priest. It seems that the Patriarch and some of his Metropolitans are counting on such a continued minimal involvement by Church members to perpetuate their autocratic leadership. But, there is a glitch in their thinking: without the laity’s involvement in the affairs of the Church and without needed changes, our children are not going to stay in the Orthodox Church, just because one parent or one grandparent happens to be Greek. The Orthodox Church of America has to satisfy its people’s need for spiritual formation and point the way toward salvation, rather than focus its attention on the needs of Greek immigrants like me. If this doesn’t happen our descendents will seek other Churches to satisfy their spiritual needs – some are already doing it – and our Church will shrink in vigor and size. But, we are all aware of the dangers ahead, and that’s why we are taking our freedom to decide Church matters so seriously.

We know that Christ doesn’t want timid, obedient followers of rules and regulations. We just cannot allow our Church to continue being an Eparchy of any man, when our future depends on precisely the actions that an Eparchy cannot take. We can only bow down to Christ, our God, and that’s what we’ll have to do for the good of the Church.

Tolly Kizilos
Adjunct professor of Management, University of St. Thomas, Minneapolis, MN
Author of “
Tradition and Change: Concerns for Todays Greek Orthodox Church of America.

(Original posting date March 2003; reformatted and updated 13 May 2008 )

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