The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America: Fragmented

by George Matsoukas

“ the work of an evangelist, bring your ministry to fullness.”
St. Paul to Timothy (2 Tim 4:5)

A Time of Hope

The last decade of the twentieth century was a time of great hope for Orthodox Christians throughout the world. For the first time since the fall of Constantinople, over 500 years ago, Orthodox Christian lands held in captivity by brutal religious and secular overlords were free to once again preach and teach the ancient and historical faith. There was an expectation within the Orthodox Christian Church that the Ecumenical Patriarch would convene the Great and Holy Council to address momentous and pressing issues concerning the Church in the Third Millennium. A council of bishops and laypersons has not been convened in 1000 years and preparatory committees have been working for 100 years. In a meeting with His All Holiness in 1994 he stated the council would take place before the century ended. By the year 2000 the Turkish government even restored the city of Nicea for the meeting. For us living in America the status of the “Diaspora” churches and the uncanonical condition of more than one bishop residing in the same city are concerns that the council would address.

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Orthodox Christians living in the United States who are members of different jurisdictions also looked forward to the beginning of the new millennium with great hope that a new era would begin for Orthodoxy in the New World. The apex of this hope was the meeting of 29 canonical bishops in Ligonier, Pennsylvania on November 30-December 2, 1994. This meeting was the natural follow up to the inspiring and enthusiastically received and wildly applauded stirring addresses calling for Unity of Orthodoxy in United States made to the faithful delegates of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese by Metropolitan Sypridon of Italy and Metropolitan Theodosius of the Orthodox Church in America at the 32nd Biennial Clergy Laity Congress of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in Chicago July 1994. Spiritually mature Orthodox Christians living in the United States see unity as the way to retain the faithful, especially their children and grandchildren, retain married couples 87% of whom marry a non Orthodox spouse, keep our churches receptive to those who discover and convert to Orthodoxy and transfigure the nation in which we live and love by sharing the Orthodox Christian experience with our neighbors.

Hope Delayed

These hopes of the faithful were dashed by the reaction of the Patriarch to the Ligionier protocols. He ordered the Greek Orthodox bishops under his jurisdiction who signed the documents to rescind their signatures and denounce the protocols. In July 1996 Archbishop Iakovos was forced to retire after 37 years of faithful and productive service to all Orthodox Christians in North and South America.

Hierarchy Fail to Lead

Truly the last decade of the twentieth century and the beginning of the new millennium continue to be a time of disunity, turmoil and the unraveling of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. Since the election of Bartholomew to the patriarchal throne the charter of 1977, which governs the Archdiocese and addresses all matters, other than doctrinal or canonical, which affect church life, has been usurped, ignored and discarded. None of the decisions of the Clergy Laity Congresses since 1992 have been ratified. It is as if this legislative body of the Archdiocese does not exist. As a result the 1994, 1996, 1998 and 2000 Clergy-Laity Congresses decisions lie in limbo and have never been implemented pursuant to the Charter thus marginalizing the time, effort and work of so many dedicated members of the Archdiocese.

Unilaterally, contrary to the provisions of the 1977 Charter and acting without the consultation of the clergy and laity, the Patriarch chose to dismember the Archdiocese of North and South America into four separate entities during the period of transition between the retirement of Archbishop Iakovos and the elevation of former Archbishop Spyridon. He appointed five of the Synodical Bishops of the Archdiocese as Titular Metropolitans of non-existent Sees of the Patriarchate. In December of 2002 he elevated all the cities of the Archdiocese to Metropolia headed by Metropolitans. These Metropolitans commemorate the Patriarch and not the Archbishop. This new chain of command fragments the archdiocese of America.

The unfortunate three year tenure of Archbishop Spyridon almost brought the church to schism, exacerbated ethnic tensions within the church and showed the disdain of the Patriarch toward the American church by telling us over and over again, through his hand picked Archbishop, that the Orthodoxy that evolved within our American cultural context was “Protestantized”, and that old world Orthodoxy is some how more Orthodox than that lived in the New World. The disdain for American born and educated clergy was also made an issue by attacking their teachers at the theological school. It was made clear to me in a meeting with Metropolitan Panteleimon on July 4, 2002 at the 36th Biennial Clergy-Laity Congress Los Angles, California that the Patriarchate believes that the problems of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in America are the result of poorly trained and educated priests. He clearly stated that the loss of our children and grandchildren is not the fault of the Patriarchate, but rather the fault of poorly trained priests.

Charter Controversy

Archbishop Demetrios inherited the charter controversy from his predecessors which essentially is the imposition of a charter upon the Archdiocese, the fifth one in 80 years, which dismantles and turns control of the archdiocese over to the patriarchate of Constantinople. They select the bishops and archbishop. The process by which the proposed draft charter was developed is contrary to the provisions established in the 1977 charter. These provisions include the fact that the proposed draft must be approved by the clergy laity congress and then sent to the Patriarchate for its action. Every one of the four Charters of the Archdiocese has been approved by a Clergy-Laity Congress. A committee formulating a draft charter cannot decide a charter for the archdiocese. Until the charter is approved by the Clergy Laity Congress it remains a proposed charter. It should be noted that the 1922 charter established the Archdiocese as an autonomous Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in the United States.

Laity and Clergy Lead the Way

This “Proposed Draft Charter” was fully discussed at the 36th Biennial Clergy-Laity Congress despite that facts that it was drafted in secret, the dissemination to parishes was forced, the comment time for parishes and the faithful was short and that four of the titular metropolitans prior to the Clergy-Laity Congress took the positions that the proposed draft charter agreed to by the charter committee was final and therefore not subject to any consideration or action by the Congress.

Delegates representing hundreds of parishes throughout the United States expressed the will and conscience of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese They proposed and voted over 30 amendments to modify the proposed patriarchal charter. The Congress voted in favor of a self governing Archdiocese which would be an autonomous Archdiocese of its Mother Church, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. The crucial motions which were overwhelmingly adopted provided:

  1. that the unity of the archdiocese remains intact.
  2. 2. that the Bishops and Metropolitans be elected by the Holy Synod in America in cooperation with the Archdiocesan Council.
  3. 3. that the Archbishop be selected by the Patriarchate from three persons recommended by the Holy Synod of America and the Archdiocesan Council.
  4. 4. that our Orthodox Church is both hierarchal and conciliar, allowing for clergy and laity involvement in the governance of the Church, apart from strictly dogmatic and canonical issues.
  5. >5. that the Clergy-Laity Congress be held at least once every three years to assure the unity and representative governance of the Archdiocese in educational, financial, legal, other practical and administrative matters.

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese is still in a state of disquietude until the charter issue is settled within the context and legalities of the 1977 charter. The charter discussion, amendments and votes at the 36th Clergy Laity Congress June 30-July 5, 2002 clearly show the spiritual maturity of the representatives of the parishes throughout the Archdiocese and their determination to be a self governing church. A recycled patriarchal charter is unacceptable.

Historical Inevitability of Unity

The faithful of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese are leading the way to autonomy. They realize that Orthodoxy in the United States is interconnected and that what happens in one jurisdiction has ripple effects in another. They rejoice in the fact that on June 14, 2002 the Holy Synod of Antioch granted autonomy to its daughter church in America. Greek Orthodox observers attended the 2001 Los Angeles Assembly of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America and marveled at the vision of the Episcopal leadership and the unity of the faithful and what they accomplished working together.

Greek Orthodox observers also attended the 13th All-American Council of the Orthodox Church in America, Orlando, Florida and rejoice with the faithful in what they accomplished working in synergy with each other-clergy and laity together. On July 22, 2002 the clergy and lay delegates to the Congress elected a new primate of their Church. The process was open and all could participate within the Constitutional Provisions. The demeanor and spirit of this assembly is different from the Greek Orthodox and Antiochian assemblies. There is a level of spiritual maturity not seen in the other assemblies and this may relate to the fact that the OCA is indeed an autocephalous church. The fact that there exist American Saints interceding on behalf of the faithful does make a difference. All Orthodox Christians share these saints. I truly believe Saint Raphael, Bishop of Brooklyn, is looking down on the multicultural Orthodox Christian flock of all jurisdictions in North and South America and is the intercessor of our prayers for autonomy and unity.

The challenge for the hierarchs, clergy and laity of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and for the faithful of all jurisdictions is to communicate with the Ecumenical Patriarchate to help them grow in the understanding that a self governing Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in the United States is not a break or separation from Constantinople. A self governing Greek Orthodox Archdiocese strengthens Orthodox Christianity in the United States and the role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate throughout the world. It is a fulfillment of the Great Commission of Jesus Christ to bring the good news to all humankind.

The desire for self governance on the part of the faithful is not a political conspiracy of foreign governments to diminish the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Rather it is the natural process of maturity the time honored and canonical procedure whereby a daughter church matures into a sister church. The clergy and laity must lead the way in this discussion and process of educating the Patriarchate because it appears that some of the Metropolitans of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America are unwilling to lead the discussion, to be the bridge of understanding, in this matter of autonomy. As the servants of the People of God they are the natural intermediaries to make the desires of their flock known to the Patriarchate. But for whatever reasons their pronouncements indicate that they have disconnected themselves from their flock on this issue of autonomy and are reluctant to lead.

The faithful members of the GOA must pray for self governance and unity and be guided by the words stated by Ecumenical Patriarch Meletios in 1922 in his Patriarchal enthronement address: “I saw the largest and best part of the Orthodox Church in the Diaspora and I understood how exalted the name of Orthodoxy could be, especially in the great country of the United States, if more than two million people there were united under one church organization, an American Orthodox Church.

(Posted April 2003)

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