Patriarchate Denies US Church Autonomy

New charter granted to Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America formalises breakup into metropolitanates under Phanar

--by George Gilson


IGNORING calls from Greek Orthodox laity in the United States, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has refused to grant greater autonomy to the Archdiocese of America in a new charter that it granted to its largest and wealthiest eparchy this month.

The new charter completes and formalises a breakup that began in 1996 of the once enormous Archdiocese of North and South America, whose dioceses have now been elevated to metropolitanates under the direct jurisdiction of the patriarchal headquarters at the Phanar.

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In the charter - which was fashioned after extensive meetings with a committee of US bishops, lower clergy and laymen - the patriarchate rejected proposals passed by the biennial Clergy-Laity Congress last July and the Archdiocesan Council (comprised of laity and clergy from all over the US) demanding that the patriarchate be required to elect the archbishop of the US from a shortlist of three candidates provided by the synod of the American Church.

The US delegates also wanted the local synod in America to independently elect its own bishops from a list of candidates approved by the patriarchate. Both requests were flatly denied, as was the demand that any candidate for the office of archbishop be absolutely required to have served for at least five years in the American archdiocese.


The demand for greater autonomy in the American Church gained even greater support after a revolt of laity and some clergy forced the patriarchate in 1999 to replace former archbishop Spyridon, who had previously served as Metropolitan of Italy.

But the Ecumenical Patriarchate is determined to retain all its canonical privileges over the crucial archdiocese of America. A perceived push towards autonomy by then Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos and the leaders of other Orthodox churches was lambasted by the Phanar after a conference in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, in the mid-90s.

"The election of the archbishop is the exclusive privilege and the canonical right of the Holy Synod [of the Ecumenical Patriarchate]. The Eparchial [American] Synod, as well as the Archdiocesan Council, have an advisory opinion regarding the person of the archbishop to be elected," reads Article 13 of the new charter.

Rejecting the demand of the US Church that the archbishop must have served in America, the charter states it is enough for a candidate to "have proven, direct substantive and broad knowledge of the life and status of the church in America". In effect, the patriarchate is able to elect any patriarchal hierarch to become archbishop of America.


The Orthodox laity also complain that their demand for a larger role in the administration of the archdiocese was ignored.

While the American metropolitan bishops satisfied their longstanding demand to have their dioceses elevated to the more prestigious rank of metropolitanate, they appeared to have little problem with the fact that the administrative autonomy of the archdiocese was rejected out of hand. The American delegation, led by bishops, registered no objections to a draft of the charter similar to the one granted by the Phanar this month.

But the Archdiocesan Council, the key representative organ of laypeople in the archdiocese, expressed reservations about the agreed charter in November 2001 and again in May 2002. Proposed changes to the deal reached between the Phanar and the American committee on the charter were voted on at the July Clergy-Laity Conference in a special plenary session where Archbishop Demetrios allowed extensive debate. That drew strong criticism from the Phanar on the grounds that clergy-laity conferences are not authorised to discuss dogmatic issues. But the most organised group of lay dissenters lobbying for greater autonomy, an organisation called Orthodox Christian Laity (OCL), thanked Demetrios "for his wisdom and courage in observing the true spirit of the Congress".

"The clergy and laity were concerned that the conciliar relationship that had existed for 80 years between hierarchy, clergy and laity had been ruptured when the hierarchy decided to proceed on their own in this important matter without regard to the existing charter [since 1977], which requires all changes to the charter to emanate from the Congress," OCL member Andrew Kartalis charged.

Demetrios - who had called all of the over 500 parishes to comment on the charter in spring 2002 - presented the reservations of the American laity to the patriarchate in a memorandum supporting certain modifications to the charter that had been agreed to by the US and patriarchal committees. The points of contention involved the election of the archbishop, the elevation of bishoprics to metropolitanates, the election of bishops and the role of the laity.

Aiming for unity

To ensure the unity of the archdiocese, it was proposed that the bishoprics retain that status and that the bishops themselves be granted the honorific title of Metropolitan, which would allay fears that the patriarchate was conducting a breakup of the archdiocese in a divide-and-rule scheme. That proposal was rejected.

In an effort to preserve the unity of the archdiocese to a degree, the new charter does stipulate that the archbishop "oversee and coordinate" the work in the metropolitanates. But it is clear that in most respects, the authority the metropolitans wield under the new charter within their dioceses is equal to that exercised by the archbishop within the "direct archdiocesan district" in the New York area.

In essence, ecclesiologically, it is clear that the American metropolitans will serve as metropolitans of the Ecumenical Throne, and not of the Archdiocese of America.

Still, the American Church's proposals that the new charter recognise both the supervisory authority of the archbishop over the metropolitans and the requirement that the latter submit an annual report to the archdiocese were accepted. In yet another sign of the archbishop's authority over the metropolitans, they will be required to gain the archdiocese's permission to take their annual vacation outside their diocese.

The patriarchate also honoured the key request submitted by the American laity and Demetrios that the name of the archbishop be commemorated after that of the patriarch by the metropolitans. The practice of praying for the archbishop - in addition to the patriarch - during all church services was considered an important symbolic confirmation of the unity of the archdiocese.

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