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Can Patriarch Bartholomew’s Decades of Experience Right the Course in Skopje and America?

Decisions adopted by the Ecumenical Patriarchate over the past few weeks may prove catalysts regarding both international diplomacy and the future of the Greek-American Community. Only time will tell if the famed Phanariot diplomacy will live up to its past, but for the moment, it’s certainly providing quite a bit to mull over during traditional the summer quiet.

We begin with the initiative adopted by the Mother Church to restore canonical status upon Skopje’s schismatic state church. The importance of this decision lies in the caveat included by the Ecumenical Patriarchate that no references to the term Macedonia or its derivatives be used by Skopje’s primate or his fellow synodical hierarchs. For some years prior this recognition, the hierarchy in Skopje had appealed to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew by invoking the ‘ekkleton’ – the Church of Constantinople’s authority to adjudicate disputes between other jurisdictions based on its historic status as ‘first among equals’.

The Orthodox Church in Skopje had been schismatic since 1967, when it broke away from the Patriarchate of Serbia (with the blessings of then Yugoslavian leader Josip Broz Tito, an ethnic Croat and Slovenian) and renamed itself, usurping the title of Macedonia. This move was in line with the propaganda of that era, which sought to weaponize pan-Slavist and subsequently communist claims upon the Greek region of Macedonia.

It’s worth noting that the Ecumenical Patriarchate did not grant Skopje autocephaly with its decision of May 9th, restoring only its canonicity and allowing it work out its future status with Serbia. Sadly, in an ill-advised move that showed not only inexperience, but also a dangerous subservience to the Moscow Patriarchate, Serbia’s Patriarch Porfirije did not limit himself to merely acknowledging Skopje’s canonicity and commencing a dialogue on its future status, but also issuing a ‘tomos’ of Autocephaly for the latter – a privilege exclusively belonging to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Worse yet, Serbia makes reference to the newly canonical church as the ‘Macedonian Orthodox Church’, which is an affront to not only the Phanar, but all of Hellenism.

If the local Church in Skopje is to become autonomous, this status can only be conferred by the Phanar, which has in no uncertain terms clarified that this church is recognized under the name ‘Archdiocese of Ochrid’, and furthermore, that is has no jurisdiction outside of Skopje’s national boundaries, meaning that the shepherding of Skopje’s citizens abroad – a traditional driving force of irridentism – shall be conducted by other ecclesiastical entities.

Considering the untrustworthiness that Skopje has displayed with upholding the Prespa Agreement (which was already one-sided in their favor to begin with), it remains to be seen whether their state church will honor the conditions set by the Ecumenical Patriarchate or seek to create yet another crisis within Orthodox Christianity now that it has gained legitimacy. The Moscow Patriarchate will undoubtedly seek to capitalize on this. The question remains if the United States will help impose the Phanar’s terms, considering current tensions with Russia, or if the spoiled child of the Balkans with the fake ID will continue to try to have its cake and eat it.

For the moment, however, Phanariot diplomacy has lent a victory to Hellenism, showing that there are alternatives in the thorny name row with Skopje that preclude the use of the term ‘Macedonia’. Moreover, history tells us that the existence of local churches often outlasts that of nation-states. Perhaps there are some prelates in the Archdiocese of Ochrid who have the foresight to sense that the concocted statelet of Skopje may ultimately end up dissolving, and so they chose to ensure their survival, rather than perish along with the political mythology and shabby foundations of the nation-state in which they are housed.

Yet another important decision adopted by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in June was the directive it issued to the Archbishop of America to convene the local Eparchial Synod and request the voiding of the suspension of the Archdiocese’ charter. The Archbishop had unilaterally asked for its suspension in fall of 2020, in a likely attempt to consolidate power by abolishing the Metropolises and the Metropolitans shepherding them, thus doing away with any internal opposition.

The Phanar’s surprise decision was seen by many to be a rebuke of the current administration and a symbolic show of solidarity with the Metropolitans of the United States aimed at helping to restore the balance of power This move was also seen as a check against certain ambitions rumored to be attributed to the current Archbishop, which were likely deemed too unbridled and thought to create potential problems for the Greek-American community and the Phanar.

But there are unanswered questions. The press release by the Archdiocese regarding the restoration of the charter was not fully aligned with that of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. According to the latter, the Archdiocese’s charter will remain as is, and any future changes to individual articles will be reviewed only if needed. However, according to the former, the restoration of the charter is only temporary, until a new one is adopted at the Clergy-Laity Congress of 2024. Does this incongruence between the two press releases indicate a growing disconnect between the Phanar and the Archdiocese of America?

Only time will tell. For the moment, the next things to look for are the semantics in the message conveyed by the Patriarchate’s delegates to this year’s Clergy-Laity Congress and any other commentary made on the sidelines of the event.

Logically, with the charter back in effect, the vacancy in the Metropolis of New Jersey must also be filled. It will be interesting to see if Constantinople will elect the candidate favored by the Archbishop, as is customary, or will opt for an outsider, thus strengthening internal opposition as part of its system of checks and balances.

Whatever the case, it seems like there will be no summer holiday for those in charge of drawing up ecclesiastical diplomacy.

 

Follow me on Twitter @CTripoulas

 

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