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Clergy-Laity Congress 2022: A Prelude to a Showdown or a Missed Opportunity?

Another Clergy-Laity Congress has come and gone. This particular one coincided with the centennial of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. It was also the first CLC to convene in-person following the pandemic. Naturally, like everything else, COVID set things back organizationally. The highlight of the CLC, which was held in New York City, was the long-awaited consecration of the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine in Downtown Manhattan. Of course, like the door-opening ceremony held late last year, the church was unfinished; i.e., the iconography was not fully completed. The Congress ended with a concert featuring a well-known pop singer from Greece – another first.

It doesn’t appear like anything of great consequence was discussed, with major issues placed on the backburner until the next CLC in 2024. What did become clear is that there will likely be a showdown over the status of the Archdiocese’s Charter. Reports by TNH reveal a disconnect between the representatives sent by the Phanar and the Archbishop of America regarding this manner, with the latter indicating that a new charter will be voted on in 2024 and the former countering that the Charter is not a means to an end, meaning that it doesn’t need such frequent amending. This doublespeak is troubling because there is a danger that the Archdiocese will enter into a renewed period of introspection, not long after the previous one that occurred with the leadership change.

These conflicting views are also problematic because they suggest a growing disconnect with the Mother Church and a growing sense of American exceptionalism from the prerogative of Archdiocesan leadership. This pattern is beginning to manifest itself in manifold ways, whether in the form of novelties regarding the distribution of Holy Communion, contrary to the express decision of the Holy and Great Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, unusual guidelines regarding the clothing and grooming of the clergy (no cassocks in public, trim beards and hair), and now, the insistence on amending the charter, despite the Patriarchate’s decision to restore it to its post-2003 status.

This tug of war between Constantinople and the United States seems more about jockeying ahead of an upcoming power struggle than it does about the life of the local Church – and nothing could be worse for the Archdiocese at this moment in time. Instead of focusing on the glaring issues affecting the Greek-American Community, which have little to do with the Charter, badly needed resources will be directed to deliberating about ‘the letter of the law’ as opposed to ‘the spirit of the law’.

Simply put, the mood of the people regarding the Charter must be relayed to Archdiocesan leadership frequently and unequivocally. And the more you ask the plenitude of the Church, the more you’re likely to hear the same answer: “no one cares!”

A new charter is not going to solve seminal issues that have been left to fester for years, even decades. Issues like the preservation of the Greek language, the authenticity of church worship, and collaboration between parish communities. Also, within the wider context of the Greek-American Community, it is necessary to better support necessary institutions like schools, senior centers, etc. and to require dialogue, brainstorming, openness to criticism, and a genuine desire for collaboration.

A new charter is not going to magically fill the pews with young people or promote Orthodox Christianity and Hellenism within the ever-growing number of mixed marriages. That’s the kind of work that’s going to take a bottom-up approach, but also requires the attention and commitment of senior clergy. Assuming, of course, their priorities remain committed to the United States and are not invested elsewhere.

Instead of setting the prelude for the attempted amending of the Charter two years from now, it would have been more reassuring if the Archdiocese, which is celebrating its centennial, initiated a standing dialogue regarding what the next hundred years should look like. AHEPA, another organization celebrating its centennial, could also contribute to this public discourse, which should ultimately seek to engage groups and individuals who are outside the inner circle of either organization. This would be an active display of outreach and honest dialogue regarding issues that affect the entire Community.

After all, the prestige of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s largest and wealthiest eparchy is directly linked to the fate of the Community itself. Despite its resources, grand benefactors, or other assets, if the Community weakens, it too shall suffer the same fate, while if ethnic vitality remains strong and the Orthodox Christian conscience and Hellenic identity are preserved, it will continue to grow and prosper.

These are lessons that date all the way back to the classical era (just read Pericles’ funeral oration), but that have also been modeled by the Church continually throughout history. One need only read St. Basil’s letters and appeals on behalf of the administrative integrity of Cappadocia, or study his leadership example in saving his people from the threat of a looting army when he spearheaded a collection to save the people of his eparchy (the story behind the vasilopita).

Another CLC has come and gone, and at the end of the day, the Archdiocese of America made headlines for the wrong reasons. Instead of writing about an innovative plan to upgrade Greek schools or teach the language of the Gospel in our parishes (something countless non-Orthodox Christians openly admire and aspire to learn), local community media as well as news outlets in Greece were writing about a questionable decision by the Archbishop to participate in an overhyped baptism in Greece and the furor that it caused…

The one certainty is that there is no Charter in the world that will be able to guard the Archdiocese from blunders that result when priorities and roles are confused; when image-making and virtue signaling take on a greater role than the traditional values of discretion and humility. The Church has a language of its own – symbolism – which often speaks louder than words. And when symbolism is ignored, there’s no telling what surprises may arise when the time to speak finally arrives.

 

Follow me on Twitter @CTripoulas

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