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Could Misguided Spin Doctors Be Fueling Division in the Church and Diaspora?

The fallout from Archbishop Elpidophoros’ controversial decision to officiate a highly publicized baptism in Athens last month featuring an openly gay couple as parents could potentially jeopardize relations between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Church of Greece. Following the public outcry and ensuing accusations by the local Metropolitan of Glyfada that he was misled by the Archbishop in this matter, the Church of Greece decided to lodge an official complaint with the Phanar. Attempted damage control by spin doctors is only adding fuel to the fire.

This matter was reportedly discussed at length during the July meeting of the Holy and Sacred Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, although no official statement has yet to be released. If interpreted to be dismissive, Constantinople’s silence threatens to poison relations with the Church of Greece. So long as the Church of Greece’s concerns are not publicly addressed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Archbishop’s blunder will remain the elephant in the room, at a time when concord and unity are needed for Hellenism and Orthodoxy.

Even if the Phanar’s silence to date aims at buying time to ensure that cooler heads prevail and this matter be handled with the sobriety provided by the safety of hindsight, this tactic appears to be facing internal obstruction due to the counterintuitive public interventions being undertaken by the Archbishop’s formal/informal image makers. In their attempt to spin the negative coverage and ameliorate the damage to his image, they have gone on a ‘counter-offensive’.

Initially, this included carefully placed articles in the Greek media aimed at politicizing the issue and giving the impression of a rift among the Church hierarchy between ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’. In doing so, they attempted to portray the Archbishop as open-minded; perhaps even trailblazing. Apparently, once it was deemed that these efforts failed to generate the desired effect, more…aggressive methods were adopted.

In a recent article penned by Archdeacon Fr. John Chryssavgis –  a theological adviser to the Archdiocese and salaried employee – appearing in the ‘Religion News Service’, he doesn’t shy away from exercising harsh criticism against the Metropolitans of Glyfada and Piraeus, while even targeting the Orthodox Church itself, noting that it is “out of touch with reality and the world,” and “lives in its own bubble!”

Of course, it’s not an easy thing for a deacon to publicly call out bishops or criticize the actual institution of the Church – no matter how far removed he is from the field of play – unless he has powerful people in his corner. Hence, it is reasonable to conclude that, at the very least, this article enjoys the support –  perhaps even the blessing – of the Archdiocese. In any event, it is likely to draw the ire of the hierarchy of the Church of Greece, thus exacerbating the situation even further.

The initial response already came from the Monastic Community of Mt. Athos, which released a statement denouncing the scandalization of the faithful caused by public appearances and statements by clergymen questioning the teaching of the Church regarding the institution of the family. This warning shot fired from the Holy Mountain, which counters the arguments of the Archdiocese’s ‘theological adviser’ (you’d be hard pressed to find a title more ill-fitting with the tradition of the Orthodox Church) is indicative of the tempest that can break out in the middle of summer if the Archbishop’s PR people continue along the same lines.

The Churches of Constantinople and Greece only recently overcame a protracted conflict over the jurisdiction of a church at the Probona Estate in Athens, which was tried in Greece’s highest administrative court and tested the relations between Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens. Ultimately, the replacement of the director of the Patriarchal office in Athens with someone enjoying a better rapport with Archbishop Ieronymos helped mend the ties between the two church leaders and settle open issues. Moreover, the Patriarch’s frequent visits to Greece over the past few months also aided in creating a more favorable climate.

However, now this tranquility is being threatened by image makers (loose cannons or hired guns?) who insist on keeping Archbishop Elpidophoros in the spotlight…often for the wrong reasons. This now begs the question whether the Phanar is willing to sacrifice its rekindled affinity with Athens or risk straining ties between the Greek-American Community and Greece to shield the Archbishop of America, after yet another ill-advised decision.

The coming weeks will provide an answer. Patriarch Bartholomew will be visiting Kavala and Thasos accompanied by Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens and Metropolitan Epiphany of Kiev, but the hierarchy of the Church of Greece will still be holding its assembly in October, where the complaint sent to the Phanar will undoubtedly be discussed. The Phanar’s response (or lack thereof) and the media coverage appearing in the aftermath of the contentious baptism will assuredly impact the discussion.

The fact remains that unity is vital during this difficult period. Geopolitical and ecclesiastical developments pose real threats for Hellenism. Moscow’s ecclesiastical imperialism in Africa and elsewhere threatens the Greek-speaking ancient patriarchates, while Turkey’s expansionism, combined with its alliance with Russia and the hypocrisy of the West, demand that all of Hellenism’s institutions be on the same page in the event of any unpleasant surprises.

In the past, the Church steadily played a leading role in helping the Greek people navigate through dire straits. Only that back then, “theological advisers” and salaried image makers weren’t even included on the Church’s organizational chart, let alone have the influence that they do today. Prelates didn’t attempt to pass themselves off as CEOs or activists, or paint themselves as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’. All their energy was directed to fulfilling the role entrusted to them by the Church; that of spiritual father and bishop.

Hellenism and Orthodoxy don’t have the luxury of squandering resources or manpower, let alone weaponizing division to promote any private agendas. These actions are unforgiveable, especially at the present juncture, which is especially challenging. If the spin doctors continue to churn out whatever suits their agenda, it won’t be long until the sparks they light turn into a wildfire that won’t be easy to contain.

 

Follow me on Twitter @CTripoulas

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