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To Change a Charter or Chart a New Course? A Dilemma for the Diaspora

The unexpected sudden decision by the Ecumenical Patriarchate to suspend the Charter of the Archdiocese of America and punish two metropolitans of the eparchial synodhas naturally triggered widespread speculation. Many are forecasting a return to the old organizational model, which was more administratively centralized, while others fear that the decision may trigger a backlash of provincialism.

The Phanar’s intervention seems to have generated more questions than answers; among them, two particularly glaring issues, which ought to concern both the church hierarchy and the laity.

First and foremost, to what degree do the decisions of the Holy and Sacred Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate apply to its eparchies across the world? If the Phanar expects its synodical decisions regarding the election/recognition of bishops, meting of penances, and issuance of various other administrative directives to be recognized and respected, it would hold that its decisions regarding liturgical issues and matters of faith be upheld to the fullest possible degree even more so. Sadly, in the Coronavirus era, it appears that this logic is not self-evident.

For instance, despite last June’s unequivocal decision by the Holy Synod regarding the adherence to the traditional method of distribution of Holy Communion in response to the novelty of multiple spoons that was introduced and implemented in various eparchies worldwide – sometimes without external intervention and coercion by overreaching government agencies – this phenomenon continues to be seen. It’s no secret that there are still parishes in the United States (and possibly elsewhere) where priests – acting either of their own accord or bowing to pressure from parish council members, donors, or other lay constituents – continue to distribute Holy Community using multiple spoons, despite the express and clear prohibition of this practice by the Mother Church, unless warranted by circumstances outside of the diocese/parish’s control.

It is only logical to question why local ecclesiastical authorities would tolerate such disobedience on behalf of these parishes and ask with what justification (excluding the intervention of civil authorities) these parishes place themselves above the Holy Synod, which is supposed to express the universal nature of the Church. The words of the “saint of Greek literature” Alexandros Papadiamantis ring true and sound a timely warning: “The essence of Protestantism lies not so much on the refusal to venerate icons and relics, as much as on the rejection of the validity of the Ecumenical Councils, the Fathers, and tradition by virtue of the absolute license of each person to interpret Scripture as they please.”

The second question relates to the continuity of synodical decisions. The most recent change to the charter of the Archdiocese of America occurred less than twenty years ago. During this relatively short period, the persons occupying senior administrative posts remained mostly the same. Therefore, it is not clear whether the mismanagement to which many of the Archdiocese’s current woes are attributed is due to a flawed charter or the limitations and mentality of its administrators. In light of this, it may be premature to draw any definitive conclusions and begin experimenting anew with the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s largest eparchy, which has faced more than its share of crises in recent years.

There’s always the danger that rushing to change the charter may be interpreted as an indirect admission on behalf of the Phanar that it erred in dividing the Archdiocese of America into metropolises (one of the reasons that led to the resignation of Archbishop Spyridon in 1999, after just three years at the helm). Moreover, Constantinople’s rivals may seize the opportunity to accuse it of acting opportunistically. Regardless, failure to display continuity in its decisions regarding the Church in America ultimately weakens the Phanar, strengthening separatist elements and fomenting a populist chauvinistic provincialism that could be manipulated by anti-patriarchal circles. 

Besides, the fundamental issue facing the Greek-American Community lies not in whether the individual administrative divisions of the local Church are called dioceses or metropolises, or whether clergy nationwide commemorate the name of the Archbishop or the local hierarch. Deficiencies and problem areas exist because of the absence of a coordinated and strategically planned policy for dealing with key issues (i.e., the promotion and teaching of the Greek language) at all levels, the absence of coordinating bodies that can be taken seriously and are capable of mobilizing the people and contributing to political, social, community, and cultural causes, and the stagnation of community apparatuses and institutions, which remain mired in pre-WWII models of organization.

Precisely because these problems are not going to be solved by the new charter – whatever its contents are – it would be best for the Church to remain focused on preserving the Orthodox mindset it teaches and spiritual/cultural legacy that it bears. Priorities should include producing bishops, not despots, and priests who stand out for their ethos and manner, not their proclivity to provoke, worldly-mindedness, or disdain for the language and traditions with which the Church has been identified since its inception. In short, it should seek to connect all that the people hold sacred with the unique cosmopolitan air that allowed Hellenism to take root and thrive anywhere; to resurrect and advance a genuine Hellenic Christian worldview, which can easily be distinguished from the false piety or materialistic views that threaten to marginalize the Hellenic Diaspora and cause it to lose its identifiable traits that have helped form its hierarchy of needs.

Only time will tell if the recent interventions by the Phanar will remedy the state of affairs in the Greek-American Community or worsen them. Nonetheless, if the necessary adaptations are not enacted at the grass roots level, no matter how many charters are issued or how much authority any Archbishop can consolidate, the Church of America will continue to be a lightning rod for turmoil because it will inevitably remain in the eye of the storm.

Follow me on Twitter @CTripoulas.

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