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Easing Tensions of Church in Transition

Greek Orthodox Archbishop in U.S. Takes a Conciliatory Approach

August 19, 2000|LARRY B. STAMMER | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

A year after a tumultuous and divisive fight that led to the resignation of the American archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church, his successor appears to have calmed the waters.

Described as fatherly and accessible, Archbishop Demetrios has, at least for now, ended the turmoil that brought down his predecessor, Archbishop Spyridon.

But although the internal battling is over, the underlying issues of the Americanization of a once-immigrant church have not gone away. In an interview, the 72-year-old Demetrios suggested that his approach to handling the knotty issues facing the church may be quite different from Spyridon's.

Among the chief questions facing him are the role of the laity, how the Orthodox should respond to mixed marriages and whether the U.S. church should eventually become self-governing and free from the direct authority of the Mother Church in Istanbul.

Dressed in the traditional black cassock and squared-off kalimafi, or veiled head cover, Demetrios was in Los Angeles this week to deliver an invocation at the Democratic National Convention.

Demetrios was quick to strike a chord of reconciliation with Greek Orthodox laity in America, many of whom had bristled under what they saw as the autocratic nature of Spyridon's three-year tenure. Spyridon was accused by critics of minimizing the role of the laity, ignoring his bishops in forming policy and attempting to reassert Old World trappings and practices in the American church.

A Struggle for Orthodoxy

"The church in America . . . is based on people who have shown to me so far a really amazing willingness to proceed with positive work, creative work, increasing the bonds of love . . . and spreading this love outside the church," Demetrios said.

He added that he has been in "a constant condition of high emotion" because of the "inventiveness" of church members.

Spyridon appeared to view the Orthodox church as a body in crisis, with its traditions being eroded by an American religious culture that emphasizes individual spirituality rather than obedience to a religious hierarchy. He expressed those views forcefully in an interview last month with the Athens publication Eleftherotypia.

"The struggle of Orthodoxy in America will be both long and hard, if it is to reacquire and preserve its authentic form, by avoiding the ever-increasing influence of the American Protestant spirit, which is becoming constantly more evident in the worship and spiritual life of the faithful," the publication quoted him as saying.

By contrast, Demetrios said that he wants to enhance the role of the laity. "The laity has always been very strong in terms of strength and in terms of presence," Demetrios said. "My effort is to have an enhancement, a qualitative increase, rather than quantitatively," he said.

Similarly, Demetrios said that there can be no turning back from the trend toward mixed marriages--something that has alarmed Greek Orthodox traditionalists.

"The thing that we're trying--because this isn't a thing we can control--is to make mixed marriages not a problem but a blessing," Demetrios said. "God allows or wanted this to happen. Now, how can this thing become an extremely positive element instead of being a problem? This is our effort now."

Inevitably, mixed marriages and the Americanization of the church lead to pressures to become autonomous or self-governing. Currently, Greek Orthodox bishops, like Demetrios, are appointed by the world's ranking Orthodox patriarch, His All Holiness Bartholomew I of Istanbul.

Some Orthodox lay leaders hope that one day there will be a single unified Orthodox Church of America, enfolding the now separate ethnic-based churches.

The historical norm is to have one Orthodox church in each country. In Europe that has essentially meant an ethnic church, such as the Russian Orthodox Church. But in the United States, each Orthodox immigrant group brought along its own church, setting up the anomaly of more than one Orthodox jurisdiction in a single country.

Changing that would require considerable preparation, Demetrios said. First, he said, relations between the separate Orthodox churches in the United States must become closer.

"We need to develop as much as possible a relationship between the Orthodox groups in this country, Greek, Russia, Serbian, and of Lebanese origin," Demetrios said.

Demetrios supported a move in that direction last December when, for the first time, 100 young people and hierarchs from each Orthodox jurisdiction in the United States participated in a service at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral in New York and then spent several hours in dialogue.

Second, Demetrios said, Greek Orthodoxy in the United States must become more "mature from the Orthodox point of view." He did not elaborate on what that would entail.

Optimistic Approach

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