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A Clash Between Autonomy, Tradition

Policy: Greek Orthodox clergy-laity congress opens Sunday amid debate over how U.S. bishops will be chosen.

June 29, 2002|LARRY B. STAMMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Greek Orthodox Church opens its 36th national clergy-laity congress here Sunday amid stirrings of discontent that many hoped had been put to rest with the ouster of the church's controversial archbishop three years ago.

The issue this time is not the American church's new archbishop, His Eminence Demetrios, who is generally well regarded, but a controversial new church charter. Some church activists are warning that the charter not only erodes rank-and-file power, but further delays the 1.5-million-member American church's eventual independence from its mother church, headquartered in Istanbul, Turkey.

The controversy is a classic example of a church built by immigrants, who have come of age in America, intent on remaining loyal to the church's ancient Greek traditions and faith, even as that church is reshaped by a new culture.

Orthodox churches in America, such as the Greek, Russian and Antiochian churches, have a combined total of 5 million to 6 million active members. These groups represent the Eastern expression of Christianity, with its elaborate rituals and crown-bedecked bishops. Roman Catholic, Anglican and Protestant churches comprise the more dominant Western expression of the faith. The tension over how autonomous the U.S. Greek Orthodox Church should be in administering its affairs comes less than a month after the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, with 500,000 members in the U.S. and Canada, was granted autonomy by its mother church in Damascus, Syria.

Even before the clergy-laity congress opens with a Divine Liturgy at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Sunday, tensions have been apparent. There is not even agreement on whether the new charter is subject to a vote when the business sessions begin Monday at the Bonaventure Hotel.

His Eminence Metropolitan Anthony, bishop of the church's seven-state Greek Orthodox Diocese of San Francisco, said he hopes the charter will be discussed in a civil manner, but that he does not expect a vote. The charter has already been approved by the U.S. metropolitan bishops, Archbishop Demetrios, and the ecumenical patriarch in Istanbul, His All Holiness Bartholomew I.

However, an activist group, Orthodox Christian Laity, claimed that failing to put the new charter to a vote would violate the 1977 charter--and erode the laity's historically prominent role in church affairs. "It needs to come before the congress for discussion and, we think, a vote," George Matsoukas, the group's executive director said in an interview.

Charter Controversy

At one point, the executive committee of an influential fund-raising group within the church, Leadership 100, declared in a vote that the charter was "unacceptable." A day later the committee withdrew its criticism, according to The National Herald, a Greek-American newspaper. An immediate issue in the new charter is how U.S. bishops are chosen. The question is connected to how much autonomy the U.S. church has in running its affairs.

The church was thrown into turmoil three years ago when the ecumenical patriarchate, the church's historic headquarters, named Archbishop Spyridon to lead the U.S. church.

Spyridon, although born in the U.S., mostly lived outside the country. His autocratic management style and his failure, at times, to consult his U.S. bishops created opposition and led to calls within the U.S. church to declare independence from Istanbul.

Faced with a revolt by his richest and most important church, Patriarch Bartholomew removed Spyridon in August 1999 and appointed Archbishop Demetrios in his place.

While Demetrios is generally well liked, some reformers in the U.S. church want a greater voice in how the American archbishop is chosen.

Under the new charter, worked out during four meetings this year in Istanbul between the U.S. metropolitan bishops and Bartholomew and his leading clerics, any new U.S. archbishop must be knowledgeable about the U.S. church, speak English and have served in the United States. But he is still appointed by the ecumenical patriarchate. A proposal from the U.S. metropolitan bishops that any American archbishop be chosen by the patriarchate from a list of three names submitted by the U.S. church was rejected.

U.S. metropolitan bishops in the rung below the archbishop would be selected by the ecumenical patriarchate from a list of three who received the most votes in the United States.

Leaders of Orthodox Christian Laity want all U.S. metropolitan bishops elected by Americans without involvement by the ecumenical patriarchate. They also want to limit the ecumenical patriarchate choosing an archbishop from among three names submitted by the U.S. church.

The fact that U.S. bishops have been elevated to the status of "metropolitans" and report directly to the patriarchate in Istanbul instead of to the U.S. archbishop also grates on some who call for a more-independent church.

Critic Sees 'Takeover'

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