The theme of the 42nd Clergy Laity Congress “The Orthodox Christian Family: A Dwelling of Christ and A Witness of His Gospel,” is very appropriate for us in this time of transition. For it is truly within the home that the Orthodox faith will be learned, and will survive and grow by the example and actions of each of us. However, for many, parish life and archdiocesan settings are an antithesis to the theme of the 42nd Congress.
On September 18, 1999 His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios was enthroned as the sixth Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of the United States. In July 1-7 2000 he presided over the 35th Clergy Laity Congress “Ageless Traditions in a New Millennium.” That was his first Congress as Archbishop. The Archdiocese had experienced many changes since the resignations of Archbishop Iakovos and Archbishop Spyridon. The main concern of the delegates was the development of a new Charter, the fifth for the Archdiocese since 1922. It should be noted that the first charter established the Archdiocese as an autonomous Church. Each subsequent Charter eroded that autonomy. The delegates of the 2000 Congress were concerned that the new charter not take away the last remnant of autonomy of the Archdiocese.
The delegates to the 2002 Los Angeles Clergy Laity Congress, the last Congress with meaningful input from the participants, made it clear that they wanted an autonomous Archdiocese in the USA. The eventual 2003 gift charter imposed by the Patriarchate did not come forth for consideration before a Clergy Laity Congress. It was eventually presented in New York as a fait accompli. This modus operandi reflected the poor status of the trust relationship between the hierarchy and the laity and foreshowed what their relationship would become.
The Charter weakened the role of the Archbishop and created an even more fragmented process of governance within the Archdioceses.
The Patriarchate is determined to control the Church in America and elevated the former titular Metropolitans of dioceses under the 1970 Charter into Metropolitans of United States cities, under the 2003 charter. In reality, it established autonomous Metropolises.
The traditions that have emerged for the new millennium since Philadelphia 2000 in this restrictive Archdiocesan environment are many. The most profound is the Archdiocese and the Orthodox Church in general in the United States has succumbed to the tragedy of clericalism. The synergy of clergy and laity working together in a respectful manner within the ethos of the accountability and transparency, which is the Orthodox Way and the American Way, has been lost. All committees are appointed. There is little turnover in the committees related to the administration, finance, external affairs and the seminary.
In this environment of clericalism, Orthodox Christian Fundamentalism pervades as the new ethos of the Church. The seminary is producing priests who believe they are fully in charge of parish administration. Even our best and more mature priests look to leave the Archdiocese and work as fill in priests with lay professions. There seems to be no way to get control of the franchised monasteries that have developed all over the country where Greek is the required language. They have become a drag on the Church in general. Some married priests who are parish priests look to these monastic norms and emulate these monastic norms. It is interesting to note that some of the books stores of these monasteries are full of books about the lives of different Elders and do not have an Orthodox Study Bible in stock.
Students attend the seminary and then are not ordained. Mediocrity is becoming the norm within the Church. Orthodox Fundamentalism needs to be addressed. It is a factor attracting a type of seminarian who is not appropriate for the future well-being of the Orthodox Church in America.
The Archdiocese has also undertaken a policy of “Hellenizing” the Church. There is no definition of this concept. One characteristic is to institutionalize the Greek festival as a fundraiser for parish operating costs because the concept of tithing is not taught and encouraged. Ethnic youth dancing is now a ministry. Indigenous Americans of Greek descent, fourth and fifth generation, have been marginalized. It is interesting to note that the development of the St, Nicholas Shrine within the 9/11 lower Manhattan site of the American Memorial is being morphed into creating an Acropolis in New York City and… “a perpetual sacred shrine to Orthodoxy and Hellenism…”
The fragmentation of the Archdiocese into autonomous Metropolises has created problems for the clergy. New patterns of relating to their superiors have emerged. Priests can be assigned as a result of their relations with the Metropolitan. In some cases, cronyism has been a factor in assignments. Ethnicity has been a factor in assignments. There are cases where good priests were removed from parishes because they are not Greek enough. Cash payments either by clergy themselves or influential laypersons have determined assignments. In general, our priests are troubled. They are afraid to speak their minds. Divorce rates are high among our Clergy.
Clericalism has also created problems for parish administration. Priests are assigned to parishes without interviews by the parish council. When there is not a good match, problems emerge within the parish and divisions become counterproductive. If parish councils persist with their legitimate input, they are threatened with being dismissed. The attitude is that the laity will continue to pay and obey. But times are changing. Before the imposed 2003 Charter, we heard criticism from clergy and hierarchy about the Church being oriented in congregational ways. It should be noted it was in this pre-2003 environment that most of the infrastructure of our church in America was built and developed. Our grandfathers used the ethos of this country which was working in local committees with transparency and accountability to build our parishes. The good order of our Church at all levels depends on restoring the balance and synergy of clergy and laity working together. Restoring this balance must be addressed.
Financial administrative costs to govern a relatively small church of an estimated 440,000 adherents have grown enormously. The budget for 2014 is 27.3 million dollar to support a growing bureaucracy within the Archdiocese and each Metropolis. What do we get with that budget? Every parish in the GOA is under pressure to raise funds for parish, Metropolis and Archdiocese administrative costs.
First-time observers to the 2014 Clergy Laity Congress have expressed that in administrative informational sessions the Archdiocese seems to be playing a catch-up game. Like parish meetings, the main concern is just maintenance. There seems to be a lack of vision for the future. Very little input from the laity is sought; there is no give- and-take. The event has become a social reunion at great costs to the participants and parishes. Could this money be better used to benefit the ministries of the Church? It seems that the Church faithful are resigned and apathetic while also concerned about the direction of a Church that feels stale. Discussions about how to revive many of our Churches that have become empty shells because of changing demographics are not a concern. A highlight of Philadelphia 2014 from the perspective of the Metropolitans is that they can close parishes and acquire their assets without the involvement of the laity.
The Church needs leaders who will energize the faithful with a discussion of their faith and its application to their life. A more appropriate and uplifting highlight would have been a meaningful overview of the work of the Assembly of Bishops as they go about the development of a blueprint for a unified and self-governing Orthodox Church in the United States. Everyone knows and feels that the present uncanonical state of Orthodoxy in the United States with its separate jurisdictions based on ethnicity diminishes its mission to all of us.
The early Church, laity although living in the uncertain world about them, were yet strong of faith, following the Biblical tradition Jesus set at the Last Supper, gathered together in upper rooms. The original Disciples and later the Apostles soon joined them. Laity discovered the empty tomb, then ran proclaiming the “Good News.” Today’s Orthodox families can do the same in their parishes. Surely the Good News must be heard loudly again resulting in parish strength and a deeper Faith in Orthodoxy.
George E. Matsoukas is Executive Director of the Orthodox Christian Laity, and the author of A Church in Captivity: The Greek Orthodox Church of America.
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