May 25 -- The Ecumenical Patriarchate and a committee representing the Archdiocese of America have announced an agreement concerning the American church's new Charter. But sources from around the Orthodox community say that in fact the Patriarchate rejected key provisions of the proposed Charter, indicating it is not ready to allow more autonomy for the Church of America.

The Archdiocesan committee has proposed that American Metropolitans be given a say in the appointment of future Archbishops. Under the proposed plan, Archbishops would be selected from a triaprosopon, or slate of three candidates, chosen by the Epiarchal Synod. The committee also proposed that Dioceses in the U.S. be elevated to the status of Metropolises, and that the Epiarchal Synod would elect future Metropolitans. These provisions would have the effect of lessening the Patriarchate's administrative authority.  

Patriarch Bartholemew I

Currently the Archbishop is appointed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Rancor erupted during the late nineties when the Patriarchate -- often referred to as the Phanar, after the district in Constantinople where it is located -- pressured Archbishop Iakovos to resign, replacing him with Archbishop Spyridon. Spyridon's brief, controversial tenure as Archbishop saw open rebellion flare up among Metropolitans and Bishops of the Archdiocese.

During a round of meetings held on May 9th and 10th, the Patriarchate rejected the provision which would allow the Archdiocese a say in choosing Archbishops, as well as the proposed election of Metropolitans by the Epiarchal Synod.  Of the three important provisions that the Archdiocese had drafted, the Patriarch accepted only the elevation of Dioceses to Metropolises. Currently, the U.S. church has eight dioceses, including New York, New Jersey, Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco. Metropolitans in the U.S. in effect are bishops with authority over a diocese. They are appointed titular heads of provinces in Asia Minor, but under the revised charter's provisions they would govern actual Metropolises in the U.S.

Father Paul Kaplanis of the Holy Trinity Church in Raleigh, NC, described the agreement as "a step towards recognizing that we are a more mature church and should be given more authority to make decisions." Speaking of an "evolving process," Kaplanis said that "major inroads" had been made, pointing to the elevation of Dioceses to Metropolises.

But others critical of the Phanar downplayed the importance of that provision. "It means they get to go out and buy new stationery," one source within the Archdiocese said.

Phanar Wary of Granting Autonomy

In the past, Patriarch Bartholemew I has characterized the American church as "young and inexperienced," suggesting that it requires continued guidance from above. Infighting and power struggles show that the church in America still has a long way to go, Bartholemew has suggested, pointing to the crisis which enveloped the church during the late nineties. But critics of the Phanar counter that the crisis was caused not by an immature American church, but by a Patriarchate bent on subjugating a restive and stubborn American flock.

In many ways, the current dispute is a continuation of issues that arose during that crisis. When Archbishop Iakovos, a powerful and charismatic leader who built the modern-day church in America, resigned unexpectedly in 1998, many believed he had been forced out by the Patriarch. Iakovos had proposed increased autonomy for the church, and his resignation was perceived as reflecting Patriarchal anger over statements made at a 1994 conference in Ligonier, PA. Participants at that conference pledged to work towards an "administratively united church" -- a pledge sharply rebuked by the Phanar.

Ironically, many reform-minded Orthodox Christians initially welcomed the Phanar's intervention. A powerful and charismatic leader, Archbishop Iakovos was also, critics charged, autocratic. But his successor, Spyridon, failed to establish rapport with the Archdiocese. Widely seen as a Phanar-imposed outsider with little real understanding of the American church, Spyridon's controversial reign triggered the worst crisis in the history of the Archdiocese. Mismanagement of church finances and Spyridon's handling of a sexual abuse scandal at Hellenic College further inflamed resentment. Differences within the church are traditionally smoothed over with public statements of piety and brotherly love, but the Spyridon controversy escalated into open public warfare. Calls for Spyridon's resignation were initially greeted with stern disdain by the Phanar, who vowed that "he will be your Archbishop...until he dies." A few months later, however, Spyridon was replaced by the current Archbishop, Demetrios, and reappointed to a province in Turkey. With Spyridon's departure, the crisis was defused -- until now.