The Phanar

Located in the heart of the former Byzantine empire, the Patriarchate represents seventeen centuries of Orthodox tradition. Unlike the Vatican, however, the Patriarchate's authority is more spiritual than adminstrative. Of the many Archdiocese worldwide, only a handful come under the Phanar's jurisdiction. Most Orthodox archdioceses are "autocephalous," meaning that they choose their own Archbishops and governing bodies and handle their own administrative affairs without answering to Constantinople. Were the American church to become autocephalous, the Phanar would lose the largest Archdiocese over which it still retains administrative control.

The Orthodox Church in Greece has been autocephalous since the 1830's. Because the Patriarchate was still in Constantinople, Greeks feared that the Ottoman Empire could exercise power through the Phanar. Authority over the Greek church was given to the Synod and the King of Greece.

Archbishop Demetrios

The Asia Minor catastrophe led to the Patriarchate ceding temporary jurisdiction to the Greek church. A dispute over who should control these additional territories, or "new lands," continues unresolved. Indeed, rancorous disputes have frequently erupted between the Phanar and the fiercely independent Greek church. Greeks have perceived Patriarch Bartholomew as attempting to encroach on their jurisdiction, in his Easter message this year, Bartholemew inflamed Greek public opinion by referring to "mother killers" -- destroyers of the mother church.

Orthodoxy in America took root gradually, as immigrants from Greece arrived and began forming communities. When the archdiocese was established in 1921, its charter provided for self-governance and called for autonomy to be implemented once the fledgling church has "reached maturity." Proponents of autonomy argue that maturity has now been reached. The Phanar, pointing to a long history of infighting and struggles for power, argues otherwise.

An Evolving Church

At the heart of the autonomy issue are deep-seated, unresolved ambiguities about the identity of the American church. America has a long tradition of rebellion against autocratic systems; some see the current system of jurisdiction as a Byzantine model which has little relevance to American culture and mores.

Changing demographics have also produced a split between those who see Greek Orthodoxy as an "ethnic religion" with strong ties to Greek national identity, history, and customs, and others who want to downplay ethnicity and create a more Americanized church.

For some Orthodox faithful, the church is inseparable from Greek and Byzantine history, the long oppression under Ottoman rule, and the traumatic loss of Constantinople and Asia Minor. Many of these Greeks and Greek-Americans consider the Phanar to be the last bastion of Hellenism in what they see as occupied territory. They stress Constantinople's role as the "mother" of worldwide Orthodoxy.

But the Greek Orthodox church is no longer exclusively, or even predominantly, populated by Greeks with a strong ethnic identity and historical consciousness. Many third and fourth generation Greeks marry outside their own ethnicity and integrate their families within a less ethnicized version of Orthodoxy. And some Americans are attracted to Orthodoxy for religious or doctrinal, rather than cultural reasons. These churchgoers do not feel closely associated with the Phanar or its history, and they resent answering to a far-off, Vatican-like potentate. In an age of increasing decentralization and democracy, they argue, an authoritarian Church makes no sense.

A Divisive, Sensitive Issue and No Broad Consensus

The many interviews, both on and off the record, conducted in preparation for this article revealed something considerably less than a strong consensus among Orthodox churchgoers in America. Indeed, a spectrum of opinion appears to exist, with passionate voices on all sides, as well as many Orthodox who believe, as one priest told me, that the controversy is a distraction from more urgent issues such as declining church membership and decreased interest among the younger generation.

Some, like Greek American Review publisher Peter Makrias, believe "the best thing that could happen to our church is complete administrative independence from the Patriarchate. We accept a kind of spiritual link, but we do not want any interference in choosing the Archbishop, nor do we want the Patriarchate involved in the financial affairs of our church." The debacle surrounding Archbishops Iakovos and Spyridon, Makrias said, shows that the Phanar is "no longer entitled to govern our church."

But support for independence is far fom unanimous. Other Greek-Americans, such as Massachusetts entrepreneur and photojournalist Anthony Ziagos, strongly support the traditions represented by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. "Americanizing the church is not the answer," Ziagos said. Pointing to the experience of the Catholic Church, Ziagos decried what he called "buffet Catholicism," in which people "pick and choose what suits them." He warned that autocephaly could bring about a similar situation within the Greek Orthodox Church.

And still others voice objections to the Archdiocese's approach -- one which, they claim, has cloaked the process in secrecy and deliberately closed off participation at the grassroots level. While the proposed Charter is intended to seek greater autonomy for the Archdiocese, some of its provisions, these critics charge, would limit participation by laity and local clergy, essentially concentrating power in the hands of metropolitans at the expense of parishes.

"We don't really approve of either side," Orthodox Christian Laity president Alice Kopan said in a phone interview. While OCL has come out in support of autocephaly -- primarily, Kopan explained, because of the Spyridon debacle -- the organization is critical of the way the Archdiocese has handled the charter issue. The Archdiocese and Phanar, Kopan said, are trying to hammer out an agreement which they can then present as a "done deal." The proposed Charter, she added, significantly limits the role of the laity, stripping away jurisdictional power and consigning it to an "advisory role."

"From the start," Kopan said, "it wasn't the way it was supposed to be, with broad-based input. The process has been flawed; they should scrap it and begin all over again. They should get the opinion of the parishes, dioceses, and assemblies, then convene a special Clergy-Laity conference to review, discuss, and take a vote -- as provided for by the existing Charter."

On the other hand, argued Father Kaplanis of the Holy Trinity Church in Raleigh, "you can't have a committee of two million people" drafting the Charter. "It's a working document," he said, deflecting criticism that the Archdiocese has been undemocratic. "It doesn't mean there is something frozen that can't be changed" when the Clergy-Laity conference reviews the document next year.

Christos and Mary Papoutsy, publishers of this website, issued a statement recommending that "more dialogue and studies be conducted for both short- and long-term plans and that input be sought from all US parishioners. Above all, the autonomy which our Church now enjoys should be preserved. But we must keep in mind that the process itself is important: only by praying and working together will our Church flourish in the new millenium."

Archbishop Demetrios, who has pursued a conciliatory, consensus-building approach since replacing Spyridon, will find his considerable diplomatic skills tested in the months to come.

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