By Spyridon, Former Archbishop of America
The year 2003 profoundly marked the Orthodox Church through the constant confrontations between her church leaders. Such showdowns, focused mainly on the distribution of power, gave rise to new questions among the flock and seem to have established an even greater distance between them and their Church. At the same time, efforts to re-open the Theological School of Halki failed miserably, leaving this crucial matter in tatters. On the Inter-Orthodox and ecumenical scene, the wounds continue to bleed and to test the credibility of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the field of Church relations.
Among the many events that unfolded within the realm of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 2003, two main issues deserve particular attention:
the conflict between the Patriarchate and Archbishop Stylianos of Australia; and
the confrontation between the Patriarchate and the Church of Greece over the issue of the so-called “New Lands” in Northern Greece.
The contrasts in question are of exceptional importance in that they seriously damaged the prestige of the Patriarchate with unanticipated consequences as to the role it seeks to play within its own jurisdiction as well as at a Pan-Orthodox level.
1) The conflict with Archbishop Stylianos of Australia is due to Patriarchate schemes to decrease the power and authority of archbishops in charge of the Throne’s major archdioceses around the world by provocatively curtailing their rights. Even if these efforts often contradict the canonical tradition of the Church, they are usually very easily surmounted by the Phanar due to the singular composition of the Patriarchal Synod – a composition that leads to a systematic and constant synodical alignment with the Patriarchate leadership.
The fact is that the hierarchs in charge of the Throne’s dioceses outside Turkey, as non-Turkish citizens, are devoid of the right to partake in the Patriarchal Synod. In other words, they are unable to fulfill their synodical duties and thus remain excluded from the decision-making process on all vital church issues. As many may know, the Patriarchal Synod, in its majority, is composed of titular metropolitans residing in Turkey who really have no possibility of differentiating their stance from that of the Patriarchate leadership.
Moreover, because of their isolation, they have no other choice than to base themselves on the selective information provided by said leadership and thus, as a rule, are incapacitated to follow developments in the Throne’s dioceses across the world.
It is precisely this singular way in which the Patriarchal Synod operates that Archbishop Stylianos of Australia has been denouncing for quite some time through articles that are extremely impressive in their logical structure and theological depth. According to Archbishop Stylianos, “the synodical structures of the Church are idle” today and the current Patriarchate leadership “disdains the inviolable canonical rights of Archpastors outside Turkey.” He stresses that such bishops make up “95% of the entire Patriarchate Hierarchy” and yet have no possibility of participating in the decision-making process on the weightiest church issues (financial management, election of bishops, creation or modification of dioceses).
The hierarchs’ voices are multiplying rapidly throughout the world, claiming a reacquisition of their synodical role – a constitutive element of their Episcopal identity – in the co-administration of the Church. Besides, it should not be forgotten that the exclusion of the “New Lands” hierarchs from the Patriarchal Synod immediately after 1922 ultimately led to the creation of the New Lands ecclesiastical regime in 1928. One wonders whether those in power today at the Phanar still remember this. Or will this case be handled by the Phanar in such a manner that the New Lands painful historical precedent will ultimately act as a catalyst in a evolutionary course that will lead, sooner or later, to the re-establishment of “truths and apostolic traditions as these are incarnated by the Holy Canons”?
2) On the other hand, the conflict between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Church of Greece over the issue of the so-called “New Lands” has taken on enormous proportions in the Greek as well as in the international press, mainly because excess recriminations and big talk have challenged the believers’ sensibilities!
The New Lands issue, regulated by the Patriarchal Act of 1928, was sparked initially by the metropolitans of these dioceses because of their exclusion from the Patriarchal Synod immediately after the Greece’s defeat in Asia Minor (1922). The Act, an agreement with the Autocephalous Church of Greece, provided the New Lands hierarchs with the possibility to exert their inalienable synodical rights within the frame of the Synod of the Church of Greece, while their dioceses, continuing to remain under the “spiritual” jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, were incorporated in the administrative system of the Church of Greece. Considered from a canonical point of view, this was indeed an awkward agreement without precedent in the history of the Church.
The Church of Greece never demonstrated particular sensitivity in complying with the whole of the Act. As a rule she invoked the incompatibility of certain clauses thereof with Greek legislation. In time of intense relations, her hierarchs even reached the point of questioning the canonicity of the Act. Be it as it may, pacta servanda sunt! This is what truth and integrity demand, especially within the Church!
However the Phanar’s timing for demanding full implementation of the 1928 Act was highly unfortunate. On the one hand, the Greek government, due to current pre-electoral concerns, shrank from supporting the Patriarchate even in the least. On the other, the majority of Greece’s hierarchy, including the majority of the New Lands metropolitans in particular, had long made clear its anti-patriarchal views. The conditions were indeed most unfavorable and any precautious leadership would have discerned the situation beforehand.
The major slip-up however was in seeking a direct confrontation with a popular and powerful opponent as the current Primate of the Church of Greece, reputed for his grandiose vision in regard to the future jurisdiction of the Church of Greece.
Wrong timing and definitely a wrong opponent!
The outcome of the confrontation was foreseeable. The leadership of the Church of Greece, supported by the overwhelming majority of the Greek hierarchy and favored by the political momentum, imposed itself from the very beginning as master of the game, immune to the unnecessary and empty threats that were undoubtedly not the most successful expression of Phanariote diplomacy…
The impact of the confrontation was extremely painful for the Patriarchate. It missed the opportunity to settle a long pending thorny issue and, perhaps even more importantly, it forever lost the hope of having the issue reconsidered on its true ecclesiastical basis.
Mainly, however, the inopportune confrontation demonstrated the inability of the Patriarchate to impose its claims, thereby damaging its prestige and authority irreparably.
The conflict gave rise to countless negative articles and grave statements against the Patriarchate and revealed its shocking isolation on a political and grassroots level. The feeble, sporadic manifestations in support of the Patriarchate, mainly in Crete and the Dodecanese, as well as certain hopeless efforts to collect signatures among intellectuals and politicians, emphasized its current state of seclusion.
It is certainly not accidental that the Turkish Government, informed of such developments and their true significance, made it immediately clear that the issue of the re-opening of the Theological School of Halki can be negotiated only on a “base of reciprocity,” thus putting unrealizable conditions on Greece and, in essence, bringing all pertinent discussions to a close.
The choice of a head-on confrontation on the New Lands issue, hasty assessments and the inept handling of the case have wounded the Patriarchate beyond repair. Unfortunately for the historic Phanar, the negative impact of such failure seems to be immeasurable not only in Greece but also at a Pan-Orthodox and international level.