Repeated calls from Orthodox Christian Laity (OCL) for Orthodox Unity often results in gatherings to discuss Unity and the need for a Great and Holy Church Council. The participating hierarchy who usually attend include the Serbian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, Antiochian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and other dignitaries from the Orthodox landscape. Conspicuously absent almost every time are the Greeks.
The Greek Orthodox hierarchy continues to abstain from these “unauthorized,” laity-driven pan-Orthodox discussions and remains silent in the sidelines. Claims of “Royal Priesthood” status notwithstanding, these Metropolitans do not recognize the laity’s authority to convene such discussions. Furthermore, they, themselves are not allowed to support nor participate in such initiatives—although Mother Churches of other jurisdictions have sanctioned fruitful dialogue. We remember Archbishop Iakovos who spearheaded a one-of-a-kind inter-orthodox summit in Ligonier, PA in 1994 to explore a vision for the church in America; and we all know how that turned out!
Clearly, since the subsequent removal of Iakovos, the ‘90s proved to be a decade of tumult for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese (GOA)—although I had difficulty finding a hierarch who would admit to it! The Patriarchate flexed canonical muscle and carved up the hemisphere and restructured the administration of all the churches. It was a sort of quiet, ecclesiastic coup d’état that caught the faithful unaware and still trying to figure out what happened. In fact, many reading this copy may not even be aware that such reorganization ever took place. There was no Patriarchal Encyclical, no press release, no announcement from the pulpits. It just happened! All they know is the bishops are now called Metropolitans and the word “Diocese” is replaced by “Metropolis.” Everything else is the same! Well, not really!—but that’s another story. It was somewhat like a hostile corporate takeover. But, it succeeded because, except for OCL, no one seemed to care. Traditionally, Greek Orthodox in America rarely concerned themselves with inner administrative workings of the church and avoided it, much like the “Third Rail.” They were taught to never criticize the church or priests lest they get “zapped” by God himself!
I’m reminded of an old friend and koumbaro who confided in me recently with the following piece of wisdom: “Don’t underestimate the intelligence and cunning of provincial hierarchy. A hundred years ago they came here with their holy books; we made fun of their English while they adjusted because we had the money, the property and we put up the buildings for them. Today, they have the money, the property and the buildings, and WE have the books!”
Orthodox leaders are protecting their own turf and tread gently in the minefield of Unity. In all fairness to the GOA, perhaps a reason the other jurisdictions are more passionate about Unity is because they know the Greeks don’t want it, and without the Greek Orthodox hierarchy participating, it’s not going to happen! So, for now it’s a win-win commitment to display an “ecumenical” spirit of brotherhood without risk. At the same time, let the Greeks take the blame for standing in the way of progress and allow OCL to hold a lantern for a REAL Orthodox Summit that may never take place.
Bla, bla, bla, bla! Talk, talk, talk! Back and forth—and we’re not looking at the big elephant in the room.
If we look closely we can see two major predators in the water that can render all this discussion a moot point. The first Great White is the Catholic Church with its own territorial concerns, circling around a wounded, fragmented Orthodox Church. Not far behind, in darker waters, lurks a bigger Great White called Islam. And as Will Rogers would say, “If one doesn’t get you, the other one will!”
The Politics of Religion—Take I
The Orthodox of a common faith from14 different jurisdictions have been trying to find common ground to just begin talking about Orthodox unity for decades. Every initiative stalls and triggers innumerable obstacles that will continue to keep them apart indefinitely—especially if the Greek Orthodox leadership continues to stay away. One wonders what happened to the trust, the sense of fellowship and brotherhood among Bishops of the same faith! And please!, don’t bring up the canons! This is not about theology, it’s about turf; it’s about giving things up; it’s about accommodation; it’s about politics!
To show how it’s really done, Roman Catholic and Orthodox hierarchs gathered with facility on November 15, 2007 in Ravenna, Italy. They met, discussed and drafted a joint document “The Ravenna Document” which hopes to end the near 1,000-year separation between East and West. Whether church unity comes about is not the point. The fact is they met and signed a general understanding. That’s more than the Greek hierarchy has ever accomplished with its own sister churches! You just can’t help but wonder. Here we have two faiths officially separated since 1054 by the doctrine of infallibility and that infamous, incomprehensible theological bugaboo the Filioque Clause of the Creed. Both Pope Leo IX and Patriarch Cerularius unceremoniously excommunicated each other. Was it really theology or power politics?
According to Ruth Gledhill of TIMESONLINE, Pope Benedict XVI envisioned a restored unified Christian church in which the Pope would be the most senior Patriarch among the Orthodox churches. He also acknowledged unification would create some limitations to papal authority, reducing his absolute power.
Historically, the Bishop of Rome has always been looked upon as the first among hierarchs. Scholars agree this is reasonable since Rome was the capital of the Roman Empire. And when Constantinople became the Second Rome, its Bishop enjoyed the second spot in rank. Forgive me for bringing up the canons, but it’s important to know; this command structure can be found in the third canon of the Second Ecumenical Council held in Constantinople in 381.
For the Patriarch of Constantinople (Istanbul), this union can provide the necessary support and resources for survival in a Muslim world and perhaps restore the Holy City to its former magnificence. The Greeks and “Phanariotes” must be salivating at the prospect of restoration of religious freedom in Anatolia. They’re already envisioning graduates from the Theological School in Halki as well as Liturgy at Hagia Sophia!
The Politics of Religion—Take II
Of course, serious problems are bound to surface. None of these dreams will see the light of day if the Turks have their way. The Ottoman conquest of Asia Minor over 500 years ago slammed the door shut on Christianity, locked it and threw the key away. Do you think they would stand for an East-West Christian Church to take root again in the region? Don’t bet on it! Turkey is 99.5% Sunni Muslim, and they aim to keep it that way! The .5% of Christians is their contribution to religious diversity—and getting smaller!
The Turkish government will most certainly feel threatened if the Patriarchate is buoyed by outside support not seen in its history of captivity. Indeed, the Latin connection will conjure up images of the infamous Crusades—and the region may heat up again!
And then we have the monastics at the Holy Mountain in Greece. They’re still reeling with outrage from the Pope’s visit to the Patriarchate and Greece just several years ago. And now they have to imagine concelebrating and breaking bread with the Catholics? For them this is unimaginable! So, if you hear cups rattling in the cupboard or feel any earth tremors, they must be coming from the Holy Mountain in the Halkidiki Peninsula. And the monks are probably turning and tossing in their Spartan beds hoping the image of the Pope wearing an Omophorion is just a bad dream. And this can slowly turn into a nightmare when the Orthodox Church in most of the world becomes an obscure cult and vanishes into the pages of history. Their focus on monasteries in the U.S. is an admission the church isn’t doing the job. Perhaps this is their response to Modernism thrusting a final dagger into the heart of church evolution in America.
History shows us time and again, extraordinary conditions call for extraordinary alliances. The Orthodox Faith is almost extinct in the Middle East and weakening elsewhere while the Catholic Church is taking a beating in Europe and Asia. Orthodox unity should have happened 50 years ago along with an independent Patriarchate in America. But it didn’t! If politics still rules the day, it seems there’s more hope in an East-West alliance. Yes, there’s more light there than wasting time trying to unite the Orthodox whose common faith doesn’t seem to be strong enough to transcend ethnic differences—even for survival!
In a sea of over six billion people, almost one third are Muslims. And if just 1/2% of them are radical, that’s millions of potential Jihadists hell-bent on destroying Christianity.
Let’s not forget, it only took 250,000 communists to control millions of people in the Soviet Republics. And in the years ahead, it’s going to take a great deal more than just Orthodox Unity to preserve Christianity.
Steven P. Stamatis has published numerous articles on ethnic and religious issues in magazines and newspapers. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Liberal Arts from the University of Illinois and a Master’s Degree in English from De Paul University. He is a former student of the Greek Orthodox Seminary in Brookline, MA. Chicagoan Stamatis is retired from industry and enjoys writing most of his time. He is the author of The Janissary Factor.