Source: Neo Magazine
A few years ago, a crisis erupted in the St. Irene “Monastery” in Astoria when the two bishops in charge, Paisios and Vikentios, started fighting and throwing mud at each other, employing some willing Greek American media and many of their mainly naïve, if not plainly stupid, acolytes. Soon the s*** hit the fan as the proverbial saying has it, the situation got out of hand and led – thank God – to the demise of both. This time, another war has erupted in our church, not exactly of the same kind and with two different main characters, but no less damaging for them and the flock. The “cold war” that the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been waging against Archbishop Demetrios in order to force him out has turned to an all-out assault that could end with both parties mortally wounded and the church as collateral damage.
The campaign against the archbishop is based on two main premises: mismanagement of the funds for the Saint Nicholas Church (aka Orthodox Disneyland) at Ground Zero; the archbishop’s advanced age that supposedly renders him unable to keep up with his duties.
Without getting into the details of the case, one cannot help but realize that the exact same premises, following the exact same logic, could be applied to the ecumenical patriarch!
Our church in America isn’t autocephalous, or independent (in fact its status is outright non-canonical and unorthodox). All the hierarchs, including the archbishop, are in title only, the ultimate authority rests with Constantinople. Now, this is like a “rhomphaea,” the Biblical double-edged sword, because if all the authority rests with you the same goes with the responsibility and accountability! Thus it is only fair, that the ones who so fervently are asking the archbishop to step down should ask the patriarch to step down as well! He’s the boss and he’s fully responsible for the alleged mess here. And the archbishop was his choice, not ours!
Not to mention the big scandal here, which is not so much the mismanagement of the funds, but the BUDGET for Saint Nicholas that started in Celsius and has since moved in Fahrenheit digits! Let me be clear, I’m not saying funds have been embezzled (although the suspicion looms large because there is …Ground Zero accountability) but for sure there has been wasted money here and there: it doesn’t take a genius to see that!
But I digress … The second main attacking point of the war against the archbishop is his advanced age which supposedly doesn’t allow him to cope with the demands of his office. That, of course, isn’t the case, as Demetrios in his 90s runs like a horse and he can recite you the Bible and all the holy scriptures by heart if you make the mistake to test him. His secret, besides praying, is that he eats very little, “like a sparrow” as those who know him say, and he doesn’t like Scotch (unlike his predecessor). But let’s for the sake of our discussion give credence to this argument. We all know that the patriarch is physically ill. It’s very unfortunate and sad, but it’s a fact. By the same logic, then, shouldn’t we ask the patriarch to step down and give his place to a younger and healthier hierarch who would be able to cope with the demands of the office in a more efficient manner?
Of course the answer in both cases should be and is NO! The church isn’t a company and the bishops aren’t CEOs that can come and go according to the immediate needs and popularity. Those who lightheartedly and irresponsibly employ these arguments are playing with the fire! Moreover, in our church sacking the archbishop tends to become a …tradition. Do you need me to remind you that the late Archbishop Iakovos was unjustly made to resign before his time (after he explored the possibility of autochephaly and the union of the Orthodox churches in America)? Then, his successor, Archbishop Spyridon was (rightly) pushed out. Don’t you think it too much if Demetrios met the same fate? And if we assume that the patriarch is right in his quest to have him removed, what should he (Bartholomeos) do after failing in such critical a choice of his making twice???
Going back to the allegedly mismanaged funds of Saint Nicholas: there has been so much misinformation and fake news around that it makes former communist regime campaigns of slander against members and dissidents alike pale by comparison! As a result a clear picture of the problem and its real dimensions is lacking. However, the archbishop, although with a slow start, did the right thing and appointed Michael Psaros to the herculean task of not only finding out what the problem is, but also creating a structure that would be based on some basic control and balances. An independent auditor was employed and certain mechanisms were placed in order for the same situation not to occur in the future.
Take into consideration that this archbishop found a mess when he assumed his duties and his main task, given by his patriarch, was to pacify and not to open new fronts. As a result, he did not place much attention to the archdiocese’s structure which even in Archbishop Iakovos’ times had started to resemble the Greek public sector. I’m not giving Archbishop Demetrios a free pass, but you need to judge his leadership within the particular circumstances–like everybody else, including the patriarch. Because if the Archdiocese in America is problematic, the Ecumenical Patriarchate is …ecumenically problematic.
And since they say follow the money, every year the parishes send hundreds of thousands of dollars to Constantinople. Add those millions that assiduously and to his credit Father Alex is collecting from private donors throughout the US. Did the Patriarchate ever issue an account as to where and how that money is spent as he should? Accountability and transparency should be thorough and throughout, not just about St. Nicholas. We are talking about people’s money and every penny should be accounted for!
More than money, however, the problems of the Mother Church in Constantinople are of an existential character. The Patriarchate doesn’t function as an independent entity, in a free country. Instead, its legal status is of a local Turkish religious institution, under the Turkish Ministry of Religious Affairs. The patriarch and his hierarchs have to deal with a regime that doesn’t think twice about manipulating its Muslim leaders and population, it has no qualms in squeezing and torturing benefits out of the Orthodox Church. Moreover, Turkey uses the Patriarchate to promote its image as a religious tolerant society, while it’s hardly that! Even for minor permits in order to repair churches, the local bishops have to bribe the authorities (usually by giving the officials in charge Rolex watches).
As if the Turkish state obstacles weren’t enough, the patriarchate functions not as a modern and open institution, but as a hermetic brotherhood that is afraid of everything and everybody, the result of centuries of existence under the Ottoman and now the neo-Ottoman yoke. Up until a few years ago, the Patriarchate had only one fax machine, which a metropolitan kept locked in his office! As if the rest of the metropolitans couldn’t call or send documents to Kalmoukos ….
For all these reasons and many more, it has become more than obvious that our church in the US could not and should not be in its current status, under the direct authority of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Autocephaly has been proposed time and again, most recently by Stathis Valiotis, who besides being a businessman, is a graduate of a Greek school of Theology. Hardly a …heretic! The arguments are strongly in favor. When the Patriarch is (rightly) contemplating to declare the Ukrainian Orthodox Church autonomous, like he did years ago with the Church of Estonia, it makes no sense to deny the same right to the Church of America, or Australia etc. Our forefathers fought bravely to get rid of the Ottoman yoke, why being forced under it as American citizens?
Autocephaly however, isn’t the only course of action and in my humble opinion not the ideal at this case. I would root for autonomy like the Church of Estonia which is under the Ecumenical Patriarchate but has her own synod and makes her decisions independently. That’s a formula that can be worked and adjusted so that our church here gets the freedom she needs, without at the same time estranging herself from the Mother Church which she can continue to support and look at for guidance. The benefit from such a development will be mutual, because if the Turks realize that the Patriarchate has no governing power over the American church they might finally leave it alone or be less bothersome.
Regarding Archbishop Demetrios, instead of being forced out, he should be respectfully approached and consulted in order to come to an agreement as to the time of his willing departure. We wouldn’t like him to die on the job! And he must be part of the process in choosing and grooming his successor. It will for sure lead to another Spyridon-like disaster if you appoint a younger archbishop out of the blue and ask him to walk through this artificial mess. And it’s unfair to have Demetrios step down as responsible for a blown out-of-proportion crisis. At least give him and his team the chance to clean house and then go in peace! Why humiliate him? What does that say for the Mother Church when she treats one of her hierarchs like that?
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P.S. For full disclosure purposes, NEO magazine has had only four (4) full page ads from the Archdicese in its 13 years history. For that we received $1,000 and they still owe us the last two ads, after a year and a half… Also, I don’t have any kind of relationship with Archbishop Demetrios. I don’t meet with him for tea or for spiritual guidance. He does very well to stay away from me and I’m more than happy to reciprocate.
Originally published on June 22, 2018.