Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew suspended the Charter of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America in October 2020 at the behest of newly-enthroned Archbishop Elpidophoros. A new Charter will define the future relationship between the Patriarchate and Archdiocese. There is increasing alarm over the decline in the membership of the Archdiocese, which some surveys place at 20% over the past decade. These concerns are reflected in calls for Autonomy for the Archdiocese coming from more and more quarters.
The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America is the largest of the three main Orthodox groupings in North America that represent the bulk of the Orthodox faithful. The Antiochian Archdiocese has already gained Autonomy from Antioch, and the Orthodox Church in America was granted Autocephaly by the Moscow Patriarchate a half-century ago. Of these three, the Greek Archdiocese is the least self- governing. Successive Charters since the establishment of the Archdiocese, which is poised to celebrate its centennial in 2022, have diminished its self-governance and stifled its growth.
Autonomy for the Greek Archdiocese means that the clergy and laity of the Archdiocese elect their own bishops other than the primate Archbishop, who is elected by the Holy Synod of Constantinople from three nominees chosen by the Clergy-Laity Congress and submitted to Constantinople by the local Synod. It means that all decisions, including the basic documents such as the Charter, are made by the clergy and laity of the Archdiocese; except that decisions by the Holy Synod of Constantinople, in the following areas, are binding on the Archdiocese: doctrine, liturgy, sacraments, and ecumenical relations with other Orthodox Mother Churches and non-American non-Orthodox bodies. The Archbishop and the Synod under this autonomy must work together so that the actions of the Archbishop must be approved by at least two-thirds of the bishops of the local Synod.
Autonomy will strengthen the Archdiocese’s capacity for effective self-governance and ensure the stability of the Archdiocese and its continued flourishing in the future. Autonomy safeguards the canonical principle that local matters are handled locally. Allowing the selection of bishops for the Archdiocese whose life and work is known to the faithful here and who are familiar with the situation of the Church in the United States will help the Church grow. The Archdiocese has developed its own internal structures and institutions, which respond effectively to the cultural and political conditions in North America, while at the same time reflecting the Orthodox Church’s perennial norms for the well-ordered life of an autonomous local church.
If Constantinople decides to tighten rather than loosen its control over the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, the decline in the membership of the Archdiocese, which is already alarming, will only increase. Some will join the ranks of the unchurched, many will withdraw to the margins, and others will find homes in Antiochian or OCA parishes. Withholding Autonomy from the Church in America will increase mistrust of Constantinople and weaken both the Archdiocese and the Patriarchate. The suspension of the current Charter is a historic opportunity to correct course and straighten the path forward.
If granted true Autonomy, the Archdiocese would continue to maintain close ties, culturally and financially, with Constantinople, always mindful of its spiritual roots.
George D. Karcazes
Secretary, Orthodox Christian Laity
Member of the Archdiocesan Advisory Committee on the Charter