GENUINE GREEK ORTHODOX KOINOTIKOI
The (unnecessary) dichotomy between Church and Communities has served to define and define the Greek organised presence in Australia. Greek Community organisations are constituted and given legal existence and regulation by the laws of the dominant ruling group in Australia. Adopting Vassilacopoulos and Nicolacopoulou’s analysis, the ruling group seeks to legitimise its power over a country that does not intrinsically belong to it, by abrogating to itself the right to define the manner in which other minorities that it has allowed to be here, relate to it. The Greek Orthodox Church on the other hand, is governed by a set of canons so venerable, that they comprise the deliberations of the Apostles, along with those of the Ecumenical Councils, held during Byzantium. Furthermore, they have been applied, all around the world and in diverse circumstances, for two thousand years.
Had Hellenism been a purely racial, national or cultural phenomenon for the Greeks of Australia, then perhaps the conceptions of these would have been seen as mutually exclusive and thus they could co-exist without friction. However, the dichotomy between them is blurred. Ever since the fall of Byzantium, when the Greek Orthodox Patriarch was seen as the head of the Rum millet, and was made responsible to the Sultan for its behaviour, as well as the church’s role in retaining a Greek Orthodox identity among its adherents, the Church has in the popular consciousness, become synonymous with Hellenism.
It is this equation between Orthodoxy and Hellenism that created a historical anomaly in Australia. Secular organisations were incorporated according to Australian law whose task was to safeguard the Greek identity. Invariably, one of their first endeavours was to build a church, proving the inextricable link, in their minds, between Orthodoxy and Hellenism. The Greek Orthodox Communities that arose, are symptomatic of this way of thinking.
Though these Communities are aberrations of a time when communication with the motherland and ecclesiastical authorities was difficult and the Greek community was small, (in Melbourne, we conned the Syrians, Bulgarians and Lebanese to help us build our first church and after we built it, we kicked them out), they give rise to problems. Secular organisations, especially those run by lay community members with no experience or knowledge of the complexities and intricacies of ecclesiastical law and tradition should not purport to administer churches. Had this been a stop-gap arrangement until such time as proper ecclesiastical authorities were able to establish themselves in this country, then this would have been acceptable. However, upon the establishment of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia, these secular communities refused to cease claiming a right to dabble inexpertly in religious affairs.
Consequently, for much of our history as an organised presence in this country, secular communities have purported to run the churches they held as assets like clubs, or investment properties, contrary to the intention of their founding fathers. In doing so, they have neglected many other facets of community life that are vital to the development of a healthy community, especially in the sphere of welfare, culture and most importantly, cohesion and goodwill. Essentially then, this is a ‘turf war,’ where secular communities want to ‘play Church’ simply because they own Churches and the Greek Orthodox Church does not want them to play church. On occasion, the Greek Orthodox Church also sees itself as the peak representative of the Greeks of Australia, understandable historically, though, in today’s diverse and fragmented post-modern society, possibly debatable. The result of this turf war has been bitterness and a dysfunctional community. The obvious, that religious organisations should deal with religion and that secular organisations should deal with everything else escapes us, simply because many of us, rather than seeing the Church as a body that expresses a conviction about Christ, see it as a cultural organisation that can be used as a pawn for power-play in community politics. That in itself, is sick.
In Adelaide and in Sydney, some Greek Orthodox Communities, not being able to achieve a modus vivendi with the Archdiocese that would permit them to dabble in Orthodox religious affairs, eventually went ahead and formed their own autocephalous ‘church’, not in communion with any other canonical Orthodox church, under a defrocked cleric, Pavlos Laios. For these lay members of the community, ecclesiastical teachings about the importance of unity and communion were if not unknown, then certainly sacrificed to the cause of secular power. As a result, what are effectively for the canonical Church, ‘mock’ sacraments performed in these autocephalous ‘churches’ are not recognised by the Greek state. Further, a deep chasm separates the Greeks of these regions, according to their ecclesiastical affiliation, something that is reprehensible.
There are of course two sides to every story but the clincher for me is the fact that the directors of the Greek Orthodox Community of South Australia seem to display a complete lack of ignorance of the tenets and canons of the Orthodox Church, something that renders them, as lay–people, ineligible to purport to govern a church. I remember reading a newsletter of the SA Community a few years ago, where its president professed respect and adherence to the Ecumenical Patriarchate as spiritual leader and then went on paradoxically to thank the defrocked Laios, ‘head’ of the ‘Autocephalous Church,’ as his archbishop. Speaking, around about the same time, to a member of the Tasmanian Community, which had just separated itself from the Archdiocese, I was amazed to discover that the Tasmanians who had engineered the split over administrative issues, had no idea of the concept of apostolic succession, or of the unity of the Orthodox Church, under the Ecumenical Patriarchate. They seemed to believe that having found someone who could parrot the liturgy, they could purport to be a legitimate Orthodox Church. The fact that they were willing to split from the Church, not on questions of doctrine or teaching but merely because of operational problems, and make up a new ‘church,’ seemed gravely disquieting. It reminded me of the myriad of Greek regional organisations that split form each other for exactly the same reasons and exist in parallel and multiplicity to plague and fragment our presence as an entity here. That may be permissible, though in the long run harmful when dealing with petty intra-community politics but shouldn’t we afford the sacred greater respect? What kind of people are we, really?
The latest announcement by the Federation of Greek Orthodox Communities of Australia that they now seek to submit to the jurisdiction of the Old Calendarist Genuine Orthodox Christian Church can therefore only be viewed with derision. This fundamentalist ‘church’ which exists in about four different forms, none of which recognise each other in Greece, has had a chequered history. In 2004, its church here in Melbourne, left the jurisdiction of one of its bishop’s, citing allegations against him that he had tried to seduce a young man. The ‘church,’ is not in communion with the canonical Orthodox Churches, because it opposes the adoption of the New Calendar by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1924.
The Federation does not give two hoots about the adoption of the Old Calendar. As the Federation’s President, Theo Maras stated: “This is a canonical church, recognised in Greece. Its sacraments are recognised by the Greek state and since it is a canonical Church, representatives of the Greek government can visit them. Thus, our problems are over.” In order words, in its shopping for jurisdiction, it has found a more convenient one, with greater benefits than the autocephalous construct it has constructed, giving its revered ‘primate’ Pavlos, an ultimatum: Join us or be discarded.
So much for the Federation’s religious convictions (and expertise) then. A church is not canonical because a state recognises its existence. The Greek government also recognises the Catholic Church in Greece, along with its sacraments, as valid for legal purposes. It is the Orthodox Church in its entirety that recognises a church as one of its own or not, according to its own canons. In making such statements, the Federation is exposing itself, for what it is: a disingenuous secular entity that seeks to play church. The Genuine Orthodox Church also displays a lack of conviction by accepting adherence to the New Calendar among its potential new parishioners. This is strange given the erstwhile strictness of this church. Is it the prospect of possessing more parishes that encourages it to be more ‘flexible’?
The prospect of having parallel religious leaders purporting to propagate the same doctrines is a stupid and immature one. In a community already polarised by ego and politics, where the vast majority of its constituents are not represented by the existing ageing organisations, the last thing we need is another unnecessary ecclesiastical controversy, borne of ignorance and vested interests. Whether or not one believes in the doctrines of religious organisations, they should be respected, not parodied and cloned when their existence does not suit us. The Federation of Greek Orthodox Communities has displayed its fundamental moral bankruptcy in considering submitting to an uncanonical ‘church,’ for secular reasons. Its members, and the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne, which has established a workable arrangement with the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia, the sole canonical Greek Orthodox Church in Australia, should call it to account and abandon it. Maybe a few words from He who they claim to represent, may offer guidance: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”