Monday, March 14, 2005


"In order for there to be true cleansing, all of us bishops should resign. And then we should go and drown ourselves" Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Zakynthos.

The recent media furore in Greece over allegations of corruption within the Greek Church has scandalized and disillusioned believers while simultaneously delighting its opponents. Indeed, the affairs of the Church of Greece read like a spy thriller or a Byzantine Court chronicle. All the great elements are there, skullduggery, espionage, international incidents, embezzling and deep plotting. While the allegations of certain individuals' misdeeds are mind-blowing as is the mounting pressure for a separation of Church and State, what is even more so mind-blowing, is that their existence is couched, for better or worse in historical precedent.
For better or for worse, the Greek people Church and State and almost always been synonymous, with Church affairs being at the forefront of State concern, ever since Christianity's inception. It was Constantine and the Roman Emperors after him who had authority to call Ecumenical councils and much of the reigns of the early Emperors were spent in determining policies that would identify and attempt to root out heresy, Constantine condemning the Arians for example and Justinian the Monophysites. As the Patriarchate of Constantinople increased in importance and assumed the title of "Oecumenical," a remarkable legitimizing synergy between Emperor and Patriarch emerged, especially in the time of Photius, where the Emperor, the embodiment of the State ruled by the Grace of God and was God's representative on earth, while it was incumbent upon the Church to ensure that the Emperor indeed ruled in accordance to God's precepts. This gave the Church some ability to censure or even attempt to remove ungodly Emperors, as in the case of Constantine IV. It is therefore difficult to clearly perceive definable limits between Church and State and these would be clouded even further at the Council of Florence in 1439 when the Emperor John Palaiologos himself headed a delegation to the Papists and despite the opposition of his more enlightened clerics, almost singlehandedly arranged the re-union between the Orthodox and Roman Churches.
So ingrained within the psyche of not only the Greeks but those who came into contact with them was the synthesis of Church and State, that the Ottoman Sultans declared the Oecumenical Patriarch to be the head of the "Rum millet" or Christian 'nation.' Christians were henceforth to be tried in their own courts, liable to pay certain taxes to their hierarch while at the same time, the Oecumenical Patriarch was to be directly answerable to the Sultan for his flock's behaviour. This arrangement had two lasting effects upon the Greek nation. It reinforced upon the Greek people and the Orthodox Church, the idea that the Church is synonymous with the nation. Indeed, when one takes a look at history, it is impossible to state otherwise. Our history books display Bishop Germanos declaring the Greek Revolution in Patra, Bishop Dionysios 'Skylosophos' of Trikki leading a revolt against the Turks and being flayed alive for it in the 17th century, Bishop Evgenios Boulgaris valiantly attempting to build schools to educate the Greek people, St Kosmas the Aetolian spreading Hellenism throughout the Balkans while in popular legend, κρυφά σχολία were conducted furtively by a priest. And we do not need to look far into the past to realize how inextricably linked the Orthodox Church is to the emergence and survival of the Greek nation. Metropolitan Germanos Karavangelis of Kastoria was instrumental in ensuring that at least part of Macedonia was retained for the Greek people, Metropolitan Spyridon Vlachos, later Archbishop of Greece was instrumental in the declaration of the autonomy of Northern Epirus, while ethnomartyr Chrysostom of Smyrna so identified himself with his Greek flock that he refused to abandon it during the terrible days of the Smyrnan genocide of 1922, and delivered himself to the Turkish mob, which tore him apart. In the most extreme example of the existing synergy between Church and State, look no further than Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus, not only a hierarch but widely regarded also, as an "ethnarch."
The Ottoman arrangement also had another major effect. Whereas in Byzantium, clergy were constantly kept in check by the strong opinions of a public who was well-informed on ecclesiastical issues, this being a favourite Byzantine pastime, the easy transformation from helpmeet of the State to being "the State," caused upper clergy to become increasingly more remote from their flock. In order to keep their positions safe and viable not only from the Ottomans, who demanded huge bribes and resorted to extortion from the Church in order to fill their coffers, but also from other ambitious clergymen who had greater access to funds in order to bribe their way into high position, the Church became increasingly self-serving and jealous of its privileges. The high level of intrigue surrounding the Patriarchal Court at Phanari has become legendary and to some respects, is still alive in the Church of Greece's Holy Synod today. As the Ottoman arrangement stipulated the fine clothes and horses available to supreme hierarchs, so some hierarchs identified themselves not as the shepherd of their flock but its ruler, with all the accoutrements this implied.
This lasting legacy remains in the Church of Greece. When the Church of Greece was forcibly separated from the Oecumenical Patriarchate in 1833 by the entourage of King Otto, the gleeful bishops who made up the first synod suddenly found themselves as heads of a Church and ever since, some have come to behave more like άρχοντες than clergymen. Like naughty schoolboys indulging in pranks while their teacher is away, without the steady guide of the Oecumenical Patriarch, some of these prelates have indulged in financial or sexual scandals, surrounded themselves with the adulation of sycophants while contributing little to the spiritual welfare of believers. Instead they have become princes. Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens is a case in point. Instead of policing the antics of his hierarchs he has indulged in a demented quest to appear as a popular ethnarch, firstly by resorting in crass jokes in order to 'draw a crowd' and then by making embarrassing and often irrelevant partisan statements about Greek foreign or public policy to the chagrin of all but the most unenlightened. While there is nothing wrong with a prelate commenting on current affairs per se, Christodoulos has openly sided with political parties, derided important negotiations and attempted to polarise Greek society, especially during the identity card debacle, against itself. As a result, public respect for such worldly hierarchs has wavered. Interestingly enough, overall confidence in the Church still remains strong.
"May the hand of he who raises it against the Church wither," Christodoulos once dramatically declared. Yet instead of establishing controls for errant clergy, he has indulged in divisive polemics against the Oecumenical Patriarchate in his quest for obtaining more power, while a minority of preening prelates perpetrated pernicious peccadilloes, to the perplexity of the populace.
There is no doubt that given our history that the Greek people largely still cannot view the Church as anything but a helpmeet to the State and as synonymous with the ethnos. As such they have high expectations of the leaders of such an important institution. Yet with such power comes responsibility. Patriarch Gregory V knew this when he was slaughtered as a reprisal for the Greek revolution of 1821. Archbishop Makarios knew this when he was exiled to the Seychelles by the British for advocating the rights of Greeks in Cyprus and again when persecuted by the Junta for fighting for liberty. Archbishop Christodoulos bears no comparison and he should also realize that he cannot crave the temporal power and status he so desires by right but by popular respect and by grass roots interaction with the people. If the errant hierarchs of the Church of Greece purport to be the ethnos, then they have betrayed it. Perhaps they could take a leaf out of the Church experience of our community here in Australia. Though in keeping with the best of Byzantine tradition public opinions on it vary, it cannot be doubted that in keeping with the great social leveling experience that is Australia, our prelates do not set themselves above their flock, preening themselves and grasping for power but interact with them personally, are approachable and accountable and do make a lasting contribution to the retention of Hellenism here.
If there is a silver lining in this nebulous state of affairs, it is that the antics of a few errant hierarchs have not otherwise lessened the people's confidence in a Church whose charitable, missionary and philanthropic activity is vastly out of proportion with its miniscule size and which Church has earned the respect of the entire world. Tens of thousands of children in Africa owe their education, medical care and sustenance to appeals constantly made by the Church of Greece and it is to the people's credit that they can distinguish between a few bad apples and an extremely sound barrel. While some Greek despots may preen themselves as much as they wish and demand obeisance from sycophants, they have lost the respect of their deserving flock and their conscientious brother hierarchs. As the lost sheep that they are, it is time now that they return, humbled and contrite to their shepherd in Constantinople, accept his gentle guidance and set about fulfilling the righteous expectations of believers and the Church.

First published in NKEE on 14 March 2005