Patriarch and primate are on collision course

Newspaper reports of the latest chapter in the rift between the Church of Greece and the Ecumenical Patriarchate bear headlines such as «complete deadlock,» «zero hour,» «casus belli» and «shortly before the final rift,» after the Patriarchate rejected a recent decision by the Church of Greece Hierarchy (council of bishops) claiming the final say in the appointment of prelates to sees in northern Greece over which the patriarchate claims spiritual jurisdiction. In fact, the way bishops are elected in these New Territories, in other words who will have the upper hand in the sees of northern Greece, has resulted in unforeseen developments on both sides, which might even include an eventual schism. Protagonists in this unprecedented conflict are naturally the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Christodoulos and Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios. A reading of their latest announcements might lead to the conclusion that the chasm between them is unbridgeable. Kathimerini talked to observers of Church affairs to try and find how things had come to such a pass between the two churches. They all seemed to agree that the main reason for the apparent deadlock is the way the issue has been handled by the powers-that-be. On the surface, the government has been washing its hands of the issue for the past few months, simply reiterating its desire for the Church to find its own solution. Meddlesome priest Yet it is common knowledge that right back when Archbishop Christodoulos raised his objections to the removal of the mention of religious affiliation from the new identity cards and showed he was capable of causing serious political problems for the government, the latter embarked upon a behind-the-scenes attempt to «annihilate» him. The initial idea was to cut Christodoulos out of the pro-government media – press and above all television – which until then had hung on the archbishop’s every word, to the point of broadcasting scenes from his Sunday services simply because he raised the ratings. When that did not have the desired result, and Christodoulos continued to broadcast his views via the Church radio, those responsible for communications policy pulled out an even more powerful weapon – the exploitation of the challenge to his authority from a minority of bishops within the Holy Synod. The press was bombarded by interviews with certain members of the Hierarchy who not only criticized the archbishop for his ecclesiastical policies but on a personal level. The goal was clear – to demolish, from within the Church, his popularity as a new religious leader who enjoyed the support of the masses. Whenever there had been in-fighting within the Church in the past, bishops had kept things quiet. Now the disputes are making headlines, helped by what is generally viewed as excessive, and for some annoying, self-aggrandizement on the part of Christodoulos himself. Yet even that has not been enough to stem the influence which, according to the polls, Christodoulos exerts on a major sector of the population. He himself is clever enough not to reply to his critics directly but to make use of other bishops – from his own coterie – who claim the attacks are personally motivated. This is how the idea emerged of using the most powerful weapon of all against the Primate of the Church of Greece: recruiting the equally popular Ecumenical Patriarch as the troublesome archbishop’s archrival. As the patriarch would never agree to such tactics, naturally, his involvement in the demolition of Christodoulos’s popularity was achieved in a somewhat underhand fashion. According to some of the cooler heads in the Church who talked to Kathimerini, the issue of the 1928 Patriarchal Act (that granted the Church of Greece autonomy, but left the Patriarchate with authority over parts of Greece that were liberated from the Turks after 1912) was raised suddenly. The archbishop had to take a clear stand over the kind of jurisdiction he was claiming in the New Territories. At the same time, certain well-intentioned people apparently let the patriarch know he had the full support of the State in his own interpretation of the 1928 act, the very same people who assured him that he would have the full support of all the bishops in the New Territories at the crucial session of the Hierarchy, where just the opposite occurred. Vartholomaios’s involvement was precipitated by the death of the bishop of Thessaloniki, whose replacement had to be chosen by means of a particular procedure that is still inflaming passions on both sides. Strenuous efforts If that is indeed the way things happened, the government might want to examine its own choices in future, irrespective of whether these are officially made known. For it seems that it is now up to Christodoulos to decide whether to call elections in the sees of Thessaloniki and Eleftheroupolis, completely ignoring the Patriarchate’s interpretation of the procedure. The interpretation of the 1928 Act which the patriarch has invoked in order to have the final say in the list of candidates for the post of bishop may have been incorporated into the Greek Constitution, but a 1977 law is clear, and it is on that which the Hierarchy has based its own latest ruling. According to this particular law (which Vartholomaios is challenging), the State’s role is restricted to simply issuing presidential decrees ratifying, strictly as a formality, the selection of bishops in the New Territories, that is, adopting without question the wishes of the Hierarchy, where Christodoulos continues to enjoy the support of the majority. If this happens, it will not only result in a split between the Patriarchate and the Church of Greece, but will severely strain – for the first time – relations between the government and the Patriarchate. This is obviously what is behind the anxiety apparent over the past few days among members of the government, who are suddenly making an all-out effort to defuse the crisis. But as the Bible says, he who sows the wind shall reap the whirlwind.