Archbishop’s repute plummets

Toward the end of the 1990s, the change of leadership in the Church of Greece signaled the dawning of a new era in its influence on society. The «return» to the Church that occurred during this period was triggered by many factors: by a sense of national insecurity; the resurgence of national identity; the outcome of the wars in the Balkans; the failures of the European Union; the deterioration of ties with Turkey; the social fears provoked by an influx of immigrants; as well as the gradual public disillusionment with the post-dictatorship policy. As a result, the renewal marked by the succession of Archbishop Serapheim by Christodoulos – on April 28, 1998 – coincided with the increased ideological and social appeal of the Church, which it ultimately boosted. Succession It is a well-known fact – and this applies to all institutions – that a change of leadership almost always has a positive impact on the public image of the institution and usually revitalizes it. Following a period of non-representation or weak representation – by Serapheim – the Church of Greece had finally acquired a face – and one that possessed a particular adeptness at handling the media. The upgrading of the Church’s ideological discourse, which Christodoulos’s leadership achieved in a very brief period of time, and the communication with all social classes (which had never existed before) led many to believe that the time had finally come for the Church to adopt a new, wider-ranging role and to participate in political developments on the domestic level. However, the overestimation of the Church’s abilities at the time could also go some way toward explaining the current crisis we are witnessing. Early years Without a doubt, Christodoulos was all powerful for the first two years after his succession, receiving virtually universal acceptance from all levels of society. The archbishop’s involvement on the political stage reached its peak with the debate in June 2000 about whether to include citizens’ religious beliefs on identity cards. The Church organized rallies in Athens and Thessaloniki and circulated a petition for a referendum which eventually did not happen. One of the biggest political mistakes of Costas Simitis’s administration was its decision to clash with the Church over the matter of ID cards – an issue which was ultimately shifted to the symbolic level of religious conviction and national identity. But the political clash between the Church and the previous PASOK government, and the polarization created by this, caused some serious damage to the Church’s public image. Current crisis The current crisis the Church is going through is probably the most serious in its modern history. The consolidation of the Church’s role and its ability to intervene on a political and social level is being seriously questioned. As is borne out by the findings of opinion polls, the people’s trust in the Church has been seriously impaired. And the crisis has also had a very serious effect on the personal popularity of Christodoulos, who appears to be at the lowest point of his seven years as archbishop. Indeed, for the first time, negative opinions about him appear to outweigh the positive. The spectacular fall in his popularity – a drop of 25 percentage points compared to May 2004 – is unprecedented. This is particularly true if one considers that we are not talking about the leader of a political party but an institutional official who is the face of a non-political and non-representative institution. We can grasp the extent of the damage that has been caused if we compare his current popularity to that he enjoyed in 1999, shortly after his appointment. Indeed, his popularity has been virtually halved. However, the crisis is also one in the Church’s leadership, which appears to be supremely clumsy in its attempts to contain it. Initially, senior churchmen ignored the crisis, then they took refuge in conspiracy theories. They were awkward in their appearances on television and generally unable to handle their involvement with the mass media, which resulted in serious damage to their public image. But it is not only the clerics’ ineptitude in crisis management that is notable. It is also their inability to provide convincing responses to a tide of revelations and to respond to the public’s call for transparency and a purging of corruption. Only major internal changes can alleviate the consequences of the current crisis. (1) Yiannis Mavris is the president and managing director of the VPRC polling institute.