The first steps have been taken by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to fix a grave error that he, himself, initiated more than two decades ago. It should be a positive sign to our community that this longest-serving Patriarch in history is adaptable and willing to set the course of the Church on the right path.
It was 1994, in a small town called Ligonier, outside Pittsburgh, when then Archbishop Iakovos of North and South America convened a meeting of all Orthodox Christian hierarchs in America— to take the first steps of establishing more Orthodox cooperation between the thirty some bishops in America at that time.
A daunting task to bring together Russians, Romanians, Greeks, Arabs and other ethnic Orthodox Christians— including an already established “Orthodox Church in America” which itself had evolved from Russian roots and sought to become an independent “American” Orthodox Church.
Bartholomew saw this move as a threat to his authority and supremacy and implemented a plan, including the forced retirement of Iakovos and an administrative shake-up that still has reverberations today.
With the retirement of Archbishop Iakovos in 1996, his empty throne– which comprised an expansive geographic jurisdiction of the entire Western Hemisphere– was divided into a dozen separate, independent territories, each reporting directly to Constantinople.
Some saw this as a classic “divide and conquer” move by Bartholomew, who acted quickly to break up— but more importantly— to prevent any future archbishop from having such a powerful role that could some day lead to the creation of an independent Church.
In the case of the United States— Bartholomew further dissected the country into eight Metropolises (Boston, Pittsburgh, New Jersey, Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago, Denver and San Francisco)— each reporting to him directly— and one Archdiocesan District, under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop.
As a result of Bartholomew’s dissection, the Archdiocese was in essence no longer one organic entity, the Archbishop of the Church in America had no real authority or governance in the affairs of each Metropolis, except in the parishes of the direct Archdiocesan District.
What followed over the next two decades under a weak Archbishop and still today, was a weakening central authority in New York— called the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, with little or no authority to effectively govern a “national” church.
Instead, Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh and all of the other Metropolises all run themselves like their own ecclesiastical kingdoms with little or no oversight from the Archbishop, or Archdiocese.
And the Archdiocese, and by extension the Archbishop, has little or no authority over any of their affairs or can’t even implement much of a national strategy or vision, for that matter.
A great example of the decentralization of power happened during the early stages of the pandemic when faithful throughout the nation needed direction from the Church on how to handle issues like church closures, distribution of Holy Communion and funerals of loved ones.
The Archdiocese, under the guidance and at the insistence of Archbishop Elpidophoros acted responsibly and quickly, implementing a national strategy, utilizing technology to build an expansive web portal with area-specific regulations delineated by zip code that listed government restrictions and other important information.
The Archdiocese also created an exhaustive and well-thought out plan on how Churches should handle re-opening (when allowed) and more importantly for the faithful— how parishes could safely administer Holy Communion.
The response— practically every Metropolis ignored the Archdiocese’s recommendations. Many metropolitans openly defied the Archbishop’s advice— and one (now-former) Metropolitan even called the communications coming from Archdiocese headquarters “un-canonical.”
The coronavirus pandemic openly exposed the weakness of the national church and the Archbishop’s inability to impart a national strategy for such a major issue.
And if it was so hard to impart a national strategy or vision for such a major crisis like a health pandemic— imagine the Archdiocese’s weakness in trying to speak as a national church on other critical social issues, Greek national issues or matters pertaining to the religious freedom of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
Imagine, as well, the difficulty in trying to manage dozens of internal and existential matters that all Churches are dealing with in the contemporary era, including mixed marriages, youth participation, Greek language education, and so many more ministry challenges.
The Greek Orthodox Church in America is at a critical juncture as it approaches its 100th anniversary since its founding and we are fortunate to have in Archbishop Elpidophoros, a capable and experienced hierarch, who immediately upon his arrival in the United States, thrust himself into American life, taking bold actions to rebuild the bruised credibility of the national church.
One of his first official acts was to visit Washington DC to officially present himself as the new leader of the million+ Greek Orthodox Christian community in this country to the President of the United States.
He also brought together donors and helped create “Friends of St. Nicholas” to focus on completing the only house of worship that was destroyed on 9/11 and an open sore left from the previous administration of the Archdiocese and an issue that had national impact.
Shortly thereafter, at a religious conference of Greek Orthodox stewards in Florida, the Archbishop made the bold public declaration that he believed that non-Orthodox Trinitarian Christians who were married in the Greek Orthodox Church should be allowed to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion.
Months later the Archbishop appeared at a Black Lives Matter protest in Brooklyn, diving head-on into a major American conflict and asserting the American Church’s position on matters of racial injustice.
And while all of this was going on, the Archdiocese— under Elpidophoros’ direction came up with a plan to directly address the needs of those impacted the most by the pandemic, with the establishment of a $600,000+ relief fund to assist families, and a $450,000 fund to support parishes throughout the country who have lost income from cancelled services and other fundraising activities.
Elpidophoros has also tackled other important, internal church matters, like the considerably underfunded priests’ pension fund which had been mismanaged over the past two decades, and the resuscitation of a Theological seminary that is on life support, also because of past mismanagement.
Elpidophoros had a rough first year and was thrust into the American reality— abruptly. He took the necessary steps to act as an Archbishop, tending to his national flock and attempt to implement a national strategy— despite the limitations of the current structure of the Archdiocese, which left him practically powerless outside New York.
No one knows what’s in Bartholomew’s mind or what he’s planning to do to right the wrongs of 20 years ago when he split up the American Church.
But the signs are telling with the recent announcements about the re-writing of the Archdiocese charter and disciplinary actions taken against two American Metropolitans who were both perceived as insubordinate to the Patriarch’s chosen man in the United States.
There is a new opportunity to rebuild a centralized national church with a single vision, run by a leader who has already proven himself as capable and worthy to govern the largest eparchy of the Ecumenical throne.
It’s time to reclaim our glory of a strong unified voice in the American mainstream.
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