The Greek Orthodox Church faces a battle over secularisation

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THERESA MAY is not the only public figure in Europe who is making a rearguard defence of a “historic” agreement about an ultra-sensitive matter that was struck behind closed doors and may not survive open debate among the interested parties.

Earlier this month it was reported that a landmark accord had been reached to secularise the most theocratically governed democracy in Europe, Greece. The bargain was sealed on November 6th between the country’s leftist and atheist (though not especially anti-religious) prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, and the head of the Greek Orthodox church, Archbishop Ieronymos. Today the archbishop was struggling to defend the accord before the bishops who make up his Holy Synod. It has been billed as the hardest moment in the 80-year-old cleric’s ten-year reign, and even a turning point in the 200-year history of the Greek state.

The deal is certainly an intriguing piece of political gamesmanship. One provision dominated the headlines: the country’s 10,000 or so priests would no longer be considered civil servants, with all the job security and pension rights that go with that status. Instead the state would pay the church an annual subsidy of €200m ($230m) a year, a sum that would not be affected by any change in the number of clerics. Over time, the need for such a subsidy would diminish. In what was described as a win-win arrangement, a large portfolio of properties, ranging from land to urban real estate, whose ownership had been disputed between church and state since the 1950s would be jointly managed for the benefit of both parties.

As part of the deal, the archbishop agreed that the church would not oppose some constitutional amendments proposed by the ruling Syriza party which water down, but by no means eliminate, the rights and privileges of the Orthodox religion. In one important change, article 3 of the constitution would begin with a new formula: “The Greek state is religiously neutral.” Yet the remainder of the article will still include plenty of old-time religion; the new text specifies inter alia that:

“The prevailing faith in Greece is the Orthodox Church, which is inextricably united with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and with every other Orthodox church….” 

Even if the mildly secularising amendments (which require approval from 60% of legislators in two successive parliaments) go through, the constitution would still begin with the sonorous words, “In the name of the Holy, Consubstantial and Indivisible Trinity…” These words reflect doctrinal principles about the nature of God, a single Deity in three Persons, which were hammered out by church councils in the fourth and fifth Christian centuries.

Nor would the amendments change the provision that the purposes of state education in Greece must include “the development of national and religious consciousness”. In practice this means celebrating both the glories of ancient Greece and the subtleties of Greek Orthodox teaching. Greece’s Humanist Union has denounced the changes as window-dressing and deplored the fact that humanists in other countries, like Britain, rushed to praise the deal.

The one thing that would definitely alter, under the proposals, is that the Archbishop of Athens would have more power over the church as a whole, and local bishops might have more power over the priests under their sway. But bishops seem untempted by any tactical advantage that the deal might give them. At the Holy Synod session on November 16th, they flatly rejected any change in the system of wage-payments to priests or other employees of the church. They said all other church-state matters (presumably including property and the constitution) could remain under discussion, and a new panel of bishops, priests and legal advisers should be appointed to offer their expertise. Two bishops walked out of the stormy discussion.        

So this was a fairly bad day for the archbishop, who had hoped to get the entire deal approved in principle. Another complication is that Archbishop Ieronymos does not have direct authority over the whole Greek Church. In Crete and the Dodecanese Islands, the church is directly under the aegis of the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch; across a big swathe of northern Greece, authority is shared contentiously between the Istanbul-based and Athenian hierarchs. Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul, who is fighting a separate battle with his Russian counterpart over Ukraine, has told the Syriza government that he must be consulted about any changes that affect clerics and faithful under his sway.        

Like almost everything else in Greece, debates over the future of the church are likely to be embroiled in left-right electoral politics.  Next year there will be a bitter contest between Syriza, presenting itself as the party which guided Greece out of austerity, and New Democracy, the centre-right opposition which includes a deeply traditionalist wing that often makes common cause with the church. Relations between the church and the political right have been strengthened recently as they joined in protesting against a deal made by the government over the name of the country’s northern neighbour. (They insist the government has made too big a concession in allowing the neighbour to call itself Northern Macedonia.)

Already, bishops are playing the patriotic card in opposition to the “secularising” proposals. Seraphim, the ultra-conservative bishop of the port of Piraeus has said church and nation need to stand together at a time when Greece faces geopolitical threats.

If Mrs May had been sitting on today’s episcopal shouting-match, she (a vicar’s daughter) would instantly have empathised with the hapless archbishop’s predicament.

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