The Vicissitudes of the Twentieth Century

As was mentioned earlier, the twentieth century began with attacks on the translation of the New Testament into modern Greek and the official, albeit incomprehensible, prescription of the Greek state to be itself in control of the integrity of the text. Even the new and all-powerful star of Greek politics, Eleftherios Venizelos (1864-1936), was unable to introduce any reforms. During the tragic decade 1912-22 Venizelos found himself victim to his indecision and procrastination. Whereas he had the mandate with his absolute majority in 1910-11 to introduce constitutional changes, he opted for minor reforms in the relations between Church and state, or between various state institutions, such as the monarchy and Parliament. And yet even such cosmetic semi-reforms incited the wrath of the ecclesiastical and court establishments. The Church had gradually consolidated a functional modus vivendi with the aristocracy and the King; so Venizelos, who was always perceived as an intruder, by modernizing Greek power structures was questioning the two pillars of social cohesion, monarchy and Church. At the same time, the conflict went deeper as the ambitious King Constantine was presenting himself as the future emperor in Constantinople; the clash between Venizelos and the king was a conflict between civil society and religious monarchy: between Athens and Constantinople, democracy against theocracy.

During a deep political crisis that divided Greece regarding its participation in the First World War with either the English or the Germans, the Archbishop of Athens Theokletos (1848-1930) anathematized the popularly elected Prime Minister of the country in one of the most memorable events of Greek history, on 12 December 1916. In the central square of Athens, in front of an effigy of Venizelos made with the skull of a donkey and stones, he himself read the text of anathematization, in front of thousands of frenzied supporters:

Anathema to your family who profaned Greece with you; anathema to your father who gave you his seed; anathema to your mother who nurtured such a snake in her womb; accursed and wretched man! May you stay for ever in the darkness of our religion that you didn't respect; may no one be close to you and close your eyes when you die so that you keep your eyes open even when dead and see the country you have betrayed; anathema to your soul, anathema to the chaos you have created; anathema to your memory, anathema to all who remember you, anathema, anathema, anathema.

This incident shows beyond any reasonable doubt the main characteristic of the Greek Church: the complete and utter politicization of its structure.

One year later, Theokletos was replaced by Meletios Metaxakes (1871-1935) probably the most important and most controversial leader of the Church. Meletios, like his predecessor and all his successors, was a political appointment. The Synod simply accepted him as the Archbishop of Athens, after he had already been installed by the government. He was extremely active in inter-denominational dialogue, started official discussions with the Church of England, accepted the validity of Anglican ordinations and even discussed intercommunion with them. Like Loukaris, he saw in the Protestant Churches the natural and inevitable allies of Eastern Orthodox, especially under the very difficult position the latter found themselves in during the Greek-Turkish war of 1919-22, which ended with the Asia Minor catastrophe. Meletios was Archbishop of Athens for two short years (1918-20), and was replaced in turn by his predecessor, who was appointed by the king after his return to the throne. However, Meletios become the Patriarch of Constantinople and then the Archbishop of America, where he succeeded in unifying the various Orthodox Churches. In 1931, he led the Orthodox delegation at the Anglican conference in Lambeth, where his presence and theological acumen were deeply appreciated. He died the Patriarch of Alexandria, as probably the most individual and most misunderstood primate of the Church of Greece.

After 1922, a new era started for Greece. It was the first time that the overwhelming majority of Greeks lived in the same state; the concentration of people from various cultural and even linguistic backgrounds, who were connected with a loose common identity, had to be reinforced with common rituals and practices that would consolidate an otherwise shaky social stability. From 1922, the necessity for unifying strategies transformed the Church into one of the most powerful nation-building places within the state. The actual sacred space of the church gave a sense of belonging and of orderly time to the faithful, otherwise denied by the state apparatuses, which were totally unreliable and untrustworthy and thought by the common people to be responsible for the greatest catastrophe of Greek history.

The failure in Asia Minor made the dysfunctionality of the Greek state not simply obvious but also dangerous. Since civil society failed to evolve, the population turned to the atemporal permanence of the liturgy in order to impose cohesion and symmetry onto the chaotic political life of their society. In 1923 new negotiations between state and Church secured a commonly accepted plan of operation, which supposedly ended the domination of the state over the independence of the synodical structure. The state became the guarantor of the Church as long as the Church supported its policies; in exchange the Church would support the political establishment as long as it did not try to change the status quo between them. Since then, officially the Church actively supports all governments in power, if they do not fail to protect its interests from corrosion by giving away rights to religious minorities and other sectarian groups, or by permitting attempts to tax its immense property and assets.

In 1927, the Archbishop of Athens Chrysostomos (1868-1938) came close to declaring the Church under persecution when the first socialist minister tried to confiscate some of its land properties in order to settle the Asia Minor refugees in them. At the same time another demand surfaced which was later to become a state law: in 1947 all priests became public servants and their salary has been paid by the state in toto to this day. At the same time, with the notable exception of Chrysanthos (1938-41), the Church publicly endorsed the political ideology of the state, especially anti-Communism under General Metaxas (1936-41), even to the extent of blessing concentration camps after the Civil War (1947-49), and later of officially endorsing the 1967 dictatorship. The Church was extremely active in such constitutional aberrations and strongly supported the ensuing totalitarian regimes; its political involvement was deep and pervasive. In 1944, Archbishop Damaskinos (1890-1949), that 'scheming medieval prelate', according to Winston Churchill (Brendon 2001: 193), became Vice-Regent over a divided country; it was the apogee in the career of a metropolitan who had always dreamt of political power. Appointed irregularly when the previous Archbishop Chrysanthos (1881-1949) declined to preside over the swearing in of a government subservient to German occupation forces, Damaskinos stepped in without hesitation. But he proved to be an ambitious and brave individual, who protected the Jews of Athens and saved a large part of the population from starvation. In 1967 one of the first acts of the Colonels was to impose a new archbishop, Ieronymos (1905-89), because of his 'personal merit'. One of his first concerns was to extend the status of civil servant to all employees of the Church, something that the dictatorship was happy to oblige him with. After his fall, during an in-fight among the dictators, he claimed that he was not aware of any constitutional aberration in the country (a claim echoed by his then secretary and the archbishop, Christodoulos).

The change of guard within the ranks of the dictatorship in 1973 proclaimed the rather obscure metropolitan Seraphim (1913-98) as Archbishop of Athens and Greece. He happened to be from the same village as the head of the dictatorship. There were attempts after the restoration of the Republic (1974) to introduce constitutional changes in the relations between Church and state, but the pace was slow and extremely thorny. As Legg and Roberts note:

the alliances between clergy and politicians, whether at the local level or higher, are personal; they are clientelist in the same manner as those of other Greeks. Consequently, the church as an institution has little political power, although individuals within its may be well connected to those holding power. The church is perceived as the guarantor of traditional society; it is as opposed to modernisers today as it was in the early nineteenth century. (Legg and Roberts 199 7: 105)

As late as 2002 the Archbishop of Athens, Christodoulos, organized a political rally against a law proposed by the government that would remove a person's religion from identification cards. During the rally the Archbishop held in his hands the banner of the 1821 revolution (which had supposedly then been raised by the Bishop of Patras) and called for a popular campaign against those 'who want to divorce Orthodoxy from Greece'. Such strong political involvement makes any discussion about the separation of state and Church almost impossible to this day. Yet the demography of Greek society has changed dramatically since the collapse of Communism and the wave of legal and illegal migration it unleashed.

Until 1990, almost 97 per cent of the Greek population was Greek Orthodox; now this has gone down to 86 per cent, with a tendency to fall even further. It is now clear that not all Greeks are Orthodox and that many important people who contributed to the establishment of the social polity and popular culture were Greek but of Roman Catholic, Protestant or Jewish background, and that their faiths were important to them in their self-perception and personal identity. Furthermore it has become clear how, subtly and not so subtly, these people were excluded from official representations and never included in the official books of history and culture. The gradual opening up of the social body creates a deep cultural and political anxiety for the Church, which is afraid, not that it will lose the majority, but on the contrary that it will lose its monopoly on so-called 'Greekness', which is, according to this rhetoric, coterminous with the true and authentic Church of Christ.

Such alarmist discourse unfortunately dominates the way that the nation deals with the challenges of modernity and diversity. Since the mid-1980s a strong negative attitude has prevailed over Greek Orthodox cultural debates in the country; it expresses deep suspicion of the West and all ideas that are not 'ours', as a popular theologian has stated constantly. This previously 'liberal' and open-minded theologian Christos Yannaras, who in the beginning of his career wrote some extremely interesting books such as The Freedom of Morality, has moved towards conservative ideas of cultural insularism, Judeophobia and sterile anti-Americanism. By constantly revising the first edition of that book, and by publishing anti-western studies, Yannaras has developed what we could call the 'contamination model' (The Modern Greek Identity, 1978 and more specifically Orthodoxy and the West, 1983); according to him, everything that came from the West, starting with a translation of Thomas Aquinas' Summa in 1325, 'contaminated' the purity and the authenticity of Orthodox tradition; as a result the tradition has lost its centre and is living its final historical moments (Finis Graeciae, 1999). Products of such contamination, and its agents, are the Greek state itself and the educational system, which distort 'our authentic Greek self-consciousness' by disseminating the ideas of atheist Enlightenment people, of the 'lighteners', as he pejoratively, calls them.

According to him, everything that the West achieved, theologically or socially, was either wrong from a theological point of view or misleading about its appropriation of common early Christian tradition. Orthodox faithful had only to visit monasteries and attend liturgies in order to remain un-contaminated by western secularism, or to disinfect themselves from its influence. Other theologians gaining popularity through the media along the same lines, like Fr George Metallinos, identify Orthodoxy and Greek-ness racially, by stressing that only in the Greek language has Orthodoxy expressed itself in the most complete and immediate way (see Orthodoxy and Hellenism, 1987 and Traditional and Alienation, 1986, inter alia, by Metallinos). The rhetoric of the victim and of mournful victimization, constantly blaming external factors that interfere with 'us', is the most interesting psychopathological symptom of this approach, which characterizes people who feel marginalized but do not want to lose their marginality.

Furthermore, the marked opulence of church ceremonies, the expensive vestments, the absence of theological language and the sheer politicization of many social issues all show that the Church is gradually losing its organic popular or populist connection with the faithful and is becoming an autonomous organization which offers stable employment and secure income only to its workers. Within the context of the Greek participation in the European Union and the deep social, political and cultural crisis it created, this explains why there is no decrease in the number of ordinations every year in the country and why there is an increase of monastics. As a publicly funded organization the Church reinvests the money it receives, in this way contributing to the solution of the problem of rising unemployment; the fact that Church institutions are tax-exempted also shows how the state uses the Church in order to secure cohesion and stability. The wealth of existing funds enables the Church to invest in the building of more churches and in philanthropic organizations, thus facilitating cash flow, especially in periods of financial difficulties. So the link between Greekness and Orthodoxy goes beyond the realm of a common adventure in history or of a common language of self-articulation. In our day, it is a mutually beneficial financial arrangement which contributes heavily to the gross national income and solves crucial social problems.

In 199 7, the metropolitan of the northern city of Drama declined to read the last rites over a baptised Orthodox Christian because, as he stated, he 'was married in a civil ceremony which, according to the teaching of our Mother Church, is not only fornication and adultery but also violation of our doctrinal teachings about the sacraments'. In 1996, Greek Muslim citizens were denied the right to rebuild a collapsed minaret next to their mosque; the permission had to be signed by the local metropolitan (who of course rejected it). The same metropolitan stated that 'the Church has its own law, its specific legal system. . . . It cannot accept the legalisation of abortion or the de-penalisation of adultery together with any other anti-Evangelical or anti-Christian legislation of the state'. A prominent professor and constitutional expert, Nikos K. Alivizatos, points out that all these problems can be attributed to Article 3 of the Constitution, which, even after three revisions, declares that 'the predominant religion in Greece is the religion of the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ'. And he points out:

considering that the use of the present indicative in legal documents implies a normative content, the verb 'is' raises from time to time particular problems: according to one interpretation Orthodoxy not simply is but 'should be' the predominant religion in Greece. As has been observed, Constitutions, every constitution in their modern form, contain regulative norms and not simply descriptive statements. (Alivizatos 2001: 302)

The Church uses this ambiguity in order to control all possible challenges against its dominance and authority. And it uses it so effectively that no government thinks of renegotiating the modus operandi within the new social situation. The low educational level of most hierarchs, the exclusion of lay people from any decision-making process and the predominant inability to engage in a meaningful dialogue with religious minorities presently living in the country result in a kind of re-tribalization of Greek society. This brings about a looming social tension and imminent destabilization, a situation that the Church is supposedly there to counteract. The absence of any checks and balances within the Church through lay organizations means that all existing problems are not personal issues between one bishop and another; they are deep-seated structural problems which have created a defensive mentality of introversion and insularism and which will eventually reach their own threshold of resistance. The sociologist of religion Bryan R. Wilson has noted that for some traditions 'the only escape from "secular" pluralism is the retreat into gemeinschaftlich sects' (1966: 160). Unlike the trajectory of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which, under the leadership and vision of Athenagoras, gradually and under difficult circumstances, embraced ecumenical pluralism, the autocephalous Church of Greece has followed the path of becoming a regional and localized cult unable to explore and offer to others its own historical experience.

In the beginning of the twenty-first century, the autocephalous Church of Greece is becoming more trenchant and fanatical in its belief in its privileged singularity, constantly raising opaque defensive mechanisms against religious pluralism and alterity; and there are no signs on the horizon to show that the problem has been identified and measures have been taken to deal with it.

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