- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 11, 2002

A growing number of Greek Orthodox believers are protesting a proposed charter that could impose a top-down governance on the American church.

They are trying to make this charter the center of debate at the summer Clergy Laity Congress of the church, arguing that the proposal has been railroaded through quietly at the request of the Greek hierarchy overseas.

"We're asking for an open discussion," said Peter Marudas of Orthodox Christian Laity (OCL), a caucus in the church. "The congress is supposed to authorize changes in a governing charter, and it never did."

The church's current charter organizes Greek Orthodoxy under a U.S. archbishop who works with a voting clergy-laity congress.

But the proposed new charter, critics say, weakens the archbishop and congress and gives more control to Orthodox leaders abroad.

The request to have an open debate at the Los Angeles congress over the July 4 holiday was an issue before the closed session yesterdayof the church's top executive body, the Archdiocesan Council.

"There is a serious flaw in the procedural aspect of the presentation and consideration of the proposed charter," the Rev. John T. Tavlarides, dean of St. Sophia Cathedral in Washington, wrote to the council recently.

"Clergy and lay participation must not be diminished," he said. "Regrettably, we cannot accept the proposed charter as it now exists."

Deans at cathedrals in Baltimore, Boston, Houston, Oakland, Calif., Hempstead, N.Y., and Birmingham, Ala., also have criticized the lack of open discussion.

The protest has been joined by 33 priests in Pittsburgh and more than 30 parishes nationwide, and OCL activists put $70,000 into mailings to church households.

OCL President Peter Haikalis said the congress' theme of offering the "Orthodox faith to contemporary America" clashed with the nondemocratic way of revising the power structure of U.S. Orthodoxy.

In a statement, he said the effort by some church leaders here and abroad was an "attempt to impose a regressive and authoritarian document upon us."

The new charter is seen as the most recent attempt by church leaders overseas to keep influence in American church life. The spiritual leader of Greek Orthodoxy is Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who lives under restrictions in Istanbul. The church hierarchy in Greece also hopes to keep strong financial, cultural and political ties with believers in the United States.

Many Greek Orthodox here, however, believe that "autonomy" for the church in America would revitalize the ancient tradition and allow cooperation with Orthodox groups of other ethnic backgrounds.

"Eastern Orthodoxy has no pope," Mr. Marudas said. "This charter would be a cardinalization of our church in America."

In other words, he said, it would give Patriarch Bartholomew popelike powers to intervene through his bishops, called metropolitans, much as Rome intervenes through cardinals.

Archbishop Demetrios, who was appointed by Istanbul as spiritual leader in America more than two years ago, is well-liked by believers, Mr. Marudas said.

But the archbishop's challenge is to bridge the concerns of the hierarchy in Istanbul and Greece with the concerns of the American membership.

"We need to request from Istanbul changes in the charter," Mr. Marudas said. "But they cannot do it unilaterally."

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