American Orthodox Parishioners Seek Self-Governance

( [email protected] ) Feb 04, 2004 12:09 PM EST

Parishioners to the U.S. Greek Orthodox Church filed suit in New York to guarantee greater rights for the 1.5 million-member, nationwide network, Tuesday, Feb. 3.

The lawsuit, filed to the State Supreme Court, asks that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America follow its own charter to become more self-governing, rather than act under the complete direct jurisdiction of the Istanbul-based Eumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and his hierarchy.

Thirty-five plaintiffs from 17 states joined the suit, which says that the Greek hierarchy imposed a rewritten charter last year without approval from delegates at a national Clergy-Laity Congress, as required, therefore violating the old charter from 1978. The plaintiffs also say the 2003 charter erodes the power of the 50-member Archdiocesan Council, a body that includes parish priests and has a lay majority.

Evan Chriss, a lawyer and longtime member of the Archdiocesan Council, said other U.S. Orthodox denominations are no longer "micromanaged" from overseas. However, Istanbul still chooses bishops for the U.S. Greek church, for example, and must authorize charter changes.

Ultimately, the plaintiffs want the U.S. Greek church to be self-governing by reinstating the old charter of 1978.

The defendants, Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, said the complaint is unreasonable.

A statement from the archdiocese's New York headquarters said: "We cannot comment on any lawsuit until we have examined the papers. However, based on the press release we believe any such lawsuit is totally without merit."

Back in 2002, delegates at a Clergy-Laity Congress wanted the Istanbul hierarchy to grant Americans the right to nominate candidates for archbishop, who would then be chosen in Istanbul. The Americans also wanted the power to elect other U.S. bishops by themselves.

But the charter put in place last year by top officials in Istanbul and New York, without approval from a congress, makes election of the archbishop "the exclusive privilege" of Istanbul, with Americans only allowed to submit opinions. Other U.S. bishops are chosen in Istanbul from nominees submitted by Americans.

George Matsoukas, executive director of Orthodox Christian Laity, which is funding the lawsuit, said "we take this action with a heavy heart." But, he said, it was necessary because the hierarchy refused to discuss the situation.

The plaintiffs also plan to take the case to their general congress in New York, July 25-59. At the Clergy-Laity Congress, they dissenters plan to force the charter issue onto the floor whether or not the court agrees this month.