The Eastern Christian Churches by Ronald Roberson

The Orthodox Church of Greece

In 1821 the Greeks revolted against Ottoman rule. After European intervention on behalf of the Greeks, Turkey recognized a small independent Greek state in 1832. The Orthodox Church had played a prominent role in the revolution and paid a heavy price for it: the Patriarch of Constantinople Gregorios V and a number of Metropolitans had been hanged by the Turks as traitors soon after the revolt broke out.

In spite of strong allegiances to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Greek government did not want the new nation’s church to remain linked to a Patriarch who was still in Ottoman territory. For this reason in 1833 the government declared the Church of Greece to be autocephalous, and placed it under the authority of a permanent five-member Synod of Bishops and the King, who was made head of the church. The new status of the Church of Greece was not recognized by other Orthodox churches until 1850, when Constantinople issued a Patriarchal Tomos that recognized the autocephaly of the Greek Church and specified that the Archbishop of Athens should be the permanent head of the Holy Synod.

As additional territory was incorporated into Greece at the expense of the Ottomans, new Orthodox dioceses were incorporated as well. The Orthodox in areas conquered from Turkey in 1912 (now in northern Greece) remained directly under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate until 1928, when the 36 diocese in the region were “provisionally” placed under the administration of the Church of Greece.

State control over the Greek church has been gradually reduced with the implementation of subsequent ecclesiastical regulations. Article 3 of the 1975 Greek constitution states, however, that

The prevailing religion in Greece is that of the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ. The Orthodox Church of Greece, acknowledging our Lord Jesus Christ as its head, is inseparably united in doctrine with the Great Church of Christ in Constantinople and with every other Church of Christ of the same doctrine, observing unwaveringly, as they do, the holy apostolic and synodal canons and sacred traditions. It is autocephalous and is administered by the Holy Synod of serving Bishops and the Permanent Holy Synod originating thereof and assembled as specified by the Statutory Charter of the Church in compliance with the provisions of the Patriarchal Tome of June 29, 1850 and the Synodal Act of September 4, 1928.

This structure explicitly respects the provisions of the 1850 Tomos of autocephaly. The Constitution also recognizes the right of other religions to worship without interference, but the worship of non-Orthodox must not disturb public order, and all proselytism is forbidden. As opposed to earlier constitutions, the President of Greece no longer must be an Orthodox Christian, and he or she is no longer required to swear to protect the predominant religion in the country. Today the Permanent Holy Synod is made up of the Archbishop of Athens, who presides over it, and 12 other bishops. In view of a projected revision of the Greek constitution, in 1995 the church and state initiated a dialogue about possible further changes in their relationship. But in May 1996 the government announced that the constitutional provisions already in place would not be changed. The church of Greece operates under a Charter that was promulgated by the Greek Parliament in 1977.

By most accounts, some 97% of the population of Greece today self-identifies as Orthodox. But the real number is probably somewhat lower because most sources do not count the Old Calendar Orthodox groups separately. They make up perhaps 5% of the population. Orthodox dioceses in Greece tend to be small: there are 92 in the country. Altogether in 2017 a total of 8,857 priests were serving in the Church of Greece, not counting Crete and the Dodecanese Islands which are part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Monasticism, which had been in steady decline since the 19th century, has recently witnessed a modest revival. In 2017 the church reported that there were 232 men’s monastic communities and 294 for women along with 72 sketes. The monastic republic of Mount Athos, although within Greece, is under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

There was a significant renewal movement within the Greek church following World War II. This was boosted by the “new monasticism,” or lay brotherhoods that were founded at the beginning of the 20th century. The most prominent of these groups, Zoe, founded in 1907 by Eusebius Matthopoulos, reached its height in the mid-1960s when it had about 130 members, virtually all theologians, some 34 priests among them. The community worked to reform the attitudes of Greeks towards the Orthodox Church by placing strong emphasis on personal piety. Zoe combined monastic spirituality with an active apostolate, and in some ways resembles the apostolic religious communities that developed in the west. In 1963 the more traditionalist members broke away from Zoe to form a smaller new brotherhood called Soter, under the leadership of Panagiotes Trembelas. Although today these movements are in decline and most of the members are elderly, they provided a new model of Orthodox religious life and had a profound influence on the church of Greece.

The church has also been heavily involved in philanthropic activity, not only by issuing statements expressing the church’s teaching on social justice, but also by maintaining many orphanages, homes for the aged, hospitals, etc.

Theological scholarship in Greece is centered at the two theological faculties at the universities of Athens and Thessalonika. There are also several seminaries for the training of parish priests. Many of the most distinguished theologians of the Greek church are laymen.

Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens and All Greece was elected in April 1998 to succeed Archbishop Seraphim, who had headed the church since 1974. At his enthronement, the vigorous new Archbishop, who had helped found the church’s radio and television stations, pledged to increase the church’s role in society, to eradicate manifestations of xenophobia or racism, to increase the church’s outreach to young people, to improve relations with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and to affirm Greece’s role in Europe by advocating full accession to the European Union. In the following years, Archbishop Christodoulos’ populism and public charisma, along with his ability to express himself in common-sense language accessible to the common people, raised the visibility and influence of the church in Greek society.

The terms of the 1928 agreement regarding the status of the dioceses in northern Greece, especially the right of the Ecumenical Patriarch to propose candidates to be their bishops and to ratify the final list of candidates, became a matter of dispute following the death of Metropolitan Panteleimon of Thessalonika in July 2003. The Church of Greece proceeded to the election of a new metropolitan of Thessalonika and two other bishops in the region without reference to the Patriarchate. In reaction, Patriarch Bartholomew called a synod of all the Patriarchate’s bishops on April 30, 2004. It rejected the three elections and formally broke communion with Archbishop Christodoulos. On May 28, the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece passed a resolution stating that they would adhere to all the provisions of the 1928 agreement. On June 4 another meeting of the bishops of the Patriarchate restored relations with Archbishop Christodoulos and, as a gesture of good will, accepted the three contested elections.

The Church of Greece has been a member of the World Council of Churches since 1948, and Archbishop Christodoulos paid an official visit to the WCC in Geneva in May 2006. The Greek Church has also been a participant in the international dialogue with the Catholic Church since its inception, but until rather recently relations between Athens and the Vatican have been difficult. It was only with clear reluctance that the Church of Greece extended an invitation to Pope John Paul II to visit the country in May 2001. But the Pope’s visit, during which he offered a public apology for the Crusades, led to a significant improvement in relations. In spite of an earlier veto of the proposal by the Holy Synod, Archbishop Christodoulos paid an official visit to Pope Benedict XVI in Rome in December 2006, and signed a Joint Declaration with him that committed both churches to the theological dialogue and outlined many areas in which they could bear common witness.

Archbishop Christodoulos was diagnosed with cancer in June 2007 and died on January 28, 2008. His successor, Metropolitan Hieronymos of Thebes, was elected by the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece on February 7, 2008. Considered a moderate, the 69-year-old new Archbishop studied theology and archaeology in Germany before ordination to the priesthood in 1967. He served as chief secretary of the Holy Synod from1978 until 1981, when he was ordained a bishop. He later served on the church’s council for educational affairs and helped to manage its radio station.

The Greek Orthodox in the diaspora are under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Location: Greece
Head: Archbishop Hieronymos II (born 1938, elected 2008)
Title: Archbishop of Athens and All Greece
Residence: Athens, Greece
Membership: 10,000,000

Last Modified: 23 March 2021

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