Friday 29 November 2013

Set Texts: Church and State after 1830: The Double Helix

In Greece the Church and State are two cultural entities with innumerable inter-connecting historical links, all embedded in the emotional DNA of Greeks no matter what their politics. That the Greek Church and State have such a close working relationship when separation of the two institutions is a western norm surprises and even shocks many visitors to Greece. It seems anachronistic. That priests and prelates are in fact paid state workers comes as even more of a shock.

 Both modern institutions were born as a result of the Greece’s victory in the War of Independence but the roots of their relationship go much farther back -to the Byzantine era when church and state, were perceived as two sides of the same coin, a synergy that theoretically at least worked to the benefit of both institutions. Such harmony assumed religious homogeneity, mutual respect and, above all, common goals. Synergy did not always work smoothly then and the attempt to emulate it (still the Greek Church’s professed goal) in a modern western state has led to strange situations.

A Short History

When the revolution began, Greeks in what would become the new nation, like all Orthodox under Ottoman rule, looked upon the Patriarch in Constantinople as their leader and the Patriarch did not support the struggle for a Greek state. He was responsible for the Greek Orthodox community under the Ottoman millet system and felt compelled to immediately repudiate the revolution and excommunicate its leaders. He could hardly have acted otherwise; the Great Church in captivity under the Ottomans had gained tremendous power over its flock while at the same time was constantly in fear of the absolute power of the Porte. And its headquarters were in the Ottoman capital.

But in the areas of what is now Greece and where the fighting was taking place, the local clergy felt differently. They were experiencing the humiliations and taxations imposed on their Orthodox congregations first hand. For them the battle was for Christendom against the infidels, freedom against oppression. Many priests joined the rebels in 1821, including Germanos the bishop of Patras who famously (perhaps apocryphally) raised the Greek flag in Kalavrita against the Ottomans. In the Peloponnese, where priests numbered 2400, they made a significant difference. The Sultan for his part showed bad faith immediately by brutally hanging the Patriarch and as many of his bishops as he could find. After that no cleric could assume the Turks would trust an avowed allegiance in any case. The die was cast. Monasteries, and there were many, joined the fight. They harboured revolutionaries, ransacked their libraries for cardboard to make cartridge cases, - and came out fighting.

When victory was certain, it was at first unclear what role the church would have in the emerging nation. There were vast differences among those who had fought, especially among the indigenous foot soldiers and the idealists who would create the new constitution. The Greek intellectuals who had masterminded the revolution and garnered foreign support had views which were western, elitist, imbued with nineteenth century nationalistic idealism and yet, at the same time looked back, not just to Byzantium, but to ancient Greece as well for models.

These men had expressed negative views of the local population and clergy even before the revolution started. In 1788 Adamantios Korais famously remarked:
 Instead of Miltiades or Themistocles whom Europe still admires, we are governed by scoundrels and stupid men as well as by an ignorant clergy who are even worse than our foreign tyrants the Turks.
That the new nation needed an identity was apparent and they were prepared to forge one.  All agreed, as most Greeks perhaps would today, that Orthodoxy along with the Greek language would be the twin pillars of this new identity but both were considered to be in serious need of ‘civilizing”. Demotic, the language as spoken by the people in the early 19th century was regarded as a debased and barbaric dialect. Henceforth Katharevousa (literally, a pure version) of Greek was to be developed for all legal and Governmental communications. That the average new citizen would not understand it was not considered important. With that decided, the exact nature of the church’s relationship to the new state had to be defined.

Separating the Orthodox clergy from the control of the Patriarch was the only practical option open at the time; it would hardly do to have the head of the new nation’s church in enemy territory. Separation of the church and the new state was not even considered. The plan which evolved was to have a national church independent of the Patriarchate and, but at the same time, to create a church organization that would be subservient to the state. In 1821, Orthodoxy was declared to be the official religion of the country and at the same time a governmental Ministry of Religion was formed which promptly stripped local bishops of the judicial power that had been theirs under the millet system of the Ottoman Empire. Capodistria, the first president of Greece (1827) and an autocrat by nature, took the next step by personally naming bishops to empty sees caused by the war. It was practical, but hardly canonical. In 1828, when the then Patriarch sent a delegation from Constantinople to protest; it was sent packing.

Capodistria was assassinated in 1831, and Greece became a monarchy under King Otto, the 17 year old son of King Ludwig of Bavaria. Chosen by the big powers because he was the most innocuous candidate, he arrived in 1833. In the same year the Greek Church was officially declared autocephalous, separate from the Patriarch in all but dogma. It was given its own permanent five member Synod with the young king as its head, no matter that he was a Roman Catholic. The king would choose any new bishops. (In 1843 the new constitution would state that any future king had to be Orthodox, at least making his choice of bishops a tad more logical) The governmental Ministry of Education and Religion was retained and has remained to this day. But a new office was formed as well. Henceforth, a procurator representing the government would be present and would have to approve all Synodal decisions. The intention of government to control church affairs could hardly be clearer. To make that easier, the number of bishoprics in the new kingdom was reduced to 10 requiring a double, triple and quadrupling up of existing bishops and no one bishop was to be supreme. The Church was to retain jurisdiction over marriage and divorce only, and was told to stay out of politics both internal and external.

Using the new Synod as its instrument, the government turned its attention to church property. The Church was (and is) a big landowner both through inheritances and former Imperial largesse. All monasteries with less than 6 monks were closed down and the money acquired either from sales or rents was to be turned over to a special Ecclesiastic Fund which would be used for the church and for the development of a new public school system. 418 monasteries were closed, leaving 148 still open for the 2,000 monks in the kingdom; nunneries were reduced to three. This explains many of the picturesque moldering ruins of Byzantine churches in the Mani and many other areas in Greece.  Given the financial poverty of the new state, it is hard to see how any other course of action would have been possible.

At the prompting of the church, proselytism on the part of any other religion was forbidden although toleration was professed. This law is still in force today. The church may have become a subordinate entity in the new state but as a pillar of the ethnos it was a privileged and protected one.

Meanwhile, the problem of Episcopal succession became acute. There had been no official communication between the Patriarchate and Greek clergy since 1821 and only the patriarch could produce Chrisma, the special oil needed to consecrate bishops. As time passed and bishops died, the Greek government saw the wisdom of repairing the breach with the Patriarch. It was not merely a question of finding some other way to anoint bishops. There was a political aspect as well, - a fear of the growing influence of Russia on Orthodoxy if the new state was permanently out of the Patriarchal family. Remember that most Greek speaking Orthodox citizens were still inside the borders of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. The new nation was tiny, comprising only the Peloponnese and the part of the mainland south of modern day Volos.  Also the Greek Church needed canonical legitimacy and just possibly may have wanted to loosen the bear hug of its own government by restoring this important tie. Negotiations followed. In 1852 the patriarch agreed to recognize the Greek Church as autocephalous in the Orthodox community, and just in time.  There were only 8 bishops in all of Greece.  In the same year, the number of episcopal sees in Greece was upped to 24 and the church got a super bishop- a Metropolitan – the bishop of Athens (now an Archbishop) to lead a rotating synod.

The procurator remained in office, and the king still chose bishops but now from a list of three given to him by the Synod. Appointments within the church were still part of politics and the church hierarchy would spend an inordinate amount of time courting politicians who could further their episcopal ambitions.

As time passed, territories were added to the Greek state; the Greek Church grew along with the nation. It was hoped that the Greek state and church would continue to expand until Constantinople and the Patriarchate were once again Greek territory. This goal, called the Megali (Great) Idea, was wholeheartedly supported by both church and state. The beau ideal of Byzantium was alluring and always present. The dream of replacing the old Byzantine Empire with the new nation state in expanded form caused both church and state to participate in the creation and perpetuation of a national myth that would sustain this vision. Any past Orthodox accommodation with the Ottomans got written out of popular history and the church became the shining symbol of unequivocal resistance to Ottoman rule. The Megali Idea has never been realized, but it resulted in a Conservative and backward looking Church whose goals were tied to the nationalistic aspirations and prejudices of the emerging state, - and their mutual attraction to Byzantium. It made a forward looking church less likely.
In 1901 Queen Olga, something of a reformer, supervised with Pallis - a noted author- an authoritative translation of the New Testament into demotic Greek, the everyday language of the people. Conservatives were outraged and argued that it was blasphemous. Enraged students took over the university on Nov 8th, 1901, and a protest was held at the columns of Olympian Zeus, of all places. A riot ensued which left 8 dead and 100 wounded. In the aftermath, the Holy Synod of the Greek Church forbade the translation.  This 1901 riot somehow encapsulates a great deal of church-state politics and Greek life in general. Some of the worst riots and protests in Greece are not about creating change, but about preserving the perceived status quo. Even today the text of the Bible is protected by the Greek Constitution and cannot be translated without prior approval of the Orthodox Church of Greece. Furthermore, the Greek Church still uses only the original Greek Bible, written in koine, the contemporary idiom of the apostles, in its liturgy.

All Clergy become Civil Servants
 In 1909, legislation, which before had dealt only with Bishop’s pay, was passed granting subsidies from the general Ecclesiastical fund to the much ignored and impoverished parish clergy. It wasn’t generous and priests still had to eke out a living from weddings, baptisms and funerals, but it would serve to bind the priests more closely to the government, their paymaster(1). The possibilities of this system creating, well, a civil service mentality inside the church, not to mention the potential for connivance between church and state officials would need an extremely balanced not to say ethical concept of synergy to make sure the church did not simply become another state institution involved in every dispute not just between political parties but between politicians and  the Royal house, an institution which had considerable political power in its own right and  was often at odds with its ministers. One bizarre incident in 1916 illustrates the point.

Prime minister, Venizelos, did not see eye to eye with the king and formed a separate government in Thessaloniki. The Church supported the king to a breathtaking degree.  They excommunicated Venizelos thus making this governmental crisis a matter of heresy and salvation. Clerics added insult to injury by parading a decapitated bull’s head (in lieu of the prime minister) through the streets of Athens and ceremonially stoning it in a public park.
I first saw this in the Benaki museum. My photos were too reflective. I got this one by googling: anathema venizelos on the site

  When he regained control in 1917, Venizelos returned the favour by ousting the Archbishop and most of the Synod.  Recriminations of this sort became all too common.  By 1923 the church had become so entangled in the politics of the day that the then Archbishop asked the state to reform the Synod because it had become a mere tool of political factions.

The new proposal was that the highest level of ecclesiastical administration be given to all diocesan bishops who would meet yearly. In 1931 the Church got yet another new constitution. It gave authority back to the general synod of bishops which would meet every three years unless a special need developed.  A small permanent Holy Synod of nine (whose members would rotate annually), with the Archbishop presiding, would  administer church business. The procurator lost his vote but all recommendations of the Synod still had to be approved by the Ministry.

These small steps towards democratization and independence did not disentangle the church from politics. When the dictator Metaxas took over in 1936, he supported the church, as dictators tend to do, by making sure that non Orthodox religions were even more proscribed. All of their places of worship had to be licensed by the state (still a law in Greece) In return the church supported him. The war intervened and by the end of it, the king was in temporary exile, and the Greek political scene in such tatters, that the church was, for a time, the only institution able to rally or represent the nation. The civil war made the situation even more horrible. It is a grim statistic, that while 125 priests were killed by the Germans, 239 priests were killed by the communists during  the civil war. When democracy returned, the church’s dislike of godless communists was to make it more conservative than ever and to tie it to the political right.

In 1967, another dictator, this time Papadopoulos, took over.  He immediately dismissed the Holy Synod and put in his own man as Archbishop. The church, on the whole, was silent. When the king attempted to oust the Junta and was forced into exile, the church did not protest. Papadopoulos promised a new and gaudy cathedral for Orthodoxy that never happened and proposed putting priests on the same pay scale as civil servants, which he did.  He also proposed yet another new Church Constitution in 1969 which gave the church just a little more freedom than before.  When the junta’s rule ended in 1975, his constitution remained in place, as did the junta’s appointed archbishop.

1974 and On

A new government led by Karamanlis took power in 1974, and change was in the air. A referendum put paid to Greece’s monarchy and the new constitution stated that Orthodoxy was the  established  religion of Greece (epikratousa),  no longer the official one (nomokratousa),  – a small change practically since other religions were still impeded and the anti proselytism law is still on the books, but it perhaps points a way into the future.
 Greece’s entry into the common market has added yet another dimension to the church-state debate.  The Church has to contend with more liberal European view of such matters. But the church has not given ground easily. When the government, in line with EU regulations, decided to remove religious affiliation from Identity Cards in 2000, the church mobilized an impressive popular resistance that went on for a long time and it was true that filling in that particular blank with any denomination other than Orthodox  or even leaving it blank often put the holder of that card at a real disadvantage.  The advent of civil marriage in 1982 came only after a great deal of incivility – the Church was dead against it.

The national myth equating Orthodoxy with Greekness in the twenty first century is a double edged sword especially as immigration begins to change the demographics of the nation and other religious groups form larger minorities. Orthodox priests still preside exclusively at the opening of parliament and Orthodoxy is taught in schools. The situation in Thrace where there is a large Greek Moslem population is different. Imams are paid by the state there (fair is fair). But Athens still has not built a mosque for its growing Moslem population although it is being discussed, and any Islamic Greek citizen dying in Athens would have to seek burial in Thrace. Greece still has a Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs which involves itself intimately with church matters both internal and external

Today’s socialists talk a lot of separating the church and state, but the mainstream left do not propose it with any real passion (2) . Nor does the church seem eager to slough off its state ties. When offered in the 1980s the chance to gain more economic independence and pay the clergy directly, the Church said ‘no’.  The political far right, on the other hand, purports to champion the church, an alliance that must engender concern among the thinking clergy. The rise of the nationalistic Golden Dawn Party which claims Orthodoxy as its own and part of their crazy Greek racial idea has drawn vehement protests from individual bishops but disappointingly maybe not enough condemnation from the Greek church as a whole (3).

That is the situation today and how one feels about it depends very much on one’s perspective. In spite of an increasing number of young people either not interested in the church or who see it as too conservative, and the current economic crisis, the complex double helix called church and state seems destined to carry on indefinitely - unless some  new Alexander comes along and severs the Gordian knot in unpredictable ways.


(1)To be fair it must be pointed out that the original agreement of the government to pay bishops was a result of the government’s annexation of so much church property in 1833. It was to be a recompense, and still is, for property taken since. See  the Churches official website:
Letter of the Archbishop of Athens and all Greece Ieronimos, regarding the issues of taxation of the Orthodox Church of Greece and of the payroll of its clergy to Greek PM and the leaders of the EU. This was on the website in May 13, 2013 under “Archbishop Letter” “Regarding Church taxation”

Pay Scale per month of Clergy as published in the International Herald Tribune of Sep 8, 2012:
A newly appointed priest: 770 euro net (1,092 pre tax)
Clerics with ten years experience: 1032 net (1,383 pre tax)
Metropolitan bishop with 30 years experience 1,750 net (2,453 pre  tax)
Archbishop Ieronymous receives 2,213 euros net (2,978 pre tax)

(2) The communist party has always been anti-clerical and today’s  Syriza is also, to quite a degree, but Church-State relationships are never a priority during election campaigns. Probably because the issue is not a sure winner by any means.
(3) In , Tuesday October 30, 2012 (19:56) , Achbishop Ieronymos said: “The Church loves all people, including those who are black, white or non-Christians,. Secondly the Church has its path to follow and does not need anyone to protect it.” The very liberality and freedom of individual bishops makes it difficult for the archbishop. Some bishops have come out against Golden dawn, while others have offered support in one degree or other.  See also GRreporter, 31 October 2012: Sacred dispute about Golden Dawn 

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