The Greek Orthodox Church in America
An overview of the Greek Orthodox Christian Church
By Rev. Robert G. Stephanopoulos, Ph.D
The Greek (Eastern) Orthodox Church - What's in our name?
Our name, or rather, our names tell a great deal about us. Many names have been used throughout the centuries to describe our Church and its some 300 million adherents. "Greek", "Eastern", "Orthodox", "One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic" are all appropriate designations of the Church.
Our Church is called the "Greek Church" because Greek was the first language of the ancient Christian Church from which our Faith was transmitted. The New Testament was written in Greek and the early writings of Christ's followers were in the Greek language. The word "Greek" is not used to describe just the Orthodox Christian peoples of Greece and other Greek speaking people. Rather, it is used to describe the Christians who originated from the Greek speaking early Christian Church and which used Greek thought to find appropriate expressions of the Orthodox Faith. "Orthodox" is also used to describe our Church. The word "Orthodox" is derived from two short Greek words, orthos, meaning correct, and doxa, meaning belief or glory. Thus, we used the word "Orthodox'' to indicate our conviction that we believe and worship God correctly. We emphasize Apostolic tradition, continuity and conservatism over a 2,000 year history.
Our Church is also spoken of as the "Eastern Church" to distinguish it from the Churches of the West. "Eastern" is used to indicate that in the first millennium the influence of our Church was concentrated in the eastern part of the Christian world and to show that a very large number of our membership is of other than Greek national origin. Thus, Orthodox Christians throughout the world use various ethnic or national titles: "Greek", "Russian", "Serbian", "Romanian", "Ukrainian", "Bulgarian", "Antiochian", "Albanian", "Carpatho-Russian", or more inclusively, as "Eastern Orthodox".
In the Nicene Creed of faith our Church is described as the "One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church": "One" because there can only be one true Church with one head Who is Christ. "Holy" because the church seeks to sanctify and transfigure its members through the Sacraments. "Catholic" because the Church is universal and has members in all parts of the world. The word "Catholic" comes from a Greek word katholikos (kath-oh-lee-KOHS) which means world-wide or universal. '"Apostolic" because its teachings are based on the foundations laid by the Apostles from whom our Church derives its teachings and authority without break or change.
Each of these titles is limiting in some respects, since they define Christians belonging to particular historical or regional Churches of the Orthodox communion. Orthodox Christianity is not limited to the East, however, either in terms of its own self-definition or in geographical location. There are many Orthodox Christians who live in the West, and are rapidly becoming integrally related to its spiritual, intellectual and cultural life.
Our origins and development: to know us is to understand our history. Christianity originated in Palestine, spread rapidly throughout the Mediterranean, and by the end of the fourth century was recognized as the official religion of the late Roman or Byzantine Empire. Seen in the context of its historical milieu, it was a unified religious movement, although diverse in many respects. It was extremely vital and dynamic in its historic development.
Orthodox Catholic Christianity remained essentially undivided. Its five major administrative centers were located in Rome, Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. The articulation of Christian doctrine and order was achieved through the great Ecumenical Councils, the first of which was convened in AD 325. At these Councils, all leaders and centers of Christianity were represented and shared in the deliberations.
The first great schism or separation took place in the fifth and sixth centuries, chiefly over the understanding of the person of Christ. Certain ancient and venerable Eastern Churches are quite similar to the Orthodox Church in ethos, lifestyle, and worship. They are of two types, one called the Nestorian or Assyrian Church of the East, and the other much larger grouping called Pre-Chalcedonian because of its non-acceptance of the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451). The non-Chalcedonian Churches include the Coptic Church of Egypt, the Ethiopian Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Church of St. Thomas in India, and the Jacobite Syrian Church of Antioch. Altogether they claim approximately 22 million faithful.
The Christian religion was the principal influence in the Byzantine Empire, shaping its culture, laws, art, architecture and intellectual life. The harmony between the civic and ecclesiastical spheres, Emperor and Church, was rarely broken so as to present a truly unified Christian Empire, a Christian ecumene. This symphonic relationship of faith and culture is a distinctive legacy of the Orthodox Church which was later transmitted to the slavic peoples of Eastern Europe and Russia.
After the seventh Ecumenical Council in AD 787, the basic unity of faith and ecclesiastical life between East and West began to disintegrate, due to a variety of theological, jurisdictional, cultural and political differences. This eventually led to the Great Schism between East and West of AD 1054. This unfortunate division was aggravated to the point of a complete break in communication between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church. Centuries later the protests against Rome in Western Europe gave rise to the Protestant Reformation. In our day the non-Chalcedonian Oriental Churches, the Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the many Protestant Churches and groups comprise the wide spectrum of Christendom.
After the Great Schism Orthodox Christianity continued to develop apart from Western Christianity. Tenaciously conservative, relying on its dynamic concept of Tradition, it preserves the classical forms of Christian life and dogma to this very day. It is very much a "popular" Church, closely identified with the national life and aspirations of its people. In traditional Orthodox lands it is difficult to separate religious and secular life, since they are one in the minds of the people. Orthodoxy has absorbed, and in some cases even shaped, the cultural traditions of many nations, chiefly in the Near East, the Balkans and Greece, Eastern Europe and Russia. It is, for many of these nations, the national religion. In other lands, of course, it is a tiny minority group. In fact, large numbers of Orthodox Christians have lived in officially atheistic or secularized socialist republics and witnessed to their faith under conditions of active persecution and intolerance. Many became true martyrs for the faith.
The Orthodox Church today
The Orthodox Church today is a communion of self governing Churches, each administratively independent of the other, but united by a common faith and spirituality. Their underlying unity is based on identity of doctrines, sacramental life and worship, which distinguishes Orthodox Christianity. All recognize the spiritual preeminence of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople who is acknowledged as primus inter pares, first among equals. All share full communion with one another. The living tradition of the Church and the principles of concord and harmony are expressed through the common mind of the universal episcopate as the need arises. In all other matters, the internal life of each independent Church is administered by the bishops of that particular Church. Following the ancient principle of the one people of God in each place and the universal priesthood of all believers, the laity share equally in the responsibility for the preservation and propagation of the Christian faith and Church.
In addition to the four ancient Patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem with their several geographic and ecclesiastical subdivisions, there are also many independent or autocephalous Orthodox Christian Churches. These include the Churches of Russia, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Georgia, Cyprus, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Finland, Albania and Sinai. Smaller autonomous Orthodox Churches and missions can be found on every continent throughout the world.
THE GREEK ORTHODOX ARCHDIOCESE OF AMERICA
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America
Before the establishment of an Archdiocese in the Western Hemisphere there were numerous communities of Greek Orthodox Christians. The first Greek Orthodox community in the Americas was founded in 1864 in New Orleans,LA by a small colony of Greek merchants. History also records that on June 26,1768 the first Greek colonists landed at St.Augustine,FL, the oldest city in America. Today, the “Avero House” where these colonists worshipped has been fully restored and houses the St. Photios National Shrine, dedicated to all our ancestors who came to these shores as immigrants. It was not until just before the turn of the century that the first permanent community was founded in New York City in 1892, today’s Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity and See of the Archbishop of America.
The establishment of Greek Orthodoxy in America began in the beginning of this century, coinciding with the acceleration of immigration from Greece.The pioneering of Greek Orthodoxy in America continued at an intensified rate throughout the first decades of the 20th Century,and by 1920 sixty percent of the present-day communities and their houses of worship were firmly founded.
The first Greek Orthodox parishes in North America were under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople which had over the centuries assumed responsibility for the diaspora communities and assigned to them their priests. In 1908, however, this jurisdiction was temporarily transferred to the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece. This arrangement was maintained until 1918, and during this period the communities remained without the necessary organization and without a responsible and authorized religious leader they so greatly needed.
In the 80 years of the life of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese there have been six archbishops: Archbishop Alexander (1922-1930); Archbishop Athenagoras (1931-1948); Archbishop Michael (1948-1958); Archbishop Iakovos (1959-1996),Archbishop Spyridon (1996-1999) and Archbishop Demetrios who was enthroned as Archbishop on September 18,1999.
Metropolitan of Athens Meletios Metaxakis arrived in America on October 20, 1918, an soon established the Synodical Council setting the pattern for centralized Church administration.
In effect, this was the first step towards the establishment of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, which was incorporated in 1921, and officially recognized by the State of New York in 1922.
When Meletios was elected Ecumenical Patriarch Meletios IV in January,1922, one of his first official decrees on March 1st of that year was to restore the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This was formalized on May 11, 1922 when Patriarch Meletios declared the Church of America as an Archdiocese appointing the Rt. Rev. Alexander Titular Bishop of Rodostolon , as his Patriarchal Exarch here.
Regrettably, from 1922 to 1930 turbulent political events in Greece divided the Greeks in America, and the division also manifested itself here ecclesiastically. Fortunately, the necessity for religious unison and concord was quickly realized by the Greeks in this country, and this need was also understood by Ecumenical Patriarch Photios ll. Following a study of the situation of the Archdiocese, the Ecumenical Patriarch appointed Metropolitan Athenagoras of Corfu as Archbishop of North and South America on August 30, 1930. Archbishop Athenagoras arrived in New York on February 24, 1931 and began a long tenure which did not end until he was elected Ecumenical Patriarch on November 1,1948.
Archbishop Athenagoras used all of his powers of peacemaking and persuasion to bring harmony to the disunited communities. He centralized the Archdiocese, expanded the work of Clergy-Laity Congresses, established many new communities, founded St. Basil Academy and Teacher Training School in Garrison,NY, founded Holy Cross School of Theology in Pomfret, Connecticut, and in November 1931 during the Fourth Archdiocesan Clergy-Laity Congress established the Ladies Philoptochos Society, the official philanthropic organization of the Greek Orthodox Church in America.
Archbishop Michael continued the programs of his predecessor and brought the Church through its tender years. He founded St. Michael’s Home for the Aged in Yonkers,NY. A brilliant scholar and linguist, he founded the Greek Orthodox Youth of America (GOYA); he promoted vigorously the campaign for national recognition of Eastern Orthodoxy as a major faith in America; he created the Office of Information and Public Relations; he brought about the acceptance of the Regulations and Uniform By-Laws of the Archdiocese; he gained membership of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. His efforts for widespread recognition of the Church were appropriately acknowledged when he was invited to deliver the invocation at the Presidential inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower in January,1957, the first Orthodox Christian cleric to be so honored.
Archbishop Iakovos who was enthroned on April 1, 1959 ushered in the dawn of a new era for Greek Orthodox in America as the Archbishop was the first to be selected from the ranks of the American clergy. Dean of all religious leaders in the United States when he retired on July 30, 1996, Archbishop Iakovos’ 37 years of service were distinguished by his leadership in furthering religious unity, revitalizing Christian worship and championing human and civil rights. The Archbishop was co-president of the World Council of Churches; established dialogues with Roman Catholics, Anglicans,Lutherans, Southern Baptist and Black Church leaders; and in a successful effort to promote closer ties among several Orthodox jurisdictions and improve relations between them and other denominations, the Archbishop founded in 1960 the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas. He was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Jimmy Carter and was captured on the cover of LIFE magazine on March 26,1965, walking hand in hand with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama. During his tenure organizations were expanded and new departments were added including Church and Society, Youth Ministry, Communications and Leadership 100, a major gift program of the National Endowment of the Archdiocese. He guided the reorganization of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline,MA and brought to fruition Hellenic College in 1968.
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America
On July 30, 1996, following the retirement of Archbishop Iakovos, the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate established three new metropolitanates, Toronto, Buenos Aires and Mexico,each having specific areas of jurisdiction. The Holy Synod, by unanimous decision, also elected Metropolitan Spyridon of Italy as Archbishop of America.
Archbishop Spyridon was enthroned on September 21, 1996 as the first American-born elected as Archbishop of America. He served for three years before submitting his resignation to the Ecumenical Patriarch who announced on August 19th, 1999 that Archbishop Spyridon was appointed to the Metropolis of Chaldea.
Archbishop Demetrios, the former Metropolitan Demetrios of Vresthena (Greece) was unanimously elected the new Archbishop of America on August 19, 1999 and was enthroned on September 18. In the time following his enthronement, His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios has labored together with the Hierarchs, Clergy and Laity of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in an intense effort to strengthen conditions of unity and peace and to advance administrative and ecclesiastical stability of the work of the Church in America. In the aftermath of the events of September 11th and with a desire to address the needs and challenges of our modern world, His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios has spoken repeatedly and emphatically about the vital mission of the Greek Orthodox community to offer the Orthodox faith in its full, genuine and loving form to contemporary America.
Father Robert G. Stephanopoulos is now retired and is the former Dean of the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity and Adjunct Professor of Eastern Christian Thought at St. John's University. He authored the Guidelines for Orthodox Christians in Ecumenical Relations, has served as Ecumenical Officer of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. A graduate of Holy Cross School of Theology, he studied at the University of Athens School of Theology and received his Ph.D. in Ecumenics. Missions and Religions from Boston University.