The Church of Greece fully deserves the crisis in which it finds itself. For years we have heard about sexual depravities and property scandals unbecoming to the purported ambassadors of God on Earth. Now a new ring of corruption is unveiled, involving some of the highest enforcers of secular law in connection with at least one of the interpreters of divine will. The Holy Synod’s recommendation that Archmandrite Iakovos Giosakis be suspended is welcome, but it is not nearly enough.
The problem the church faces today is its complete unaccountability, not only to anyone else but even to itself. Each of 100 metropolitanates nominally reports to the Archbishop in Athens, but in reality these administrative regions are run as autonomous Ottoman Cifliks. This means that financial accounts and property dealings are difficult to centralise and monitor.
Archbishop Christodoulos now faces an enormous problem in disciplining his ranks. The truth is, he cannot do it alone. He needs the help of the state, which is, in turn, hobbled by the fact that it is inexorably fused with the church.
Priests are only spiritually beholden to the church. Their real employer is the state, which will this year spend 157 million euros on their salaries and pensions. They are, by law, civil servants, and poorly performing ones at that. Churches charge for their services, although they are supposed to be free. It goes beyond the big three, baptism, marriage and the Great Ushering Off; individual priests illegally charge to perform blessings, exorcisms and other indispensable services. In the countryside, itinerant priests who are supposed to service more than one village often refuse to do their rounds without inducement. Across the country, services are poorly attended because they are poorly performed. The Greek Orthodox liturgy, founded on the mystery of faith, the power of church theatre and a musical tradition going back to ancient times, is today mumbled out of tune, in neon-lit domes. In short, people aren't getting their money's worth, and are in the process losing the beauty of their tradition.
The church is a perfect example of the dishonesty and inefficiency that exists throughout the state, because it is an extension of the state. Unfortunately, this fusion is not a political decision that can be easily undone; it is an expression of our culture.
Greece is living in a continuation of Byzantium. We are in arrested development as a modern nation because the image we have of ourselves is the last one of any consequence to the world - as the empire that legalised Christianity and made it a state religion. In Constantinople, the Greeks made a potent mixture of secular and religious power in Patriarch and Emperor long before the Ottomans made Caliph and Sultan.
Whereas the hero worship of Kemal Ataturk replaced Islam as the state religion in modern Turkey, here in Greece we have perfectly embalmed the rule of church and state. The Archbishop swears in governments; his officers bless military missions abroad, and the hulls of military ships know holy water before brine. Early each year, a Greek house invites a priest to perform a blessing; the cross hangs in all our courts of law; icons adorn the nation’s police stations, as though the saints were somehow engaged on the side of the law; each session of parliament begins with a dais-full of raven cloaked priests; the nation’s classrooms are adorned by Christ.
In an unnoticed and tacit fashion, therefore, we are a kind of theocracy. It is time for Greece to stop cleaving to the church as its main distinguishing characteristic in the airport culture that is globalisation. We need to find our identity in what is still the world's most distinguished bibliography of secular literature, and see the church for what it really is – a human institution made to serve man. We ought to ensure that it does so, and finally turn this country into a secular democracy with true separation of church and state.
It is no longer tolerable for the church to draw its salaries from taxation like the civil service. It is no longer tolerable for the church to insist on playing a part in politics, as it tacitly does to support the conservatives, because Pasok is the only party ever to have challenged it. It is not tolerable for the church to prevent the teaching of other religions in secondary schools. And it is not tolerable that the church should hide among its black cloaks crooks and men of worldly ambition, while denying accountability to any earthly power.
Everyone, from private individuals to corporations and charities to government itself, sooner or later is called to account. The church should be no exception. It is an earthly institution with earthly possessions. New Democracy should now put its money where its mouth is and be a party of reform; it should seize the current scandal to table a bill in parliament that would force the church to present a full accounting of its holdings, income from donation boxes and larger bequests, and its expenditures. The church need not lose its tax-exempt status, but it can thus acquire a transparency that will assist its leaders in the exercise of management, allowing clerics to focus on doctrine and what ought to be the church’s social role.
If this process is not begun, the materialism and spiritual corruption of the church will only worsen, and the laiety will one day discover that what lies hidden behind the iconostasis is not a sacrificial altar, but a sack of loose change.