Who will be the next head of Orthodoxy in the US?
The words Byzantium or “Byzantine”- although never used by the actual inhabitants of the Eastern Roman Empire - have survived until our days and are used in most contemporary languages. They refer to anything which is too complex to understand, opaque, secretive, confusing and never instantly transparent.
All those nuances might be right when you are trying to understand the complicated processes involved in matters of faith or the administration of faith, how one leads a church, who decides and who is responsible for running such a complex structure that involves spiritual matters in our earthly existence.
All these thoughts came to my mind as these days the attention of several million Greek Orthodox Christians have turned to Istanbul, more specifically, to the Phener Ecumenical Patriarchate which is about to decide who is going to be the next archbishop of North and South America which is under the authority of the Istanbul Orthodox Patriarchate. It is a highly important post that links Istanbul Orthodoxy with the large and powerful Greek American community. The procedures of selecting the new archbishop started yesterday and may last until Saturday.
The procedure is that Patriarch Bartholomew who is chairing the 11-member Holy Synod will have to suggest a person of his choice for the post the new archbishop, but he also asks the members of the Synod should they have alternative suggestions. The selected person is chosen by a majority vote which the patriarch does not participate in.
This week’s procedures will probably put an end to years of the turmoil surrounding the leadership of the Orthodox Church in the U.S. The previous archbishop, Dimitrios, was forced to render his resignation last week, putting a dramatic end to years of friction, accusations, and rumors of financial scandals in the See of Orthodoxy in America. The 92-year-old Dimitrios will be the third archbishop of America resigning during Patriarch Bartholomew’s 28 years as the head of the Orthodox Church.
Nobody knows what the patriarch’s thoughts over the matter. Nobody knew if and when the Patriarch was going to ask for the resignation of Dimitrios. For the last two years, intense rumors were circulating among religious circles that the situation in the New York-based Archbishop’s Office was explosive with many powerful and wealthy Greek-Americans demanding the removal of Dimitrios.
Dimitrios was appointed in 1999. An academic theologian, teaching both at Harvard and Boston universities, he quickly got entangled in the complicated affairs of the Orthodox Church in the U.S. Perhaps his biggest misfortune was that he had to deal with the mishandled project of restoring the small St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in New York which was destroyed during the Twin Towers terrorist attack in 2001. Millions of donations by Greek Americans and various institutions were poured into the project designed by the world-renowned architect Santiago Calatrava who keeps on increasing his bill for services. To this day, the project has not finished. “Dimitrios just lost the control of things. He chose the wrong people around him,” one well-informed source told me.
Who is going to succeed Dimitrios as the head of the biggest and most powerful Orthodox community attached to the Phener Patriarchate? I understand that the popular and very active Metropolitan Elpidophoros who recently hosted President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in the Halki Seminar, where he is based, is a high priority. As an Istanbul-born Rum, an academic theologian and a driving force behind a revived interest around the Seminary, he is thought as someone who can both retain the umbilical cord with Phener and interact skillfully in the American environment. Of course, there are others along the line, too. And it is challenging to predict what will weigh in the end for Patriarch Bartholomew. We do not even know for sure that the Synod will choose a name this time. They may not. They may leave it for another date.
“Do forget, it is still Byzantium,” a friend of mine told me, advising me not to be sure about anything when it comes to matters of faith.