In a power struggle with international implications, members of the U.S. Greek Orthodox Church filed suit against their archbishop yesterday in New York seeking greater self-governance and autonomy from the church's leadership in Istanbul.
The plaintiffs, 35 laypeople hailing from across the church's eight American dioceses, said they were trying to roll back a new church charter imposed by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul which diminishes the traditional role laity and clergy play here. The plaintiffs named the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and Archbishop Demetrios Trakatellis in the lawsuit because he is the patriarch's representative in the United States.
"We have attempted to resolve the matter with the archbishop and his staff," said George Matsoukas, executive director of Orthodox Christian Laity, an independent group of Eastern Orthodox lay and clergy who are helping to fund the suit. "We are left with no choice, and we take this action with a heavy heart."
The plaintiffs took the unusual step of asking a secular court to resolve an issue of church governance. Matsoukas said such an action was appropriate because the lawsuit does not involve ecclesiastical issues - which courts are loath to address - but focuses on the archdiocese's legal responsibility to abide by its charter as an organization incorporated in New York state.
The archdiocese, which is based in New York and learned of the lawsuit only recently, had little response yesterday. "We cannot comment on any lawsuit until we have examined the papers," read a statement released by the archdiocese. "However, based on the [plaintiffs'] press release, we believe any such lawsuit is totally without merit."
The plaintiffs, some of whom are former members of the church's archdiocesan council and executive committee, said they filed the suit on behalf of thousands of concerned church members.
At the heart of the dispute is a question of control. The plaintiffs say it pits an Istanbul-based leadership bent on centralizing power against an evolving U.S. church whose members want more say in their governance.
"The church is in transition from an immigrant base to one that is more rooted to American society and reality," said Peter Marudas, a member of Orthodox Christian Laity's board of advisers and a well-known, retired Maryland political operative.
The patriarch in Istanbul "is distant and doesn't have a comprehension of the challenges faced by the Orthodox here," Marudas said.
The plaintiffs filed the 15-page suit in the Supreme Court of the State of New York. It asks the court to direct the archdiocese to submit the new charter for approval by the Clergy-Laity Congress, the U.S. church's highest legislative body.
The plaintiffs said Bartholomew unilaterally imposed the charter last year and ignored key recommendations overwhelmingly backed by laity and clergy at their last meeting in 2002.
Some critical recommendations would give the U.S. church a greater role in the selection of bishops and the archbishop, said Evan A. Chriss, a member of Orthodox Christian Laity's advisory board and a retired Baltimore attorney. Chriss said more domestic input is essential to keep the church in touch with an increasingly assimilated American membership.
"We are losing many of our young people," said Chriss in a phone interview from New York. "Almost 80 percent of our marriages are interfaith. The future of the church depends on it becoming an indigenous, American church."
Marudas said the U.S. church is trying to follow in the footsteps of other Orthodox churches in the United States, which have negotiated more in dependent relationships with their overseas leadership.
In 1970, the patriarchate in Moscow granted independence to the Orthodox Church in America, the nation's largest Russian Orthodox Church. More recently, the Holy Synod of Antioch recognized the autonomy of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.
The U.S. Greek Orthodox Church comprises 540 parishes, 800 priests and approximately 1.5 million members, according to the archdiocese - though some members of Orthodox Christian Laity said the number of adherents is closer to 500,000.
Chriss estimates that Baltimore has about 10,000 Greek Orthodox.