The Greek Orthodox Church Meets Secularization

by Nikolaos Asproulis

Since the establishment of the Modern Greek state (1830), the Greek Orthodox Church has functioned more or less as one of the (perhaps the most important) institutions of the state and continues to enjoy certain symbolic and other privileges (“prevailing religion”) granted by the Constitution. The progressively-closer dependence of the Church on the state, especially after the Second World War, led the latter to take over the clergy payroll in 1945, in recognition of the Church’s contribution to the nation, even while previously having expropriated most of the so-called ecclesiastical property. The recent agreement between the Greek Prime Minister, Mr. Tsipras, and the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, Mr. Ieronymos—according to which the clerics are no longer recognized as civil servants, while a Church Asset Development Fund run by both sides will manage assets to resolve property-related issues—thus constitutes a landmark moment in this long relationship between Church and State in Greece, opening up a more general debate on the role and position of the Orthodox Church in Greek society and the public sphere. To get a satisfactory glimpse of the on-going discussion, it is necessary to get acquainted with the context lying in the background: the special relationship of the Orthodox Church with the national identity of the Greek state and the secularization process gradually spreading in traditional orthodox countries like Greece.

Taking into consideration the certain features of secularization theory upon which contemporary sociologists of religion agree (structural differentiation of the secular sphere, decline of religious belief, and privatization of religion), one should be cautious not to project a priori assumptions onto a different context. Even though in Western societies, one or more of these features could apply, the Greek case looks quite different. Despite the (external) changes or progress in various aspects of institutions or the daily life and experience of the Greek people, one can hardly trace a robust decline of religiosity in the life of the Greeks, despite the frequency of church-going or church attendance. The Greeks are still deeply religious. Despite any efforts occasionally put forth to reconfigure the State-Church relationship in a more secular direction, to moderate the Church’s public role or its frequent hegemony in state affairs (e.g. religious education), it would not be easy to argue for a clearly secularized Greek society, since it was always on the part of the state that initiatives in this direction were undertaken.

On the one hand, it would be true to contend that religion in Greece has an increasingly-diminished direct influence on the various institutional spheres, giving space to the institutional differentiation of the secular sphere; but on other hand, the Church, due to its strong and diachronic tie with the Greek national ideology as well as with charity and solidarity works, still strongly intervenes in the political or public sphere (even with the current left government), thereby inhibiting any real process of secularization understood as a high wall of separation between church and state or as a decline in religiosity. It seems, then, that that although it has some merit, any attempt to approach the distinctiveness of the Greek experience through the lens of a so-called “top-down secularization theories”—or a European, more inclusive secularization vs. an American, more limited one—does not finally grasp the core character of the Greek religiosity.

Thus, it is not a question in Greece of religion re-entering the public domain, an important premise of modernity, but rather a question of how its dominant role should be interpreted under the current developments, never faced before.

If this is the background context for understanding the recent agreement between the Greek PM and the Archbishop, let me focus on certain deficiencies of the agreement from a theological point of view, which point out serious structural problems inherent in the Greek Orthodox Church.

  1. The further centralization of the bishop’s authority: To the extent that the agreement is primarily concerned with the changing of the salary status of the parish clergy and not of the Metropolitans determined by a special status, this development means that the clergy’s professional fortune depends now on the hands of the local bishops. Such a development clearly prejudices the restriction of freedom of expression on the part of the most liberal clergy.
  2. At the same time, the secrecy of the agreement brings to light the truth that the synodical system does not really function both at a metropolitan level as well as at local and parish level. When the leadership of the Church (here the Archbishop) takes decisions concerning the life of the clergy or seeks agreement without first even consulting the Holy Synod of the Church, this cannot be considered a positive development. The agreement clearly highlighted the dysfunction of the synodical system in practice, the indifference on the side of the hierarchy to the problems and opinions of the clergy, who now acquire from the otherwise paradoxical status of the civil servant that of the servant of the respective Metropolitan!
  3. Moreover, the agreement highlights a deeper theological problem: the absence of a living Church, seeking its autonomy from the state (since the agreement in fact makes the economic dependence even more deep, depending now on the desire of the state officials), the absence of living Eucharistic communities (why not in terms of clerical-laity conferences) which through their bishop express the witness and self-consciousness of the local Church. While the rhetoric of the institutional Church boldly opposes the premises of secularism and modernity, at the same time, the way it functions so far shows just how deeply secular it is in the negative sense, corroded by the spirit of the present eon.
  4. With the establishment of the Greek state, the 96% of all the property once held by the Church has gradually passed into the hands of the state, through either joint agreements or unilateral coercive state action. Of the 4% that remains, 3% is tied up for various reasons, and cannot be used (see Metropolitan of Dimitriados and Almyros, Ignatios, The Orthodox Church of Greece and Economic Crisis [Volos: Volos Academy Publications, 2016]). If this is the case, one is obliged to ask if what really matters at the end is only a focus on macro-economic matters on the side of the Church leadership, especially here the Archbishop (the Government will still pay the same annual salaries, about 200 million Euros to the Church as a subsidy, which will be deposited into a special Church fund, controlled by the Archbishop or the Holy Synod), and by no means on the witness to the very Truth, that is, Jesus Christ. If the Church understands its role as an NGO that occasionally supports the state with its charitable work, as was mainly the case during the last years of the economic and immigrant crisis, then it seems that it has deviated from its core mission, the salvation of the world.

It goes without saying that the recent developments constitute a real challenge for the Church of Greece as it deals with the increasing secularization of the Greek society. Despite the apparent confusion and justifiable fear on the part of the clergy, the Church must take the chance to “secularize,” that is, make worldly its soteriological message of the Gospel so as to continue giving hope and meaning in the life of the people, away from any political maneuvers.

Nikolaos Asproulis is Deputy Director of the Volos Academy for Theological Studies and Lecturer at Hellenic Open University.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.