When Alexis Tsipras was sworn in as Greek prime minister in January this year, the ceremony was marked by a symbolically important change in the protocol. Previous governments had sworn on the Gospels, and received a solemn blessing by an impressively vested Archbishop of Athens with attending deacons and chanters. This time Tsipras and most of his incoming ministers chose to dispense with the time-honoured religious oath and affirm on their honour.
Syriza, the coalition of the radical Left, has long argued for the separation of Church and state in Greece. Nonetheless, this was a major symbolic break whose meaning was clear to all. Ryzospastis, the Greek word for radical, literally means “one who breaks (with) his roots”. The Orthodox Church, which numbers some 97 per cent of Greeks among its nominal members, has played a determining role in Greek history since the Byzantine era. Its removal from centre stage in the political and cultural life of the nation would indeed be an uprooting.
For the moment neither the prime minister nor the Church authorities are seeking a dramatic divorce. Tsipras knows that the present crisis requires national unity and would not risk a campaign against the Church, which would alienate many voters as well as threaten his coalition with the small nationalist party his parliamentary majority depends on. For his part, Athens Archbishop Hieronymus correctly pointed out that it was better for the new prime minister to affirm in accord with his beliefs than sacrilegiously make an oath on the Gospels in spite of his unbelief.
Hieronymus has been a moderate and discreet voice since his election to the primatial see in 2008. He has shied away from politics until now, in stark contrast to the attitude of his outspoken predecessor Christodoulos, whose assertive, conservative interventions in political and cultural questions meant that he was constantly in the public eye. Hieronymus has been reluctant to enter political debate, so it is all the more remarkable that last week he spoke out unambiguously in favour of a Yes vote in Sunday’s referendum on the bail-out terms offered by Greece’s European partners.
By his public position on this controversial question, Hieronymus was taking a risk, and the resounding No delivered by the electorate suggests that it was a miscalculation. It was not as if he hadn’t been warned. On the feast of St Peter and St Paul, the Metropolitan of Thessaloniki Anthimos announced in a televised sermon that he would be voting Yes. Sounds of angry dissent arose from the congregation, while others responded by applauding the visibly stunned hierarch, who hurriedly cut short his homily. Anthimos is more used to adulation than dissent. He has a reputation for inflammatory comments on the vexed question of the neighbouring former Yugoslav republic, Macedonia. The reaction to his intervention of the referendum showed that Anthimos had antagonised his normally docile, patriotic “constituency”.
The event is symptomatic of a problem that the Greek Church has faced for some time but which the present crisis has put into sharp relief. She has become identified with the Greek establishment. Now that the latter is entirely discredited for the vast majority of Greeks, the Church faces the problem of adapting to a political and cultural cataclysm.
The No vote was all the more astonishing in that it went against the opinion of all the old established political parties, supported by most of the country’s commercial and cultural institutions and backed up unanimously by the blatantly partisan coverage of the TV channels. The result shows that all of these are now seen by the majority of Greeks as organs of a self-serving, arrogant and kleptocratic elite who have brought the country to its knees and told the poor and the middle classes they must pick up the bill.
The Church’s perceived wealth adds to its image problems. The Orthodox Church is the country’s second largest landowner after the state. A fishy property deal involving the historic Vatopaidi monastery on Mount Athos and shady political operators which cost the state millions, and at one stage saw the abbot in prison, actually brought down the conservative government in 2009. Orthodox clergy in Greece are paid as civil servants. Although, like everyone else, their salary has been reduced, it is still well above the national average even before the (usually undisclosed) offerings of the faithful are taken into account.
To be sure, the Church can justly point to the enormous work being undertaken by parishes and monasteries in organising the soup kitchens on which many families rely for survival. It also protests that the work of its many orphanages, nursing homes and other charitable undertakings would be threatened by an extension of its fiscal liabilities beyond the considerable property taxes it already pays. Nonetheless, there are signs that it is losing public trust, especially among young people.
The young are undoubtedly the sector of Greek society where the Church faces its greatest challenge. Generational questions were decisive in the referendum: polls show that the over-60s were the only section of society to favour a Yes. Once again the position of the hierarchy presages a growing gap between the Church and the rising generations.
Greece is the least secularised country in Europe. Its symbiosis between Church, society and culture gives it huge advantages, as well as having less wholesome aspects. But secularisation is inexorably progressing among a youth which, although not yet as totally ignorant of their faith as most of Europe’s young, are mostly conspicuous by their absence at Sunday liturgy.
Greeks showed last weekend that they are not lacking in courage and are determined to defend their identity as well as to regain prosperity. If the Church is to continue to be the soul of that identity and to sustain its people through the hardships they face, it must be equally brave in confronting the problems that compromise its moral authority.
Fr Mark Drew holds a doctorate in ecumenical theology from the Institut Catholique in Paris. He currently serves at St Wilfrid’s, York
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (10/7/15). Take up our special subscription offer – 12 issues currently available for just £12!