Greek Orthodox church must adapt to grow

It was a hot summer’s day at the end of January two years ago, forty days after the death of my aunt. We were gathered at a Greek Orthodox church in the north-western suburbs of Melbourne to do our duty by the faith which is part of our identity, even for those of us for whom this is simply nominal.

It was a solemn occasion. We listened to the liturgy immersed in thoughts of my aunt Elizabeth, a well-loved woman who touched many people with her kindness and generosity.

When the priest called people to come forward for holy communion, there was a change of tenor that caused us to sit up. In a loud and aggressive voice, he directed in English, that only those baptised Orthodox could receive holy communion. I was taken aback. I have been to many services in other factions of the Christian church for funerals, weddings and christenings. I have never once heard any priest declare that only people baptised into that particular branch of Christianity were allowed to partake in holy communion.

There were people there that day who were not Orthodox. Two of my aunt’s sons married women of Italian background. One of them was my aunt’s main carer during her illness, ferrying her to medical appointments, undertaking to disperse of her possessions according to her wishes, even organising her funeral. She was quietly appalled.

And fair enough.

Because that declaration is about division, exclusion and petty elitism.

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It is about a refusal to acknowledge the pluralistic nature of the society we live in, it’s about a lack of respect for others and deepens the disconnection that many people of second generation Greek background feel about the church.

After the service, I approached the priest and asked him about the reasons for the edict. He was not interested in engaging with me and dismissed me in the arrogant fashion that characterises most interaction with officials of the church.

Many years prior, I phoned the office of the Archbishop, as per the advice of a priest who would be presiding over my grandmother’s funeral to enquire about making a speech at the service. Whoever it was on the other phone, screamed at me in Greek then hung up.

If only these were isolated examples. Six years ago, I did my aunt the favour of accompanying her to the evening service of Good Friday in a different church. In his speech to the many who were gathered inside and outside, the priest launched a fulsome attack on Buddhists.

It was nothing short of a hate speech.

I was glad I had not brought my son to the service. He was in primary school at the time and some of his friends were, and still are, Buddhists.

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You may well ask, why does this matter? If you don’t like it, then don’t go. Indeed. That’s what is happening.

The lack of charity, inclusion and understanding displayed by people in leadership positions in the church is contributing to the vast disengagement that so many people experience.

And it matters because the church holds itself up as a pivotal, defining body of the community.

I have never been given satisfactory answers to many things I ask. With regards to making eulogies at funeral services, I am told different things: it’s not part of the tradition, the Archbishop doesn’t like it, the Greek Orthodox church doesn’t allow it.

Last month, a new archbishop took the reins at the Greek Orthodox church in Australia. I suggest he would do well to turn his mind to creating some flexibility within the church, to making it more relevant to the society we live in, to fostering more acceptance.

Not all traditions are worth retaining and not all teachings are relevant in a contemporary society.

Some are misogynistic – you know the thing about women not being allowed to enter a church while menstruating because they’re not clean.

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Some are racist – you know the long list of things said about Jews, most recently by Bishop Seraphim who criticised other Christian churches for being more accepting of them.

And some, I feel compelled to point out, are not particularly ‘Christian’.

  • Jeana Vithoulkas is a communications professional in government, political, social, environment, and health sectors. She is also a published author. 

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