Jesus may be welcoming, kind, divine, forgiving – but unfortunately what is supposed to be his house – the Church – is run by priests, who beneath the lavish cloaks, pomp and ceremony are people with all the sins and frailties that human beings possess. And as people, they also have different personalities and interpretations of the world around them and views as to how the Word of God should be packaged and presented.
That was made very clear when Athens Archbishop Christodoulos blitzkrieged onto the scene as the Archbishop of Athens and, as such, the fiery primate of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Greece in 1998 – beginning an interesting decade in the marketing of the Greek Orthodox religion in the country. He lead the Church for 10 years until his death in 2008, boosting membership following years of declining attendance and internal turmoil.
The charismatic leader challenged notions of going to church dressed in your Sunday finest, inviting young people to come to church with their mini skirts, nose rings and jeans – even ripped ones – as attendance mattered more than attire.
“If a priest turns you away, you let me know,” he’d wink to the younger generation, challenging them to find the clerics who did not adhere to his frequently issued detailed checklists on how they should conduct themselves when dealing with the public.
A controversial figure, he’d start his sermons off with a joke, which to many might not have been appropriate in a solemn place of worship, but he managed to fill the House of God with laughter – and people.
Having attended a Catholic high school, he proposed open dialogue to address centuries-old grievances with the Roman Catholic Church and received the late Pope John Paul II in Athens in 2001 for the first papal visit to Greece in nearly 1,300 years. And, meeting with muslim Palestinian leader Yassar Arafat, he pledged US$500,000 in aid to needy Palestinian families during a visit to Jerusalem.
His success bears testimony to the need for reinvigoration as a necessity if the ecclesiastical institution wants to remain relevant to people’s lives. In Australia, especially, where the Greek community has assimilated and interracial marriages are now becoming the norm, there needs to be a welcoming approach if the church is to flourish.
And thankfully, most priests are kind at heart. But unfortunately, more is needed. The late archbishop, despite his human weaknesses, stood as proof that regardless of the one true ecumenical Word of God, the views, behaviour and personality of any church representative could be a make-or-break factor on a parishioner’s bumpy road to Truth.
READ MORE: Greek Orthodox church must adapt to grow
It’s unfortunate that many good people are put off by certain behaviours within the Church because the Word of God is worth celebrating. Though the message is as necessary as ever, critics say the church is losing its relevance as a result of its stagnant approach on issues of technicality.
Those that fear change obstinately point to 2,000 years of traditions, but we wonder whether 2,000 years ago Jesus actually said: “Yes, accept my body and my blood unless you’re Catholic, Lutheran, Protestant, a woman menstruating, someone who had breakfast that day, etc”. And it’s easy to wonder why someone can utter a heartfelt eulogy at their parent’s funeral in Greece, but not in Australia.
The Word of God is one and shouldn’t change, but all organisations – including the Church – should evaluate their own role in people’s lives and build open dialogue without dismissing people as “heretics”. It needs to decide whether, as a House of God, it wants to be an exclusive club for the devout, elite few or be open, welcoming, safe place for all believers in their time of need.
Jesus Christ would probably want the latter. But that’s just a hunch.
Either way, spirituality is something else altogether and – thankfully – we are all privy to a personal and honest relationship with God and ourselves.
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