This past weekend thousands of Greeks and other Orthodox Christians celebrated their Easter.
They did so at a time when the Greek Church in Australia is going through a difficult time following accusation aired on the ABC that it extracted $22m in rent and fees over the past eight years from its St Basil’s aged-care facility where there were 45 deaths as a result of Coronavirus.
According to the ABC, the rent was double the market rate.
The ABC decided to personally target new Australian Archbishop Makarios, including for taking up residence in a Sydney harbourside apartment purchased by the church for $6.5m.
I have been a critic of what happened at St Basil’s. But the ABC’s targeting of the Archbishop is unfair.
In the first place it is important to note that the management practices and level of care at St Basil’s were embedded well before the Archbishop came on the scene. If there were poor management practices or a lack of skilled trained staff as has been claimed then these were present beforehand.
Secondly, much of the responsibility for what happened at St Basil’s should really be sheeted home to the Federal Government who fund this and other such facilities. It’s monitoring body gave St Basil’s a clean bill of health in 2019 and it has failed to adopt staff to resident ratios as apply in State Government run facilities.
Thirdly, the purchase of the harborside apartment, according to the Orthodox church, was initiated under the previous Archbishop. If we look around at some of the accommodation of Archbishops of other denominations, they are not exactly living in shacks. The Anglican Archbishop, for example, lives in a .8 hectare mansion overlooking Melbourne’s Fitzroy Gardens.
I spoke to new Archbishop Makarios and he assured me that he accepts responsibility for addressing the issues and of his commitment to new management and staffing at St Basil’s.
It is Easter and his orthodox flock certainly hope he will oversee these reforms — and not just in aged care.
The church runs schools, welfare organisations and provides pastoral care. The challenge is to bring these in line with community values that support women, gender equality and a more liberating classical education for children.
The Greek Orthodox Church is a very old institution and I and many other Orthodox Christian believers hope the new Archbishop will infuse fresh hope and belief to his flock.
I believe that the Greek Orthodox church need only look to its foundations for inspiration in supporting greater equality and developmental freedom.
The fundamental tenants of the Orthodox religion as expressed by Professor Christos Giannaras, an Orthodox theologian, include the Orthodox belief that the great gift God has given us is our human characteristics of free will and consciousness. These allow us to live what he calls ‘the existential adventure of our freedom’. We are free to make moral choices but we must also accept responsibility for those choices when they prove to be wrong, misguided or sinful. And love, especially sacrificial love is the ultimate expression of our freedom.
There is also forgiveness which Orthodoxy has built into its rules by for example allowing up to three marriages and a realism in understanding the human condition by allowing priests to marry and have a family. It’s not incidental that the Greek church has not been tarnished with paedophilia accusations.
This idea of free will and choice and responsibility for that choice as God’s gifts was passed on to me via an anecdote from an Orthodox Bishop reflecting on religious instruction he received at a seminar where the question was posed as to what advice to give a pregnant mother when, strong medical advice was to abort her baby to save herself – otherwise both mother and baby would die. One young priest apparently interjected:
‘Since the Orthodox Church provides that ultimately the mother must choose in such circumstances, she should save herself for the sake of the remainder of her family’. ‘Perhaps so’, said the Archbishop conducting the seminar, ‘but had that particular woman made that choice I would not be here today to pose the question to you’. A powerful example of the intersection of faith, free will and love.
There has been reform in the Greek Church but there is a long way to go especially in allowing more participation by women. I think the new Archbishop comes to these questions with an open mind and the ABC’s cheap shot about his residence is unhelpful.
The new Archbishop has an opportunity to lead based on Orthodox axioms of freedom, forgiveness and responsibility. I hope he reverses the absurd edict of his predecessor that does not allow any family member to give a eulogy at a funeral – something which no other Orthodox church in the world imposes. I had firsthand experience of this when my sister died from an aneurism and a packed church of hundreds could not hear from me or any other family member despite my pleas to the then Archbishop.
The new Archbishop Makarios has an opportunity to lead based on Orthodox axioms of freedom, forgiveness and responsibility. He is well aware of past failures and arcane practices that he has inherited.
Archbishop Makarios should be given the opportunity to reform, to improve practices in the church’s Aged Care services and schools and to provide much-needed faith leadership in Australia.
Theo Theophanous is a commentator and Former Labor Minister.