A Church for the People or a Church for itself


Manos Koubarelis


Reverend friends and fathers,

Almost every time I sat in front of my laptop to write a few lines for this speech I found myself asking “Why”. “Why break my silence now? What new do I have to say? What new is left to be said in this world anyway? The Church I dreamed of does not exist. It never did. And I am not sure that it is God’s Church. If He had wanted to create an ideal Church, He would have done it and if He wants to change his Church now, He can do so as well. So what’s the point in describing a human vision of the Church, and especially mine? If one of the contemporary Holy Men had done such an attempt, I would have understood it. The fact that they didn’t and that in their teachings they gave emphasis to the personal improvement of those who run to them, may mean that there is no way to this ideal other than the personal improvement of those who compose the Church and that any recipes for collective improvement or improvement through better techniques of function would lead nowhere.”church candle woman
I shared these hesitations with Syndesmos secretary, Spyros Tsimouris, but he insisted in the invitation saying that if I, myself, had taken the initiative to speak or write in a book my ideas on how the Church should be, mentioning examples of its illness from my own experience in it, my concerns would be valid. But now that I am being invited to speak, it’s a different thing. So I accepted the invitation only out of obedience.
I understand that the way I begin my input allows no space for enthusiasm or inspiration, but I think that our times are not times for group inspiration. Inspiration grows in the field of convictions and is watered by promises. Nowadays, people who take their life seriously cannot keep having convictions and believe in promises.

When I was a young teenager I used to go to the evening services of Holy Thursday and Holy Friday at the church of Holy Angels in the campsite of the Orthodox Christian Unions, a founding member of Syndesmos. For a city child like me, this green area covered with old pine trees, just 30 kilometers northern of Athens, was exciting anyway.
My relation with the Church at that time was rather loose. No catechetical school, no camps, not attending every Sunday service. More or less all clergymen were just priests for me and I couldn’t distinguish their order.
Father Chysostomos was the president of the movement. Flesh of its flesh.   
A very simple man. His vestments had nothing special. No mitra, no visible cross or engolpion, no mandyas, no sakkos. Just an omophorion. No driver, no deacon, no “your Eminence”. Just “father”. For me he was an ordinary priest. It was just that sometimes, during the services, he would sit on the bishop’s throne and I could hear the chanting female choir that included my mother, calling him Metropolitan of New Smyrna. But this was making no special impression on me. The same with the cigarettes he was smoking while having his coffee after the services. I heard that he got the habit of smoking when he went to the Korean war  in 1953 to take the place of somebody who had four children. You wouldn’t call him polite. His style was quite straightforward and he was not talking too much. But he had fire in his eyes. He was fire. He died when he was 57 in London where he went to accompany some young people who were having heart surgery. He wrote no books. He left no fortune. It was after his death in 1986 that simple people started telling stories about him. Stories about the times when he used to show up in hospitals at five o’clock in the morning to assist elderly patients who didn’t have anyone to help them. How they didn’t know he was a bishop until they saw his picture in the newspapers after his death. And how this bishop was not like the others. But I didn’t know the others and I had the idea that this is how Orthodox bishops are...

Mr N.M. was Professor of Dogmatic and Ethics at the Theological School of Athens when I joined the Students and Scientists Christian Association as a freshman student of Biology. He was not a brilliant personality like Professor Nikos Nissiotis, a founder of Syndesmos and of my movement, who died in a car accident just a month before father Chysostomos’ death. If you were to make in public a positive comment about Mr N.M., he would get all flustered like a child. And he still does now even though he is an 80 year old Emeritus Professor. He is the most ascetic layman I have ever met in my life. A real monk in the world. Always spending all his money on others in such a discreet way that no one ever finds out. A self-sacrificing man. A man whose words and deeds are of absolute consistency. A very conservative person whose ideas I cannot totally identify with, but who shows great respect for the others and their opinions. I remember when we proposed to change the language of the constitution of my movement into contemporary Greek. We were several 20-25 years old young people in the Board plus him as a vice-president and our new president, a humble priest ready to follow whatever Mr N.M. would say. If he was to express his strong opposition first, we would probably not have dared to insist. But he did not. He was the last to vote. He expressed his opposition, asked that it would be written in the minutes and fully participated in the procedure of changing the language.   
I spent endless hours of my life with him in the office of my movement as a secretary general or treasurer, many times until late at night. Making programmes, writing letters, making accounts, sticking stamps to envelops. He didn’t make negative comments for anybody and he always tried to find an excuse for the reality of the Church, I started getting to know in this period. But our main discussion was Theology, not gossiping. Without having ever followed any official course of Theology I learned while we were fulfilling our voluntary administrative tasks so many things about the Gospel, the Fathers of the Church, the nature of Jesus Christ, the Ecumenical Synods, the nature of the Angels, that most graduates of Theology in Greece unfortunately do not know.

In the winter of 1991 I decided to spend a week at Mount Athos. I was in the beginning of working towards my Ph D in a university hospital of Athens. Thanos was a student of Biology working with me on his first degree thesis. A young man of our era with no relation to the Church. He asked to come with me to Athos out of curiosity. We took a night train to Thessaloniki and we went to the bus station of Harilaou in order to take the 5:30 morning bus for Ouranoupolis, the little port through which you get to the Holy Mountain. The bus station was practically an old-style extremely cold cafe, a kafeneio. At that time of night it was full of monks that were on their way to Athos. We were the only laymen. Suddenly, a stranger got in and came straight to us. “Paidia, young men, he said, are you going to see father Paisios?” We had some doubts whether we should go to father Paisios and anyway we would have to walk in pathways for more than three hours non stop carrying our luggage to get to Karakalou Monastery before the sunset at six o’clock in the evening. But as we were asked by the stranger we said “yes”. “I have a letter that I want you to give to him” he told us.  We got it and at that point we were obliged to go, whilst wondering why he chose us and not any of the monks that would have been delighted to have a reason to go to father Paisios. So we went. The Holy Man was totally bent because of a serious problem in his back. He used a natural t-shaped stick to walk. His hut in the forest was surrounded by wire-netting and gave the impression of a settlement of a modern homeless person of the cities. He was very old and sick but he wouldn’t accept anybody living with him in order to assist him. We were about 15 people gathered there. He gave us some logs to sit on, he sat on one of them himself and started talking to us without looking in our faces, but down, at the earth. He was working while talking making knot ropes. His talk was general but the words were making their way straight to our hearts and everyone was wondering “why is he talking about me in front of the others?” In the end and while everybody was leaving we lingered behind to give him the letter. It was obvious that he knew about it and didn’t show any interest at all. He just turned to Thanos and said in an imploring way: “Kalo paidi, nice young man, do not waste your life. Go and find a spiritual father.” Thanos was speechless. We were walking away and he kept walking next to us at the other side of the wire repeating: “Kalo paidi, do not waste your life.” These days, Thanos teaches Biology in a University in the United States. He found a spiritual father, but he did not change his life much according to his words. The last time a saw him, several years ago he told me “I did not change, but I will never forget. I have his image in my heart. It will accompany me until death.”

In the spring of 1993, after Easter, Syndesmos organized its first programme in Albania. Father Anastasios was there as a bishop for just more than a year. It was the very first international youth event to take place there. So, he asked that 5 people from Syndesmos would go and speak to the young people of the newly re-established Orthodox Church in Albania and communicate with them. Father Heikki Huttunen, president of Syndesmos, was one of the five.
It was an ordinary Saturday. I first went to the one parish I was the teacher of catechesis and then to the other. Then to my movement for the Saturday lecture. I was on the phone to my mother a couple of times during the day and I returned home just half an hour before the time I had to leave again to take the 9 o’clock evening bus to Tirana. My mother had prepared my luggage, but I realized that something serious had happened because her face was unusually sad. I asked her and she said that her father, my grandfather had died that morning in the village he was born in Mykonos island. Everybody in the family was going to travel to Mykonos for the funeral. I told her that I shouldn’t go to the programme. But she answered: “No my child, you should go. Our Lord says ‘Let the dead bury their own dead.’ (Matt. 8:22). There are people there in great need. Go for the living dead.”
In a period that a xenophobic, almost racist spirit against Albanians was already strong in large parts of the Greek society, I feel grateful that I had such an unforgettable and spiritually rewarding experience in Albania. Father Heikki returned to Athens with me, a week later, in order to participate in meetings of Greek Syndesmos member movements. It had been late in the evening and it was necessary to host him somewhere for the night. He came to my house. My mother seemed so strange to me in black. In the beginning she was rather uncomfortable because we had never hosted a priest before and she was naturally still full of sorrow for the recent death of her father. But Fr Heikki’s serene spirituality and his simple words of consolation were like balsam in her heart. When he left next morning she thanked me for insisting on bringing him to our house. And since then she was host to many people from several countries. Not to an American, a Polish, a British, a Fin, but to Fr John, Vladimir, Alex, Fr Heikki...

            Dear friends,
I stand in front of you now because of these and several other small stories that God blessed me to experience in the beginning of my conscious relation with the Church. Because a bishop, a professor, a saint, a mother allowed me to feel and taste the ethos of the Church of Christ. And this ethos warmed my heart and captivated me.
But in the years that followed my position in the Board of Syndesmos firstly, and my decision to abandon an academic carrier as a Biologist to work in the Church administration later on, made me experience a totally different reality.  A reality in which words and deeds were in full contrast. A reality that had nothing to do with the spirit of the Gospel, with the commandments of our Lord Jesus Christ, with the Orthodox ethos as it is described by the Fathers of the Church and in the Lives of the Saints. A reality that strongly shook the foundations of my faith.
I recognize that this shaking was a result of my sinfulness. But it was also a result of three false teachings that I was taught of in the Church. The first was the idealization of the Church during my youth which later made me feel that its image was crushed. The second was that I made worldly dreams for the Church, that I later felt were betrayed. And the third was that, I sometimes allowed my faith to God to become indirect, to be based on humans and as a result, to weaken along with their fall.
It is clear that this Church, the Church of reality as one could call it, seems nowadays unable to fulfill its mission in the world, unable to bring hope, vision, example, a life proposal, a Home.  It is a Church not trustworthy to the majority of the people. A Church that, in my eyes, is imperative to change.

I will briefly describe now some of the changes I consider necessary. Obviously there are people who already live in the Church in an authentic way and for whom these changes are not applicable. And obviously you have heard almost all of these ideas before, especially by those who violate them the most. But I would like them to be somehow assembled together, not as a brochure of demands, but rather as a theoretical exercise with minimal ambition of being applied in practice.

1. The contradiction of words and deeds. It has always been the case that you may not teach anybody in any better way than with the example. However, in the past, when authorities of any kind were more respected and acceptable by people, there was quite some space for the Church to use words in order to teach. Anyway, in the past the average people had limited access to images that would scandalize them.
But today things have changed. The volume of information, of opinions, of ideas, ideologies, beliefs that come to us every day from so many directions and sources exceeds by far what our brain and our heart can analyze and digest. People and especially the youth are unable to listen carefully. They cannot concentrate and understand long texts, unless they are associated with easily digested and comprehensible images.
Nowadays, if you are not real and consistent with what you say, you cannot hide yourself and very few will listen to your words. All the contradictions between words and deeds we experience in Church life everyday are not just harmful, as in the past. They are catastrophic.  It makes no sense to keep trying to teach people unless we have visible examples to show them. The habit of the Orthodox world to compare the best theories of our Church with the worst actions and applications of the theory of the ideologies, the other faiths and the heterodox Christian denominations has no place in the contemporary world. Our only teaching can be our example.

2. The state self-understanding has to be fought as the worst enemy. It is repellent to people. The Church may not keep sending the world the message: “This is how we are. The door of the church is open and whoever wants to come in will be more than welcomed.” Because in this way it is as if it says: “We do not care for you outsiders and we are not interested in learning who you really are, unless you show clear signs of your willingness to change and identify yourself with us. In this case we will hug you and allow you to join our club.” This may not be the Church. The Church should be a body that goes out and looks for the people, that continuously tries to understand them, that invites them in before they change and not afterwards. The Church should follow the example of Jesus who goes to meet Zacchaeus at his house and the Samaritan woman at the well. The people of the Church may not address others as if they are prodigal sons. Because we are not God. We are prodigal sons as well and we cannot act all the time like the older brother of the prodigal son, as if Father’s home belongs to us.

3. The Mediolanian self captivity of the Church has to end. Seventeen centuries are more than enough. They gave the maximum they could give. The times changed. Tight relations of Church and state are no longer an advantage. People do not at all trust the authorities nowadays. Neither are they afraid of them as much as in the past. They can survive without them. The choice of the Church to identify itself with the authorities of the world brings more negative than positive results. With it the Church decides to be opposed to the people and be on the side of those who rule them. In this way it is no longer a Church but just another religious institution. And it violates and betrays the commandments of our Lord Jesus Christ who said: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant.” (Matt. 20: 25-26).  
A few years ago an anarchist wrote with black paint outside of the Bishop’s house of a Diocese where I worked: “State and Church are the same authority” (Κράτος-Εκκλησία ίδια Εξουσία). The immediate reaction of the Chancellor to clean the wall and paint over the graffiti doesn’t show a Church that understands what’s going on. You cannot wash away the long shame of the Church that easily. Brave and drastic decisions need to be made. A total change of the understanding and the orientation of the structure the Church uses to function in the world.
And this does not only apply to the local Churches that have power and wealth, but also to those who don’t, not out of choice but due to the circumstances and the local reality. And unfortunately I know not of any local Orthodox Church to be willingly poor and powerless.

4. Material wealth. It easily becomes clear from the Gospel that the only reason God offers us material wealth is to allow us to cover our basic needs and to give us the opportunity to share it with those in need. Instead of that, wealth is used in the Church in quite a self-centered way. We give a lot of money to build huge churches and other church buildings so that we can enjoy them ourselves during our worship and other church activities, while outside of them homeless beggars experience the cruelty of life. We give money to build monasteries so that we can visit them for our own spiritual rest. Our monasteries have nowadays enough monk cells for ten times the number of the Orthodox monks. But we keep building new Monasteries while millions of people in the third world remain helpless against hunger and sickness.
We have different standards for poor and rich people. We accept donations from people who have built their fortune by the systematic use of immoral methods and through the exploitation of their fellowmen. And instead of asking them to repent and change, we honor them as the most distinguished members of our Church.
We developed the rather convenient for our consciousness theory of the wealth that belongs to the Church. Luxurious settlements, offices, cars and every kind of material possessions, are used by certain people in the Church, who pretend to have no property simply because they have no legal rights to the property of the Church. However, they do exclusively use it for as long as they please.
If all these do not change in a drastic way, we may not expect the image of the Church in the eyes of people to improve. The time came for the imperial golden vestments and mitras of our Bishops and other clergymen, which represent this image of the Church, to be replaced by the truly traditional vestments of the first Christian millennium. So that the image of the Church should become Elder Paisios sitting on a log outside his hut, like the “lilies of the field that neither toil nor spin and yet even Solomon in all his glory was not dressed like one of these.” (Matt. 6:28-29) as our Lord teaches us.

5. It is necessary to officially expand the principles of fasting and the ascetic life to the use of the material resources of our planet. Many mistakes are made in our Church on this issue, not due to bad intentions, but frequently out of ignorance. We have to substantially change the way we function. No more new buildings, but reuse of already existing ones. No more huge in volume churches that need enormous quantities of energy for their cooling and heating systems. Drastic reduction of traveling that consumes valuable sources of energy and heavily pollutes the environment. We have to explain to the faithful how they should change their personal lifestyle in order to give creation a chance to survive. And again this has to happen through consistency and example. Not with conferences on cruise boats. Not with giga Monasteries.

6. The self captivity of traditionalism. I read from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 15: 1 to 9:
“Then the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Jesus saying: ‘Why do your disciples transgress the traditions of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.’ He answered and said to them, ‘Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? For God commanded, saying, «Honor your father and your mother» and, «He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.» But you say, «Whoever says to his mother ‘Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God.’ then he need not honor his father or mother.» Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: «These people draw near to me with their mouth, And Honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me, And in vain they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.»’”   
I was always taught that our Church is a traditional one. And I had never, in any Church, anywhere in the world, heard a sermon on this verse. Many years later I found out that the word tradition is used only in a negative way in the Gospel, by our Lord Himself. And it is a real disaster for our Church, when it is understood in the way He describes it. All human habits of the past are called tradition and it is implied that they are dictated to us by God. Don’t touch this, don’t touch that. As if we are in a museum. But the Church cannot be a museum. It has to be a living Body. The psychotic adherence to external forms of appearance, rituals, languages etc that are expected to magically contribute to our salvation, despite our denial to dig deep into our souls, to fight our real sins, to repent and to change, can only be a huge obstacle in our quest for spiritual life. If we do not change this hypocritical attitude there is no chance we will be able to give the modern world any witness. We should stop hiding the Truth and the Treasure of our faith beneath our obsessions.

7. There is no other Church as papal as the Orthodox Church. The papacy rules in it. The Roman Catholic Church has only one pope. We have thousands. The synodic system is not respected and does not function at any level. Does the first among equals of the Primates of our Churches give the example of self-denial? Why doesn’t he create a permanent Council of the Orthodox Churches where decisions will be made in a conciliar way, without tensions and fights? Do the Patriachs and the Archbishops function in a conciliar way with the other Bishops within the Synods of their respective local Churches, or do they after their election work towards establishing their dominance little by little? Do the Bishops function in a conciliar way with the clergymen of their Diocese or do they act as despots? Do the clergymen respect all the members of their parish as equals, or do they act as if the parish is a company they inherited from their father? Even the laymen in the Church when they get the smallest position they use it as their chance to exercise authority.
It is imperative to understand that conciliarity means, to mention only a few of its basic characteristics, responsible formation and expression of opinions, self-denial, sincerity, no secret agendas, lack of ambitions, self-respect, no factionalism, and respect to all other people and to procedures.
We need to realize that any kind of Church administration, at any level may not be exercised in a secular spirit. Difficult problems are not solved by techniques, but by spiritual solutions. The Church is the only Body in this world that does not approve the principle that the “aim justifies the means”, because our Lord doesn’t approve of it. And He doesn’t bless any effort that violates this disapproval.
We have to understand that the highest order in our Church is this of the deacon. And if we are willing to serve the Church from any position, this is the order we have to keep until the end of our lives, and not to wish to pass over it as soon as possible. And when I say deacon, I mean deacon of everybody. Not only of those whom we choose and it is our interest to serve.

I could add a lot more, but the scheduled time for this input is already over.

I would just like to finish with a remark. When I sent eight years ago my withdrawal letter for the position of the president of Syndesmos I heard that some Bishops made the comment: “We didn’t know Syndesmos had reached such a point of decadence.”, as if all the comments I’d made on Syndesmos didn’t apply to or derived from the same kind of problems in their Dioceses.
Now I will say the opposite. I hope that it is realized that all the problems mentioned to exist in the Church are present in the life of Syndesmos as well. And if some mentalities and attitudes do not change, there is no chance of making a new beginning and getting out of the deep crisis the Fellowship experiences in the last years.

Thank you for your attention and forgive me for the harsh expressions I used in some points of my speech. It was not my intention to offend anybody.


Manos Koubarelis