Greece – The Modern Greek Church

PLANTED on Greek soil, deeply rooted in the sub-stratum of the early religion and drawing nurture from it, the modern Greek Church claims a Christian history of nineteen centuries. It is easier to admit its nineteen centuries of existence than nineteen centuries of development. Prouder of appealing to its traditions than of outgrowing them, it is not animated by the progressive spirit, and, having adjusted itself once for all to the problems of the past, sees no reason why it should trouble itself about those of the present. To a New England Congregationalist unaccustomed to a liturgy or the tactics and pomp of religious ritual, the modern Greek Church is peculiar. The difficult problems which oppress the parish committee in New England are unknown in Greece. The pew question in its varied forms does not appear, because there are no pews in a Greek church and everybody stands. The question as to which one of half a dozen preachers shall be engaged does not vex the congregation, for the parish priest does not preach. The problem of the minister’s salary is avoided by not paying him any. There is no occasion to quarrel over hymn-books or choir, for wither exists in our sense of the word, and the antiphonal responses of nasal priests and acolytes would hardly be called music. The practice of dividing the sexes which was common in New England fifty years ago still prevails in Greece. If there is a gallery, as in the Metropolitan Church at Athens, the women are assigned to it. If not, they stand on one side of the church and the men on the other. An American Baptist would claim an affinity with this ancient church in its application of the rite by immersion ; but he must be-ware how he appeals to the Greek usage, since they immerse infants thrice, when to a Presbyterian a few drops of water applied once would suffice. The traveller who comes to Athens from Rome assumes at first that ecclesiastically Athens and Rome are not far apart. He soon finds that as far as is the east from the west, so far is Athens from Rome. They each claim to be built upon an apostolic rock. ” Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I build my church,” says Rome, metaphorically, while Athens points with literal pride to the rock upon which Paul preached his sermon. Just as these two apostles stood over against each other in New Testament times, so the Petrine and Pauline churches seem to stand over against each other today. Joined together for centuries, the differences between these ancient churches now seem to be irreconcilable.

As he enters a Greek church the visitor will find no chapels flanking the aisles, as in a Roman Catholic cathedral; there is but one altar, and that he will not see. A screen with three doors hides it from view and divides the sanctuary from the nave. The statues which abound in the Roman church are entirely absent in the Greek, but there are pictures of the saints and the Virgin called ” icons ” or ” images.” They recall the great iconoclastic controversies which raged in the East and the West, and in which the Hebrew and the Greek spirit came into conflict. When we remember what Paul said at Athens against idolatry, ” We ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device,” it is interesting to think of the battle on this very subject which came up a few centuries later, and which was continued till 842 A. D. in the Eastern church, when the use of images was finally sanctioned. But the victory for paganism was not a victory for art. Undoubtedly the old Greeks made precisely the same distinctions that were made in the image-worship controversy; the more intelligent regarded the image as a symbol, the ignorant worshipped the picture or the stone. Many of the Greek images were exquisite works of art; in the Christian church a miserable daub might answer the purpose of worship as well as a more perfect picture.

The Greek, like the Roman, makes the sign of the cross, but in a different way. It is occasionally used, as Neander says it was in the days of Tertullian, ” as the sign which the Christians unconsciously made in all cases of sudden surprise.” An acolyte in a monastery suddenly crossed himself when I told him something novel, even though there was nothing dangerous in the information. He used the sign as an exclamation point or a pious interjection.

Unlike the Roman Church, the Greek Church administers the communion in both kinds, using leavened bread, — the outcome of another controversy, — and giving the wine in a spoon. The priests are Nazarenes, shaving neither head nor beard. Marriage is permitted to priests before their ordination; but no priest can marry a second time after the death of his wife, nor can he become a bishop and remain in the marriage relation. His wife, if he had one, would retire to a convent; but promotions are invariably made from unmarried clergymen.

The full title of the Greek Church is The Holy Oriental Orthodox Catholic Apostolic Church. The doctrinal contents of the creeds of the Eastern and Western churches are essentially the same. The Nicene Creed is the basis of all the confessions; but that little word filioque, which lighted raging flames of controversy wherein the procession of the Holy Spirit was declared from the Son as well as from the Father, is omitted from the Greek creed. The dogma of the Papal infallibility has likewise no place in it.

The Greek Church proper, like the Russian and other national churches of the same faith, is governed by a synod. The metropolitan is the official head of the church, but there is a close union between State and Church, and in the matter of pre-ferments and appointments the political authority is superior to the ecclesiastical. There are three-orders of priesthood, — deacons, elders and bishops. The officers of the church are archdeacons, archimandrites, archbishops, metropolitans, and patriarchs. The name patriarch is retained by the patriarch at Constantinople, but he has no authority over the churches in Greece, Russia, Bulgaria or Servia. The only reminiscence of his supremacy is seen in his preparation and blessing of the consecrating oil.

The Greek priests, on the whole, are more paternal than autocratic. Many of them are very ignorant, and could not preach a sermon if they were required to do so. Only those having special fitness as preachers are engaged for that office. Ecclesiastical schools have been established, and there is one in Athens to which young men preparing themselves for the priesthood are admitted and taught from four to five years. Some go in to the university in the theological department; many others, under the influence of modern education, become philologists, doctors, and lawyers. When the candidate has reached the age of twenty-five years he may become a deacon, and at thirty a priest. Of the deacons, part are married and part are unmarried, but they cannot marry after ordination ; and an archimandrite, like a bishop, must be unmarried. For elevation to the bishopric the synod nominates three persons, of whom the Minister of Ecclesiastical Affairs and Public Education chooses one. The priests receive no stipend from the government nor from the congregation. The monasteries have been alarmed by a proposed scheme for selling all monastic property and establishing a salary fund for the clergy. Some of the monasteries are very rich. One on the slope of Pentelicus, which I visited, has an income of two hundred thousand francs a ‘year. The parish priest is wholly dependent, however, upon the fees he receives from marriages, baptisms, consecration of a new house, prayers for the dead and other priestly ministrations. In the country, priests often do not receive more than $75 to $175 a year, and in Athens, from $225 to $375, in the way of offerings. The salary of the metropolitan is six thousand drachmas, which, with the present depreciation of the drachma, is about $750. An archbishop receives five thousand drachmas and a bishop four thousand. The parish priest is generally obliged to eke out his income by other occupations, usually by farming or keeping a store. The priests thus stand less apart from the life of the people than they do in Italy. Many of them are earnest, sweet-spirited men who tenderly lead their flock.

When I think of the Greek priests, I think not so much of the nasal phonograph who is mechanically repeating the service, as of the sweet-faced, Christ-like man I saw in Eubcea, the prison chaplain in Athens, who to me was a modern version of the Apostle John, — Pater Anthimos, broad-chested, liberal, studious and large-hearted ; and I think of the charming picture which Bikelas has drawn of Papa Narkissos in his ” Tales of the AEgean.”

A pleasant picture comes up before me, too, of the late Metropolitan Germanus, a man honored and es-teemed for his learning, piety, and kindly heart. He received me with warmth, and expressed his interest in America. When I asked him how it was that the Greek Church was able to maintain its unity so completely, especially in these modern days, he picked up his Greek Testament, which lay conveniently near, turned to Thessalonians, ii., and put his finger on the fifteenth verse.

” It is,” he said, ” because we have followed the apostle’s injunction.”

After a pleasant conversation I took his hand, on leaving, to kiss it, according to Eastern custom. He held it down, however, to prevent this tribute of respect, then threw his arms over my shoulders and kissed me on each cheek. The validity of a Protestant ordination he recognized by inviting me to attend the services in the Metropolitan Church on the approaching fete and to witness the ceremonies at the altar behind the screen. This is a privilege not accorded to the layman, whether peasant or king.

The Greek Church is ceremonial in the highest degree. To an outsider its ritual is long and wearisome, but I have talked with devout and intelligent Greeks who found in it the greatest happiness. It lacks the grandeur of organ, orchestra, and voices, which often make the service in the Roman Church impressive. Its extensive liturgy is contained in several volumes. A Greek friend waxed eloquent as he spoke of the tenderness and beauty of the Passion service. “There are beauties in our Passion service,” said my friend, ” that you will not find in any other church.” A cultivated lady likewise assured me of the satisfaction which devout and poetic members of the Greek Church reared in its worship might find in its offices. The dogmas of the Church are not obtruded; a mystic veil of allusion or symbolism seems to invest the whole service. The holy table, its four legs, the doors of the screen, the sacred vessels are all highly symbolical, and no Swedenborgian dealing with the Old Testament rites could go further in claiming correspondence and analogy.

The Church is not only a religious but a patriotic institution. Its national character gives it a strong hold upon the people, and upon the great fete days the churches are crowded, and the men are as numerous as the women. The king being a Lutheran, is not a member of the church, but the queen, the crown prince, and other members of the royal family are included in its membership and give eclat to its festivals. Of these the most impressive are Good Friday and Easter. On Good Friday evening, after a long service in the cathedral, a veiled image of the Saviour, laid on a bier and covered with flowers, is borne through the streets, escorted by a band playing a dirge and priests bearing the shroud of Jesus. Men, women and children with lighted candles join the procession, but the solemn effect is somewhat disturbed by the Roman candles, Bengal lights and other fireworks from windows all along the line of march. To an American it seems like a funeral held on the eve of the Fourth of July.

The Easter service is the joyful climax of a Lent of abstinence and sorrow. The service begins on Saturday night. At Athens it is conducted in the cathedral by the metropolitan with crosier, mitre, and brilliant robes. Immense throngs flock to the church. Regiments of infantry deployed through the streets keep the way open for the royal family, who are escorted to the cathedral by a guard of cavalry. The ministers of State and other civil officials follow in carriages, and take places assigned to them in the cathedral. The square outside is brilliantly illuminated, and a platform has been erected and decorated. Just before midnight the metropolitan lights a candle, saying, ” Come, take light from the everlasting light, and glorify Christ our God, who has risen from the dead.” The prime minister lights his torch from that of the metropolitan. The other ministers follow, the light goes from torch to torch, from priest to people. Headed by the metropolitan, the procession marches out of the cathedral, and just at twelve o’clock from the platform in the square the metropolitan proclaims to the multitude that ” Christ is risen,”. Bells and cannon take up the theme. The Roman candles and fireworks, which seem to be out of place on Good Friday, now symbolize life and immortality brought to light. Joyful greetings, ” Christ is risen,” pass through the crowd. The Lenten fast is over, and on the steps of the cathedral, and on the streets, the people eat the colored boiled eggs they had brought in their pockets and then go home to more elaborate feasts.

On Easter morning, as I called at my photographer’s, He returned the salutation and immediately brought me an egg in a saucer, but without a spoon. For some days all other forms of salutation give way to that of ” Christ is risen,” and the answer is, ” He is risen indeed.”