After the Iakovos earthquake
- From: tmatt@...
This column was syndicated by Scripps Howard News Service on 04/27/2005
When Archbishop Iakovos first became America's Greek Orthodox shepherd, he
spent most of his time helping immigrants follow a familiar faith in a
That was in 1959. By the time he finished his 37-year reign, the
Turkish-born archbishop faced a different challenge -- helping American
converts find their place in the unfamiliar sanctuaries of Eastern
Iakovos knew that America would change the Greeks, challenging their faith
and traditions. He also knew that Americans would change his church, in
ways that would help an ancient faith reach modern America. He spent the
final decades of his long life wrestling with both sides of that equation.
"I cannot visualize what an American Orthodoxy would look like. ... But I
believe that it will exist. I know that it must be born," said Iakovos,
while visiting Denver's Assumption Greek Orthodox Cathedral in 1992.
"I do know this for sure. The essential elements of the Orthodox tradition
will have to remain at the heart of whatever grows in this land. The heart
has to remain the same, or it will not touch peoples' souls. It will not
be truly Orthodox. I know that this will happen here, but I do not know
when it will happen or how."
The 93-year-old archbishop died on April 10 without fanfare, although he
was an almost mythic figure among Greek Americans and mainline ecumenical
Soon after becoming archbishop, Iakovos met with Pope John XXIII, the
first formal meeting between an Orthodox leader and a pope in 350 years.
This opened a door for later reconciliation efforts between the ancient
churches of east and west.
The archbishop marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma,
Ala., and then appeared -- in his flowing black robes -- with King and
other civil rights activists on the cover of Time magazine. It was an
early glimpse of Orthodoxy on the main stage of American public life.
Iakovos met with presidents, earned a Harvard Divinity School degree, led
interfaith dialogues, asked Arab Christians to seek peace, lobbied for
human rights and, in 1980, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The official church obituary hailed him as a "role model for American
Greek Orthodox Christians, thoroughly committed to the vital democracy of
his adopted country without forfeiting the ageless values of Greek culture
or abandoning Greek Orthodoxy's spiritual and ecclesiastical roots in the
Church of Constantinople."
Nevertheless, it was a showdown with the hierarchy in Turkey that forced
In 1960, Iakovos pushed to create the Standing Conference of Canonical
Orthodox Bishops in the Americas to promote cooperation between Greeks,
Arabs, Russians, Romanians, Serbians and other Orthodox believers.
Then in 1994, he dared to chair a summit for bishops committed to
"bringing our household into order" and seeking a plan for Orthodox unity
The document released after that Ligonier, Pa., meeting boldly said: "We
commit ourselves to avoiding the creation of parallel and competitive
Orthodox parishes, missions, and mission programs. We commit ourselves to
common efforts and programs to do mission, leaving behind piecemeal,
independent, and spontaneous efforts, ... moving forward towards a
concerted, formal, and united mission program in order to make a real
impact on North America through Orthodox mission and evangelism."
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was furious, seeing this as an effort to
weaken ecclesiastical and financial ties with Istanbul. Then Iakovos
retired, stunning Orthodox leaders in America. His exit was an earthquake
and the aftershocks have not stopped.
Today, Orthodox unity here remains a dream. But it's impossible to study
the media, education and missions work that Orthodox churches are now
doing together without seeing signs of the changes that Iakovos believed
were coming. The problem is finding a way to express centuries of Orthodox
tradition in such a pluralistic, intensely Protestant land.
"Orthodoxy still has not found its niche yet in American life," said
Father Christopher Metropulos, executive director of the multi-ethnic,
convert-friendly Orthodox Christian Network based in Ford Lauderdale, Fla.
"It hasn't found its unique voice for speaking to this culture. I think the
archbishop knew that. ...
"But it is too late to stop the changes. We are working together. We are
starting to do mission work together. We are Orthodox and we are in
America. That's the reality."
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Terry Mattingly (www.tmatt.net) teaches at Palm Beach Atlantic University
and is senior fellow for journalism at the Council for Christian Colleges
& Universities. He writes this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News
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