Orthodox Christianity is the prevailing religion in Greece. The religion and the state are formally divided, as claimed in the constitution. Nevertheless, around 90% of the Greek population identifies as an Orthodox Christian. Because of it, religion is still a fundamental pillar of the Hellenic nation.
With the term “Greek Orthodox Church” we refer to several different churches of the Eastern Orthodoxy. They all share the common heritage of the Byzantine Empire, and their liturgy is in “Koine” (common) Greek, the language of the Empire.
The Eastern Orthodox Church separated from the Roman Catholic Church in 1054, with the so-called “Great Schism”. One of the main reasons was the dispute about the role of the Roman pope. Indeed, the Head of the Greek Orthodox Church is considered to be Jesus Christ. The Patriarch of Constantinople is just a “first among equals”, not the Head like the Roman Pope. The different churches are autocephalous (they rule themselves), but they are united in communion with each other. A peculiar trait of the Eastern Orthodoxy is the veneration of the icons of the Saints (“iconography”) and the extended worship of the Virgin Mary.
The Church of Greece
The Church of Greece is the branch of Greek Orthodoxy ruling over the Hellenic territory since 1833. It recognizes the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople, but its formal “leader” is the Archbishop of Athens.
The privilege of the Orthodoxy as the “prevailing religion” of the country has many consequences. The Greek state pays for the salaries and pensions of the members of the clergy. The rates of those payments are comparable to those of teachers. The canon law of the Church has official recognition when it comes to the administration of the Church itself. Religious marriages and baptisms have the same legal value as the civil ones. All students officially considered to be Greek Orthodox have to attend Religion classes in school. The “Ministry of National Education and Religious Affairs” is responsible to deal with any matter concerning the relationship between State and Church.
Such a deep connection between education and religion makes the effective “separation” between State and Church quite doubtful. Any kind of proselytism in an educational context regarding any other religion but the Orthodox one is forbidden.
A pious country
In the last years, the younger generations have claimed to have drifted apart from the teachings of the Church. They consider the rules and dogmas to be antiquated and not fitting the modern society. Nevertheless, most of the population seems to be quite devoted.
It is not rare while riding a bus in a major Greek city that most of the passengers on it make the sign of the cross at the sight of a church. Considering the frequency of churches in Athens or Thessaloniki, it is a rather physically challenging feat. A casual visit to any random church will be enough to see many devotedly kissing the icons of the saints. In the times of a global pandemic claiming the lives of many people all over the world, such a sight is quite surprising.
Some dubious statements
The power and influence of the Greek Orthodox Church are undeniable. With such a significant impact on so many levels of society comes great responsibility. The intervention of the Church in the educational system allows it to shape future generations. Even now, most of the Greek population keeps the opinions of the clergy in high regard. Keeping that in mind, some of the statements of some members of the clergy have appeared pretty singular.
In 2020 the ruling body of the Orthodox Church took a position against yoga practices. They stated that such practices have “no place in the life of Christians”. Such a statement has been the answer after Greek media openly recommended yoga to fight stress during the Coronavirus pandemic. Just some months before that, in the first phases of the pandemic, the same ruling body defended the religious practice of Eucharist. Such a practice involves sharing a common spoon, which brings a high risk of infection. Nevertheless, the Church claimed that the disease could not transmit that way.
“Faithful of all ages know that coming to receive the holy communion, even in the midst of a pandemic, is both a practical affirmation of self-surrender to the Living God and a potent manifestation of love”Holy Synod of The Greek Orthodox Church.
More and more Greeks protested against the absurdity of such claims. Recently a bishop of Cyprus faced police investigation after claiming that “homosexuality is due to abnormal sexual practices during pregnancy”.
With the modern Greek society in constant change, the Orthodox Church will have to redefine its role in it. If it fails to keep up, with time, it will probably lose any significance or importance.