Greek Orthodoxy in Australia

by Fr Miltiades Chryssavgis


The enormous influx of immigrants into Australia over the last few decades has increased the Orthodox population some seventy times over. Within the last thirty years the number of Orthodox Christians has increased proportionately more than any other Christian body in this country. There are now over two hundred Orthodox Churches throughout Australia, the Byzantine style of many oddly contrasting with the more familiar Western Church architecture. The integration of Orthodox Christians with other Australians, both Christian and non-Christian, extends throughout Australian society. Such assimilation has reached its peak with the second and third generation Australian- born Orthodox, who are now an integral part of the very texture of Australian society, and make their own positive contribution to Australian life, socially, culturally, intellectually and even politically.

Early history

Naturally the increase in numbers of Greek Orthodox faithful created an urgent need for a more organised pastoral ministry on the part of the Church. In the preliminary stages the Greek Orthodox people in Australia had developed warm relations with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which up until 1902 provided the priests, service books, and sacred vessels. The first priests sent from Jerusalem in 1898 were Fr. Seraphim Phokas for Sydney and Fr. Athanasios Kantopoulos for Melbourne. Thereafter, the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece took up the administration of the Greek Orthodox communities and provided their priests, with the consent of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, from 1903, and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople from 1908. Yet the character of ecclesiastical jurisdiction in the first years was unstable, as there was no resident Bishop locally to organise and supervise Church affairs.

As one might expect, the early Greek Orthodox communities in Australia were created primarily by the initiative of lay persons. Greek people were drawn together by the common faith and traditions which they enjoyed in their mother countries, and by difficulties of their new situation. An important change took place, however, on March 7, 1924, when the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople made use of his canonical right to assume jurisdiction over the Greek Orthodox Christians living in the Diaspora with a view to establishing the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia and New Zealand "for the better organisation of the Orthodox Church" in Australia. Ever since, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople has continued to exercise spiritual jurisdiction over the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia and appoints its Archbishop.

Church Organisation

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, which numerically constitutes the largest component among the Orthodox, is regionally divided into five Archdiocesan districts, with offices in the capital cities, and has over 100 organised parishes, with afternoon Greek Schools and community centres, and an equal number of clergy.

The general development of Greek Orthodoxy in Australia has proceeded along lines similar to the experience of other Christian communions and ethnic groups. One of its greatest initial concerns was to deal with the numerous social problems involved in the adjustment of a migrant population within a foreign environment. The Church has also strenuously sought to preserve and teach the integrity of the Orthodox faith, as well as work for the preservation of the mother language and cultural heritage of its people. In addition to these pressing problems of preservation and development, the Church has made considerable contribution to social welfare, education, youth work and general mission, to the extent that Greek Orthodoxy is now part and parcel of the Australian society.

While spiritual matters are determined by the Archbishop at the Archdiocesan level, other matters are decided by the Clergy-Laity Congress, to which every Parish/ Community sends both clergy and lay representatives. The Clergy-Laity Congress decides and formulates the common policy for religious, social, educational and cultural matters which concern the Church Communities. This policy is always subject to the approval of the Ecumenical Patriarch. Between the Clergy-Laity Congresses the Archdiocese is governed by the ruling Archbishop, who is assisted by his Auxiliary Bishops and an Archdiocesan Council of 12 priests and 24 lay persons. They represent all Archdiocesan districts and are elected by the previous Clergy-Laity Congresses. It is worth mentioning, rather briefly because of lack of space, certain pastoral projects conducted by the Archdiocese over the past ten to fifteen years; they include the publication of a monthly periodical" Voice of Orthodoxy", the weekly ecclesiastical radio programs, the annual visits of two Athonite monks and other prominent intellectuals for confession, lectures and general guidance of the faithful, and the annual pilgrimages of Greek Youth and of adults to Greece, Jerusalem and the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The special concern of the Greek Archdiocese for its youth was shown by the implementation of the decision of the Fourth Clergy-Laity Congress (1981) to hold Biennial National Youth Conferences and State Youth Conferences on alternate years.

The pastoral, educational and social work of the Church is carried out by clergy, Ladies Auxiliary groups and by a number of related charitable and religious bodies among Greek people. For the past ten years organised agencies such as Greek Welfare Centres, St. Basil's Homes for the Aged and Chaplaincy services at Universities, Hospital and Corrective Services' establishments have been operating in all States. At the parish level, there are catechetical schools, afternoon Greek Schools, youth groups and Ladies Auxiliaries. The youth are taught their Orthodox faith, the Greek language and the basic terminology of the liturgical language of the Greek Church. The Church plays a further role in education through the distribution of Greek Orthodox books and literature in both Greek and English, as well as by involving adolescents in activities of the Church. These range from youth groups in most community centres and parishes, to Bible study and discussion groups, community projects and Church mission. The youth also have their own forum in the life of the Archdiocese, meeting for regular State and National Youth Conferences.

The establishment of St. Andrew's Greek Orthodox Theological College in Sydney, which opened in 1986, is a very significant educational initiative by the Archdiocese. The college will train Australian born Greek Orthodox priests and teachers, and will open new horizons for education as an ecumenical forum for discussions between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Churches by providing courses relevant to the realities of Australian life.

The Orthodox Ethos

The Orthodox Church dates its existence from the time of Christ and the Apostles. It began in Jerusalem, Antioch, Cyprus and Greece, and has existed in these places since the days of the Apostles. From these cities and countries, missionaries brought the Gospel of Jesus to other countries, such as Russia, Romania and Bulgaria. It is known as the Greek Orthodox Church and has the same faith and the same ethos as the early Christian Church.

Despite the varied ethnic origins and cultures of Orthodox migrants, Orthodox people in Australia are characterised by a distinctive Christian ethos. They live and move in an atmosphere in which the sense of God's presence penetrates the whole cosmos. Their entire ethos is reflective of a distinctive way of life and theological outlook. This is apparent especially in their worship.

Take, for instance, the celebration of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, and the way in which both the clergy and the laity participate. They consider the Liturgy to be 'Heaven on Earth' and try to experience this reality in many ways. Bright and colourful vestments are worn by the clergy, in order to symbolise and make real the beauty of Heaven. Clouds of incense fill the Sanctuary and spread throughout the church as the deacons cense the icons and the congregation, signifying the elevation of their prayers to God's throne (Revelation 8: 3-5). Hundreds of candles are lit by worshippers in front of the icons, to remind themselves of Christ's light and of the warmth of God's love. The faithful move freely in the church, feeling at home in God's House. They frequently make the sign of the cross when they pray, to remind themselves both of Christ's sacrifice on the Cross and of their own cross in life. They usually stand or kneel rather than sit in prayer. They frequently make prostrations before the icons and their neighbours, to express their deep sense of respect for God and people, seeking forgiveness for their sins. They try to attain perfect reconciliation with God their Father and pray for the salvation of the world around them. And they seek to discover the presence of God in the strange land, which they have adopted as their temporal country.

For the Orthodox there is no barrier between this world and the spiritual world, between Heaven and Earth, between the sacred and the material. The 'other' world is so immediate and so real to them that they do not feel foreign or alien when in Church or out of it. The icons, both in church and at home, inspire a real presence and the worshipper talks to the saint represented in an icon as if to a living human person.

This element of immediate contact with the Kingdom of Heaven is further evidenced by the large number of major feasts. They reach their climax in the Feast of Feasts, the Holy Pascha (Easter), when everyone proclaims the joyful news of Christ's Resurrection with the Easter greeting, 'Christ is risen', and with the equally joyful reply, 'He is risen indeed'.

Another aspect of identifying with the 'other' world is the baptismal tradition of receiving one's name from a particular Saint, on whose Feast one celebrates one's name-day. Indeed, it is not one's birthday, but one's name-day which gives most occasion for celebration. Baptisms and weddings are also occasions for joyful festivities, both during the church services and at the parties which follow at home or in reception halls.

The Orthodox ethos allows no room for secularism. Orthodox hold that the entire creation is 'very good' in God's eyes and nothing is evil in itself. Humanity is called to deification, after the example of the God-Man Jesus Christ, and in a fallen world strives to achieve perfect union and communion with God the Creator. Consequently, icons and votive lamps, candles and incense are found not only in churches but also in the homes of Orthodox Christians. Along with the Holy Scriptures and Sacraments, they serve as the focus of worship and religious education. Within the Church the whole life of each person is sanctified and every moment of his life becomes a sacrament belonging to eternity. Thus in the sacrament of baptism the entire Church accepts its new member and in the mystery of marriage the entire Church witnesses the transformation of what is otherwise a mere physical union between two individuals into a personal union through the presence of Christ. It is significant that both these sacraments are not merely rituals carried out between the priest and the individuals concerned but real manifestations of the entire body of the faithfuL

All these external features characteristic of Orthodox spirituality and tradition are outward manifestations of the Orthodox faith and doctrine, on the one hand, and, on the other, they serve as windows through which the Divine enters into and transfigures the whole arena of our society. They all converge in "the phronema of the Spirit, which is life and peace" (Rom. 8: 6).

Perhaps, at the risk of generalising, one may say that the Liturgy of the Orthodox Church exerts a greater influence in the lives of Orthodox people than is the case with many other people. It is significant to note that when people think of contemporary Greek culture they are most often thinking of Orthodox liturgical rites celebrated in the local ecclesiastical communities. As already mentioned, what brings Greek people together in this country is above all else the need and desire to celebrate the Liturgy and Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Matrimony; rites which are absolutely fundamental to the religious and ethnic culture of Greek people in Australia. The incorporation of many popular elements, which do not stand in opposition to the Orthodox Faith, truly renders the Divine Liturgy the people's service, especially on the major festive occasions of Easter, Christmas and Patronal festivals.

The Orthodox Church does not primarily have a legalistic or institutional sense of her existence. Nor does she see the relationship of the people to Christ as something merely external, intellectual or moral. Rather, Orthodoxy constitutes a living witness and joyful celebration of God's presence. In the worship of the Church, the Liturgy holds the very first place, as the mystery of the mystical union of the faithful with God. It is the action which reveals the true nature of the Church.

Perhaps the leadership of the Church feels that it is not time for drastic change and innovation, since the majority of the Orthodox Communities are still largely administered by the pioneer migrants, who originally organised and erected churches not only for religious but also, and in some cases primarily, for educational and cultural purposes. However, in view of the changing attitudes in our society, one may seriously raise the question whether, for the purposes of an effective Orthodox witness in our society, the time is perhaps now overdue for the pioneer administrators to concede more and more initiative to the Australian-born Orthodox element, and for the latter to involve itself more responsibly in ecclesiastical affairs both at the local and national level.

from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia Directory, 1993

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