Call it My Big Fat Greek Charter Dispute.

An ongoing tug-of-war between Greek Orthodox Church leaders and restive parishioners is poised to heat up this week as clergy and lay delegates converge on New York City for a biennial legislative assembly.

On the surface, the scuffle may seem little more than a family feud in a relatively small ethnic church. But, in many ways, the dispute holds important ramifications for what it means to be Orthodox in America as New World parishioners seek to loosen ties to Old World authority.

It also could delay long-cherished dreams for a single, autonomous, multiethnic Orthodox church in North America that would unite Orthodox faithful who are currently spread across nine separate churches.

Relations soured in February when 34 members of the U.S. archdiocese filed suit to block a new church charter, or constitution, that they insist is not the one they approved at the church's last assembly in 2002.

Now, lay activists say, church leaders are playing hardball.

Members of the grass-roots Orthodox Christian Laity (OCL) say two of their officers have been turned away from the Clergy-Laity Congress, runs from yesterday to Friday, and the group has been denied exhibit space.

In addition, they accused church leaders of trying to ram through last-minute bylaws that would implement the disputed charter, and failing to give delegates enough time to digest 52 pages of regulations.

"It seems like it's a whole Congress functioning without any rules. They're just making things up," said George Matsoukas, OCL's executive director. "They're really circling the wagons on this one."

Church hierarchs, meanwhile, have little sympathy for the group they cast as a bunch of disgruntled agitators who can never be satisfied.

"Our hearts all collectively bleed," said Bishop Savas, the archdiocesan chancellor, with not a small hint of aggravation.

The charter adopted in 2002 in Los Angeles allowed U.S. parishioners at least minimal input in the selection of archbishops and tried to carve out a degree of influence for the U.S. church in its own affairs.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Istanbul-based leader of world Orthodoxy, rejected much of it and "granted" a revised version last year that preserves more power overseas. Church leaders say that charter — the fifth since 1921 — is now binding and official.

Savas said the U.S. church makes recommendations, which are then considered by Bartholomew. "He has the prerogative not to act on those suggestions," he said.

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Parishioners filed suit alleging corporate misconduct, and asking a judge to force the archdiocese to continue under its most recent charter from 1977. That suit is still pending; the archdiocese has asked that it be dismissed.

Two plaintiffs, including OCL President Peter Haikalis, have been denied credentials to the New York gathering. Church leaders say the plaintiffs have failed "to respect and to be obedient to the ecclesiastical authority of our Holy Church."

"If you're suing an organization, can you go to the governing body of that organization? Can you be a member in good standing?" Savas said. "I'd classify that under `no-brainer.'"

OCL members plan to ask for a two-year delay on a new set of Uniform Parish Regulations, the bylaws that implement the charter and govern the day-to-day affairs of the 1.5 million-member church.

"You can't do the second step when the first step hasn't been approved," Matsoukas said. "They're putting the cart before the horse."

They also want more information about $1.5 million paid out by church officials over three years for clergy sexual misconduct cases. "A lot of people will want to know how this came about and who these clergy are that were involved," said Peter Marudas, an OCL member from Baltimore.

In a larger sense, lay activists say the ongoing dispute is alienating rank-and-file parishioners. They also fear that concentrating power in Istanbul will stymie eventual plans for a self-governing Orthodox jurisdiction that would bind together the nine major ethnic Orthodox churches in the United States.

The Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America approved its own autonomy July 16. The vote in Pittsburgh preserves most decision-making in the United States but allows some input by the Syria-based mother church.

Marudas said his church runs the risk of being shut out from an eventual united church. "The concern is that the Greek Orthodox not be left behind," he said.

Related Elsewhere:

In February, Weblog covered a lawsuit regarding the unification: Weblog: Greek Orthodox Group Power Battle Goes to Court | American Greek Orthodox sue archdiocese

Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America has news and events and Scripture readings.

More Christianity Today articles about Eastern Orthodoxy are available on our website.

Again Magazine, published by the publishing arm of The Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, devoted a recent issue to the subject of self-rule.

Orthodox Christian Laity has questions and answers about unification and self-government.

The Antiochian Orthodox Christian Diocese has information about its work and unification.

The Orthodox Church in America has information about its activities.

If you're unfamiliar with the Orthodox world, our sister publication, Christian History & Biography, devoted an issue to Eastern Orthodoxy.