Obituary: Archbishop Seraphim of Athens and All Greece

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The Independent Online
ARCHBISHOP Seraphim headed the Orthodox Church in Greece for nearly a quarter of a century at a difficult period of its history. He took over the church leadership at the end of the period of dictatorship and led it through the years of democratisation, secularisation and entry into European institutions, processes that have removed the Church's monopoly in many areas of national life. The Church tried to resist many of these processes - such as dilution of its privileged constitutional position, the institution of civil marriage and divorce and the legalisation of abortion.

It was during the final months of the colonels' regime that Seraphim became prominent. He was chosen over the then primate Archbishop Ieronymos to swear in as new president Phaidon Ghizikis, who came to power in November 1973 after President Papadopoulos had been ousted in a coup. Ieronymos protested in vain at this slight to his authority, but his protests were ignored. Seen as being too close to the old regime, Ieronymos resigned three weeks later.

Seraphim was to win the election for a new primate held at Petraki monastery on 12 January 1974, but the controversy surrounding the poll lingered. The regime had disqualified 34 of the 66 bishops in a bid to prevent one of Ieronymos's allies being chosen. Of the 32 who were still eligible, two boycotted the session, one walked out in protest and another refused to vote. Seraphim gained 20 votes and was duly approved by the regime. He was installed as Archbishop of Athens and All Greece four days later.

Seraphim set a careful course from the start, using his enthronement address to urge unity in the Church. "Forsake the hawks, for they stir up confusion and filth," he told the crowds in the packed cathedral. "Embrace the doves that bear the olive branch of peace." He pledged to reform the church administration, to fill vacant sees and restore good relations with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. In a coded reference, he also vowed to give everything, even his life, for "our unredeemed brethren", the Greek minority in Albania which was suffering ethnic and religious repression.

Within months of Seraphim's installation, Greece was wracked by further political turmoil and the Cyprus crisis, which precipitated the return of democracy. Seraphim had to tackle the perennial problem of relations with the state, in which he showed firmness tempered with flexibility, preferring to negotiate with successive governments behind the scenes.

One of his greatest challenges came in April 1987 when parliament approved a law to expropriate monastic land, redistributing some to poor peasants, and to take over administration of urban church-owned assets. Seraphim chose to compromise, allowing land redistribution while opposing nationalisation of church and monastery land. He also showed flexibility over the prime minister Andreas Papandreou's divorce and remarriage, despite criticism from members of the Holy Synod.

Seraphim also had to tackle relations with the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, which maintains primacy over the entire Orthodox world and direct control over the Orthodox Church in Crete, the Dodecanese and Mount Athos (with jurisdiction over parts of northern Greece shared with Athens). Despite the welcome given by Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios to Seraphim's election as Greek primate and Seraphim's early pledge, relations remained uneasy. Neither Dimitrios nor his successor, Bartholomew, ever made an official visit to Athens during Seraphim's tenure, despite recent attempts at a rapprochement.

Seraphim was born Vissarion Tikas in Artesianon near Karditsa in Thessaly and as a young man entered the monastery in Korona near Karditsa. He was ordained deacon in 1938 and after taking a diploma at the Theological School of Athens University in 1941 he was ordained priest the following year. During the Second World War he joined the resistance to the Nazi occupation, fighting in the Greek Democratic National Union (EDES), a resistance group led by General Napoleon Zervas which fought other resistance groups, especially the Communist- dominated ELAS, as much as it fought the occupiers. Seraphim helped relieve the widespread privations, including the provision of meals to starving children.

After the war he was clerk and later secretary of the Holy Synod, the governing body of the Orthodox Church in Greece. He became a bishop at a relatively young age, being consecrated Metropolitan of Arta in September 1949. After nine years he was transferred to the diocese of Ioannina.

There he played a key role in keeping alive the aspirations of many Greeks to gain control of the southern part of Albania (known as North Epirus) with its Greek minority. Seraphim was president of the National Committee for the Liberation of North Epirus until it was suppressed by the Greek government in 1972 when diplomatic relations with Albania were restored. He also participated as Metropolitan of Ioannina in the first pan-Orthodox conference, held in Rhodes in 1962.

Seraphim was intelligent and straightforward, with a direct way of saying what he thought. While firm on essentials, he was able to compromise on peripheral issues in what he believed were the long-term interests of the Church in Greece. Although much of his stewardship hinged on relations with the state, the Church has adapted to a greater distance from secular power while maintaining its authority and central position in Greek life.

Vissarion Tikas, priest: born Artesianon, Greece 26 October 1913; ordained deacon 1938 (taking the monastic name Seraphim), priest 1942; Metropolitan of Arta 1949-58; Metropolitan of Ioannina 1958-74; Archbishop of Athens and All Greece 1974-98; died Athens 10 April 1998.