A family squabble. That's how Stephen Sfekas describes the clash between the hierarchy and lay members of the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States.
Sfekas, a parishioner at the Cathedral of the Annunciation downtown, is an official of Orthodox Christian Laity, a reform-minded Greek Orthodox lay group holding its fourth annual national conference this weekend in Baltimore.
"Many church issues are not being addressed by the hierarchy, and over time they could become crises, even catastrophes," says Sfekas, a partner with the local law firm of Weinberg and Green.
"This isn't a political struggle,"he says. "It's more like an argument you see in a family. But that only makes it more painful."
Archbishop Iakovos, the New York-based spiritual father of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America since 1959, has responded by ordering clergy to stay away from the OCL event.
About 125 OCL members from around the United States are expected for the conference today through Sunday. Chartered in 1988, the OCL has 2,500 members.
The archdiocese says the church has about 2 million members in 555 parishes. The OCL says the membership figure is closer to 550,000.
The OCL contends that, in general, the archdiocese has become too centralized, and its 14 bishops refuse to hear the laity's suggestions on how the church is run.
More specifically, the OCL says, the church's foreign-born bishops continue to emphasize Greek culture, such as speaking and singing in Greek during services, thus driving away members who no longer identify with an "immigrant church."
"There's no denying our church has beautiful customs, icons and services, but we're seeing with some members, especially young people, that they want to be Orthodox but not necessarily Greek," says Sfekas.
Peter Marudas, also an Annunciation member and an OCL official, says the American Greek Orthodox church is "in danger of becoming a very narrowly focused ethnic institution. This would prevent us from having a widely accepted voice within Christianity and within the general religious life of this country. Andit would leave us unprepared for any move toward unity with the other Eastern Orthodox churches."
Also, Marudas says, about 80 percent of U.S. church members have non-Orthodox spouses.
The OCL fears that an ethnic church would discourage those spouses from joining the flock, and might cause intermarried couples to find compatible congregations elsewhere.
Sfekas claims the OCL is not a rabble-rousing group. Most of its members are 50 and older, he says.
"These are hard-core, committed church people who are tired of butting their heads against the wall," Sfekas says.
"They're frustrated at seeing their children leave the church. They feel closed off from the church they've given their lives to. They just want to have a say on how the church works," he says.
"We have retired executives who could contribute their business acumen to the archdiocese. Why not let them?"
Marudas, an aide to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, says he believes that the hierarchy and the laity are in conflict because 11 of the 14 bishops are foreign-born and less open to American-style democracy.
"[The bishops] aren't used to the idea of encouraging change by discussion and debate," says Marudas. "The OCL isn't worried about liturgical matters.
"We're just trying to get the hierarchy to open their thinking about how they do business, how they function, how they relate to people in other churches."
But a hierarchical church doesn't work that way, says the Rev. Constantine Monios, the dean of the Annunciation parish and the vicar of Maryland's 30,000 Greek Orthodox Christians.
"Everything should be done through the hierarchy," says Monios. "There are channels for the laity to have input [such as local and archdiocesan councils and a biennial clergy-laity conference]. The archdiocese wants people to have their say through those established channels, and I agree with that."
Besides, he says, "[The OCL] is a small group within the church."
Monios adds that he and the two other Greek Orthodox parish leaders in the area -- the Rev. Manuel Burdusi of St. Nicholas Church in East Baltimore's Greektown and the Rev. Ernest Arambiges of St. Demetrios Church in Cub Hill -- will not attend the OCL meeting.
Archdiocesan spokesman Jim Golding declined to comment.