Greek Orthodox community restores priests’ pay but asks for relief

(Kim Raff | Tribune file photo) Father Matthew Gilbert is one of three Salt Lake Valley priests of the Greek Orthodox Church.
Greek Orthodox » Parishioners wait to hear if a plan to cut clergy from 3 to 2 will be accepted.

It was far from a consensus, but the Salt Lake Valley’s Greek Orthodox community decided Sunday to restore full pay to its three priests.

Now it remains to be seen whether Metropolitan Isaiah — who oversees Salt Lake City’s Holy Trinity Cathedral and Holladay’s Prophet Elias Church from the faith’s regional headquarters in Denver — will accept the community’s concurrent request: to remove one priest as soon as possible.

Isaiah did not respond Monday to a request for comment. And the president of the Salt Lake Valley’s Greek Orthodox Parish Council, Dimitrios Tsagaris, isn’t speculating.

“I can’t speak for the Metropolitan,” he said. “The Metropolitan is the only one who has the authority to grant the request or to decide which priest might be moved.”

Restoring priestly pay while cutting the clergy count was central to a motion approved 220-215 by a special parish assembly called to defuse a dispute that had resulted in the Greek Orthodox churches’ Sunday services being canceled for three weeks after the council cut the priests’ pay by 40 percent in late July.

“We held this [special assembly] to hear what the parishioners wanted and this is what it is,” Tsagaris said of the vote, which attracted so many parishioners to Prophet Elias that cars were parked along Highland Drive for several blocks in both directions from the Holladay church. “It was a very orderly assembly. Everyone had the opportunity to speak.”

He declined to express disappointment over the assembly’s decision to overturn the council’s July 29 determination to reduce the pay of the three priests — the Rev. Matthew Gilbert at Holy Trinity, the Rev. Michael Kouremetis at Prophet Elias and the roving Rev. Elias Koucos — for the rest of the year to balance the Utah church’s budget. The council contended the cuts would save $125,000 annually.

Days later, Isaiah responded to the council’s action by ordering an end to all Sunday services, baptisms and weddings until the Salt Lake Valley parish restored full wages to the priests.

The acrimony intensified in the week before the special assembly. On one side, a group called “Protect Our Clergy” collected more than 500 signatures in support of the priests. Isaiah also threatened to dissolve the Parish Council.

On the other, a report by the council’s audit committee alleged that the priests had dipped into the church’s benevolence funds and used them for expenses of family members and a church employee.

The issue of the benevolence funds did not figure into Sunday’s debate, said participants in the parish assembly, which was closed to all but faithful Greek Orthodox members.

“The tenor of the meeting showed overwhelmingly that support for bringing the clergy back and keeping our churches open is most important to the vast majority of parishioners,” said Phillip Floor, a former Parish Council member who supported Protect Our Clergy.

He attributed the outcome to a “significant turnout by people who typically are quiet. They are regular, faithful Christians who stay away from politics. But this issue crossed the line and those people came out, and voted,” said Floor, noting he expects to be back in church Sunday for regular services.

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