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Movement grows for removal of Greek Orthordox leader

NCR Staff

Two and a half years ago, the appointment of a new archbishop sent ripples of excitement through the U.S. Greek Orthodox church. Archbishop Spyridon, a native of Warren, Ohio, was to become the U.S. church’s first American-born leader.

That excitement was short-lived. Soon after Spyridon took office in September 1996, rumors began circulating about his autocratic, regressive approach to leadership. In recent weeks, discontent has reached what many describe as a crisis, marked by persistent calls for Spyridon’s removal and even threats of schism.

In an extraordinary challenge to church authority, the five metropolitans of the Greek Orthodox Church in America went to Istanbul and, in a five-hour meeting Jan. 12 with the ecumenical patriarch, reportedly requested that Spyridon -- their boss -- be reassigned. The metropolitans, whose role is analogous to Catholic bishops in prominent sees, went to the Phanar, the Vatican of Eastern Orthodoxy, armed with a document castigating Spyridon for his role in tensions and divisions that seem to grow worse with each passing month.

The metropolitans’ document described Spyridon’s behavior as “hyper-papal” and “paranoid,” seeing “enemies” at every turn, according to a report in the The Hellenic Chronicle, an independent Boston-based weekly.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of Greek Orthodoxy worldwide, rebuffed the U.S. church leaders, according to reports, reminding the metropolitans that Spyridon is “the archbishop forever ... until his death.” In a Jan. 15 statement, John A. Catsimatidis, president of the archdiocesan council and a staunch supporter of Spyridon, urged Orthodox Americans to unite behind Spyridon.

Schism -- that is, a break between the U.S. church and the patriarchate -- is a definite possibility, said Dean Popps of McLean, Va., spokesman for Greek Orthodox American Leaders. The organization, known as GOAL, is composed of influential lay leaders, some generous contributors to church coffers, who voted unanimously in December to redouble efforts to get Spyridon to step down.

The organization had first asked for Spyridon’s resignation or reassignment in March, accusing him of serious lack of understanding of the U.S. church.

According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, Bartholomew is deeply concerned and has warned Spyridon in a letter, “We are losing the church in America.” In the Orthodox tradition, the ecumenical patriarch is considered first among equals, but wields considerably less power than the Roman Catholic pope. In many countries, Greek Orthodox churches are self-governing. The largest group that Bartholomew exercises control over is the 1.5 million believers in the United States.

“We’re the biggest constituency, we’re unhappy, and they’re not fixing it,” Popps said, stressing that the problem is governance, not theology. “We are not about making the church more liberal or ‘Protestant,’ although we have been accused of that.” Rather, he said, the problem is an archbishop who “wants to roll us back to an immigrant, ghettoized mentality” by repressing the laity’s voice.

When Spyridon was appointed to succeed Archbishop Iakovos, “everyone was looking for really dynamic 21st-century leadership ... a church that would be inclusive,” Popps said, noting that 90 percent of Greek Orthodox marriages are now to partners of a different faith.

Iakovos, a churchman renowned for his strong stands on human rights, led the U.S. church for 37 years. He lamented recently in a speech that under Spyridon’s leadership the church was “in the process of being torn apart.”

Critics now note that the early enthusiasm over Spyridon’s appointment failed to account for his career, spent largely in cleric-run churches of Greece, Istanbul and, most recently, Italy. That formation has left him ill-prepared for an American church with an active and outspoken laity, his critics charge.

Sociologists have described the controversy as inevitable, if highly exaggerated in the present case, in an immigrant church struggling with pressures of inculturation in a democratic society.

GOAL was formed in 1997 after Spyridon fired the president of Holy Cross Seminary in Brookline, Mass., and three faculty members who had served on a disciplinary committee to review charges that a priest had sexually harassed a young seminarian. The committee recommended that the priest be expelled -- a recommendation that was never carried out.

Enrollment has dropped significantly at Holy Cross, prompting the metropolitans’ lament in their report to Bartholomew: “The most promising students are leaving.” The school is under investigation by accrediting agencies.

Charges of financial ineptitude have also plagued the archbishop. Earlier this year, the Archdiocesan Council reported “serious cash flow problems” exacerbated by Spyridon’s efforts to buy a $1.4 million home without the council’s approval. Last year the archdiocesan financial director resigned, reportedly because of concerns over the handling of church funds.

But Spyridon’s most controversial action was to file suit last year against GOAL, charging that the group had misappropriated the church’s mailing list. The metropolitans had urged Spyridon to drop his suit. The archdiocese lost its case.

Spyridon has not responded to his critics directly, but his supporters have characterized the critics as a dissident minority among 1.5 million church members. At a news conference in early January, Spyridon described the church as vigorous and healthy. He cited an $8.87 million yield in a fund-raising campaign, an increase of $400,000 over the previous year.

GOAL leaders predict, however, that archdiocesan funds will seriously suffer. They noted that two parishes in the Northeast have already cut off support.

National Catholic Reporter, February 12, 1999