NEWS STORY: Embattled Greek Orthodox archbishop resigns

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c. 1999 Religion News Service

UNDATED _ In an unprecedented action, the head of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America resigned Thursday (Aug. 19) following more than two years of increasingly bitter infighting with critics who said his authoritarian ways were out of step with the needs of today’s church.

Archbishop Spyridon, who led the New York-based church of about 1.5-million baptized members since 1996, submitted his resignation in a letter to the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Istanbul-based international Orthodox leader who appointed him.

Spyridon’s successor will be 71-year-old Metropolitan Demetrios Trakatellis of Vresthena, of the Orthodox Church in Greece. He had long been rumored as Spyridon’s likely replacement and has wide support among those dissidents within the American church who worked to force Spyridon out of office.

Bartholomew’s office said Demetrios would arrive in Istanbul on Friday to preside over a formal announcement of his appointment.

A respected scholar well-known among U.S. priests and metropolitans, Demetrios spent 1983-93 teaching at the church’s Hellenic College-Holy Cross Seminary in Brookline, Mass.

He also taught at Harvard University, where he also earned a doctorate degree in New Testament studies. Demetrios was also in the running to become archbishop in 1996, when the American-born Spyridon was appointed instead.

An announcement from the Phanar, as Bartholomew’s Istanbul headquarters is called, said Spyridon, 54, had been recalled to Turkey and will receive a new assignment”in the future.” In his letter of resignation, Spyridon said he would stay in office until Aug. 30. His resignation was announced to about 30 archdiocesan staff members assembled in a chapel at the church’s headquarters on Manhattan’s Upper East Side about 9:40 Thursday morning. “This is great news,”said Dean Popps, a Virginia businessman and spokesman for Greek Orthodox American Leaders (GOAL), the dissident groups that led the effort to oust Spyridon.”The big story is that the lay peoples’ voice was heard.” However, John Catsimatidis, a Spyridon loyalist who heads the Archdiocesan Council, said”it’s a sad day for the church. I think it’s very sad that as Christians certain people would rather see the church burn down than see compromises. I never believed that was the Christian way … Naturally, we hope the new archbishop will have more support from the overall community.” Spyridon’s ouster marked the first time in the 77-year organized history of the U.S. Greek Orthodox church that its reigning prelate has been ousted over internal criticism of his job performance. However, a predecessor, Archbishop Alexander, was reassigned in 1930 as a result of his involvement in Greece’s political strife.

Spyridon’s removal is all the more remarkable because of the tradition of strict hierarchical authority that has been a hallmark of Eastern Orthodox churches. His reassignment underscores the degree of change that American culture has had on what a century ago was an immigrant church.”This is a huge stroke for the laity,”said Popps.”It shows the power of the laity. It’s no turning back from here.” The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America is the largest, wealthiest and most visible of the various Orthodox Christian churches in the United States.

Opposition to Spyridon’s rule first surfaced following a 1997 incident at Hellenic College-Holy Cross school.

In what his critics said was an attempt to cover up a sex scandal involving a student and a visiting cleric, Spyridon ousted the school’s president, its librarian and two professors. His actions were perceived as authoritarian and capricious, and angry church activists organized to engineer his removal from office.

Following a complaint to them, two accreditating agencies investigated the New York-based archdiocese’s administering of the school, an action that threatened its accreditation. The church has since promised to reform its handling of the school, and the threats have been lifted for now.

However, the incident left a lasting division within the church, and gave rise to charges that Spyridon routinely ignored the church’s constitutionally guaranteed powers granted to the metropolitans, priests and lay leaders in favor of one-man rule.

There were also allegations of inappropriate financial dealings by the archbishop in relation to real estate deals and heavy-handed attempts by him to silence critics.

One such critic was the Rev. Robert G. Stephanopoulos, the popular dean of New York’s Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, who had most of his authority lifted by Spyridon after he publicly opposed his leadership. Stephanopoulos is the father of former White House aide George Stephanopoulos.

Various dissidents filed law suits against the archdiocese, which fired back by asking a court to prevent GOAL from using the church’s official mailing list. A judge ruled against the church, and the infighting led to dozens of stories in the news media that cast the church in a bad light.

Despite the escalating controversy, Bartholomew appeared to be sticking with Spyridon and ignoring calls for his removal from the five senior American Greek metropolitans, more than 100 priests and a dozen or so parishes around the nation that voted to withhold their annual donations from the archdiocese’s national coffers until he was gone.

Last January, the five metropolitans met with Bartholomew in Istanbul, only to be told to return to the United States and find a way to work with Spyridon.

However, in recent weeks Greek and Greek-American newspapers reported that Bartholomew had changed his mind. Spyridon was reportedly finished, and all that remained was for the ecumenical patriarch to find a face-saving way to remove him and install a replacement.

The final straw sealing Spyridon’s fate, said the papers, was pressure from the Greek government for his removal. Athens became”intensely concerned”that the growing split with the church over Spyridon’s leadership compromised it’s ability to lobby on behalf of Greece’s interests in Washington, said Stephen P. Angelides, executive editor of GOAL’s”Voithia”Web site.

Spyridon was born George C.P. George in Warren, Ohio. His father, a Greek immigrant, moved the family back to Greece when his son was 9. At 15, Spyridon returned to the United States, graduating from high school in Tarpon Springs, Fla.

He then returned to Europe to become a Greek Orthodox priest. He served as the ecumenical patriarch’s representative to the World Council of Churches in Geneva, as the chief Orthodox official involved in official dialogue with the Vatican, and the metropolitan of Italy before returning to the United States as archbishop.

He came to the post amid optimism within the church that, as its first American-born leader, Spyridon might be particularly in tune with the unique needs of church members reared on American-style independence and participatory democracy.

Under his immediate predecessor, Archbishop Iakovos _ who eventually also publicly denounced Spyridon’s leadership _ a movement for greater ecclesiastical autonomy from the ecumenical patriarch took root within the American church. Some church members sought to make the American church autocephalous, or self-administering, as are many of the national Orthodox churches of Europe and the Middle East.

Activists, many of whom later sided with GOAL, also sought the unification of the various American Orthodox churches that to this day still reflect their Old World ethnic divisions.

Spyridon, a chainsmoker who rarely smiled in public, was believed to be sympathetic to autocephaly and the creation of a uniquely American Orthodox church that included Russian, Serbian, Albanian, Bulgarian, Syrian, Ukrainian and other Orthodox believers.”We are not talking of imposing unity, we’re talking of constructing unity,”he told Religion News Service in September 1996.”I think the American people are for such unity.” But just one year later, Spyridon was embroiled in the fallout from his actions in the Hellenic College-Holy Cross case, putting an end to the widespread support the new archbishop enjoyed upon his arrival.

Rather than backing changes in the church, his critics saw him as actually working to scuttle moves toward independence from the ecumenical patriarch and the formation of a pan-Orthodox American church. Such actions on his part were give by critics as the reason why Bartholomew, who sought to maintain his authority over the U.S. church, stuck by Spyridon as long as he did.

DEA END RIFKIN

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