Christianity Today - October 4, 1999

A Long, Slow Fall
After three troubled years, Archbishop Spyridon resigns.

By Shelley Houston

One of the darkest hours for Greek-American Orthodox passed by in mid-August with the resignation of Archbishop Spyridon, immediately followed by the appointment of a popular successor.

Spyridon's long, slow fall from power proves not only the importance of support from everday churchgoers, but also how a well-organized faction may gain significant political power.

For nearly three years, the 1.5 million—member Greek Orthodox Church in America has been gripped by the controversies spinning around Spyridon, who finally resigned under duress on August 19. The next day, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and the Holy Synod appointed the popular Metropolitan Demetrios Trakatellis of Greece.

Spyridon faced an unprecedented effort to force his ouster--from lay leaders, under the auspices of Greek Orthodox American Leaders (GOAL), from more than 100 priests, and from all five hierarchs in the Greek-American Church (CT, April 5, 1999, p. 24).

Resigned: After three years of controversy, Spyridon steps down.

Though Spyridon did have his share of supporters, many complained that his leadership style was heavy-handed and autocratic. There were also charges of financial malfeasance and the controversial firings of four priests by the archbishop at Hellenic College/Holy Cross in Brookline, Massachusetts. But Spyridon faces no investigations in connection with these allegations. Spyridon has been assigned by Bartholomew to the Metropolitanate of Chaldea and will receive a permanent reassignment later.

KNOWN QUANTITY: Both Spyridon supporters and critics are pledging to work with the new archbishop to bridge their differences.

Archbishop Demetrios, 71, was born in Thessoloniki, Greece. He is known internationally as a New Testament scholar and author; he lived in the United States for 20 years. Demetrios was a parish priest in Pittsburgh and received a doctorate in New Testament studies at Harvard Divinity School, where he later taught. He also taught at Holy Cross Orthodox Seminary for 11 years.

Father Tom Paris, dean of Annunciation Cathedral in Oakland, California, and a priest at one of a dozen parishes that voted to withhold funds from the Greek Archdiocese, is pleased by the appointment. "We're all relieved and grateful. Archbishop Demetrios is a brilliant and sensitive man. He visited our church four years ago [and] captured the hearts of everyone.

"I'm certain he's coming to America with a vision rather than an agenda. He's well prepared for the job and knows the American process of doing things. I believe he'll validate the role of the clergy and laity together."

Almost universally, Orthodox leaders agree that Archbishop Demetrios is "the best possible choice." Even those who were supportive of Spyridon seem to agree. But some Greek Americans say the campaign to rid the church of its highest official was shrill and needlessly divisive.

Welcomed. Even Spyridon supporters affirm Demetrios's appointment.

Father Thomas Hopko, dean of Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary in Crestwood, New York, notes, "Whatever one might say about this situation, they should know that this has happened before. History many times shows bishops who were appointed and later removed by the Synod. Not every appointment is proper. Yet look at Saint Nektarios. He was removed less than a year after his appointment, for whatever the reason, and now is a canonized saint in the Orthodox church."

While many people seem pleased with the outcome of this battle, some Orthodox view GOAL'S aggressive tactics as highly questionable.

Indeed, Hopko has concerns himself, saying, "We have to lower the temperature. As Americans, we need to be more humble and have a greater fear of God. This battle was sometimes fought with the wrong criteria.

"It's not a debate on rights, because rights are a gift from God. We're all fallible. We need proper criteria, a new atmosphere, and a proper way of addressing problems within biblical, traditional Orthodoxy."

In any event, Hopko believes Demetrios is an excellent choice. "He's an authentic, virtuous man. He'll humbly, slowly, gently bring intelligent, goodwilled people together. I believe he'll be a catalyst for others and help change the atmosphere to one of humility and love."

INTERCHURCH RELATIONS: Many also hope that the new archbishop will help smooth relations among Orthodox jurisdictions. There had been a growing movement toward a pan-Orthodox church in America. That effort was restrained when Bartholomew removed Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos, who worked toward unity in America. As Iakovos's replacement, Spyridon seemed to favor a return to Hellenism and stronger ties to the ecumenical patriarchate in Istanbul.

Bartholomew issued a statement to be read from all the pulpits soon after Demetrios's official appointment, which said, "We paternally exhort you from the depths of our heart ... to be united around him as with one soul and one heart, to accompany him in his difficult task, forgiving and committing to oblivion anything in the past which may have upset or dismayed or separated any members of the Archdiocese from one another."

Archbishop Demetrios is scheduled to be formally enthroned September 18 by retired Archbishop Iakovos, soon after his arrival, in a ceremony at New York's Holy Trinity Cathedral.

[ Christianity Today - October 4, 1999 - p. 24 ]
[ Christianity Today - - October 4, 1999 ]