Ecumenical News International
ENI News Service / 22 February 1999

Dissidents threaten schism as Archbishop Spyridon refuses to resign

By Chris Herlinger

New York, 22 February (ENI)--Despite repeated calls for his resignation, Archbishop Spyridon, leader of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, the biggest Orthodox church in the United States, has no plans to leave his post.

"He is not going to resign," Mark Arey, Archbishop Spyridon's spokesman, told ENI after Associated Press reported on 15 February that during a visit to Greece early this month the archbishop had offered to resign if tensions between him and some US clergy and laity were not settled.

Arey said the archbishop had been speaking "rhetorically" to reporters in Athens and that internal pressure within the archdiocese was not the proper "ecclesiastical process" to handle church disputes.

Arey acknowledged that the controversy over Archbishop Spyridon's leadership had reached "a critical juncture", but he refused to admit it was a "crisis". Nor did he believe it would cause a schism, something that could lead to an independent Greek Orthodox church in the United States. (The church in the US is under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomeos I, based in Phanar, Istanbul.)

"A schism will not occur when a group of lay people don't like the archbishop," Arey told ENI. A schism could only occur when a bishop "sets up an altar" in defiance of the archbishop.

"That is not going to happen," Arey said.

But a spokesman for the lay group that has been at the forefront in criticizing Archbishop Spyridon's leadership called the current situation "grave" and warned that it could result in an independent church in the United States. "There is a very serious crisis within the Greek Orthodox Church," said Dean Popps, a leading member of the dissident group, Greek Orthodox American Leaders (GOAL). If the current dispute were not resolved, he told ENI, US Greek Orthodox laity might ask Greek Orthodox clergy to form a self-governing church.

Popps said Archbishop Spyridon's comment to reporters in Athens, even if said as an off-hand remark, was a sign of the severity facing the New York-based archdiocese.

"I think the situation is extremely grave, and he [Archbishop Spyridon] and others in the archdiocese have been in a state of denial or even worse," he said. "I take it as an indication that they are finally admitting the gravity of the problem."

GOAL has long been critical of Archbishop Spyridon's leadership, alleging that he is out of touch with the reality of multi-cultural America, in part because he spent much of his career in Europe before being appointed as archbishop in 1996. The archbishop, aged 54, is originally from the US state of Ohio.

In his interview with ENI, Popps described Archbishop Spyridon as the "wrong choice for America" because of what he called the archbishop's "Byzantine and feudal ways" which were anathema to the American notion of "collaborative decision-making". GOAL has also made serious claims alleging widespread mismanagement of church finances.

But Arey said that GOAL's leadership had been singularly unfair to Archbishop Spyridon, who was acutely aware of the particular realities of the US but did not want the church to lose touch with its Greek roots.

Arey also said that GOAL had made unwarranted claims about the archdiocese's finances. The church was in fact on a secure financial footing. He also accused GOAL's leaders of using the Internet to spread unfair allegations against the archbishop and his supporters.

While the dispute between GOAL and the archdiocese has been simmering for some time, resulting last year in a court case over GOAL's use of an archdiocese membership list - a case which was eventually dropped - other recent events have magnified the dispute within the 1.5 million-member diocese, whose active membership is believed to be about 750,000.

In January Patriarch Bartholomeos, who appointed Archbishop Spyridon to succeed the popular Archbishop Iakovos in 1996, turned down a call by five presiding US bishops, or metropolitans, seeking the dismissal of the archbishop. The bishops told the patriarch that both laity and clergy had lost faith in Archbishop Spyridon. The archdiocese was "suffocating in an atmosphere of fear, suspicion, insecurity, lack of trust and vindictiveness", they said in a written statement.

In a subsequent interview with the Chicago Tribune, Patriarch Bartholomeos said that while the bishops needed to cooperate with Archbishop Spyridon, the archbishop "must cooperate with others too". But at the same time, the patriarch dismissed the possibility of an independent US Greek church, saying political democracy could not be applied within the church. "It is not possible," the patriarch said. "We are a hierarchical church."

Popps said that this notion was becoming increasingly difficult for the US Greek faithful to accept, and that he and others wanted to be "Greek, Orthodox and American at the same time". In order to do that, he said, the church needed responsive leadership.

"We're looking for 21st-century leadership, and it's not present in Bartholomeos and it's not present in Spyridon," he said. While debate between GOAL and other critics of Archbishop Spyridon centered on his leadership, Popps said, more recent debate had focused on "the system that created this".

"Self-governance is the issue that may be coming to a head," he said, adding that what had been a "festering sore" may result in "amputation".

But Popps said resistance to a schism would be strong by Orthodox leaders in Istanbul, given the financial strength of the US Greek Archdiocese.

Arey, meanwhile, downplayed the notion of any schism. He said the issue facing the church was not whether it should be "Greek" or "American", but what the identity of a Greek Orthodox Church in the United States should be in the 21st century.

"The question is: Are we going to work in an ecclesiastical way or a political way?" Arey said, adding that there was not "an American way" of running a church. "The strength of America is in allowing churches to work with ecclesiastical integrity," he said.

ENI has made several requests to interview Archbishop Spyridon but the requests have thus far not been granted.

[ Ecumenical News International - ENI News Service - 22 February 1999 ]