New York Magazine - March 8, 1999

Crisis In The Cathedral

By Christopher Bonanos

Even before he demoted Robert Stephanopoulos, popular dean of Manhattan's Holy Trinity Cathedral, Archbishop Spyridon was under ferocious attack from Greek Orthodox clergy and laity across America. Is the new archbishop getting a bum rap from a disgruntled splinter group? Or is he in way over his miter?

The meeting was noisy and argumentative, as church-basement events tend to be. Still, says Robert Stephanopoulos, “it went better than I expected.” Father Stephanopoulos, who is the dean of Holy Trinity Cathedral on East 74th Street, the highest-profile Greek Orthodox church in America — and yes, he’s George’s dad — had been called on this recent Sunday afternoon to address a few hundred very agitated parishioners. A week before, on January 20, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America had told Father Robert, as he is widely called, that he was being relieved of most of his duties.

He’d be kept on at the cathedral, according to the letter he had been handed, but largely as an aide to the new priest, Gabriel Karambis, who is also director of the national ministries for the archdiocese. A statement issued later that week had added that Stephanopoulos would retain the title of dean and take on some extra duties, in a new post involving the church’s boroughwide presence at hospitals and schools. (Stephanopoulos wryly calls it “the Manhattan Project.”) It was hard to see the move as anything but a severe demotion, however, and Father Robert’s supporters had called this meeting to express their anger and demand answers.

Dozens of parishioners had signed a letter to the archbishop of America, Spyridon, calling for him to participate in a sort of parish town meeting at the cathedral. But Spyridon was out of town. When Karambis came to the front of the room, he was nearly shouted down.

“He is still your priest,” Karambis said, munching on a piece of antidoron, the bread distributed at the end of each Sunday service. “Nothing has changed.”

“Stop chewing!” someone yelled out.

Tough crowd. Except for when Stephanopoulos spoke — clearly trying to put the best face on his situation while conveying that he wasn’t all that thrilled. Parishioners interrupted with applause after nearly every sentence. One woman came alive as he finished: “It’s ironic that you, who are most wronged, are being made to endorse this, Father.”

Someone asked about Spyridon and his motivation. “It’s his church, to do with as he pleases,” Father Robert responded, choosing his words carefully.

“It is our church!” a firm voice from the back of the room interjected, to more applause.

The bout with rebellious New Yorkers was just the latest in a series of escalating confrontations in the brief reign of Archbishop Spyridon, the ecclesiastical leader of the American branch of the Greek Orthodox church. Since he was enthroned in 1996, the archbishop, headquartered on East 79th Street in Manhattan, has had a ride bumpy enough to set his black kalimafi askew, if not knock it off his head altogether. Clergy and laity alike have expressed fury over what many describe as his despotic rule. Apparently installed to reel in the American parishes thought to be straying from the church leadership in Constantinople, Spyridon, the first American-born archbishop, has made a series of unpopular theological rulings and even less popular personnel changes. Statements of protest — one signed by the five top American bishops calling for Spyridon’s resignation, another signed by nearly a quarter of the Greek Orthodox priests in America (including Stephanopoulos) — have been delivered to the church leaders in the old world, only to be rejected.

In response, the archbishop has simply removed anyone who openly challenges him. Stephanopoulos “doesn’t deserve a demotion,” says an old friend of his, Maximos, the bishop of Pittsburgh. “It’s one of those cases where Archbishop Spyridon tried to get even with the guys who he considers his opponents — who he considers his enemies.”

Spyridon’s supporters contend that this is all about politics. The people driving the revolt are disaffected cranks, they say, still in thrall to his popular predecessor, Archbishop Iakovos. One prominent Greek-American leader says it’s no wonder Stephanopoulos was demoted: “He’s been kicking at the archbishop for three months. A guy in the Catholic Church who signed a letter criticizing the cardinal? He’d be in China immediately!”

So the punches and counterpunches continue, from angry press releases to firings to lawsuits and funds withheld in protest. A fortnight ago, Spyridon offered to resign, in a rhetorical, off-the-cuff remark that his office has since discounted. Whether Spyridon is a man peculiarly, even astonishingly, ill-suited to his job or simply a misunderstood figure clumsily growing into a difficult role, his tenure as archbishop has triggered a battle, religious and secular, that can be described — in the most literal sense — as Byzantine.

Iakovos, Spyridon’s predecessor and the archbishop of North and South America for 37 years, was a legend within the Greek-American world, and his black-hatted, white-bearded figure, which popped up routinely at political conventions and in the Oval Office, had over the years become familiar even to non-Greeks. He’d marched on Selma with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965, and the two made the cover of Life. Because of his charisma and his iconic status — and, some say, his ego — Iakovos had also consolidated a great deal of power.

In the years just preceding his retirement, Iakovos had hinted that it might be time for the American church to consider declaring its independence from the Old World. While the Greek church in America allows parishioners considerable say in running their affairs, power is still centered in the Phanar, the headquarters in Constantinople (the church uses the old name rather than the Muslim Istanbul), presided over by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. In 1970, the Russian Orthodox Church in the United States broke off from its mother ship, and it has been suggested that the American Greek church could do the same.

It’s not surprising that the American church would want independence; the American hierarchy is far more democratic than its counterparts. But it’s equally clear why Constantinople would be horrified at the prospect of losing 2 million of its more prosperous members; Greece itself has just 10 million. The Greek church, after all, is a Christian institution headquartered in a predominantly Muslim country — and, religious differences aside, the Greeks and Turks have carried on one of the world’s longest-running dysfunctional relationships. (The Phanar regularly gets pushed around by the Turkish government; someone even tossed a bomb over its walls in 1997.) Greece is also a relatively poor country and a traditionally corrupt one. American Greeks, on the other hand, hold an astounding amount of wealth — and visibility, too, from George Stephanopoulos to CIA director George Tenet even to actress Jennifer Aniston.

That all translates into funds for the Phanar. Few were therefore shocked by rumors that the independence-minded Iakovos’s retirement, though hardly unexpected — the man was 85 — might not have been wholly voluntary.

Who could follow him? On the face of it, Spyridon looked like a good bet. The Americans drawing up recommendations for the Phanar wanted someone in touch with American ways, who spoke good English, who’d tie together the Old World and the New. Spyridon was born George Papageorgiou in Warren, Ohio, the son of a doctor. His English is newscaster-perfect. Improbably, he’s a computer nut, capable of batting around the pros and cons of Netscape versus Internet Explorer. He is also comparatively young — 51 when he was enthroned two and a half years ago.

“I think everyone was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt,” Stephanopoulos says. “We knew there’d be a new man in place, and that things would be different.”

“I can’t say we weren’t hopeful,” says Helen Hadjiyannakis Bender, a Fordham Law School professor and former archdiocesan treasurer. “He did seem spiritual and humble and frugal.”

Spyridon is not, however, a squishy, folksingers-at-the-altar baby-boomer cleric. Most of his experience has been in Italy, Greece, and Turkey, with their rigid hierarchies. He’s spoken out harshly about the so-called Protestantization of the American church, meaning its tendency to let congregants run their churches.

The prospect of a stringently Orthodox church (Orthos dóxa, in classical Greek, means something like “correct belief”), in the old-world sense Spyridon is said to advocate, doesn’t sit well with many American worshippers. The on-and-off movement to change the service entirely into English — at the cathedral, the liturgy is part Greek, part English — would be squelched. Requiring non-Orthodox spouses to convert would risk driving younger people away, since about 90 percent of Greek-Americans marry outside the faith.

Taken to extremes, the drive to strict, fundamentalist orthodoxy could, some Americans worry, mean reinventing the church as a Christian equivalent of the Hasidim, alienating casual worshippers and cultural Greeks. In fact, Father Mark Arey, Spyridon’s communications director, implies as much: “Separatism isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You know, sometimes those little old ladies in the back of the church have far more faith than a lot of people with wealth and power.”

Since his enthronement, Spyridon has held a hard line on theological issues. While Orthodox priests may marry before they’re ordained, only celibate priests may hold higher offices, and Spyridon has chosen celibate priests over married ones for almost all his administrative appointments, presumably espousing the view that they are more committed to their calling. He also (just briefly) contemplated requiring priests to wear the traditional long beards and tall black hats one sees in Greece.

In America, the celibacy rule limits the talent pool sharply. “We graduated about 30 men a year,” says Tom Lelon, a former president of Holy Cross, the Orthodox seminary in Massachusetts. “Probably about 25 of those would be ordained as priests. Out of that number, there would be maybe three.” And, Lelon adds, many parishioners have an easier time talking with noncelibate priests. “A priest with a wife and children sometimes has a greater understanding of the problems of a family.”

More than a few churchgoers seem to think Spyridon is out of touch as well as out of step. After the recent Christmas Eve service at the cathedral, for example, parishioners commented on the unusual length of the service, and the fact that the bishop’s chair, which is traditionally positioned at the side of Greek Orthodox churches, had been parked front and center — facing the altar. One wonders what impelled the archbishop, amid a storm of protest about what is perceived to be imperious behavior, to conduct a major holiday service with his back to the congregation.

Within months of Spyridon’s enthronement in 1996, the Phanar gave each American bishop an additional title, metropolitan of a diocese in Asia Minor. (A metropolitan ranks above bishop but below archbishop.) Bishop Maximos of Pittsburgh, for instance, became the metropolitan of Ainos, a section of Thrace that hasn’t had an Orthodox community for nearly a century. The bishops’ new titles don’t carry real responsibilities, but they make them report not to Spyridon but to the Phanar. Spyridon also removed the bishops from the executive committee of the archdiocesan council, the church’s main lay-and-clergy governing body — and one whose remaining executives are named solely by Spyridon.

“How can you exclude the members of the highest administrative body from administering the archdiocese?” says Metropolitan Maximos, one of the displaced officials. “Spyridon did it to get back at us — just revenge against the bishops. He felt that the bishops, being on the executive committee, had the power to say no to the archbishop. He confided to us, ‘I’ll fix you. You don’t want to work with me, I won’t work with you.’ It’s exactly in the archbishop’s character. He doesn’t care about fairness. He just wants his way.”

Even Father Karambis, Stephanopoulos’s de facto replacement, said as much to the crowd assembled for the recent Sunday-afternoon meeting: “I know this is going to get a lot of you upset, but the church is not a democracy.”

Soon after Spyridon reorganized the council, he had to deal with the matter of a priest accused of sexually harassing a male student at the Orthodox seminary. A disciplinary committee was recommending that the priest be expelled. Instead, Spyridon installed, as the school’s new overseer, an archdiocesan vicar — who fired the three clergymen who had served on the disciplinary committee. (One, Father Ted Stylianopoulos, was tenured and had been at the school for 30 years.) When the seminary’s president, Father Alkiviadis Calivas, issued a press release objecting to the archdiocese’s intervention in the process, he too was fired.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the decisions of the archbishop have been disruptive to the school. Derailed it, even,” Calivas, on what he calls “terminal sabbatical,” says from his home. “There’s been a compromising of academic freedom.” Another well-regarded professor, Nicholas Constas, decamped for Harvard Divinity School — and, Calivas notes, “it’s not as if we have theologians growing on trees.”

Around the same time, at the archdiocese itself, the communications director, Father Alex Karloutsos — said to be the man more than any other who eased Iakovos out and found Spyridon to replace him — resigned, in what looked like a power struggle with the new archbishop. “You know that quote from Euripides? Unhappy Greeks are barbarians to each other,” he says today from his new post, parish priest of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Hamptons. Karloutsos says he left rather than work with a regime that leaves “lives crushed and reputations ruined.”

Accusations of financial mismanagement are floating about, too, though they’re somewhat murky. According to a suit filed by prominent attorney and parishioner Simos Dimas, Spyridon expected the archdiocese to buy him a house in Westchester (as it had done for his predecessor), but he made a 10 percent down payment of $139,500 without the archdiocesan council executives’ approval. The executives subsequently rejected the purchase, losing the cash. (According to some, this was when Spyridon angrily tossed the bishops off the executive committee.) The archdiocese doesn’t dispute that the down payment was forfeited, but ascribes it to a simple misunderstanding with the council.

Though the archdiocese is said to be running in the black after many years of debt, there’s a lot of legal infighting over those numbers, and a flurry of motions have been filed with the State of New York charging that the archdiocese is cooking the books. Dimas claims that chancellor George Passias, a Spyridon appointee, was receiving a large portion of his salary off the books, from a charitable fund administered by the archbishop. And, claims Dimas, $200,000 has just disappeared from an endowment fund intended for the Phanar.

The church says it’s all untrue: “As was done with the last lawsuit by Mr. Dimas,” says Arey, “we expect this one to be dismissed as baseless in fact. This is more of a nuisance lawsuit.... The archdiocese is, financially, running better than it has ever run. We’ve brought up the accountability standard very high.”

Greeks love nothing so much as a good political fight, and the discontented within the church quickly organized a dissident group called Greek Orthodox American Leaders. (Tom Lelon, the former seminary president, is one of the two executive directors.) GOAL, made up of both clergy and lay Greeks, found its initial support through a mass mailing to church members nationwide. The archdiocese promptly sued the group for using the church’s official mailing list. (A judge ruled in favor of GOAL; the church appealed; in late January, a judge dismissed the suit at the church’s request.) GOAL also issued a formal request for the archbishop’s resignation or removal.

By November, the situation had grown so contentious that more than 100 priests signed a letter criticizing Spyridon’s leadership. The five American metropolitans wrote their own report calling for his removal. Even the retired Archbishop Iakovos issued an extraordinary statement agonizing over how “a faithful people came to be torn apart or to be in the process of being torn apart.”

One major congregation, in Oakland, California, decided to place in escrow most of its 1999 contributions to the archdiocese, saying in a letter to Spyridon that the congregation “lacks confidence with the Archdiocese, more directly with you. There is a general perception that actions you have taken over your period of service have been detrimental to the church.” Several New England congregations pulled back their funds as well. Some frustrated church members in New York and elsewhere are also starting to withhold their individual contributions.

The Crisis” — as it’s inevitably called among those involved — came to a head in January. Patriarch Bartholomew called Spyridon to meet with the five American metropolitans, in Constantinople.

The metropolitans arrived at the Istanbul Hilton hoping they would return to America with a resolution. Bartholomew met privately with Metropolitan Maximos to sound him out, then with Spyridon.

The next day’s conference was over almost before it began. The patriarch acknowledged that a few of the archbishop’s moves had been ham-fisted, and reprimanded both sides for failing to embrace “love, understanding, and communication.” But one stern pronouncement counted more than any other: “He is the archbishop forever. He is until he dies.”

Soon afterward, the archbishop and four of the metropolitans spent a day meeting in Manhattan, then — all together, save one who had to leave early — held a press conference. Spyridon’s prepared statement suggested that maybe they’d worked out their problems. “Although it may be true that in the past we have had different interpretations and perceptions of events,” he read, “and although we may yet differ on individual issues, the most important message that we can convey to you this afternoon is this. We have a unified and mutually held commitment to the Sacred Center of our Faith.... There seems to be a tendency in our society to always look for the — I believe in politics it is called — the ‘wedge’ issue.... We believe that the unity of the Church and the unity of this Archdiocese.... is superior in every way to whatever differences that may or may not exist.”

Very well, the reporters asked the metropolitans, but: What about the report calling for Spyridon’s resignation? That was a private document, not meant for public consumption, one replied.

Is the call for resignation being rescinded? “We are committed to resolving the disagreements,” said Metropolitan Maximos, while Spyridon busied himself inspecting the middle distance.

Since he’s not going anywhere soon, the metropolitans seemed to be saying, we might as well make the best of things. Within days, Stephanopoulos was reassigned.

To Spyridon and his supporters, GOAL is a small group of malcontents with fierce loyalty to Iakovos and a knack for propaganda. “It’s a little group with a big checkbook, and they’ve been using their wealth to inflict pain,” says John Catsimatidis, the vice chairman of the archdiocesan council and possibly Spyridon’s most visible defender. “No matter who it is, these guys would be doing the same thing.”

Catsimatidis, who is chairman of the Red Apple and Sloan’s supermarket chains and a big Democratic fund-raiser, has tried to cast himself in the role of peacemaker (“Our job is to forgive — we’re a church”), but he has harsh words for GOAL: “I would say we’ve got a 97 percent approval rating on the archbishop around the country. The laypeople who go to church every Sunday have a lot of respect for his eminence the archbishop. The 3 percent are loudmouths — they’d never be happy.”

Unsurprisingly, Catsimatidis uses a business metaphor to describe the archbishop’s style. “It’s like a corporation,” he says. “A new guy comes in, he wants to choose his people. Spyridon came from a new continent, so he knew fewer people. The people he knew, that he felt comfortable with, he appointed. It doesn’t mean the people he didn’t appoint are bad.”

Spyridon himself remains a distant figure to his flock. “People don’t know what a warm person he is,” complains Mark Arey, the archdiocese’s spokesman. “Nobody writes about the tremendous love for the archbishop among the younger generation in the church.”

He may well be a nice guy, but it’s difficult to know: Through Arey, Spyridon has turned down nearly all interview requests outside the Greek press, including New York’s. “It’s the same old questions,” says Arey by way of explanation. “Everything’s about GOAL, GOAL, GOAL.”

People who have met Spyridon socially describe him as chilly. “He’s just not qualified for this position. You wonder how he could have risen to this point,” says cathedral board member Helen Bender. “I don’t feel hateful toward the person — I just think it was a very, very unfortunate appointment.”

“His people skills seem to be nonexistent, and this situation brings out the worst in him,” says another parishioner, who admits to feeling sympathy for the beleaguered archbishop. “As a computer geek, he’d be great.”

Opponents are still hopeful that Spyridon might be quietly removed once the fracas has cooled. But others say no. “I don’t think so,” Catsimatidis says. “I think the situation is getting better — things around the country are stabilized.”

Metropolitan Maximos is less sure: “Everything’s up to the mother church, which is never going to act under pressure, whether from the media or our laypeople, or not even the bishops. We cannot demand. We put them on guard — after that, it’s their business.” On the other hand, Simos Dimas, who has also spoken with the patriarch several times, says, “He will definitely be removed — the patriarch doesn’t remove him because he doesn’t know with whom to replace him.”

There is yet another possibility: That the archbishop will be rendered irrelevant. Placing the American bishops under old-world control has effectively shifted much of Spyridon’s power back to Turkey. In the long run, he may become simply the metropolitan of New York, with no more authority than the other diocesan leaders. “He’s become the bishop of Patriarch Bartholomew Way,” says Odyssey magazine publisher Gregory Maniatis, referring to the commemorative street sign on the archdiocese’s block of 79th Street.

The irony is that the figure who was installed to bring together the major branches of the institution has rendered them far more divided than ever. GOAL has been hinting darkly that as American congregations grow fed up with the archdiocese, the prospect of an autocephalous American church grows stronger.

The real schism, though, may go deeper. “Archbishop Spyridon thinks that for you to express your views, especially even talk back to your spiritual leader, you are his enemy,” says Maximos. “This is America, that’s how we do things in America — that’s how I handle my guys around here, with great freedom to speak up. My church is a council. And we cannot do anything without accountability, even to the last member of our church. No one lords it over anyone else. Is this the holy Orthodox church of the past 2,000 years? That’s my question of conscience.”

[ New York Magazine - - March 8, 1999 ]