One Calling In Christ - 2005

Unexpected Consequences:
The Revolt Against Archbishop Spyridon
in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, 1996-1999
Andrew Walsh

There's a certain foolhardy quality to this paper. Only five years have passed since Archbishop Spyridon Papageorgiou's resignation as Greek Orthodox Archbishop of America was announced on August 19, 1999. The "Spyridon episode" was an important, and certainly a traumatic event in the life of Orthodox America. Unquestionably, it will go down in the collective memory as the most dramatic dispute in the Greek Archdiocese since the 1920s. In addition, more than any other Orthodox crisis in American history, it attracted the attention of non-Orthodox observers. Diego Ribadeneira of the Boston Globe, who was one of the first journalists to report in 1997 on the firing of four members of the Holy Cross faculty for defying the archbishop, commented on Spyridon's eventual resignation by asserting that the dispute had reached a "level of public discord virtually unheard of in a religious denomination." In the fractious United States, that is saying a lot.

Scholars, journalists, and other outsiders are also interested in the crisis because of the striking role in shaping the crisis played by the Internet, then just achieving its current ubiquity. So, both inside and outside the circle of Orthodoxy in America, this is a significant episode. But by the usual standards applied by historians, this is all barely yesterday's news. It is impossible at this early date to form anything like a full assessment based on archival records. To state only the most obvious important obstacles: we still know almost nothing about the motivations, policy discussions, or interventions of such important players as the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Greek government, or of figures like Archbishop Iakovos, the other American bishops, or even the key lay leaders on both sides of the dispute. So, why be so foolish as to hold forth in a way that can only be seriously limited?

My fig leaf is that this paper was not my idea. I was asked by the organizers of the conference to make this attempt, largely because they thought holding a conference on the role of the laity in Orthodox America without attempting to assess the impact of the Spyridon crisis did not make much sense. It is also the case that the proper organizational role of the laity in the Greek Archdiocese and in other American jurisdictions remains a highly contested matter. It is worthwhile, therefore, to begin developing at least a preliminary assessment of the course and meaning of this upheaval.

There is also a more positive basis for defending my presumption. Two important sets of sources do exist for examination and evaluation. The first is the enormous and miscellaneous Voithia archive developed over the course of the three year episode. It includes more than 3,000 items, ranging from official church documents to scholarly treatises, to the flaming apologetics of combatants, to puzzled interjections of folk living out in the provinces struggling to get a grip on the dispute. By itself, it's an extraordinary body of evidence that captures many elements of a heterogeneous social movement. The second source is an authorized biography of Archbishop Spyridon by the Greek-Canadian journalist Justine Frangouli-Argyris, The Lonely Path of Integrity, Spyridon, Archbishop of America (1996-1999).[1] She had access to the archbishop and to his notes, papers, and diary in the preparation of her study. Together, they offer enough material to offer a provisional interpretation.


Contending master explanations emerge from the two sets of sources. The first was succinctly characterized by the very experienced San Francisco journalist Don Lattin, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle in March of 2000: "Archbishop Spyridon...was forced from office following a tumultuous three-year reign. At only 54 years of age, Spyridon had been expected to lead the American church for decades, but his authoritarian style clashed with priests and laity seeking a stronger voice in church affairs." The kernel here is the claim that an authoritarian leader provoked a revolt by laity and priests interested in defending their rights to share in the governance of the church. Many also believed that the Orthodox Church had developed its own local traditions over the course of a century in the United States and that these demanded defense from the encroachments of the patriarchate and other outsiders.

A contrary view is reflected in the Lonely Path of Integrity, a retrospective and in many ways forensic document. Its master explanation is that Spyridon was fated to fail. His biographer argues that Spyridon, betrayed by his patriarchal patron, "lived by and ultimately fell defending the banner of 'Orthodoxy-Hellenism,' intertwined notions on whose axis his turbulent career was doomed to turn." This paladin was caught between the millstones of a "neo-papal" Patriarchate desperate to regain functional control of the church in America, one the one hand, and a liberal, Protestantized clergy and lay leadership threatened by "the restoration of Orthodox Byzantine tradition in the Archdiocese of America," on the other.

You will not be astounded to learn that I'm too cautious to embrace either of these master narratives. This was a complex crisis involving a large number of "players" who all had varying and evolving motivations and goals. I think it's useful, at this early stage of diagnosis, to argue that the revolt against Spyridon is best regarded as a social movement that crystallized when Spyridon, a man of particular temperament, goals, and motivations, was dropped into a situation where significant tensions were at play.

Let me begin by summarizing briefly a group of background factors that shaped the events of the late 1990s in the Greek archdiocese.

First: A long-term trend had been established of successful hierarchical efforts to restrict the formal role of the laity in the governance of the American church, especially at the diocesan and archdiocesan level. Beginning with Archbishop Athenagoras in the 1930s, a series of archbishops worked with more or less skill to put the genie of lay control back into the bottle. Examples of this include the reforms associated with Athenagoras in the 1930s that created a centralized archdiocese and ended lay and clerical participation in the election of bishops. The adoption of mandatory Uniform Parish Regulations (UPR) in 1964 and the transformation of the Archdiocesan "Mixed Council" from an elective and representative body into an appointed and largely advisory Archdiocesan Council, which took place at the same time, are further examples. This trend, which is not restricted to the Greek archdiocese among the American jurisdictions, continues as exemplified in the recently promulgated archdiocesan charter and the revisions to the UPR that took place in 2004.

At least partly as a result of the first trend, levels of tension were rising in the Greek Archdiocese in the 1980s, with a cluster of issues related to the acculturation of Orthodoxy in America in play. One of these manifestations is exemplified by the organization of the Orthodox Christian Laity (OCL) group in 1987, which sought to muster a lay constituency to press for the rapid unification of the multiple Orthodox jurisdictions into a single American church, a church that would move beyond ethnic divisions and identities. OCL held a theological orientation deeply influenced by the notion that Orthodox church governance is "conciliar," as well as "hierarchical," a point of view that developed most notably in the Paris School of Russian theologians and popularized in America by influential figures including Alexander Schmemann, John Meyendorff, and Kallistos Ware.

Others were mobilized by renewed arguments about the permanent and irreducibly Greek character of Orthodoxy and by a newer factor, the rise of self-conscious "traditionalism" among many Orthodox. Factors here include the long-term significance of a vocal cohort of Greek immigrants who arrived after 1965. Connected to them, at least to some degree, was the dramatic rise of Orthodox monasticism in America during the 1990s, most especially through the offices of the Elder Ephraim, former abbot of the Athonite monastery Philotheou, who organized an unparalleled national network of monasteries in the late 1980s and early 1990s, all of which forbade the use of English in worship.

Perhaps the site where these tensions were felt the most strongly was this place, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. Disputes within the faculty about a range of issues developed into a serious and semi-public struggle in the early 1990s. Among the issues at play were how to balance "traditional" Orthodox sources and styles of instruction with American models of higher education, and especially theological education. Should Holy Cross aspire to produce genuinely bilingual graduates? Should it follow the educational model of the American graduate school of theology or the Greek "ecclesiastical school?" Should Holy Cross be understood as narrowly-focused institution tasked to train Greek Orthodox priests, or as a more ambitious institution that aimed to engage the larger society, and to give theological training to women and to students who aspired to scholarly careers? Many of you know far more about this than I do, but certainly it is no coincidence that, when the crisis came at Holy Cross in 1996 and 1997, Fathers Alkiviadis Calivas, Theodore Stylianopoulos, and Emmanuel Clapsis were on one side of the struggle, and Father George Dragas on the other.

A fourth, although latent, tension involved the growing dissatisfaction in the 1980s and 1990s of the diocesan bishops with the centralized ecclesiastical structure of the archdiocese, which gave the most profile and most apparent authority to the archbishop, and much less to the bishops in their regional jurisdictions. The archdiocesan charter of 1977 had taken several steps to enhance the position and authority of the diocesan bishops, but little further public discussion ever took place during Archbishop Iakovos' tenure about the ideal balance between archdiocesan unity and local diocesan autonomy.

In addition, several major external factors were also important, the chief of which was the collapse of communist governments in the late 1980s. While positive in so many ways, the liberation of the churches of Russia, Romania, Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria triggered a whole series of destabilizations that are still working themselves out. I would argue that the implications of the end of communism were most threatening for the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Because of the almost total evaporation of its domestic constituency in Turkey — to have a future as the "first among equals" in world Orthodoxy the patriarchate had to galvanize and reassert itself before the full force of a revived Russian church could be felt. Bartholomew Archandonis, first as metropolitan of Chalcedon and then, after 1991, as patriarch, would rise to the challenge of revitalizing the patriarchate by reasserting its authority in many parts of the Orthodox world.

In this Orthodox world, one of the most important potential zones of conflict was in the "Orthodox Diaspora," where substantial groups of Orthodox emigrants and converts had established themselves in Western Europe, North America, and Australia. During the communist decades, the Ecumenical Patriarchate had little effective competition for leadership in its attempts to coordinate and establish Orthodoxy in new places, but not much coordination was actually achieved during the twentieth century.

The Inter-Orthodox Preparatory Commission meetings at Chambesy, in Switzerland, in 1991 and 1993 should be seen as evidence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate's will to revive, to be the source of leadership in addressing the problems of world Orthodoxy. The documents produced at Chambesy, which suggest that the problem of multiple jurisdictions in places like the United States could be overcome in steps by nurturing the evolution of nascent organizations like SCOBA into national assemblies of bishops, seemed, in the mid-1990s, to point toward an accelerated union of Orthodox jurisdictions in the Diaspora. And Patriarch Bartholomew was the chief author of the Chambesy documents.

Yet, from the vantage point of 2004, it is clear that the statements produced by the American bishops at the Ligonier Conference of December 1994, which appeared to put the Chambesy theory into practice, moved far more quickly than Patriarch Bartholomew—and perhaps other Old World patriarchs, as well, anticipated. Further, the announcement at Ligonier by the bishops of all nine jurisdictions belonging to the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of functional American unity did not accord with Patriarch Bartholomew's sense of the emerging needs of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. As the global rivalry with the Patriarchate of Moscow resumed, Bartholomew had too much to lose to countenance the rapid and uncontrolled welling-up of American sentiment for a single church. He had, apparently, anticipated a slower evolution, more firmly under his control. And so he reined in the Greek bishops who participated in the Ligonier conference, and demanded Archbishop Iakovos' resignation, which took effect in the summer of 1996.

Caught out of phase in this process, was a celebrated speech given at the 1994 Clergy-Laity Congress by then-Metropolitan Spyridon of Italy, who represented the patriarchate at the congress. Delivered five months before Ligonier, Spyridon's call for an end to "ethnic ghettos" in American Orthodoxy was widely interpreted as a rebuff to recalcitrants who clung to the notion that Old World-based ethnicities should continue to dominate American Orthodoxy. Many of those who heard or read the speech seem to have assumed that it reflected Spyridon's own point of view, which now seems unlikely. In any case, Patriarch Bartholomew's vigorous action to check autonomous movement toward American autocephaly shifted prospects rapidly. In 1995 and 1996, Spyridon was widely perceived, at least in the United States, to be an unlikely choice for Archbishop of America precisely because of the views he had expressed at the Clergy Laity Congress in Chicago.


According to Spyridon's biographer, the new archbishop brought a series of assets with him to New York in 1996 to replace Archbishop Iakovos: restless intelligence, a good education, a record as a hard worker, and deep commitment to the patriarchate. The biography presents Spyridon as the product of a profound and traumatic experience of immigration. But in this case it was of immigration from Ohio to Rhodes, where he arrived as a nine-year old who spoke little Greek and understood little about Greek culture, religion, or society. As he adjusted and grew into adolescence, Spyridon committed himself to both Greek identity, and to a cosmopolitan European identity. His father sent him to study language in France, in Germany, and, indeed, in Tarpon Springs, where he went to high school to refresh his English. Before his election as Archbishop of America, Spyridon ministered as a priest and bishop entirely in the context of the small Greek Orthodox community of Italy, hemmed in by the immense force of Italian Catholicism, and the trials of emigration.

Successful by most measures, Spyridon built the Metropolis of Italy from nothing into a small, but functional and engaged Orthodox jurisdiction. By his own account, he accomplished this through force of personality, by imposing his understanding of proper Orthodox ecclesiology on reluctant communities and by besting Greek diplomats in a prolonged series of struggles to liberate resources they controlled for his archdiocese. It is also clear from the biography that Spyridon's life was punctuated by a series of grave fallings-out with authority figures and bosses, beginning with a parish priest on Rhodes, moving up through graduate school advisors, and early ecclesiastical superiors. Later, when he spoke to American journalists, many were surprised by Spyridon's conception of leadership as the triumphant imposition of individual will. That is how he portrayed his pastorate in Rome, and that is the attitude he took with him to America — regardless of his brief from Patriarch Bartholomew.

Spyridon came to America persuaded that he could succeed in a difficult mission — beating back the forces of liberalism and Protestantization and strengthening the position of the patriarchate — only by imposing his will on the American church and by replacing the old circle of archdiocesan leadership with "his own people." That was easier to do in Italy, with only 20 parishes, than in the United States, which has about 550, as well as the additional burden imposed by the realities of American volunteerism.

To Archbishop Spyridon's lasting misfortune, Patriarch Bartholomew made the nature of the archbishop's mission to American crystal clear. Speaking before the Holy Synod on July 30, 1996, the patriarch told his new exarch to America: "You bear many qualifications, of which the crowning your unlimited fidelity and devotion to this venerable Ecumenical Throne...It was this last virtue of yours over all others that the Mother Church looked (for) when reaching her decision. For if even one...of her hierarchs has every talent, every qualification, and all other virtues, but does not have unlimited devotion and blind loyalty and lifelong gratitude, he is nothing, nothing is gained, but a noisy gong, or a clanging symbol." The patriarch may have been reflecting on his troubled relationship with Archbishop Iakovos, but this was a disastrous introduction to carry to America. Immediately, Peter Steinfels quoted the remark in his New York Times story announcing Archbishop Spyridon's election.

Orthodox leaders in America got the message. When Richard Vara of the Houston Chronicle asked Father Louis Christopoulos of Annunciation Cathedral in Houston what he expected, the priest replied: "Working directly and closely with Archbishop Spyridon, Patriarch Bartholomew will have a lot to do with the church in America," he said. "For the last few decades, the central figure has been the archbishop, but now the central figure will be the patriarch, with the archbishop fulfilling the patriarch's wishes."

Then-Bishop Maximos of Pittsburgh was also forthcoming about his expectations, telling Ann Rogers of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that the disassembly of the Archdiocese of North and South America announced by Patriarch Bartholomew as part of the place to replace Iakovos would be good for the church in the United States and marked an important step in the changes that he himself sought for America. "Under the old system diocesan bishops had little voice, the archbishop and the Clergy-Laity Congress spoke for the church." Maximos said that he expected that the current status of the diocese would be elevated to more independent metropolises. "We will have a strong synod of metropolitans, headed by an archbishop," he told Rogers.


Justine Frangouli-Argyris writes that Archbishop Spyridon's first exposure to the problems of America was the blizzard of faxes about the division at Holy Cross that descended on his office in Venice after his election as Archbishop of America. These would turn out to be an accurate foretaste of his American career.

Archbishop Spyridon was installed as archbishop in the fall of 1996 and the public crisis of his ministry opened, just a few months later, on July II, 1997, when the Chronicle of Higher Education carried a story about the dismissal of three faculty members and the president of Holy Cross. News of ecclesiastical scandals rarely breaks in the Chronicle, but the unusual venue was the result of one key factor: a lay theologian (Valerie Karras) working at Holy Cross who was unwilling to countenance what she perceived as the violation of norms of American academic freedom, including such ideals as academic tenure and the autonomy of institutions of higher learning, by the new archdiocesan leadership. When the scandal went public in July of 1997, conflict had been raging over a series of issues at Holy Cross for many months. Archbishop Spyridon had evidently decided to begin his tenure by cleaning house. The decision to remove a group of clerical professors whom he considered too acculturated to American norms was consistent with his sense of the American problem, but probably didn't represent the patriarchate's agenda for the American archdiocese.

It was Valerie Karras, heroine or villain according to one's point of view, who took the struggle to resist Archbishop Spyridon's dismissal of the core faculty of the seminary to the public, and thus to the Greek Orthodox faithful over and around the boundaries of archdiocesan control. Since archdiocesan officials had nothing to say to reporters, the initial stories about the conflict at Holy Cross reflected the views of supporters of the faculty: that the dismissals reflected an authoritarian approach, usurped faculty rights at the seminary, and involved a conscious decision to cover-up a sex scandal allegedly involving homosexual priest-graduate students from Greece. The key culture-war element in the dynamic is that the graduate students disciplined by the faculty were vocal critics of what they called the American faculty's anti-Greek, anti-traditional, and anti-patriarchal views.

It isn't really possible at this point to render a judgment about Spyridon's motives, but in attempting to dismiss the four faculty members and to change the school's administration on the grounds of his authority as hierarch, the archbishop risked a great deal at an early moment in his tenure. Evidently, Spyridon was unhappy about many things at Holy Cross, but, characteristically, he chose a strategy of confrontation rather than a longer-term strategy of co-optation and gradual change that might have generated far less effective resistance.

Two evident failures to assess the potential fortrouble were involved: First, the archbishop and his advisors failed to calculate how damaging charges of harboring homosexual misconduct could be in the American context. Second, they failed to appreciate how central the four faculty members, and especially Fathers Calivas and Stylianopoulos, were to a large network of Holy Cross graduates or how influential their stance toward the evolving identity of Orthodoxy in America was among priests and educated laity.

The mobilization of this network followed the time-honored process of word of mouth communication, but in the summer of 1997, activists adopted a new communication technology that broadened and deepened the protest movement with dramatic speed. A circle of Boston area lay activists, including Karras, George Stevens, a dentist, and Harry Coin, a computer industry professional, launched a World Wide Web site that became a catalytic agent, providing a platform for alternative news and opinions for discussion about the state of the church. The web site, which evolved quickly into a site called Voithia (Greek for "help"), took hold at a critical point in the evolution of communication technology in the United States — just past the moment when many Americans had Internet connections at work and home but before the subsequent inundation of Internet options. Stevens and Coin had long been participants in online Orthodox and discussion groups and they had the strong sense that, by using the Internet, those unhappy with Archbishop Spyridon's policies could break down the monopoly on information enjoyed by archdiocesan publications like the Orthodox Observer and the archdiocese's own web site.

In intervening at Holy Cross, Spyridon had aimed to divide and conquer, but he failed to mobilize his own resources or to cultivate allies before taking action. Instead, he relied on the unilateral authority he expected an archbishop to be able to exercise. In a stroke, Spyridon alienated both laity outraged by homosexual scandal, and a large segment of the clergy that admired the Holy Cross faculty and worried that the patriarchate was sacrificing Orthodox interests in America for the sake of a stronger position in the global inter-Orthodox rivalry. This became the commonplace point of view expressed on Voithia, and the circle of those turning to the Web site grew larger and larger as more Orthodox picked up the rumblings surrounding the seminary.

Within a few months, lay groups like OCL, and a new organization, Greek Orthodox American Leaders (GOAL) were rallying to support the Holy Cross faculty and to oppose Archbishop Spyridon. In this movement, GOAL rapidly became more prominent than the OCL, both because of it provided the funding that kept Vothia online, and because there were significant policy distinctions between the two groups. OCL was, and is, a pan-Orthodox group. When it spoke of autocephaly, it meant trans-jurisdictional unity and a new American Orthodox church. GOAL, despite Archbishop Spyridon's repeated charge that it was a vehicle of pan-jurisdictional autocephaly, was narrowly focused on the Greek archdiocese. Whenever it raised the threat of autocephaly, it meant the creation of an independent Greek Orthodox jurisdiction in the United States.

To a significant degree, GOAL formed in order to demonstrate that high-profile lay leaders (John Collis, Peter Dion, and Thomas Lelon, to name a few) opposed Spyridon, and to underwrite Voithia, which had become a large enterprise in a few months. Its membership was not public, but its leadership included many men and women of high stature, including current and former members of the Archdiocesan Council. As Archbishop Spyridon repeatedly observed, many were lay leaders during the Iakovos years. But the group also included a number of younger, highly committed, but less well-known figures such as the California administrative judge Steve Angelides and the Washington businessman Dean Popps, who soon became energetic presences on Voithia and in American newsrooms.

What distinguished this group, and what made GOAL a significant force in this middle phrase of the crisis, was the skill of its leadership in creating and expanding networks of lay people concerned about the controversy. In this period, logging onto the Voithia web site because a daily ritual for hundreds of laity and clergy who were trying to assess what was happening in the archdiocese. GOAL, often informed by the positions of lay theologians like Karras and James Counelis (developed by OCL before Spyridon's tenure), spoke to and for educated members of the laity, and especially to those who had experience serving the church on parish councils. GOAL's influence grew, because its leadership was adept at networking and worked hard at the task.

In this formative period, GOAL succeeded in framing the crisis. The group's leaders, for example, made a conscious decision to focus on the alleged homosexual scandal at Holy Cross. They estimated, quite correctly, that this would mobilize opposition more effectively than critiques of the archbishop's alleged authoritarian approach to leadership. The phrase "gay archimandrites" soon permeated the discourse and was used effectively to de-legitimize the central administration.

The dispute around Holy Cross grew in notoriety through the winter of 1997-98, with increasing press coverage and a growing network of people who came to label themselves "contras." in the spring of 1998, Spyridon appointed a group of four lawyers to investigate and report on the roots of the Holy Cross crisis, but then rejected the compromise solution they offered him, which divided blame for the crisis at Holy Cross, but suggested that the dismissed clergy should be reinstated.

The archbishop's refusal to modify his position turned the Orlando Clergy-Laity Congress of 1998 into a sort of referendum on the Holy Cross affair, pitting Spyridon's claims that Holy Cross was an ecclesiastical institution that should be under the total control of the archbishop, against those who argued that it was not only an Orthodox seminary, but also an American institution of higher education, with academic freedom and protections for faculty. In a highly charged atmosphere of intrigue and conflict, a coalition of Spyridon's critics found a way to move a resolution calling for the reinstatement of the Holy Cross faculty onto the floor of the congress, and secured a narrow victory.

More or less simultaneously, Spyridon's biography suggests that he had begun to struggle with the other members of the Eparchial Synod. His major conflict with them came over their desire to have their dioceses elevated into more independent metropolises, a development which Spyridon viewed as a proposal to demolish the authority of the central archdiocese. After who knows what wrangling, the patriarchate attempted to split the difference between the archbishop and the diocesan bishops by naming the five senior diocesan bishops as titular metropolitans of the Patriarchate but leaving their dioceses as less-than-independent metropolises. During this struggle, Spyridon conveyed his unhappiness by removing the diocesan hierarchs from the Archdiocesan Council's executive committee.

From the fall of 1998 through the end of the crisis in the summer of 1999, a block of five bishops worked together to oppose Archbishop Spyridon. They were: Metropolitian Methodios of Boston, Metropolitan Maximos of Pittsburgh, Metropolitan Iakovos of Chicago, Metropolitan Isaiah of Denver, and Metropolitan Anthony of San Francisco. George Papaioannou, a parish priest who was elected first as an auxiliary bishop and then, on March 19, 1999, as bishop of New Jersey, was also strongly associated with the group. Described in the archbishop's biography as a "sworn enemy," Bishop George, a well-connected graduate of the patriarchal seminary at Chalki, drafted many of the key episcopal documents that criticized Spyridon.

In the wake of the Orlando Clergy-Laity Congress the diocesan bishops moved into revolt by asking, eventually publicly, that the patriarchate remove Spyridon as Archbishop of America because of the unrest among the laity he had provoked. A cascade of events followed. All of the American bishops were summoned to meetings in Istanbul in September 1998, where the patriarch criticized Spyridon's policies. In September, Spyridon filed a federal lawsuit against GOAL claiming it had stolen the archdiocesan mailing list, which it was using to publicize its complaints. The five diocesan bishops then denounced the suit in an open letter published in the National Herald on October 1, followed by an even stronger public denunciation published on October 14. That was followed by a letter signed, eventually, by 105 priests of the archdiocese in support of the diocesan bishops. By that time, the dispute had grown more complex, with issues ranging from Spyridon's style of emphasizing the centrality of Greek identity in the church, and the charges of the bishops that Spyridon was capitulating too much to pressures from laity in archdiocesan governance, to widespread lay complaints about the refusal of the archdiocese and patriarchate to take the problem of Orthodox unity in America seriously.

The patriarch then called Archbishop Spyridon and the bishops to Istanbul in January 1999 to adjudicate their disputes. Spyridon's critics hoped that this would be the moment of his removal. Patriarch Bartholomew did not do that, telling the bishops that Spyridon was their archbishop for life. "You must find a way to cooperate with him," the Patriarch was quoted as saying in the National Herald. Spyridon, in turn, was told that he must include the bishops in the governance of the church. Voithia expressed its viewpoint with the headline: "Black Tuesday."

If it had leaned toward Spyridon in January, the Constantinopolitan synod then swung in the opposite direction in March, when it elected three new bishops to fill vacant episcopal sees in the United States, naming candidates supported by the five metropolitans, rather than by Spyridon, in two of the elections. That left Spyridon overwhelmingly outnumbered and isolated on the Eparchial Synod.

Over the course of that winter and spring, the press picked away at Spyridon's attempts to chivvy priests and others back into line by publicly rebuking or demoting senior priests including Robert Stephanopoulos and Athanasios Demos, who were both serving in the Archdiocesan District but increasingly associated with the dissidents. The secular press heckled Spyridon with increasingly hostile questions. For example, Christopher Bonanos, writing in New York magazine on February 21, 1999 rhetorically asked whether the archbishop was "a man peculiarly, even astonishingly ill-suited to his job, or simply a misunderstood figure clumsily growing into a difficult job. "While he continued to visit parishes, Spyridon spoke less and less with the press. "It's the same old questions," Father Mark Arey, Spyridon's press officer told New York. "Everything's about GOAL, GOAL, GOAL."

In July, as rumors flew in Turkey, Greece, and the United States, the patriarchate summoned Spyridon to Istanbul, where his resignation was demanded at a meeting of senior hierarchs on July 12. The next day, Spyridon submitted a one-line letter of resignation and within a few weeks the Holy Synod in Constantinople had elected a successor, Demetrios Trakatellis, a metropolitan in the Church of Greece, who had taught for many years at Holy Cross.


As this account suggests, the crisis over Archbishop Spyridon had two distinct phases. In the first, from the summer of 1997 through the Orlando Clergy-Laity Congress of 1998, the crisis was defined and largely shaped by GOAL and Voithia, in other words by laity who were primary mobilized by the threat that they (and many of their priests) perceived to Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. At issue were both respect for American modes of governance and the desire to defend the achievements of a distinctively Greek-American style of Orthodoxy that had developed between the 1930s and the 1990s. Holy Cross was widely understood to be the most important expression of this American Orthodoxy and many were willing to defend it.

Archbishop Spyridon himself could never be persuaded that there was any significant opposition to him, surely a stubborn misperception. Instead, he insisted throughout that the church faced two challenges in America. The first was "a spirit of secularization and laicism, as a result of Protestant influence," centered, particularly at Holy Cross. The second was the manipulations of a handful of "friends of the Patriarchate" (with Father Alexander Karloutsos, the patriarch's personal representative in America, and Michael Jaharis, the long-time vice-chair of the Archdiocesan Council, as its ring leaders.)

In a report to the patriarch written in 1998, Spyridon argued that "should the secular and lay spirit derived from Protestantism be set aside, and should canonical Orthodox traditions be appropriately stressed among our faithful, the Ecumenical Throne's canonical jurisdiction over this eparchy will be ensured forever."[2] To achieve those ends, he stressed three policies: "promoting and highlighting the canonical bonds between the Holy Archdiocese of America and the Ecumenical Throne," the improvement of the Department of Religious Education, and the creation of "favorable conditions that will help foster an authentic Orthodox environment at Holy Cross School of Theology."

With Archbishop Spyridon unwilling to make any conciliatory gestures at all in his handling of matters at Holy Cross, or to check his criticisms about the dilution of Orthodoxy he perceived in America, the concerns of a fairly broad range of laity and priests grew and grew, as did pressure on the patriarchate from many different quarters.

During the fall of 1998 there was, however, a significant shift in the leadership of the revolt. The "lay phase" of the controversy ended and bishops, both in the United States and Turkey, moved to the fore. To a significant degree, but not one that can be precisely assessed at this point, the American bishops were mobilized that fall because they realized they had to rush to catch up with the movement that had erupted behind them. It is clear that the diocesan bishops received both considerable new support during this period, as well as experiencing strong pressure to move against Spyridon. By acting collectively and by moving in the same direction as GOAL, they ended up boosting their legitimacy as authentic leaders of the American church.

Through this second phase in the crisis, the bishops received strong support from GOAL, on Voithia, and in Greek-American newspapers like the National Herald and the Hellenic Chronicle of Boston. In the spring and summer of 1999, the most powerful card possessed by the bishops was their implied threat collectively to withdraw from the patriarchate and establish an independent American church. While they themselves never broached this publicly, a break with Constantinople was often urged by individuals on Voithia, many of whom saw the patriarchate as consistently subordinating the interests of the American church in order to buy more time for itself. With a large group of laity and priests mobilized behind the bishops, the possibility of schism had to be taken seriously.

It was at this point that the patriarchate folded, ordering Spyridon to resign and replacing him with Metropolitan Demetrios Trakatellis of Vresethena, a scholarly bishop of the Church of Greece who had lived and taught for many years in the United States. Demetrios was hailed by the leadership of GOAL, by the bishops, and by many priests who had been his students as the right man to pick up the pieces. "Now we have the person we were dreaming of to help us do the job as a community, to represent the best interest of our church and its future," Metropolitan Maximos told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on September 19, 1999. "We have regained our church."

By most accountings at that time, the Spyridon years ended with the regional bishops, and the organized laity in a position of unparalleled influence. The patriarchate, on the other hand, seemed to have squandered most of its goodwill in the United States as well as losing its most powerful gambit to rein in the American church. And in the broader American perspective, it seemed likely that the activists who put Voithia on line had demonstrated the unsuspected power of the Internet to generate a powerful protest movement inside a conservative and hierarchical religious body.

Five years later, the upshot looks considerably different.

In the interim, the bishops, riding a wave of enhanced prestige and support from the laity, have improved their position considerably. A new archdiocesan charter, granted by the patriarchate in 2003, enhances their ecclesiastical position considerably, making them full-fledged metropolitans of more autonomous metropolises, rather than titular metropolitans of dioceses still clearly subordinated to an archdiocese. The shape of the charter reflects the ambitions of the regional bishops and their desire for a less centralized American archdiocese.

More surprisingly, the apparent gains made by a mobilized laity have evaporated almost completely. GOAL dissolved itself soon after the appointment of Metropolitan Demetrios. OCL, after initial attempts to sway Demetrios to its way of thinking, found itself cut off, with the archdiocese refusing to deal with or acknowledge it and encouraging other Orthodox jurisdictions not to recognize the organization, either. Organized lay group initiative remained high in the first years of the new century, reaching a peak in 2002 at the Clergy-Laity Congress in Los Angeles, where the congress made clear its overwhelming rejection of key elements of the new charter drafted in Istanbul, and especially the patriarchate's decision that the congress have no formal role in approving the new charter. Despite the show of strong opposition, the patriarchate ignored the congress' objections and imposed its draft of the new charter.

OCL continued to organize against the new charter after it was promulgated in 2003, and even launched litigation to block the replacement of the 1977 Charter. Few observers expected that the suit had much chance of success, and, indeed, in 2004 the New York state courts threw out the suit and rejected an initial appeal. OCL's concurrent attempts in 2004 to mobilize broad-based support for its efforts to block or alter the revision of the Uniform Parish Regulations at the 2004 Clergy-Laity Congress in New York met little or no success. Several metropolitans even banned OCL members connected with the law suit from serving as parish delegates to the congress.

Neither OCL nor its critique of the failure of the American jurisdictions to move toward pan-Orthodox unification will disappear, but the group appeared to be pretty effectively checked. In addition, there have been strong and ultimately effective assertions of hierarchical authority over lay leadership in several parish disputes in recent years. Rebellious or uncooperative parish councils have been dismissed or de-recognized in Corona, New York; Charlotte, North Carolina, and in Houston, Texas. (The parishes in Charlotte and Houston are among the largest in the American church.) In Texas, appeals to the courts by lay disputants also failed.

This trend is not at all what most observers expected in 1999, when it seemed as though lay revolt had changed the terms of organizational life in truly significant ways.

It also appeared in the late 1990s that the arrival of the Internet and the interactive and activist Voithia web site had wrought some sort of permanent change in the dynamic of Orthodox life. Hitherto, news and network had flowed outward from jurisdictional headquarters to a thinly scattered Orthodox population. On the web, news, exchange of views, and mobilization spread widely and beyond the control official church sources. But with Archbishop Spyridon's removal, thousands of American Orthodox simply stopped checking into web discussion because there was no longer any crisis to track. With the dissolution of GOAL, there was also no longer any financial support to staff the site. Thus, it is clear that the existence of the Internet, in and of itself, did not drive the events of 1996-1999. The critical precondition for the social movement that erupted was the existence of a fairly clear constituency for Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and its "American" leadership. Once this constituency perceived a threat to the school and to the dominant ethos of the American church that it represented, it turned to the Internet to build a new communication and mobilization tool.

Perhaps the most surprising unexpected consequence of the Spyridon years was the recovery of patriarchal initiative. By 2003, the patriarchate, which endured savage criticism and had to unseat its choice as the leader of the American church, was showing the will and capacity to reassert its rote. It struck an alliance with Archbishop Demetrios and the American metropolitans and imposed a new charter over very vociferous objections. The new charter among other things moved the balance of institutional power away from the centralized, national archdiocese and toward a more collegial synodal structure. Whether this is good or bad remains to be seen, but people began asking who, if anyone, now has the institutional clout to set the agenda for the Greek Orthodox Church in America. Much depends on how well the metropolitans of the Eparchial Synod and the archbishop could work together, and persuade the laity to support the church beyond the parish more generously. If nothing else, under the new charter, the patriarchate expanded its role as referee, and retained the power to choose American bishops.

Much of the credit for this recovery belonged to Patriarch Bartholomew himself, and to his unswerving will to make the patriarchate a renewed force, not only in the United States but in many corners of the Orthodox world. His first step toward recovery came through meeting most of the demands of the regional bishops for enhanced status. However, it was Archbishop Demetrios who had done more than anyone else to re-legitimize the patriarchate in the United States. It was Demetrios' public assent to the patriarchate's assertion of its "prerogatives" in the drafting and imposition of the new charter, and his handling of the 2002 Clergy-Laity Congress that quelled the American rebellion Indeed, he gave stronger support to the patriarchate than any other archbishop since the 1940s, and perhaps in the history of the archdiocese. Where Archbishop Spyridon attempted to rule with an iron hand, and on the basis of an attempt to purge "American" tendencies in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Archbishop Demetrios achieved better results for the patriarchal program by being nice.


1 Justine Frangouli-Argyris, The Lonely Path of Integrity: Archbishop Spyridon of America, 1996-1999 (Athens: Exandas Publishers, 2002).
2 Letter Reference Number 134/98, from Archbishop Spyridon to Patriarch Bartholomew. Reprinted in The Lonely Path of Integrity, 335-336.

[ ONE CALLING IN CHRIST: The Laity in the Orthodox Church,
   InterOrthodox Press, Berkeley 2005, pp. 57-74 ]





See also:

  ►     Response to Walsh