Voithia - October 29, 1997

Orthodox Faithful Embrace Patriarchate,
Bartholomew & Healthy American Unified Church
But Declining Confidence In Spyridon

By Stephen P. Angelides of Voithia

NEW YORK--The American faithful delivered twin messages to visiting Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in New York this past weekend.

The first was delivered on Saturday, October 25 at an academic convocation attended by over 400 at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Crestwood, where Bartholomew received an honorary degree from Metropolitan Theodosius, the leader of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA).

St. Vladimir’s is run by the OCA, which is the only autocephalous (totally self-governing) Orthodox Christian jurisdiction in America. The OCA was granted autocephaly by the Church of Russia in 1970, and Theodosius, who born in Canonsburg, PA, has been its leader for the past 20 years.

The convocation began with the routine exchange of prepared speeches by Theodosius, Bartholomew, and Rev. Thomas Hopko, Dean of the seminary. Theodosius and Hopko had sent their prepared speeches to Bartholomew in advance, so he could prepare his response.

But after Bartholomew’s response, which one observer described as “diplomatic,” the fireworks began. Theodosius launched into an unprepared speech in which he called on Bartholomew to use his visit to the U.S. to bring about Orthodox unity here.

“In all candor and in a spirit of sadness and repentance, we must admit that the witness of the Orthodox Church in American society is hampered, diminished, and even contradicted by our own divisions, our own wrong priorities, by our own ecclesial inconsistency,” Theodosius began. “While we confess the Church to be one and holy, we live in jurisdictional isolation and in an unholy ethnic isolationism,” he continued. “Thus, what we profess and affirm as our Faith is contradicted by how we live and act as a Church,” he stated.

“Your patriarchal visit to America is a genuine opportunity to help us all move beyond what hampers, diminishes, and contradicts the message and mission of the Orthodox Church,” Theodosius went on. “We all welcome you, we all look with expectation to you for a healing and visionary message which would equip us to bear witness to the Orthodox Faith with integrity, bringing a credible and consistent message to America,” he said.

“The Orthodox Faith is not intended to be a ghetto faith, a tribal faith, living within ethnic boundaries and enclosures,” Theodosius emphasized. “It is a faith for all humanity.”

“As you continue your patriarchal journey, your patriarchal pilgrimage across this land, we ask that you bear in your heart and in your memory our common Orthodox hope and vision for America,” Theodosius continued. “You will find that faithful who belong to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and to the Patriarchate of Antioch, and to the Orthodox Church in America, and to the other Orthodox Churches who are present in America, yearn for a day when unity in mission as well as canonical unity can allow Orthodoxy in America to attain to ’mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ,’” Theodosius concluded, quoting from Ephesians, chapter 4, verse 13.

Theodosius' unexpected remarks to Bartholomew were followed by an outburst of prolonged, sustained applause, which Bartholomew had no choice but to acknowledge. “Your Eminence Vladyko Theodosius, I thank you for your very kind words through which and through your expectations you have put a heavy responsibility on my weak shoulders," Bartholomew responded, "but I shall try to do my best."

Those gathered responded with loud applause, expressing their approval that Bartholomew had acknowledged Theodosius’ call for immediate progress toward Orthodox unity. During the applause, Theodosius made his final statement to Bartholomew, "I know with the help of God you will." With that, the applause continued even longer.

Bartholomew's response was somewhat sarcastic, because he called Theodosius "Your Eminence," a lower ranking title than his proper title, "Your Beatitude," and because he referred to him in a formal setting as "Vladyko," which is an informal term for "Bishop." Nevertheless, Theodosius overlooked the finer points, and was reportedly "very pleased with the whole response.” The audience left feeling uplifted and hopeful.

Theodosius’ remarks and Bartholomew's response marked a significant moment in the quest for Orthodox Christian unity in America. Until then, Theodosius and Metropolitan Philip, the leader of the Antiochian Archdiocese in America, had not publicly expressed their impatience with the lack of action by Bartholomew toward uniting Orthodox Christians in America.

In fact, it was Bartholomew himself who derailed the progress toward Orthodox unity by forcing Iakovos, the former Greek Orthodox Archbishop of America, into retirement. Iakovos had led 28 bishops of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America (SCOBA) in calling for progress toward administrative unity among the various Orthodox jurisdictions in a meeting held in late 1994 at Ligonier, Pennsylvania.

At the time, Bartholomew’s action against Iakovos puzzled many, because in moving toward Orthodox unity Iakovos had merely followed the lead of Bartholomew’s representative, Spyridon, who at the time was Metropolitan of Italy. Spyridon had come to America in July 1994 as Bartholomew’s official representative and had delivered an inspiring speech to the national Greek Orthodox clergy-laity congress calling for Orthodox unity in America.

Last year, Bartholomew and his synod of bishops in Istanbul, Turkey, appointed Spyridon to replace Iakovos as the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of America. At his enthronement, Spyridon immediately won the hearts of the Greek Orthodox in America by walking over and embracing Iakovos on his way to the front of the Cathedral.

But since then, Spyridon’s brief tenure on the American throne has followed a downhill course. He has taken a number of arbitrary unilateral actions, which have generated a firestorm of criticism in the normally staid Orthodox world.

Spyridon’s best known action was his abrupt firing this past July of the president and three professors at the Greek Orthodox seminary in Boston. All those fired had been members of a disciplinary committee which had unanimously recommended the expulsion of a celibate Greek priest (Archimandrite) who was a graduate student at the seminary, after the committee had found that the Archimandrite had sexually assaulted an underclassman at a drunken party that took place during lent in the dormitory room of another Archimandrite.

Although the students at first lied to try to cover up the incident, that failed because the underclassman had punched the Archimandrite in the eye to stop the sexual assault, so the incident came to light when the Archimandrite sought medical attention for his injured eye. After the disciplinary committee recommended expelling the Archimandrite, the new dean, Rev. George Dragas, stalled the matter until after the Archimandrite had received his graduate degree and returned to Greece.

Nevertheless, the committee decided to finish its work, but Spyridon ordered it stopped. After the committee refused, Spyridon abruptly ordered the dean and the professors fired, in violation of established academic and legal rules and procedures.

Dragas resigned as dean at the same time. However, he continues to teach at the seminary, even amid allegations that he plagiarized an entire book that he published several years ago, and that he recently sought to have republished by the seminary.

The seminary is now facing very serious problems. The Association of Theological Schools, one of the seminary’s accrediting agencies, earlier this month wrote to Bishop Isaiah of Denver, the Boston seminary’s new president appointed by Spyridon, that it would be making a “focused visit” to the school following a review of a formal complaint.

The complaint was filed by Dr. Valerie A. Karras, who was formerly the school’s Assistant Director of Institutional Planning. Karras also filed similar complaints with the New England Association of Schools of Colleges, which will join in the focused visit, and the Massachusetts Board of Education, which is also expected to do so. In an act which typifies the caliber of decision making under Archbishop Spyridon's brief tour in America, Holy Cross President Bishop Isaiah (appointed by Archbishop Spyridon to replace former President Rev. Prof. Alkiviadis Calivas fired due to his refusal to participate in a cover up of priestly sexual molestation), has contacted at least two national organizations scheduled to rent HC/HC meeting facilities, saying that they must "disinvite" Dr. Karras or their ability to use campus facilities for their conferences would be re-evaluated. The Holy Cross administration has let it be known around the campus Dr. Karras is banned from even setting foot on the campus grounds.

Aside from Archbishop Spyridon's many arbitrary actions during his year on the throne, of which the seminary fiasco is only the most glaring example, Spyridon has also threatened, intimidated, and humiliated outspoken clergy and laity across the country in a partially successful campaign to muzzle the dissent. But despite Spyridon’s best efforts, the faithful found a powerful way to deliver their evaluation of Spyridon’s performance to Bartholomew.

They sent Bartholomew that message during a liturgy he celebrated at Madison Square Garden in New York City on Sunday, October 26. An estimated 20,000 people attended.

In his address during the liturgy, Bartholomew acknowledged Spyridon, whom he dubbed “your Archbishop for a new millennium.” The crowd reacted with brief, scattered, polite applause.

Later, when Bartholomew acknowledged the retired Iakovos, who was present at the altar, the crowd reacted with deafening and almost uncontrollable applause, which lasted at least 5 minutes. The crowd's reaction was widely interpreted as a vote of no confidence in Spyridon.

Iakovos was jubilant as he stopped to warmly hug and kiss people as he left the liturgy. Spyridon, in contrast, walked straight to his car, and was characterized by one observer as “cold as ice.”

Coupled with the resounding vote of no confidence, Spyridon’s own behavior at the liturgy fueled much speculation about his future. In contrast to the other active hierarchs at the liturgy, who were fully vested and participated in the celebration at the altar, Spyridon remained unvested in his black robe (rasa), and remained at the bishop’s throne throughout the service.

Now that Bartholomew has so clearly received the twin American messages in favor of Orthodox unity and against Spyridon as Archbishop, the focus is shifting from Spyridon, who appears to have lost people's confidence, to Bartholomew. But many informed observers do not expect Bartholomew to pay more than lip service to Orthodox unity during this trip, and so far he has shown no signs of taking any action as to Spyridon.

One knowledgeable layperson who declined to be identified attended both the St. Vladimir’s convocation and the Madison Square Garden liturgy. He expressed his disappointment with the apparent contradiction between Bartholomew’s words on Saturday and his actions on Sunday.

“What struck me as quite obvious was that the Patriarch speaking at St. Vladimir’s was addressing mostly non-Greeks, and he gave a positive address 100% in English. But at the liturgy there was no English gospel, no creed in English, and his major address was in Greek; he switched to English only to address the children,” he complained.

“His big assumption is that the adults spoke, understood, or desired Greek. As much as you want to believe otherwise, his view of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese is still an ethnic Church,” he continued.

“He is still missing the mark within the Greek Archdiocese,” he said. “He just doesn’t realize that everybody speaks English here.”

Other clergy and laity also expressed skepticism that Bartholomew would act on the messages he received this weekend. They pointed out that Americans have heard talk of Orthodox unity from Bartholomew before, through his representative Spyridon in 1994, but that his actions have been to the contrary.

In fact, Spyridon has derailed SCOBA itself since his enthronement. Although the other members have offered to elect Spyridon as president of SCOBA, Spyridon has refused to stand for election, claiming his right to the presidency without election by extension of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s “first among equals” status among Orthodox prelates.

Bartholomew is slated to meet with SCOBA during his visit here. If he does not use that opportunity to take steps to resolve the problems facing SCOBA, and to move toward Orthodox unity in America, Metropolitan Philip of the Antiochian Archdiocese, as Vice President of SCOBA, will face a true dilemma after Bartholomew leaves.

On the one hand, Orthodox in America feel they are spiritually mature enough to unite. On the other hand, Orthodox of all jurisdictions have a deep and abiding love and respect for the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which has been the guardian of the Orthodox Faith despite being under Turkish domination for over 500 years.

Even some Greek Orthodox in America are pondering the possibility of declaring independence from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, an idea that would have been unheard of during the last Patriarchal visit of Demetrios, Bartholomew's predecessor, in 1990.

The growing impatience for a united Orthodox Church in America also poses a dilemma for Bartholomew, whose primary efforts currently seem directed toward enhancing the stature of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Patriarch Ignatius of Antioch, who is Metropolitan Philip’s superior, has already been quoted in the Romanian press as making remarks highly critical of Bartholomew’s strategy, which some see as a campaign to establish an “Eastern Papacy.”

But regardless of the byzantine machinations in this worldwide crisis in Orthodox governance, the Orthodox Christian Faith itself will doubtless emerge from it unshaken and strengthened, as it always has from the many crises in governance during its 2000 year history.

[ Voithia | | October 29, 1997 ]