Religion & Ethics - July 10, 1998


Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America

MARY ALICE WILLIAMS: A surprising decision within the largest Christian Orthodox denomination in the U.S. this week. It happened as the new archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in America presided over the group's biannual Clergy-Laity Congress, in Orlando. Kim Lawton was there.

KIM LAWTON: Their beliefs and rituals are ancient, dating, they say, to the first century, and the early Church created by the disciples of Jesus.

Unidentified Man: Now and always and forever.

LAWTON: At this congress, it was clear their challenges are at once ancient and very modern. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America has about two million members, an increasing number of them converts of non-Greek descent. The theme of this congress was "One Faith, One Family, One Future." A message echoed by the Church's primate, Archbishop Spyridon.

Archbishop SPYRIDON (Primate, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America): As vast as our church in America is, diverse as the personal experience of each one of us, as complex as the character of our communities, we are one, united Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

LAWTON: But no one knows better than Archbishop Spyridon just how difficult it can be to achieve unity. According to many in the church, it's been a rocky transition since the archbishop's installation two years ago. His management style and some of his administrative and personnel changes have drawn increasingly sharp criticism, including calls for his resignation.

Dr. JOHN COLLIS (GOAL, Co-Executive Director): This ministry has been a disaster, and he's taken his whole country's Greek Orthodox Church down with him.

LAWTON: John Collis is co-executive director of Greek Orthodox American Leaders, or GOAL, a group of dissident church members. GOAL's efforts have been aided by a Web site, Voithia, the Greek word for help.

DEAN POPPS (GOAL Press Officer): The offering of technology, such as the Web site and the Internet and e-mail, has changed -- fundamentally changed a way a hierarchal church can do business. In prior generations, things were swept under the rug.

LAWTON: At a March conference, 438 GOAL members, including many who'd been active at the national church level, approved a resolution calling for the resignation of Archbishop Spyridon.

Archbishop SPYRIDON: It's a small group of people made up of dissatisfied people that had an important role to play in the past, and today they don't have this role, and it's very natural, it's very understandable that they feel dissatisfied.

LAWTON: There are also allegations of financial mismanagement on many levels in the archdiocese.

Unidentified Man #1: It's not just accountability because that's what the law says.

LAWTON: The archbishop's supporters deny this, and the archbishop himself says he's satisfied with the financial situation.

Archbishop SPYRIDON: I think we can say that we are very satisfied in the sense that the deficit has reached a very low standard, the lowest in the past 20 years.

LAWTON: One of the biggest flashpoints has been Hellenic College, Holy Cross School of Theology outside of Boston, the church's only accredited seminary and undergraduate college. After a series of staff dismissals, two key accrediting agencies last month gave the school a formal warning.

Dr. COLLIS: If we don't toe the line, we're going to lose our accreditation. This is very dangerous -- very embarrassing.

Archbishop SPYRIDON: It's just one of these issues that is being constantly distorted for political reasons. But the accreditation is there, was there, and will be there.

LAWTON: The disputes have turned nasty at times, with both supporters and critics of the archbishop hurling charges and countercharges of lies, smear tactics, and even illegal activities. What's unclear is how far and how deep the dissatisfaction has spread through the 525 local parishes across the country. At the congress, there was much public and private discussion about the ultimate impact of the controversies.

METROPOLITAN METHODIOS (Diocese of Boston): The dissent is serious. There are a lot of people who have voiced opposition to the archbishop. But I think the man ought to be given a chance. You know, this is a transitional period. He succeeded an archbishop that was here for 40 years and was loved and respected.

Dr. COLLIS: I can't believe I'm here telling you that I've challenged the archbishop, but I've been brought up in the church, I know what's right and wrong. There is no doubt that this man is ruining our church.

LAWTON: Other delegates said the debates are actually healthy.

JIM ARMENAKIS (Archdiocesan Council): It's part of our maturation process, and I think for a bit longer, you're going to have some discomforts, but we'll survive them, and I think we'll be stronger for them.

LAWTON: Privately, still others worry the reverberations may be felt for a long time, and may complicate the church's efforts to opening its door and expanding its reach as a Greek Orthodox Church in an American culture.

I'm Kim Lawton, RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, in Orlando.

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  | Episode no. 145 - July 10, 1998 ]