Athens News - July 12, 1999

God abandoning Spyridon?  US archbishop's fate in balance

Church leader may be replaced at Ecumenical Patriarchate meeting today

By George Gilson

BY ALL accounts, the stormy three-year tenure of Archbishop Spyridon of America as the leader of the Ecumenical Patriarchate?s largest and most affluent eparchy is about to come to an end, not with a whimper but a bang.

Spyridon has been summoned to meet with Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomeos and the Holy Synod at the patriarchates headquarters in the Phanar section of Istanbul, Turkey, after weeks of rampant rumours in the Greek and Greek-American press regarding his imminent ouster.

In the last two weeks alone, a series of Orthodox hierarchs has been called to the patriarchate as possible replacements. Last weekend, the Harvard-educated Metropolitan Dimitrios of Vresthena - one of the most distinguished theologians in the Orthodox world - was asked by Vartholomeos to serve as locum tenens but refused. Reputed to have been former Archbishop Iakovos' favoured choice to succeed him, Dimitrios is perhaps the only potential candidate to enjoy the universal respect and acceptance of the American flock.

But it is Archbishop Stylianos of Australia who was called in by Vartholomeos after Dimitrios, who is said to be the man that the patriarchate told the Greek foreign ministry it had chosen to succeed Spyridon.

That news sounded such strong alarm bells in Athens that Foreign Minister George Papandreou called an emergency conference on Friday with ministry general secretary Nikos Gerocostopoulos, Ambassador to Ankara Yiannis Korantis, Consul-General in Istanbul Fotis Xydas and director of the ministry's religious affairs bureau, Ambassador Stylianos Valsamas-Rallis. Xydas was reportedly authorised to convey both the ministry's reservations and its decision to take a hands-off approach to the issue.

Moreover, the Greek-American community has already begun to express deep concern over the choice because of perceptions that Stylianos has divided the communities of Australia and his habit of repeated verbal attacks against Greek diplomatic representatives there.

The issue is more than academic. The Orthodox Church of America is the unifying backbone of the Greek-American community and, arguably, Athens' most powerful ambassador and lobby in the United States.

To his opponents, the sins of Spyridon are many. Since his en masse firing of three professors and a librarian at the archdiocese's Holy Cross school of theology for failing to sweep aside a sexual harassment investigation, he acquired a vigorous, organised opposition seeking his ouster that goes by the name of GOAL (Greek Orthodox American Leaders). They, but also the archdiocese's former financial director Jerry Dimitriou, accuse Spyridon of trying to alter the financial accounting system so as not to require the approval of the archdiocesan council's executive committee for expenditures of over $100,000, but rather of his hand-picked chancellor. That included a $140,000 downpayment on a new house for Spyridon, a deal quickly scuttled by outraged laymen.

It was Spyridon's lawsuit - since dropped - against GOAL (he refused to release to them the membership lists of the archdiocese's parishes) that turned Spyridon's five fellow metropolitan bishops in the US synod openly against him. They all went to Istanbul in January demanding Spyridon's reassignment (in his presence), armed with a 25-page litany of charges against him. They accused him of ignoring their canonical authority in decision-making, promoting a "fundamentalist" attitude towards Orthodoxy, dividing the flock into preferred, Greek culture-oriented faithful and others, disrespect towards his priests and, more generally, of an authoritarian and arrogant leadership style. "Is he able to cure his paranoia and insecurity, seeing enemies where none but friends exist?... Is he able to cure his vindictiveness and aggressiveness and replace them with compassion for the weaknesses of others and with Christian love? Our unshakeable opinion and conviction is that no possibility exists for Spyridon to change," read some of the ecclesiastically unprecedented language.

The report of the five metropolitan bishops reveals that the heart of the revolt in the American Church is a deep conflict between the centralised episcopal system of authority - shared by Spyridon and the Phanar - and much greater lay participation in decision-making, as enshrined in the archdiocese's 1977 charter. The ultimate resolution of that dispute is unlikely to be found in the choice of a single person as leader. What is certain is that it will determine the American Church's future relationship with its Mother Church and whether the jewel in the patriarchate's crown - and Greece's most powerful diaspora community - will remain united or fall into schism.

It may also determine whether, as the poet Cavafy wrote of Mark Antony's end in Alexandria, Spyridon must say farewell to the America he is losing.

[ Athens News - July 12, 1999 ]