Athens News - July 13, 1999

Archbishop Spyridon of America receives one-month extension

Surprise move due to uproar over patriarchate's choice of replacement

ARCHBISHOP Spyridon of America received a one-month lease on life in a surprise decision by the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, Turkey, which on Sunday demanded his resignation.

The extension of Spyridon's tumultuous three-year tenure reportedly came after he requested an opportunity "to leave in a dignified manner." But sources also attributed the move to the uproar created by the patriarchate's choice to succeed him, the controversial Archbishop Stylianos of Australia.

Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomeos and his synod, to whom the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America is directly subordinate, are expected to elect Spyridon's successor at the end of the one-month extension in an effort to put an immediate end to the divisive turmoil in the American Church.

"During the talks it was decided the archbishop will visit the Ecumenical Patriarchate again in August, to continue the dialogue regarding the affairs of the Greek Orthodox Church in America," read a fax mailed from Spyridon's office last night.

While the election of the new archbishop is the exclusive domain of the Holy Synod of the Mother Church of Constantinople, indications that the patriarchate is poised to select Archbishop Stylianos of Australia have raised grave concerns in Athens because of his reputation for having divided the Greek communities of Australia and for harsh verbal attacks against Greek politicians and diplomats there. The Greek interest derives from the fact that along with its purely religious role, the US archdiocese has been the unifying backbone of the Greek-American community, which has served as a forceful lobby for Greek national interests.

A delegation of Greek foreign ministry officials, including Greek Ambassador to Ankara Yiannis Korantis, Consul-General in Istanbul Fotis Xydas and the director of the religious affairs bureau, Stylianos Valsamas-Rallis, expressed Athens' grave reservations over the possible choice of Stylianos - while recognising the patriarchate's absolute authority over the final decision - at a meeting with Vartholomeos on Sunday. Ministry sources believe that the election of Stylianos is not yet a done deal.

With many in the Greek-American community having already expressed concerns that Stylianos is likely to lead a divided church into a definitive schism, three of the five metropolitan bishops serving in the United States - Anthony of San Francisco, Maximos of Pittsburgh and Iakovos of Chicago - are scheduled to discuss their own concerns in a meeting with Vartholomeos today. Sources in the church in America indicated that the US synod - which demanded Spyridon's resignation last January - would welcome the choice of Metropolitan Dimitrios of Vresthena (who turned down Vartholomeos' offer to install him as locum tenens for six months) or, alternatively, of Maximos.

The Council of Hellenes Abroad, with which the archbishop of Australia has also had a stormy relationship, hastened to express its opposition to a Stylianos candidacy.

The 71-year-old-Dimitrios - widely considered one of the most distinguished theologians in the Orthodox world, with a PhD from the Harvard Divinity School where he later served as professor - has spent many years in the US (including a teaching post at the archdiocese's own seminary) and enjoys universal respect and acceptance among the ranks of the American Church. While recognising Dimitrios' accomplishments and stature, the patriarchate reportedly is concerned that the Church of Greece hierarch may be too independent-minded to lead its largest eparchy.

When the then little-known Metropolitan Spyridon of Italy was chosen in 1996 to succeed the charismatic Iakovos, who served for 38 years, he immediately inherited a dedicated core of opponents from the circle of his predecessor, angered at what they believed to be the sustained pressure exerted by the patriarchate to secure the resignation of the octagenarian Iakovos. That opposition mushroomed after a series of administrative decisions by Spyridon - including the collective firing of three professors and a librarian serving at the archdiocese's Holy Cross School of Theology - which for his opponents signalled the archbishop's unwillingness to respect the input of the laity in church decision-making, as provided for in the archdiocesan charter of 1977.

Indeed, many in the Orthodox Church in America are convinced that what lies at the heart of Spyridon's failed archiepiscopacy is a deep-seated dispute over the extent of clerical and lay authority in the running of the church. Though the Ecumenical Patriarchate's choice of a successor may reveal its intentions regarding the resolution of that issue, most believe it is the patriarchate's future stance in administering its American flock (and the authority accorded the laity) that will determine whether the American Church's unity is restored or whether it will simply break apart in a fateful schism.

[ Athens News - July 13, 1999 ]