The New York Times - August 20, 1999

Greek Orthodox Archbishop Resigns in Face of Dissent


The highest-ranking cleric of the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States, Archbishop Spyridon, who has dominion over a flock of 1.5 million, resigned yesterday after more than a year of unrest and dissension in the denomination and growing demands by priests and laity for his ouster.

The Archbishop, who is 54, did not specify a reason for his resignation. His replacement is Metropolitan Demetrios Trakatellis of Greece, 71, a former professor at Harvard Divinity School and at the Holy Cross School of Theology in Brookline, Mass., one of two institutions in the United States that prepare students for the Greek Orthodox priesthood.

The Metropolitan was elected by the Ecumenical Synod presided over by Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, who has responsibility for the church in the Western Hemisphere.

The resignation of the Archbishop, who directed the largest and richest of the various Orthodox Christian churches in this country, is effective Aug. 30. The incoming Archbishop is expected to arrive in the United States in about three weeks, according to the Religion News Service.

Archbishop Spyridon, who was unavailable for comment yesterday, will be temporarily assigned to a post in Turkey, church officials said.

A church spokesman would not comment on whether the Archbishop stepped down voluntarily. The pressure to force him out had been mounting in recent months, culminating in proposals earlier this year that the American church sever ties to the mother church in Greece and declare itself independent.

Critics of the Archbishop said that he had diminished the quality of education at Holy Cross by dismissing some of its most respected professors and administrators, that there were irregularities in the handling of church financial matters, that he ruled in an autocratic manner permitting no dissension and that he failed to recognize that the church was no longer an immigrant institution but one rooted in American practices and philosophy. Some local churches began to withhold their money from the central organization.

Yesterday, even Archbishop Spyridon's most steadfast supporters seemed relieved that the battle was over and the threats of schism quelled.

"I hope this will be healing and peaceful," said one of the Archbishop's closest associates, John A. Catsimatidis, president of the Archdiocesan Council, the church's highest organization of laity. "I know that Demetrios will do everything possible to bring everybody together.

"I believe that he was doing a generally good job," Mr. Catsimatidis said of the Archbishop. "He was trained in Europe and was thrown into the fire in America without being familiar with some of the American ways."

Archbishop Spyridon was born in Ohio but received much of his theological training in Greece and Italy and spent most of his adult life there.

In a letter of resignation issued via the Internet yesterday, the Archbishop said, "There is grace upon grace for my heart is clean of any malice, ill will or judgment of others."

Much of his announcement enumerated his accomplishments, including reaching out to interfaith couples and members of other faiths, speaking up for victims of the war in Serbia and expanding the church's press office.

About his critics -- the most vociferous of whom were members of an organization called Greek Orthodox American Leaders, or GOAL -- he said, "Their attack of words has done far more damage to our Greek Orthodox family than it has to those entrusted with its leadership." But, he added, "I extend my heartfelt archpastoral forgiveness" to them.

The dissatisfaction with Archbishop Spyridon broke into the open in January when the five American Metropolitans, the senior bishops who preside over large dioceses and wield significant power, went to Istanbul and petitioned Patriarch Bartholomew for removal of the Archbishop. They were sent home and told to make peace with him.

One of those Metropolitans, Methodios, who presides over the Boston diocese, which encompasses most of New England, returned from Istanbul yesterday, where he said he had an audience with the Patriarch on unrelated matters.

"I am delighted with the selection of Metropolitan Demetrios, a scholar and deeply spiritual man of prayer," Metropolitan Methodios said. "I had the privilege of being with him in 1984 when I came as a bishop to Boston and he was a professor at Harvard Divinity School and at Holy Cross, and have had many opportunities to work with him since."

Dean G. Popps, a spokesman for GOAL, which may now disband, said: "The long ordeal and period of disorderliness in the affairs of our archdiocese appear to be over. We are prayerful and supportive of the new Archbishop, Demetrios, who will have a monumental task ahead of him."

The Rev. Dr. Robert G. Stephanopoulos, dean of the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, who was stripped of most of his administrative and liturgical responsibility, though not his title, by the Archbishop for signing a letter of criticism, joined the chorus of approval yesterday.

"We are satisfied that every effort was made to help Spyridon in service to the church, but a lot of mistakes were made," said the dean, who is the father of George Stephanopoulos, the former adviser to President Clinton. "It was not a very pleasant experience, but now that it is over, we are hopeful that we have an individual who can bring us all together."

Dean Stephanopoulos, who expects to return to his former position, said, "Now I will have something to do again."

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