Religion In The News - Fall 1999

Those Revolting Greeks

by Andrew Walsh

The forced resignation of Greek Orthodox Archbishop Spyridon Papageorgiou on August 19 capped a 25-month ecclesiastical upheaval of a magnitude and bitterness rarely seen in the annals of American religious history.

The obscurity that has cloaked most aspects of Orthodox Christianity in this country began to dissolve on July 11, 1997, when the Chronicle of Higher Education printed a story about the dramatic dismissal of the president and three faculty members of Holy Cross, the nation’s only Greek Orthodox theological seminary, in Brookline, Massachusetts. Archbishop Spyridon, in office for only 10 months as the senior Greek Orthodox bishop in the United States, was evidently cleaning house with a stiff broom and little concern for procedural matters like the approval of trustees or the sanctity of tenure.

As Spyridon and his advisers saw it, the new archbishop was exercising legitimate ecclesiastical authority to reassign a group of recalcitrant priests who were too friendly to Protestantized American ways and too stubborn to work with other faculty who wished to strengthen connections with specifically Greek institutions and traditions.

Those dismissed thought that they were being punished by an archbishop who didn’t understand American ways for refusing to cover up alleged sexual misconduct on campus by an ordained graduate student from Greece. Three of the four had served on a disciplinary committee that demanded the expulsion of the offending priest. Diego Ribadeneira of the Boston Globe reported that week that the dismissals followed within a few days the disciplinary committee’s decision to insist on expelling the student, despite both a ruling from the dean of the theological school and a directive from one of Spyridon’s assistants to drop the matter.

Over the next two years, the dispute swelled into an immense international fracas involving not only Spyridon and the professors but lurid charges of homosexual scandal at the seminary; investigations of academic accreditation agencies; law suits; manifestos; blistering web sites; maneuverings of bishops, priests and lay leaders; the Greek government; and last but far from least the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the ancient and endangered seat of Greek Orthodoxy, which oversees the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and which assigned Spyridon as archbishop.

By the beginning of 1999, the fracas had reached what the Globe’s Ribadeneira called a "level of public discord virtually unheard of in religious denominations." All five of the Greek Orthodox bishops supervising regional dioceses in the United States had called on the Ecumenical Patriarchate to remove Spyridon as leader of the American archdiocese, which claims 1.5 million baptized members. "The archdiocese is presently suffocating in an atmosphere of fear, suspicion, insecurity, lack of trust, and vindictiveness," the bishops complained in an extraordinary report to Patriarch Bartholomew.

Reasonable journalists could argue that the "Greek crisis" did not deserve much coverage. After all, there aren’t that many Greek Orthodox in the United States; they’re thinly scattered; they’re marginal characters in the religious life of the nation; and the dispute seemed to hinge to an extraordinary degree on personality issues and appeals to norms of "Orthodoxy" that are complex to grasp and convey.

Yet the crisis received substantial and often extensive coverage in a wide range of American journalistic outlets. In fact, by 1999, the story, driven increasingly by parish-level opposition to Spyridon, had moved down the journalistic food chain to local newspapers like the Repository of Canton, Ohio, and the Journal News of Westchester County, New York. Charita Goshay of the Repository caught the basic dynamic: "The 54-year-old archbishop’s critics "accuse him of being autocratic, vindictive and out of touch with the needs of the American church," she wrote. "His defenders say the criticism comes from a few disgruntled people with a lot of media savvy."

Similarly, Gary Stern of the Journal News captured one of the elements that persuaded many journalists the story was worth covering -- the strains accompanying the acculturation of an immigrant religion whose hierarchical traditions cause friction in the American context. And indeed Spyridon, to the limited degree that he ever discussed his policies and their motivation with reporters, embraced the posture of a dutiful hierarch calling his flock back to obedience to a tradition with deep roots in the Byzantine past.

Spyridon’s pained spokesman, the Rev. Mark Arey, repeatedly articulated the Archdiocese’s standard response: that the upheaval was a regrettable but unsurprising part of the process of succession after the 38-year reign of Spyridon’s predecessor, Archbishop Iakovos Coucouzes. Arey’s particular nemesis was an organization called Greek Orthodox American Leaders (GOAL), which formed in November of 1997 and appointed itself to run the campaign against Spyridon.

The most eventful, though least covered, period of the controversy was during mid-1998 and early 1999, when Spyridon unilaterally launched a federal court suit attempting to deprive GOAL of a copy of the archdiocesan mailing list, which it was using to pepper the faithful with broadsheet newsletters, denouncing what they considered to be Spyridon’s multiple failings. The bishops signaled their dismay -- first with a letter begging Spyridon and his opponents not to drag the church through the court system, then with their memorandum to Patriarch Bartholomew, demanding Spyridon’s reassignment. The memo portrayed the patriarch’s crying out "We’re losing the church in America!" at one of the many secret meetings in Istanbul called to discuss the American crisis.

Through the winter and spring, Patriarch Bartholomew tried desperately to halt the swelling tide of opposition, summoning Spyridon and all of the American bishops to Istanbul for a January summit meeting with the Patriarchal Synod. There, Bartholomew refused to discuss the bishops’ report and told the bishops that "This man is your archbishop until death."

Meanwhile, the priests of the archdiocese got involved, with one group of about 150 (out of the roughly 700 priests in the nation) publicly backing the bishops and another large group signing a letter defending Spyridon. The threat of imminent division loomed and "contras" talked openly about the inevitability of American autocephaly, the technical term for ecclesiastical independence.

All of this trickled into American newspapers, several of which produced stories on the Istanbul showdown. In general, reporters worked hard to grasp the situation and present it accurately -- not that the combatants, who were happy to sling mud, often complained about inaccurate coverage. I myself became a background source for perhaps two dozen reporters after writing a story on the situation in the Summer 1998 issue of Religion in the News.

A handful of newspaper reporters assigned to the religion beat led the way from beginning to end. Ribadeneira of the Globe, Steve Kloehn of the Chicago Tribune, Ann Rodgers-Melnick of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Larry Stamer of the Los Angeles Times, and Ira Rifkin of the Religion News Service consistently produced interesting, well-reported pieces, and received support from their newspapers to do so. The Tribune even sent Kloehn to Istanbul, where he got the only interview Patriarch Bartholomew granted during the course of the story.

The story barely escaped the realm of print, however. CNN and the PBS weekly news magazine, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, produced several good pieces, but the other network operations never touched it -- presumably because of its Byzantine complexity. Lord knows, there were plenty of good sound bites.

Region mattered. When Spyridon finally resigned, the story went page one in Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Tampa, and St. Petersburg. It went A16 in the New York Times, A28 in the Los Angeles Times, and A27 in the Washington Post. This was, in short, a story that received strong play in cities that are perceived to have large Greek-American and Orthodox populations.

Ecclesiastical organization mattered too. Boston, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Denver are the seats of Greek Orthodox dioceses, as well as nodes of lay organizational strength. Reporters in those cities grew accustomed to the sight of Greeks bearing press releases. Interestingly, Detroit and Atlanta are also the sites of Greek episcopal thrones, but they were vacant through most of Spyridon’s brief tenure and there was strikingly less coverage of the story in Detroit and even Atlanta, where the Cox newspapers typically give religion news lots of ink.

The regional orientation of the coverage also affected the journalistic spin. Virtually the only place reporters found a large number of lay people who supported Spyridon vocally was in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, where Spyridon went to high school and has many relatives. As a result, Lynn Porter’s August 21 story in the Tampa Tribune struck a tone unique in the body of coverage: "The forced resignation Thursday of the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in this country has the local Greek-American community shocked and, in most cases, saddened at his departure."

Spyridon and his staff were clearly aware of the Florida factor -- in June Spyridon granted Twila Decker of the St. Petersburg Times the only substantial interview he gave an English-language journalist on "the crisis in the church." Though a highly professional summary of the controversy, Decker’s 3,000 word article opened with an empathic portrait of Spyridon sitting under a skylight in his Manhattan office: "The light streaming down on the senior Greek spiritual leader shows off the gray in his beard and the deep wrinkles around his round, brown eyes."

By contrast, the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s David Briggs had this from GOAL founder, John S. Collis, in the third paragraph of his resignation story: "I was the first American to get the call from Istanbul this morning, and my first reaction was, ‘Is this a dream?’ I always knew the Lord would take care of us."

If the Spyridon story got serious treatment and significant play in the heartland, it was for months largely ignored in the major media markets, most especially in New York. The New York Times in particular gave the story very little attention, even though New York is the center of the Greek Orthodox Church in America and the home of the nation’s largest concentration of Greek-Americans.

But then Spyridon, emboldened by his apparent victory at the January meeting in Istanbul, returned to New York and demoted the Rev. Robert Stephanopoulos, dean of the archdiocesan cathedral on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, who had signed the priests’ letter backing the bishops against Spyridon. It was a measure of the archbishop’s astonishing lack of street smarts that he failed to anticipate public interest in the demotion of the father of President Clinton’s glamorous former aide, George Stephanopoulos.

What ensued, predictably, was an avalanche of Stephanopoulos-driven coverage. On February 21, the Times’s Nadine Brozan suddenly produced a lengthy, muddled overview of the controversy. Richard Ostling of the Associated Press weighed in later that week with a longer and stronger piece. Christopher Bonanos leaned heavily on the Stephanopoulos factor in a long explanatory article in the March 8 issue of New York magazine.

Headlined "Crisis in the Cathedral," Bonanos’s piece began, appropriately enough, by asking, "Is the new archbishop getting a bum rap from a disgruntled splinter group? Or is he in way over his miter?" Expressing hostility to Spyridon evidently picked up in the course of his interviews, Bonanos went on to wonder whether the archbishop "is a man peculiarly, even astonishingly ill-suited to his job, or simply a misunderstood figure clumsily growing into a difficult role."

All of this washed over an astonished Spyridon, who didn’t see himself as accountable to anyone in the United States, be they clergy, laity, church assembly, or (least of all) the secular American press. As a result, he lost almost all capacity to set the church’s public agenda -- even though he could claim such positive accomplishments as a new ministry to Orthodox and their non-Orthodox spouses, a large investment in Internet communications, and a major improvement in Orthodox publishing ventures. He typically refused to elaborate -- inside or outside the church -- about the motives behind his controversial policy decisions and he spoke less and less with the press. "It’s the same old questions," his spokesman, Arey, complained to New York magazine. "Everything’s about GOAL, GOAL, GOAL."

Meanwhile, a trickle of parishes began to withhold contributions to the central treasury: first small parishes in places like Vermont, but soon major ones like Houston, Cleveland, Oakland, and suburban Boston. Wave after wave of critics and benefactors traveled to Istanbul to voice their dismay and threats.

To make mattes worse, other Orthodox leaders in America began to express their concern publicly. The Very Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky, a senior cleric in the Orthodox Church in America and the first Orthodox president of the National Council of Churches, told Ostling in March that he was concerned that "Greek talk of a break with Constantinople would bring the Greek Orthodox in America to the brink, over the brink, into schism."

Defiant until the end, Spyridon refused to conciliate his critics by backing down on his decision to fire the priest professors at Holy Cross or to reverse any of his other major decisions. He enjoyed continuing support in some quarters -- from recent Greek immigrants, from conservatives unhappy about the perceived liberalism of many American Orthodox leaders, and from many clergy trained to respect the authority of their superiors.

The endgame began in July, when the Greek government weighed in against Spyridon in several well-publicized missions to Istanbul. Over a period of several weeks, several potential successors visited Istanbul and many trial balloons were floated. Hardly had Spyridon resigned than the Holy Synod responded by appointing as his successor Demitrios Traketellis, a 71-year-old bishop of the Orthodox Church of Greece.

A distinguished New Testament scholar, Dimitrios had studied and taught in the United States for more than 20 years and his appointment was greeted with widespread joy, even among Spyridon’s supporters. His first action as archbishop was to reinstate the four professors at Holy Cross and he promised to lead the church collaboratively. It could not be doubted, however, that he faced a significant challenge in bringing peace to a divided church.

Should the American press have lavished as much attention as it did upon the internecine squabbles of this relatively obscure religious group? The answer is yes.

Orthodox Christians, although not numerous, represent a major world religious tradition and one that plays a significant role in the institutional politics of ecumenical Christianity. A dust-up among them matters to many.

The controversy over Spyridon also exemplifies the continuing importance of transnational ties and tensions among a large number of American religious groups. The tension between American cultural identity and traditionalism is still important to the immigrant experience, and is playing itself out in many religious groups today.

Finally, the showdown among the Greek Orthodox reveals the democratizing impact of the Internet on the life of religious institutions here, as well as abroad. Many participated in the events that eventually pulled Spyridon off his throne. But the critical players in the drama were a handful of activists who organized a massive Internet web operation that linked, informed, and eventually inspired the "contras." To their credit, most journalists covering the story mentioned the "Voithia" (Greek for "help") web site, and even listed its URL.

But few examined the phenomenon with any care. On September 15, Don Lattin of the San Francisco Chronicle produced the only story I found that examined the role played by Voithia in any detail. There, Lattin quoted Father Stephanopoulos, who observed that Spyridon’s critics "used the Internet to energize people across the length and breath of the church. That’s so mething new."

While the superheated personality contests of the past two years may be behind the church, many of the substantive tensions are still in play. In particular, the often proclaimed conflict between New World democracy and Old World hierarchy won’t be easy to finesse. But most lay activists seem optimistic. After all, they point out, democracy is a Greek thing.

[ Religion In The News -  -
  - Fall 1999, Vol. 2, No. 3 ]

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