One Calling In Christ - 2005

Response to Walsh
Anton C. Vrame

Reading Walsh's paper and reliving the events in my mind brought back the anxiety and stress those years caused me. I have titled my presentation, "the view from the basement" as a reference to my personal location during the time in question. I labored in the basement, euphemistically called the "lower Level" on the campus directory, at Holy Cross Orthodox Press of Hellenic College and Holy Cross. While having the good fortune to be on vacation during the repeated changes in presidents at Hellenic College — Holy Cross from 1997 to 1999, upon my return I went back to work at the Press and tried to maintain the semblance of normalcy in spite of the tumult and stress. About those days, I still retain a certain level of "survivor guilt."

Reflecting on the topic, I began to wonder. Is it possible yet to speak the truth about the thirty-seven months of Archbishop Spyridon's tenure? Walsh is correct that it is still too soon to assess what happened. Given how pivotal the events were in the life of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, there is still much missing information, whether in response to the sources Walsh relies upon or independently of them, merely as history in the first person. I can only hope that all, or at least many more of the actors will offer their vision of events, what they believed happened, or what they believe they were trying to accomplish.[1]

Walsh's main argument that Archbishop Spyridon entered into the middle of an environment, "where significant tensions were at play" and that his actions triggered a "social movement" may be accurate. I would characterize the "social movement" more as a "mutiny" with the following traits:

The muttering of complaint that become an open mutiny. Over the course of Archdiocesan history, a "class" of successful entrepreneurial laity and clergy had "built" the parishes and the institutions largely on their own efforts, with little if any archdiocesan support or hierarchical involvement. This raises an issue of "ownership." The success of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in America is due to the high degree of investment— emotional, financial, spiritual — on the part of parishioners in their communities. Archbishop Spyridon's actions upset the balance of "ownership."

We are a culture of complaint. Whenever Orthodox Christians gather, they complain about everything. No group is exempt — hierarchy, presbyters, or laity from this tendency. Prior to Archbishop Spyridon the complaining took place in the shadows, in the gossip over drinks and dinners at meetings, conferences, and congresses. This time the complaint was in the open.

But it felt right to do so. Dissent and protest are part and parcel of American culture. They are part of our history, whether the American Revolution itself, the Progressives of the 1920s, or the social tumults of the 1960s. Dissent, protest, and complaint are also very much part of the Greek cultural landscape. No one has to spend too much time in Greece or around Greeks to understand this phenomenon. In the case of the Spyridon tenure, these two features combined. We were fully Greek and fully American.

How church unity really manifests itself. There is, despite the structure of a unified, monolithic archdiocese, the reality of an "archipelago,"[2] with little hierarchical involvement making the unity appear more solid. The network of unity is at the personal level, particularly priest-to-priest, family-to-family. So many clergy in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese trace their past to Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, to Brookline, where lifelong relationships to fellow students and classmates, to faculty and administrations are forged. This reality also made the events occurring on the campus even more significant. Then when Archbishop Spyridon acted against one clergyman, he touched the entire network. Thus like a series of interconnected bridges or dominoes to upset one area, upset all the others. The Archbishop's supposed lament, "you (the clergy) are all koumbaroi and brothers-in-law" was very much at play. That he did not know the relationships made his actions that much more difficult.

This is also where the Internet was so successfully employed by GOAL and Voithia and unsuccessfully employed the Archdiocese and its supporters.[3] Archbishop Spyridon encouraged everyone to get on-line. The Internet and technology became a source of "flash" pronouncements, from the on-line encyclicals to the "blast faxes" that appeared many mornings. The direction of the decrees was definitely from the top down. What no one in the Archdiocese seemed to realize that with the Internet, communication also moved from the bottom up. Perhaps more importantly, it bridged the archipelago instantaneously, moving the message horizontally in an unprecedented fashion.

As I like to call it, "internet ecclesiology," was working. One hierarch seemed to rule; no others seemed to matter. Conciliarity was also skewed, in favor of those who could "shout" on the web, giving them, at least the appearance of speaking for many.[4]

The successful use of the media. GOAL and Voithia clearly won the "hearts and minds" of the average person in the parish. Walsh is correct when he points to the successful use of the hot button issues of "gay archimandrites." It points to the muttering about celibacy and celibates within the Orthodox Church. To that I would add "four fired faculty," who stood up to powers that allegedly wanted to overlook the alleged incident. In 1997, five years before the clergy sexual abuse scandal rocked the Roman Catholic Church, this group now looks prophetic.

A key to the successful use of the media was the archipelago. In every community, the local clergy and laity could reach the local media outlets, religion writers for newspapers mostly, and have the story appear in their paper. This created a "national" story. Recall how Voithia would list the stories appearing in the Chicago Tribune, the Des Moines Register, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and more. Ultimately Time magazine and CNN would notice this story.

Looking back on the events, five years after the resignation of Archbishop Spyridon, we should ask ourselves whether we have learned anything from the experience. I believe that there are lessons to be learned or situations that have been created that the Greek Orthodox Church in America now finds itself.

A culture of mistrust. Following the "breach of faith" created by the events of 1997-1999, we are now living with a clear breach between clergy and laity, hierarchy and clergy, hierarchy and laity. The motives of one are suspect by the others. This underlying mistrust can be seen in many subsequent actions of all three groups. Rebuilding the consensus of hierarch, presbyter, and laity that forms the basis of the unity of the church must become a priority. The challenge and question of course is who will make the move to embrace the other first?

Media is the court of resort. Without an emperor to appeal for adjudication of disputes, and an unwillingness and inability of courts and judges to get involved, the media is where disputants turn. Placing events and opinions under the spotlight of media coverage appears to be able to pressure actors into a particular course of action, including the reversal of previously made decisions.

Church structures are presently inadequate to meet the pressures of the twenty-four hour news cycle and the rapid pace of change in our present day. The slow deliberative process with which we sometimes attribute to a synodal or conciliar approach is unprepared for the instantaneous news bulletin.

The genie of lay involvement is out of the bottle. Despite the seventy or more year attempt to contain lay involvement in the administration of the Church, the laity know more than ever before the potential power they possess to affect the life of the Church. There are now two paths that they can follow. There could be a re-engagement in a constructive dialogue about the direction that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese will take as we hand the tradition forward to a fifth and sixth generation of members. There may also be a dis-engagement of support, personal, financial, and emotional, in the life of the Church.


1 I hope to respond at some point in the future to the claims in Frangoulis' book about the work of the Archdiocese vis-a-vis Holy Cross Orthodox Press and the entire Spiritworks publishing venture. See Justine Frangouli-Argyris, The Lonely Path of Integrity: Archbishop Spyridon of America, 1996-1999 (Athens: Exandas Publishers, 2002), pp. 119, 166-167. But that will have to wait.
2 I recall this image being taught by Fr. Stanley Harakas, now Archbishop Iakovos Professor of Orthodox Theology Emeritus at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, Brookline.
3 Supposedly there was a website friendly to Archbishop Spyridon named aletheia (truth), but I never saw it.
4 See my article, "Caught in the web: Reflections on the coming 'techno-church," translated as "Webissa kiini: arviointia tulevasta 'Tekno-kirkosta.'" In Tarhurit: Suomen Ortodoksisten Opettajain Liiton 50-vuotisjuhlakirja. Faculty of Theology, University of Joensuu, Joensuu, Finland, 2001.

[ ONE CALLING IN CHRIST: The Laity in the Orthodox Church,
   InterOrthodox Press, Berkeley 2005, pp. 75-78 ]