Ecumenical News International
ENI News Service / 22 February 1999
Dissidents threaten schism as Archbishop Spyridon refuses to resign
By Chris Herlinger
New York, 22 February (ENI)--Despite repeated calls for his
resignation, Archbishop Spyridon, leader of the Greek Orthodox
Archdiocese of America, the biggest Orthodox church in the United
States, has no plans to leave his post.
"He is not going to resign," Mark Arey, Archbishop Spyridon's
spokesman, told ENI after Associated Press reported on 15 February
that during a visit to Greece early this month the archbishop had
offered to resign if tensions between him and some US clergy and
laity were not settled.
Arey said the archbishop had been speaking "rhetorically" to reporters
in Athens and that internal pressure within the archdiocese was not the
proper "ecclesiastical process" to handle church disputes.
Arey acknowledged that the controversy over Archbishop Spyridon's
leadership had reached "a critical juncture", but he refused to admit it
was a "crisis". Nor did he believe it would cause a schism, something
that could lead to an independent Greek Orthodox church in the United
States. (The church in the US is under the jurisdiction of the
Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomeos I, based in Phanar, Istanbul.)
"A schism will not occur when a group of lay people don't like the
archbishop," Arey told ENI. A schism could only occur when a bishop
"sets up an altar" in defiance of the archbishop.
"That is not going to happen," Arey said.
But a spokesman for the lay group that has been at the forefront in
criticizing Archbishop Spyridon's leadership called the current
situation "grave" and warned that it could result in an independent church in the
United States. "There is a very serious crisis within the Greek Orthodox
Church," said Dean Popps, a leading member of the dissident group,
Greek Orthodox American Leaders (GOAL). If the current dispute were
not resolved, he told ENI, US Greek Orthodox laity might ask Greek
Orthodox clergy to form a self-governing church.
Popps said Archbishop Spyridon's comment to reporters in Athens, even
if said as an off-hand remark, was a sign of the severity facing the
New York-based archdiocese.
"I think the situation is extremely grave, and he [Archbishop Spyridon]
and others in the archdiocese have been in a state of denial or even
worse," he said. "I take it as an indication that they are finally
admitting the gravity of the problem."
GOAL has long been critical of Archbishop Spyridon's leadership,
alleging that he is out of touch with the reality of multi-cultural
America, in part because he spent much of his career in Europe before being
appointed as archbishop in 1996. The archbishop, aged 54, is originally
from the US state of Ohio.
In his interview with ENI, Popps described Archbishop Spyridon as the
"wrong choice for America" because of what he called the archbishop's
"Byzantine and feudal ways" which were anathema to the American
notion of "collaborative decision-making". GOAL has also made serious
claims alleging widespread mismanagement of church finances.
But Arey said that GOAL's leadership had been singularly unfair to
Archbishop Spyridon, who was acutely aware of the particular realities
of the US but did not want the church to lose touch with its Greek
Arey also said that GOAL had made unwarranted claims about the
archdiocese's finances. The church was in fact on a secure financial
footing. He also accused GOAL's leaders of using the Internet to spread
unfair allegations against the archbishop and his supporters.
While the dispute between GOAL and the archdiocese has been
simmering for some time, resulting last year in a court case over GOAL's
use of an archdiocese membership list - a case which was eventually
dropped - other recent events have magnified the dispute within the 1.5
million-member diocese, whose active membership is believed to be
In January Patriarch Bartholomeos, who appointed Archbishop Spyridon
to succeed the popular Archbishop Iakovos in 1996, turned down a call
by five presiding US bishops, or metropolitans, seeking the dismissal
of the archbishop. The bishops told the patriarch that both laity and
clergy had lost faith in Archbishop Spyridon. The archdiocese was "suffocating
in an atmosphere of fear, suspicion, insecurity, lack of trust and
vindictiveness", they said in a written statement.
In a subsequent interview with the Chicago Tribune, Patriarch
Bartholomeos said that while the bishops needed to cooperate with
Archbishop Spyridon, the archbishop "must cooperate with others too".
But at the same time, the patriarch dismissed the possibility of an
independent US Greek church, saying political democracy could not be
applied within the church. "It is not possible," the patriarch said. "We
are a hierarchical church."
Popps said that this notion was becoming increasingly difficult for the
US Greek faithful to accept, and that he and others wanted to be "Greek,
Orthodox and American at the same time". In order to do that, he said,
the church needed responsive leadership.
"We're looking for 21st-century leadership, and it's not present in
Bartholomeos and it's not present in Spyridon," he said. While debate
between GOAL and other critics of Archbishop Spyridon centered on his
leadership, Popps said, more recent debate had focused on "the system
that created this".
"Self-governance is the issue that may be coming to a head," he said,
adding that what had been a "festering sore" may result in "amputation".
But Popps said resistance to a schism would be strong by Orthodox
leaders in Istanbul, given the financial strength of the US Greek
Arey, meanwhile, downplayed the notion of any schism. He said the
issue facing the church was not whether it should be "Greek" or
"American", but what the identity of a Greek Orthodox Church in the
United States should be in the 21st century.
"The question is: Are we going to work in an ecclesiastical way or a
political way?" Arey said, adding that there was not "an American way"
of running a church. "The strength of America is in allowing churches
to work with ecclesiastical integrity," he said.
ENI has made several requests to interview Archbishop Spyridon but
the requests have thus far not been granted.
[ Ecumenical News International - ENI News Service - 22 February 1999 ]