Is there a genuine crisis in the Greek Orthodox Church of America or is a small band of well-financed dissidents stirring up trouble in an otherwise stable archdiocese?

Opinions vary dramatically, but one thing is certain: the chasm is widening between the top leadership of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, which has 1 million U.S. members, and the newly formed dissident coalition Greek Orthodox American Leaders (GOAL). The intensifying conflict became evident at July's biennial clergy-laity congress in Orlando.

The Greek Orthodox Church's internal dispute over the role of their highest leader in America reached a new level in March, as GOAL leaders called for the resignation or reassignment of Archbishop Spyridon if he did not respond to their concerns by May 1 (CT, June 15, 1998, p. 13). So far, no resolution is in sight. GOAL members, many of whom hold prominent church and community positions, lament what they consider Spyridon's autocratic leadership, a "pay-and-obey" mentality, and questionable financial dealings by the archbishop.

GOAL came together after the June 1997 firings of four priests by the archbishop at the Hellenic College/Holy Cross Seminary in Brookline, Massachusetts. Many members believe the firings are related to a sexual harassment cover-up at the seminary.

According to Mark Arey, executive director of communications for the Greek Orthodox Church in America, school officials have promised to work with two accrediting agencies to correct any defects in their current policies.

VOTE INDICATES DIVISION: In an emotional vote at the congress that illustrates the deepening rift within the church, members of the clergy-laity congress voted 260 to 255 to recommend reinstating the four priests who had been dismissed and to develop a task force to study the situation.

Steve Angelides, an Oakland judge and a GOAL founder, believes the outcome is telling. "This vote proves that when the archbishop tried to minimize the discontent to 10 or 15 people, as he said at the beginning of the conference, he was wrong," he says. "It shows that he's divided the church right down the middle."

The congress is composed of clergy and lay representatives for the 500 Greek parishes across the country. Since the gathering, the four priests have written a letter to Spyridon asking to be reinstated. However, the vote is nonbinding and Spyridon has the power to dismiss it. Several priests say the vote represented the first time they had openly taken a stand against the archbishop.

CRISIS OR MISUNDERSTANDING? Arey believes Spyridon has been unfairly portrayed as heavy-handed, and he says the archbishop cares deeply for his flock. Furthermore, he says talk among laity of financial impropriety is irresponsible. "We have the lowest deficit in ten years," Arey says. "We have the most comprehensive audits and financial disclosures ever. There's a disconnect between complaint and reality."

GOAL press officer Dean Popps alleges that Spyridon has been fiscally capricious, citing a $1.4 million home the archbishop tried to purchase—without committee approval—using a nonrefundable check for $139,500 as one example. Arey counters that the archbishop had nowhere else to live, and his chancellor believed the executive committee would approve the transaction.

A subcommittee formed by the Archdiocesan Council Committee headed by San Diego Chargers owner Alexander Spanos reported finding numerous irregularities in financial procedure and accused archdiocesan staff of impeding their investigation. Spyridon is not implicated directly.

Many GOAL leaders believe Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Spyridon place little value in laity views. Angelides says, "They act like the Holy Spirit only comes through the patriarch of Constantinople."

Popps concurs. "We have no beef with the doctrine, worship, or hierarchical structure of the Orthodox Church," he says. "We just want our hierarchs to be good hierarchs."

DIFFERING PHILOSOPHIES: The foundational disagreement may stem from disparate understandings of the role of Orthodoxy in modern American society. The underlying problem to activists such as Popps is that the Greek leadership seems set on stopping the drive for an autocephalous American church.

Popps complains that Spyridon and Bartholomew do not understand Americans. "They only understand tenth-century Constantinople," he says. "The model then was that the patriarch and emperor were hand-in-hand. That model doesn't work in the twenty-first century."

Arey says the growing pains of the American church have led to confusion of long-standing clergy and laity roles. "You can't come in like the one-minute manager and change everything according to your liking and understanding." Arey considers GOAL to be "a very small, narrowly based group that has significant financial resources to run an ad campaign to portray the church as chaotic and mismanaged." Popps says GOAL did spend $125,000 in sending an eight-page newspaper mailing on "the crisis in the church" before the congress to almost 122,000 Greek Orthodox households.

At the conference, Spyridon said he "regrets the recent letters which have been circulated within our community whose sole purpose is to attack and hurt clergy and lay members of the church."

Despite the difficulties, Angelides is hopeful. "We've been religious couch potatoes," he says. "Our parents built these churches and we've done nothing. I am certain the Holy Spirit is using this as part of the transformation process."

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