Archbishop Spyridon, the controversial head of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, emerged triumphant from a long-anticipated meeting in Istanbul in January with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. The meeting had been called in response to widespread demand for Spyridon's removal (CT, Sept. 7, 1998, p. 28).

The archbishop came out of the intense five-hour meeting at Bartholomew's residence with the backing of the highest-ranking member of the patriarchate. The historic encounter included all five American metropolitans, or regional bishops, who had unanimously asked for Spyridon's removal. Bartholomew, who made the appointment in 1996, responded, "Spyridon is the archbishop forever. This is the archbishop until his death."

The metropolitans had delivered a blunt 25-page report on the "Disorderly State of Affairs of the Archdiocese of America" in appealing for the removal. "The Archdiocese is presently suffocating in an atmosphere of fear, suspicion, insecurity, lack of trust, and vindictiveness," the metropolitans wrote. "The majority of the clergy and laity have lost their faith in their ecclesiastic leadership." They also warned Bartholomew of further alienation from the mother church if he failed to remove Spyridon.

In February, Bartholomew reiterated that Spyridon will remain in power, but he said it is up to the U.S. church to resolve its internal problems. Also in February, Spyridon floated the idea of resigning if he cannot quiet critics. However, Spyridon asked his detractors to cease their complaints, and he indicated problems would be worked out.

LAY GROUP DISILLUSIONED: Bartholomew's unequivocal support of Spyridon came as unexpected news for many American Greek Orthodox. "We're baffled," says Dean Popps, communication director of Greek Orthodox American Leaders (GOAL), a party of influential Orthodox dissidents (CT, June 15, 1998, p. 13). "The archbishop has been asked to be removed by so many different people. We thought the patriarch would have some sort of moral reaction to these charges. Instead, the metropolitans were presented with a fait accompli."

Popps predicts a backlash and a groundswell for an independent church. "People want American control," Popps says. "It can't be run by someone in Turkey."

Mark Arey, communications director for the Greek Orthodox Church in New York, believes the controversy is overblown. "This has been an adjustment period for a new leader. People need to give the situation time," Arey says.

GOAL vows to increase pressure on both Spyridon and Bartholomew and plans to begin campaigning for parishes to withhold funds from the archdiocese. In the January issue of The Leader, a GOAL publication, the editors stated, "For the Church as a whole to correct errant ways is neither unprecedented nor beyond our means. … Our next step is a simple one—as long as Spyridon is the Archbishop of America, we must send no more money to the Archdiocese or the Phanar [patriarch's residence]."

The Ascension Cathedral of Oakland, California, is the largest of the three parishes so far that have taken steps to withhold money. The parish had been scheduled to contribute more than $70,000 in 1999 to the archdiocese. However, the withholding has been suspended at the request of Metropolitan Anthony of San Francisco.

"There's talk of withholding funds, yet last year's stewardship was the best in the history of the archdiocese," Arey says. "To politicize stewardship in the church is regrettable. They're trying to equate power with money in the church, which is wrong."

FAMILY FEUD: The conflict has escalated in recent months. Last October, the archdiocese sued GOAL over what it termed illegal use of the archdiocesan mailing list, but it lost a battle to keep the mailing list private. The list may not be used by GOAL for fundraising purposes. The five metropolitans issued an unprecedented letter entitled "No Litigation! No Retaliation! No Violence! Non-resistance!" that admonished Spyridon for the lawsuit. More than 100 priests signed an open letter criticizing the archbishop.

Arey minimizes the much-publicized discourse surrounding the crisis. "The archbishop and metropolitans do have major differences, but they are committed to working them out," Arey says. "This is a family feud; there have been hurt feelings and differences of opinion."

The family feud, Arey contends, "spilled off the kitchen table and into the neighborhood" because of critics' use of the Internet to spread their grievances.

"We're all still brothers and sisters in Christ. There is pain, but there is no divorce at the ecclesial level. In the Orthodox Church, we don't break up."

However, there is fear among some priests that there will be reprisals for signing the letter critical of Spyridon. GOAL points to American leader Robert Stephanopoulos being relieved of his administrative and liturgical responsibilities at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New York soon after Spyridon returned from Istanbul. Many of his responsibilities have shifted to archimandrite Gabriel Karambis, and GOAL believes Stephanopoulos has been singled out for questioning Spyridon.

Arey dismisses the accusations and says that while Stephanopoulos has been relieved of some of his duties, it is to give him more freedom to pursue efforts to develop the Manhattan Project, a new social service ministry. Stephanopoulos, meanwhile, has issued a statement denying GOAL's assertions. Popps counters that "Father Bob doesn't want to make his struggle with the archbishop public."

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.