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 nations 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
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 didnt
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 committees decision to insist on expelling the student, despite both a
ruling from the dean of the theological school and a directive from one of Spyridons
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 Globes
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
Reasonable journalists could argue that the "Greek crisis" did not deserve
much coverage. After all, there arent that many Greek Orthodox in the United States;
theyre thinly scattered; theyre 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 archbishops 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.
Spyridons pained spokesman, the Rev. Mark Arey, repeatedly articulated the
Archdioceses standard response: that the upheaval was a regrettable but unsurprising
part of the process of succession after the 38-year reign of Spyridons predecessor,
Archbishop Iakovos Coucouzes. Areys 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
Spyridons 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 Spyridons
reassignment. The memo portrayed the patriarchs crying out "Were 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
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 Spyridons 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 Porters 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, Deckers 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 Dealers 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
nations 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 Manhattans Upper East Side, who had signed the
priests letter backing the bishops against Spyridon. It was a measure of the
archbishops astonishing lack of street smarts that he failed to anticipate public
interest in the demotion of the father of President Clintons glamorous former aide,
What ensued, predictably, was an avalanche of Stephanopoulos-driven coverage. On
February 21, the Timess 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
Headlined "Crisis in the Cathedral," Bonanoss 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 didnt 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 churchs 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. "Its the same old questions," his spokesman, Arey, complained to
New York magazine. "Everythings 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
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 Spyridons 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
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
Spyridons critics "used the Internet to energize people across the length and
breath of the church. Thats 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 wont be easy
to finesse. But most lay activists seem optimistic. After all, they point out, democracy
is a Greek thing.