Archbishop Spyridon, the embattled head of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, resigned yesterday after two years of disputes with the clergy and laity of the country's largest branch of Eastern Orthodox Christianity.
According to church leaders, Spyridon, 54, was ousted by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, who rules over the Greek Orthodox Church in the Western Hemisphere and a few smaller jurisdictions, such as Australia and Hong Kong. Spyridon, who is being reassigned to Turkey, will be succeeded by 71-year-old Metropolitan Demetrios of Vresthena, in northern Greece. Bartholomew will announce Demetrios's appointment as head of the 1.5 million-member American archdiocese tomorrow in Istanbul.
Word of Spyridon's resignation yesterday elicited shouts of joy from Greek Orthodox Christians who had called for his removal, denouncing his "authoritarian" leadership style. "I've never felt better in my life," said John Collis, a Cleveland neurosurgeon and executive director of Greek Orthodox American Leaders (GOAL), a two-year-old opposition group. "I'm so happy for my church when I reflect on the last two years. It's been a nightmare."
Others were disheartened.
"I was shocked and disappointed," said John A. Catsimatidis, chairman of a business conglomerate and president of the Archdiocesan Council, a group of priests and lay leaders who advise the New York-based archbishop. "I felt that Archbishop Spyridon has come a long way in putting things together in America."
Spyridon was elected in 1996 to succeed 85-year-old Archbishop Iakovos, a beloved and influential leader who led the Greek church for 37 years and who, many believe, was forced to resign by Bartholomew. The patriarch divided the archdiocese of the Americas that Iakovos had headed into four divisions: the United States, headed by Spyridon, and Canada, Central America and South America.
Despite the heated emotions over Iakovos's retirement, most Greek Orthodox Americans had been hopeful about the man who would take their church into the next millennium.
Raised in Warren, Ohio, Spyridon was the first American-born Greek Orthodox archbishop, and many believed he would be sympathetic to the ways of American Orthodox Christians: their need for having a voice in administrative decisions, such as how the archdiocese's finances would be handled; the practicality of using English instead of Greek in the Divine Liturgy; of placing pews in churches instead of making worshipers stand, as is the Orthodox tradition; of allowing women to sing in the choir; and of giving them increased responsibilities in parishes.
Instead, Spyridon introduced an authoritarian leadership style more common in Europe, where he had received his theological education and spent much of his career, Collis said.
Collis said he formed GOAL in 1997, after Spyridon fired four faculty members "for no reason" at the church's Hellenic College-Holy Cross School in Brookline, Mass. Other critics said the firings were an attempt to cover up a sex scandal involving a student and a visiting cleric.
It was downhill from then on, said Collis, whose organization started with 39 people and now has "more than 1,000 supporters." GOAL and the Chicago-based Orthodox Christian Laity, another group Spyridon dubbed as "a few dissidents," used the Internet, the mail, personal contacts and other means to gather strength against Spyridon.
In January, the heads of the American church's five dioceses wrote a letter to Bartholomew "that turned the tide," Collis said. In a 15-page epistle, the bishops asked for Spyridon's resignation, saying the American church was in "crisis" and calling Spyridon "paranoid," "insecure" and "unable to forgive."