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Crisis In The Cathedral

Even before he demoted Robert Stephanopoulos, popular dean of Manhattan's Holy Trinity Cathedral, Archbishop Spyridon was under ferocious attack from Greek Orthodox clergy and laity across America. Is the new archbishop getting a bum rap from a disgruntled splinter group? Or is he in way over his miter?

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The meeting was noisy and argumentative, as church-basement events tend to be. Still, says Robert Stephanopoulos, "it went better than I expected." Father Stephanopoulos, who is the dean of Holy Trinity Cathedral on East 74th Street, the highest-profile Greek Orthodox church in America -- and yes, he's George's dad -- had been called on this recent Sunday afternoon to address a few hundred very agitated parishioners. A week before, on January 20, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America had told Father Robert, as he is widely called, that he was being relieved of most of his duties.

He'd be kept on at the cathedral, according to the letter he had been handed, but largely as an aide to the new priest, Gabriel Karambis, who is also director of the national ministries for the archdiocese. A statement issued later that week had added that Stephanopoulos would retain the title of dean and take on some extra duties, in a new post involving the church's boroughwide presence at hospitals and schools. (Stephanopoulos wryly calls it "the Manhattan Project.") It was hard to see the move as anything but a severe demotion, however, and Father Robert's supporters had called this meeting to express their anger and demand answers.

Dozens of parishioners had signed a letter to the archbishop of America, Spyridon, calling for him to participate in a sort of parish town meeting at the cathedral. But Spyridon was out of town. When Karambis came to the front of the room, he was nearly shouted down.

"He is still your priest," Karambis said, munching on a piece of antidoron, the bread distributed at the end of each Sunday service. "Nothing has changed."

"Stop chewing!" someone yelled out.

Tough crowd. Except for when Stephanopoulos spoke -- clearly trying to put the best face on his situation while conveying that he wasn't all that thrilled. Parishioners interrupted with applause after nearly every sentence. One woman came alive as he finished: "It's ironic that you, who are most wronged, are being made to endorse this, Father."

Someone asked about Spyridon and his motivation. "It's his church, to do with as he pleases," Father Robert responded, choosing his words carefully.

"It is our church!" a firm voice from the back of the room interjected, to more applause.

The bout with rebellious New Yorkers was just the latest in a series of escalating confrontations in the brief reign of Archbishop Spyridon, the ecclesiastical leader of the American branch of the Greek Orthodox church. Since he was enthroned in 1996, the archbishop, headquartered on East 79th Street in Manhattan, has had a ride bumpy enough to set his black kalimafi askew, if not knock it off his head altogether. Clergy and laity alike have expressed fury over what many describe as his despotic rule. Apparently installed to reel in the American parishes thought to be straying from the church leadership in Constantinople, Spyridon, the first American-born archbishop, has made a series of unpopular theological rulings and even less popular personnel changes. Statements of protest -- one signed by the five top American bishops calling for Spyridon's resignation, another signed by nearly a quarter of the Greek Orthodox priests in America (including Stephanopoulos) -- have been delivered to the church leaders in the old world, only to be rejected.


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