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Crisis In The Cathedral


"I can't say we weren't hopeful," says Helen Hadjiyannakis Bender, a Fordham Law School professor and former archdiocesan treasurer. "He did seem spiritual and humble and frugal."

Spyridon is not, however, a squishy, folksingers-at-the-altar baby-boomer cleric. Most of his experience has been in Italy, Greece, and Turkey, with their rigid hierarchies. He's spoken out harshly about the so-called Protestantization of the American church, meaning its tendency to let congregants run their churches.

The prospect of a stringently Orthodox church (Orthos dóxa, in classical Greek, means something like "correct belief"), in the old-world sense Spyridon is said to advocate, doesn't sit well with many American worshippers. The on-and-off movement to change the service entirely into English -- at the cathedral, the liturgy is part Greek, part English -- would be squelched. Requiring non-Orthodox spouses to convert would risk driving younger people away, since about 90 percent of Greek-Americans marry outside the faith.

Taken to extremes, the drive to strict, fundamentalist orthodoxy could, some Americans worry, mean reinventing the church as a Christian equivalent of the Hasidim, alienating casual worshippers and cultural Greeks. In fact, Father Mark Arey, Spyridon's communications director, implies as much: "Separatism isn't necessarily a bad thing. You know, sometimes those little old ladies in the back of the church have far more faith than a lot of people with wealth and power."

Since his enthronement, Spyridon has held a hard line on theological issues. While Orthodox priests may marry before they're ordained, only celibate priests may hold higher offices, and Spyridon has chosen celibate priests over married ones for almost all his administrative appointments, presumably espousing the view that they are more committed to their calling. He also (just briefly) contemplated requiring priests to wear the traditional long beards and tall black hats one sees in Greece.

In America, the celibacy rule limits the talent pool sharply. "We graduated about 30 men a year," says Tom Lelon, a former president of Holy Cross, the Orthodox seminary in Massachusetts. "Probably about 25 of those would be ordained as priests. Out of that number, there would be maybe three." And, Lelon adds, many parishioners have an easier time talking with noncelibate priests. "A priest with a wife and children sometimes has a greater understanding of the problems of a family."

More than a few churchgoers seem to think Spyridon is out of touch as well as out of step. After the recent Christmas Eve service at the cathedral, for example, parishioners commented on the unusual length of the service, and the fact that the bishop's chair, which is traditionally positioned at the side of Greek Orthodox churches, had been parked front and center -- facing the altar. One wonders what impelled the archbishop, amid a storm of protest about what is perceived to be imperious behavior, to conduct a major holiday service with his back to the congregation.

Within months of Spyridon's enthronement in 1996, the Phanar gave each American bishop an additional title, metropolitan of a diocese in Asia Minor. (A metropolitan ranks above bishop but below archbishop.) Bishop Maximos of Pittsburgh, for instance, became the metropolitan of Ainos, a section of Thrace that hasn't had an Orthodox community for nearly a century. The bishops' new titles don't carry real responsibilities, but they make them report not to Spyridon but to the Phanar. Spyridon also removed the bishops from the executive committee of the archdiocesan council, the church's main lay-and-clergy governing body -- and one whose remaining executives are named solely by Spyridon.

"How can you exclude the members of the highest administrative body from administering the archdiocese?" says Metropolitan Maximos, one of the displaced officials. "Spyridon did it to get back at us -- just revenge against the bishops. He felt that the bishops, being on the executive committee, had the power to say no to the archbishop. He confided to us, 'I'll fix you. You don't want to work with me, I won't work with you.' It's exactly in the archbishop's character. He doesn't care about fairness. He just wants his way."

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