For the past 114 years, the Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs, Florida, has been a cooperative effort of the hard working members of the local church of St. Nicholas Cathedral, and also a great deal of assistance from the local city government. Unfortunately the cooperative relationship was dealt a harsh blow this year when the Parish Council and the Epiphany Committee of the St. Nicholas Cathedral (with the guidance, leadership, blessings and support of Fr. Haros and Metropolitan Alexios, the only Hierarch present this year) decided to prohibit laymen (politicians in particular) from standing on the platform that overlooks the bayou where the young men dive for the Cross, thus breaking the long standing practice of clergy and lay leaders being together. Amidst a downward trend of the membership in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (GOA), this is another sad day.
In a dramatic scene, as the Mayor of the City (the host) tried to go up the few steps to go on to the viewing stand (as has been the practice for the past 114 years), in full view of Metropolitan Alexios and Fr Haros, he was physically blocked by a councilman and prohibited. Also prohibited from being present on the viewing stand were U.S. Congressman Gus Bilirakis, the Counsel General of Greece, Mr. Dimitrios Sparos, and others civic leaders.
There were 2 reasons given for prohibiting these laymen from being on the viewing stand – safety and liturgical protocol. Both of these reasons are highly suspect. Because it was cited as a “liturgical event” it was concluded that only clergy should be there. Yet the Holy Water was already blessed in the Church. One is left to wonder how this was indeed liturgically exclusive to clergy only. In previous years when there actually were numerous people, many of the lower ranked clergy and general laity refrained from being on the viewing stand. To state that this prohibition of laymen on the viewing stand was purely a safety decision, vividly appears inaccurate, if not suspect. According to one city official, the Tarpon Springs Police Department and the Tarpon Springs Fire Department have not issued any official statements regarding safety concerns (thereby prohibiting laymen), even though it was suggested in the Church’s bulletin that they did. To add insult to injury, there were at least 3 laymen on the viewing stand, they were not politicians. Politicians and lay leaders appeared to be the target of this exclusion.
The Church’s bulletin suggested that it did not want anyone with “titles” by their name to be grand-standing in order to be seen. However it appears that the clergy themselves gave the appearance of grandstanding. Dozens of priests are not needed for this simple event. After all, this is not a divine liturgy, nor a sacrament, but a simple service wherein only laymen were targeted for exclusion.The question then arises: is this the onset of clericalism in the GOA? Is clericalism a by-product of the fundamentalism that has swept the GOA? Is this the reason attendance is so dreadfully down since the onset of fundamentalism? It appears that clericalism has now reared its divisive head. We will will lose more membership. It is sad.
In one fell swoop, the peace of the community of St. Nicholas Cathedral was stained and will inevitably result in a divided, if not polarized, community. It has already begun. Some support what happened. Some do not. The net result is division. When frivolous and ridiculous positions like this are made, enthusiasm deteriorates and even more people will leave the Church. Pew research has already reported that the GOA national membership is down about 37% over the past 5 years. This will only make matters worse.
It is one thing to verbally proclaim that “we are one”, but if the Church starts alienating people, especially elected officials who are the representatives and the servants of the people, a rift is made in the community and it will only get worse. City Councilmen are not pleased with what happened, neither is anyone else. After all, tax-payer dollars were used. Consideration, one would think, should have been shown by Cathedral.
One would think that this action MUST have had the blessing of the Dean of the Cathedral, Fr. Haros, and also his superior, Metropolitan Alexios. It is foolish to think otherwise. The Church has many examples of communities ripped apart by priests who are subsequently transferred while the community is left to try and pick up the pieces, and hopefully, heal. Epiphany 2018 has revealed the gaping disconnect of our ordained leaders from the laymen entrusted to their spiritual care. It seems to many that this disconnect reveals a self-aggrandizing clerical ego emanating from our executive leaders. This kind of stubborn insistence appears to be born more of insecurity and pride, than matters of safety and protocol.
The question is then naturally raised as to the caliber of the clergy today, and especially the Hierarchs who direct them. By the way, the day started with Divine Liturgy, where the police were called to remove a priest from the Altar, who did not have the Metropolitan’s permission to be there. They also removed his son who is a chanter. While we are not taking a position here on who is right and who is wrong, we can all agree that this day of festivities was tarnished from the beginning.
While Epiphany (aka Theophany) is very much about the revelation of the Holy Trinity, this year revealed just how broken we are, clergy and laity alike.