On a clear blue Sunday a week ago today, a 17-year-old boy in Tarpon Springs got the chance to become part of a rich and revered tradition more than a century old.
As thousands watched, young Ilias Skandaliaris jumped into the waters of Spring Bayou with dozens of other eager, hopeful teenage boys. But it was his fingers that closed around the white wooden cross that the archbishop had cast into the water. And what a moment for him.
The feat of finding the cross during St. Nicholas Cathedral's Epiphany celebration is said to bring the boy who grasps it not just a year of blessings, but an experience that will lay across his shoulders the rest of his life. Just the chance to dive is considered an honor.
But at St. Nicholas, it's an honor for boys only. Girls can't participate. Even now, at a moment in time when we tell girls there's virtually nothing they can't do.
As the Tampa Bay Times' Tracey McManus recently reported, St. Nicholas is one of the few — if not the only — Greek Orthodox churches in America that bars girls from the traditional cross dive. With the church so deeply rooted in community and family, this seems confounding.
Around here lots of us who aren't part of the church nonetheless consider the annual Epiphany tradition in Tarpon Springs — the largest of its kind in the Western Hemisphere — something that's our own, woven into the fabric of where we live. Still, you could call me presumptuous for talking about changing a religious tradition that's not even mine.
So how about the voice of someone who has been a lifelong daughter of that church, whose grandfather was a priest there who told her he hoped she would get her chance to reach for the cross one day?
Joanna Theophilopoulos got to be part of another tradition, a lovely one, in which a teenage girl from the choir gets to release a white dove before the dive. Now a student at Fordham University, she wrote a strong essay published by the school last year that said, in part:
The male-only rule is both arbitrary and theologically unjustifiable. As a result, the Greek-Orthodox community in Tarpon Springs has unnecessarily turned a beautiful celebration of God's revealing of himself to the whole of humanity into an exclusionary tradition.
She also asked why anyone would think excluding young women was a good idea when it came to keeping people in the church. It's believed to be the most public and direct challenge by a parishoner to the St. Nicholas' cross diving policy.
A bishop with the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and a Fordham religious academic both told the Times they saw no reason for the exclusion of girls. The priest from St. Nicholas declined to explain the church’s rationale for the girls-only dive, telling the Times it was a matter for the parish family, not the media.
And the dive went on as it had for 112 years before.
There's a clear message — intended or not — in the failure to evolve on this: That even now, there are things women may not do. Boys compete and win and are blessed for it. Girls release doves.
Some other churches that celebrate the Epiphany have opted for a separate dive for young female members in the name of safety. This sounds like a start, and a message of inclusion.
It's tradition, people say. Why would you change it?
No question, there is comfort and strength in tradition, particularly the kind that has survived for more than a century, in knowing tradition goes steadily on as it always has no matter what is raging and changing elsewhere.
But to survive, and to keep people coming back to them, traditions sometimes have to change and adjust with the world around them.
Or that world could one day pass them by.
Contact Sue Carlton at [email protected]