Amid Concerns For Midwest Bishop’s Involuntary Transfer, Antiochian Local Synod, Trustees Begin Meeting
The regular Autumn meetings of the Antiochian Archdiocesan Synod of Bishops and the Antiochian Archdiocesan Board of Trustees are being held this weekend in Jacksonville, Florida. The Synod meets Friday morning, October 22, while the Board of Trustees begins their first session in the evening. The Trustees will then continue their meeting the morning of Saturday, October 23rd.
The Burning Question
The major question facing the Synod is whether Bishop Mark of Toledo is to be involuntarily removed from his diocese; and if so, by whom? Metropolitan Philip alone, or by decision of the Synod? In a recent radio interview the Primate of the Antiochian Archdiocese hedged on his long-rumored desired to move the troublesome prelate from his See when he was asked: “Are you expecting any bishops to be transferred in the near future?” +Philip stated: “Maybe. For the well-being of the archdiocese....If I transfer a bishop from one diocese to another, I will do that not out of vindictiveness, God forbid. I will transfer him for the well-being of this archdiocese.” (Read that interview here.) The Metropolitan then went onto complain against Bishop Mark, citing low diocesan turnout at Parish Life Gatherings, his lack of “inspiration”, and the Toledo Bishop’s attempts to require financial transparency throughout his Diocese, despite the express opposition of the Metropolitan. At the heart of the controversy however, is the continuing two year debate as to whether the bishops of the Archdiocese are Diocesan Bishops as +Mark holds, Auxiliary Bishops as +Philip contends, or something in-between, as would seem the Synod of Antioch suggested in its recent decision that clarified little. (Read that decision here.)
The Parish Reports
Given +Philip’s public criticisms Bishop Mark requested that each of his 49 parishes submit a report on the state of their parish life for the Jacksonville meeting. In his letter requesting the reports, Bishop Mark asked them to answer two specific questions head-on:
“1. How the current economy has affected stewardship, fundraisers and participation in Diocesan, Archdiocesan events and workshops at the Antiochian Village or retreats as appropriate.
2. Given the recent decision of the Holy Synod that a bishop may be transferred as “necessary,” “in consultation with the local synod,” if it is “for the good of the Archdiocese,” how would such a transfer affect your community --- spiritually, financially, numerically as well as its evangelistic outreach?”
Thirty parishes responded. As a result of comments in 29 out of the 30 reports, Bishop Mark blamed low attendance at Archdiocesan functions on a poor economy. The Bishop summarized: “ ....81.6% of our parishes of the Diocese are in states with at least a 10% unemployment rate. I have no way to assess how many faithful are underemployed as well -- all of which affect our Faithful’s ability to participate in Diocesan and Archdiocesan events.” The Bishop then offered a specific, poignant example: “.... this past weekend, St Nicholas in Grand Rapids, MI planned to have a Ten Anniversary in the new building. Unfortunately, the banquet was cancelled. Young families with children who perhaps already tithe simply cannot afford the cost of tickets and babysitters as well.”
If 29 of the 30 Midwest parishes reported effects from dismal local economies in the heartland, they were somewhat less forthcoming about the effects transferring the Bishop would have on their parishes. Nineteen of the 30 expressed positive sentiments about Bishop Mark, and warned that transferring him would have ill effects on parish, diocesan and Archdiocesan participation. 10 parish reports declined comment on the topic. One, not surprisingly from Troy MI, openly criticized Bishop Mark.
A Glimpse into the Midwest Diocese
The reports make fascinating reading into the state of the Orthodox parish life in America today, and the Antiochian Midwest Diocese in particular. Specifically, the reports detail what the diocese’s recent troubled past with the disgraced Bishop Demetri, its present under his replacement, Bishop Mark, as well as what the last two years of episcopal turmoil in Englewood and Damascus, have wrought on the local level.
In his cover letter to the Synod, +Mark openly speaks of the situation into which he was placed when he arrived in Toledo in December 2004: “...the Diocese was polarized over issues concerning His Grace Bishop Demetri. Some of those who worked closely with His Grace simply refused to cooperate from the beginning. Over the past five and half years the polarization resurfaced each time the issue of re-instatement was broached. The Diocese was wounded and it takes time to heal....” As for the ongoing turmoil the Bishop concludes: “Reports from clergy so far indicate the controversy over the past two years have demoralized their people and most especially their parish councils.”
The Parish reports evidence the Bishop’s conclusions, especially as it relates to evangelization and church finance. One priest in Illinois laments:
“Nationally, the lack of charity demonstrated by some at last year’ s national convention was a disappointment to many. The apparent uselessness of participation in these conventions
was noted as particularly discouraging. The unwillingness to move forward with an independent
audit has seen a response of some to designate their gifts to the parish as “Not for Archdiocese
Use”. (You will see this reflected in the attached financial statement) This extended even to the „Food ForHungry” program since the discrepancy between program and Archdiocese financial reports has
continued for several years our people have directed us to send those funds directly to the
supported charities. Some have also mentioned a reluctance to invest in capital projects, such as a
possible addition and enlargement to our church building, until the Archdiocese policy toward
transparency and accountability is improved. We personally know of two families that withdrew
from the catechetical journey with us because of what they perceived as a failure of the
metropolitan and synod to establish an Orthodox diocesan structure and delegate episcopal
oversight according to what they had understood as Orthodox ecclesiology. We have also heard
of a change of direction by possible new mission groups who have looked elsewhere because of
the image of heavy handedness that has been perceived. Though our faith remains unchanged the
shifting ground concerning the nature of episcopal oversight has had an effect in our outreach
A priest in Ohio offered a specific example:
“.....I had an inquirer who left this past summer. Her departing letter to me included a sarcastic closing comment to say “hi/bye” to His Eminence Metropolitan PHILIP because “from what [she had] read he seems like a ?NICE MAN?!” I understood it that she had read much of the very public debate concerning the status of our bishops and had formed an exceptionally negative opinion of His Eminence. Moving any hierarch within our Archdiocese will only perpetuate further controversy—all of which will be aired and critiqued very publicly on the Internet to be read by potential inquirers who do research before they commit to a new church. Such inquirers in my area will be led to look elsewhere, and this directly affects the morale of the parishioners in our small, struggling mission.”
While a priest in Indiana mused:
“We are also going through a great deal of stress over the possibility of losing our bishop. Following your visits over the past three years, I have heard comments from parishioners like, “Bishop MARK has helped us come together in a way we never had before.” Through your kindness and God’s grace, the parishioners here have begun to trust again after losing Bishop Demetri in the past. Now many wonder why you, who have done nothing but unite and encourage us, are being considered for transfer. I have heard it described as “Dad being replaced.” Our people patently do not want a new dad, and it’s hard to tell kids to remain silent and submissive when Dad is being sent away against his will and against their will. Are your detractors in Detroit being publicly rewarded for their insubordination?”
A priest in Michigan summed up with these words:
“His Grace’s humility, kindness and gentle care has provided a godly example and encouragement to those who, since becoming Orthodox, still suffer the loss of close ties with family members and former friends. Despite my several explanations, suggestions that His Grace may be transferred to another diocese have had a demoralizing effect on the parish council, have caused bewilderment within the parish as a whole, and have abetted an ambivalent attitude toward the Archdiocese. “
Others simply express their parishioners are largely unconcerned, or simply confused, as does this priest from Kentucky:
" In regards to the question regarding Bishops, the effect that this has on parishioners
varies from little to confused. As you are aware, some people are only cognizant of
their immediate surroundings, ie their local parish. Others, especially those that
have done some reading, are confused. They have learned that the episcopacy is
patterned after the Holy Trinity and is thus conciliar in character. At times it seems
as if our local Synod has been conciliar and at times not. This is a question that has
been brought up to me and I am not able to answer. Another question regards our
dioceses. Without Diocesan Bishops, do we have Dioceses?...... Clarification on confusing issues would be helpful to our parishioners.”
Or this priest from a Chicago suburb:
“ As far as the controversy over the past few years goes, I’ve done my best not to discuss with parishioners. I would say about 95% of my parishioners are not aware at all of what is going on. I don’t think their participation or knowledge of it would be healthy for them (or for me for that
Another explained how he had “....intentionally tried to protect our people from controversies in the Archdiocese, ....it has pained me to see the difficulties among the bishops, because I have the deepest admiration and love for both His Eminence Metropolitan Philip and His Grace Bishop Mark.” Nevertheless, he concluded, “ I am sure our people would be very upset if Bishop Mark were transferred, since they love him very much.”
Many have tried to explain the turmoil as reflecting cultural differences between ethnic and convert groups in the Archdiocese, especially as relates to Bishop Mark. (+Mark is a convert, who replaced +Demetri, who is one of two native Palestinian bishops in the world.) Thus this comment from a Michigan parish is most revealing:
“Since many of our parishioners are immigrants from Palestine and they “connected” to HIs Grace Bishop
Demetri, they were devastated around the circumstances of his retirement. This caused a major decline in the number of members we had in the Order of St. Ignatius and it eroded the growing support and
participation of parishioners at our diocesan and archdiocesan gatherings. As an example, we had 7
Parish Council members attend a couple of the Parish Council Symposiums at the Antiochian Village.
After His Grace’s retirement, no one wanted to attend again. After the first couple of years of His Grace
Bishop Mark visits, things began to turn. The immigrant and American-born parishioners highly respect
and honor His Grace and enjoy all aspects of his archpastoral visits....”
One of the major sources of tension between Bishop Mark and Metropolitan Philip concerns questions of financial accountability. According to the Metropolitan in his recent radio interview , +Mark “....at one time, he changed the financial law of the diocese which is the financial law of the entire archdiocese without informing me...”. In fact, the Bishop ordered that all his parishes undergo an audit. As the parish reports reveal, it was not an idle concern or arbitrary decision:
On parish in Ohio wrote:
“ Your Grace you are aware of the internal financial crisis that occurred at (parish name) a year ago.
When you made a pastoral visit in April of 2010 we gave you an update of this problem and
this was being corrected. There is still a 40% repayment to be made by our parishioner to our parish. He now is making monthly payments which would be completed in six years. He also turned over to (parish name) his whole Life insurance policy in case he cannot complete his final payments in the future.”
In that same interview the Metropolitan himself made reference to another case in the Diocese, using the occasion to discredit Bishop Mark. As the radio transcript reports:
“Metropolitan Philip: Some embezzlement which happened in his cathedral actually, in the cathedral of this bishop. I don’t know where was the bishop and where was the priest of the church because they should oversee. The priest and the parish council should watch over the finances of the church.”
At the same time he blames Bishop Mark for not “watching” in one cathedral , the Metropolitan supported Mark's second cathedral’s refusal to conduct any kind of audit, when questions of potential financial misconduct were raised by the parish Treasurer. (You can read of events at St. George’s Cathedral in Troy, MI here) According to sources close to Englewood, that Cathedral is currently being investigated by the State of Michigan.
It is highly unlikely that the status quo can be maintained given the personal and administrative tensions between the Primate and his Bishop. +Philip’s recent public comments would seem to confirm a showdown is looming. If Bishop Mark is not transferred, it will mean a diminuation of +Philip’s authority, meaning that one-man rule is passing in favor of a developing Synod. (To seek to overturn a Synodal desire to keep Mark in Toledo by personal fiat would risk +Philip’s having the Synod turn against him, all but guaranteeing episcopal turmoil will last throughout the remainder of his tenure...)
On the other hand, if +Mark is transferred, at the urging of +Philip but with the agreement of the Synod, it will mean that the Bishops of the Archdiocese have finally agreed to their auxiliary status - for a diocesan bishop cannot be moved except by agreement or trial. The question then becomes whether +Mark will comply with any transfer, which is unlikely. Two options are then possible: to face discipline from the Synod of Antioch, which could lead to an appeal to Constantinople, as the court of last instance in disputes involving bishops - or exile, through retirement, resignation or transfer to another jurisdiction.
The Board of Trustees meeting, however, promises to be much less dramatic. It only has to deal with the presentation or non-appearance of the internal audit begun a year ago, and the continuing questions surrounding the lack of an external audit.
- Mark Stokoe