Striking the Hands That Bring Us God’s Grace
by An Antiochian Priest
While the supporters of the February 24, 2009 decision of the Holy Synod of Antioch seem to be few and far between, I think it is important to address their concerns, so that we all may work to build up Christ’s Holy Church here in North America.
The most common justification I have heard is based on the premise that actions of the diocesan bishops threatened the unity of the Archdiocese, e.g. some of the diocesan bishops issued their own liturgical directives, some diocesan bishops refused to follow the edicts of the Metropolitan, and clergy in various dioceses were required to deal directly with their diocesan bishops, rather than directly with the Metropolitan as they had done in former days, etc.
Metropolitan Philip has dismissed this explanation publicly, telling the clergy of the Diocese of Wichita and MidAmerica, in response to their 8th question: “The February 24thdecision was not a result of any wrongdoing by any bishop.” (Read that letter in full here.) He reiterated this statement in response to their 9th question when he emphasized: “Our bishops did not do anything that precipitated this decision.” Anyone who offers this explanation for the February 24 decision accuses the Metropolitan of lying to the DOWAMA priests and implicitly defames the diocesan bishops, who have been publicly cleared of any charge of wrongdoing by the Metropolitan, himself. Regardless of what we think of the decision itself, we should all scrupulously avoid creating scandal with such false accusations.
Others have attempted to explain the decision on the ground that the title of “diocesan bishop” given to our bishops did not imply the creation of separate ecclesiastical territories (i.e. “dioceses”) inside the one Antiochian Archdiocese.
This explanation has been countered by the Archdiocese and the Holy Synod, themselves, when they agreed to portions of their joint resolution drafted in Geneva by its representatives and those of the Archdiocese, namely:
“The present auxiliary bishops of the Archdiocese, Bishop ANTOUN, Bishop JOSEPH, Bishop BASIL, and Bishop DEMETRI shall become the first diocesan bishops of four of the existing regions of the Autonomous Archdiocese, upon the adoption of this Resolution, and their titles shall be amended accordingly. They will constitute, together with the Metropolitan, the members of the Local Synod of the Autonomous Archdiocese, which will be its governing authority. The local synod shall determine the number of dioceses and their boundaries.”
(See the full text of that joint resolution here)
In other words, the Archdiocese representatives (including Father Joseph Antypas, infamous for his celebratory letters with respect to the February 24 decision) negotiated and agreed with the Holy Synod that:
(1) separate dioceses would be created,
(2) individual bishops would become the episcopal rulers of these dioceses, and
(3) these diocesan bishops “together with the Metropolitan” would form a Local Synod to be the governing authority of the Archdiocese.
If the intent of creating dioceses was something other than to form an ecclesiastical territory, then why did the Patriarchate and Archdiocese agree that separate dioceses would be created and that bishops would be consecrated and enthroned for these dioceses and not as mere instrumentalities of the Metropolitan? If the Metropolitan was intended by the Archdiocese and Holy Synod to constitute an autocrat within the Archdiocese, why did they insist that the governing authority was the diocesan bishops together with the Metropolitan, rather than the “Metropolitan alone” or the “Metropolitan with the advice of the diocesan bishops?” Why were the auxiliary bishops (other than Bishop Antoun) enthroned in cathedrals in these dioceses and their titles changed accordingly? Why were new bishops consecrated and enthroned for real dioceses in North America which were named in the prayers of their consecrations?
The Archdiocese and the Holy Synod, with Metropolitan Philip’s full and public support, answered this question resoundingly in the resolution passed in Geneva : the Holy Synod intended to effect a substantial change in ecclesiastical form and governance within the Antiochian Church in North America . To claim otherwise is to call Metropolitan Philip, the Holy Synod, and the representatives of our Archdiocese in Geneva liars and frauds. God grant that we we avoid this sin, as well.
Yet another tenuous explanation of the February 24 decision is based on a supposition that the unity of our Archdiocese derives from the unity of the clergy and laity under a single bishop.
The Holy Synod’s own existence deflates this explanation quickly. We Orthodox do not find our national or international unity in being under “one bishop,” as do the Roman Catholics. Rather, our unity has always been in multiple bishops, and by extension, the clergy and laity under the authority and leadership of those multiple bishops, being in communion with one another.
In this, our beloved Patriarchate sets the example: it is united because all of its bishops are in communion with each other and the Patriarch, who is the bishop of the archdiocese of the historic Antioch and a member of the Holy Synod. Although he is the head of the Holy Synod and entitled to deference as the result of his succession to the Apostolic See of Antioch, he is, nonetheless, not the “ruling bishop” of any other dioceses within the Patriarchate. His Beatitude reminded us of this during his visit to North America just last year:
“In Orthodoxy, there is no papalism, and we Antiochians are there to remind the Orthodox world of this . . . . The Church begins with the hierarchy, as St Ignatius said: Where the bishop is there is the Church. However, bishops cannot act in superiority since they are made by other bishops. No bishop makes himself a bishop, but through and by a Holy Synod. This is a guarantee of unity, and is a reminder that the Synod is the highest authority.”
Read his full speech here.)
If our own Archdiocese is somehow divided because its canonical diocesan structure is based on solid Orthodox ecclesiology, how much more so would be our Patriarchate? If we explain the February 24 decision on this basis, we make a mockery of the words of our Father in Christ Patriarch IGNATIUS IV, to whom we owe all canonical obedience, and denigrate the ecclesiology of our Church which he obviously holds so dear.
The final explanation I have heard offered for the February 24 decision is based on the assertion that the Holy Canons provide for one ruling bishop as the head of the church and that such a bishop can assign titular (auxiliary) bishops to administer the Archdiocese on his behalf if the task proves too large for him.
Unfortunately, this explanation is based on an assertion and not on the Holy Canons, themselves. Orthodox canon law does not provide for any such thing as an “auxiliary bishop”. Metropolitan John Zizioulas, himself a titular bishop, rails against the practice of consecrating auxiliary bishops as offensive and uncanonical. Every reputable canonist recognizes that auxiliary bishops are “irregular” and should not, as a matter of Orthodox theology, ecclesiology, and canon law, exist. The practice of using titular bishops to administer a large diocese for a single “real” bishop is a canonically abnormal practice. (For those of you able to read Arabic, you will find an excellent article in this regard by Metropolitan GEORGE (Khodre), a member of the Holy Synod of Antioch, in the October 2003 archives of An-nahar. (Access their archives here). In this article, he repudiates, on canonical grounds, the practice of consecrating auxiliary bishops and lauds the grant of self-rule by the Holy Synod to North America precisely for its excellent progress toward eliminating this uncanonical practice. Thus, the assertion on which this explanation is based is patently false and inconsistent with the Holy Canons, and any claim to the contrary would be a slap in the face to Orthodox Tradition and ecclesiology, as well as personally to members of the Holy Synod.
I appreciate people offering such explanations in their attempts to give substance to the February 24 decision, rather than simply basing them upon Metropolitan Philip’s personality or past achievements. But, try as they might, they have been unable to come up with any other explanations that even appear to “hold water.” I pray that the upcoming meeting of the Holy Synod of Antioch in late May truly “normalizes” our situation here in North America by emphasizing authentic Orthodox ecclesiology and normal conciliar practices.