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In light of the supposed ambiguity of the official June 17th ruling of the Holy Synod of Antioch many people remain confused as to the exact status of our bishops.  Some of Metropolitan Philip’s supporters continue to claim that the Feb 24th decision has been confirmed as a demotion of our bishops to the status of auxiliaries.  Fortunately, the forged June 17th documents have themselves helped to demonstrate how the authentic June 17th ruling very clearly upholds that our bishops are NOT auxiliary bishops.  (And, yes, two of the documents still appearing on the Archdiocesan website are forgeries. Obtaining a signature under false pretences in order to promulgate an unofficial document as official is, by definition, a form of forgery.) 

What is an Auxiliary Bishop?

A major part of the confusion is the understanding that “auxiliary” bishop and “diocesan” bishops are somehow “ranks” of episcopacy.  An auxiliary bishop is not a lower form of bishop.  Rather, an auxiliary bishop has historically been a bishop who has been made bishop of a particular place that typically no longer exists (called a “titular see”), but whose ministry has been to function solely as a helper to a bishop in a different “see” or “bishopric.”  To put this in concrete terms, Bishop Joseph was bishop of Katana, Syria, but he was functioning as an auxiliary to Metropolitan Philip in the Metropolitan’s bishopric.  Likewise, Bishop Basil was Bishop of Enfeh al-Koura in north Lebanon, but was also functioning as an assistant to Metropolitan Philip in what was then solely Metropolitan Philip’s jurisdiction. 

What’s the point?  The point is that the then “limited” powers of Bishop Joseph and Bishop Basil stemmed from the fact that they were working in places that were not under their jurisdiction - not from being a lower “rank” of bishop.  They were bishops OF locations in Syria and Lebanon, but were ministering in North America where Metropolitan Philip was the sole enthroned bishop in the only established bishopric .  This all changed in 2004 when 9 separate dioceses (bishoprics) were established in North America, and Bishops Joseph and Basil were enthroned as Bishop of Los Angeles and the West and Bishop of Wichita and Middle-America, respectively.  The Damascus Constitution made clear that each of our bishops were to become “usquf al-usqufiya”--that is, a bishop of the bishopric--they were to become bishops of the place they were ministering to and to no longer be bishops of remote locations in Syria. 

The February 24th Decision

Confusion was introduced when in a February 24th decision (that was not attended by a quorum of bishops) it was stated that all bishops in the see of Antioch were were “mu`aawinoon” (Article 77), which was subsequently translated in English versions of the text as “auxiliary.”  Interestingly, this Arabic word differs from the term “musaa`idoon” which had been used in the past to refer to the North American bishops as “auxiliaries”. (See again the Damascus Constitution, for example.)

It is true that both “musaa`idoon” and “mu`aawinoon” can rightly be translated as “helper,” “assistant,” “auxiliary” or other synonyms.  But this discrepancy reinforces the fact that there is not an official term for a bishop who is somehow of less authority than another bishop.  It has merely been used to refer to bishops who are assisting in bishoprics that are not their own. 

What was particularly confusing about the February 24th decision, therefore, was that it stated that all bishops were “mu`aawinoon” without explaining how this could be.  A bishop cannot be an auxiliary in his own bishopric.  And none of our bishops were ever reassigned by the Holy Synod to titular sees.  Even Metropolitan Philip inadvertantly admitted this when he stated that the bishops, in his interpretation of February 24th, were now to be called “auxiliary bishop of the diocese of _____________.”  In his desire to demote the Bishops to auxiliaries, Metropolitan Philip overlooked the fact that it makes no sense in Orthodox ecclesiology to have a bishop who is a mere “helper” in his own bishopric. 

Of greater significance in the February 24th decision, therefore, was the fact that it declared the Metropolitan to be the “reference point” (marji`) of all bishops in his archdiocese (Article 76), that all bishops were subject to their “reference point” (Article 77) and that they could do nothing contrary to the will of their “reference point” (Article 78).  It is these articles that seem to indicate that the bishops have been reduced to a lower “status” of bishop.  A bishop who has a separate reference point for his authority and who can do nothing contrary to the will of that reference point is no real bishop at all.  Such a definition might apply accurately to a priest, but certainly not to a bishop sitting within his own bishopric. 

Cries for Clarification

Metropolitan Philip interpreted this decision as “normalizing” all of his bishops as underlings that had to do his bidding -- as “auxiliary” bishops that had no authority of their own.  But this interpretation, for many reasons (including those stated above), did not make sense to the vast majority of Christians in the Antiochian Archdiocese.  Three bishops abstained from signing a document stating they accepted +Philip’s interpretation until they could get clarification from Damascus itself.  Numerous clergy and laity wrote to the Patriarch asking for further instruction. The Chancellors of the Archdiocese then rendered their opinion that the February 24th decision appeared to be illegal and suggested that a misunderstanding had occurred.  Even the Board of Trustees of the Archdiocese decided to wait for clarification before ratifying the February 24th decision as defined by Metropolitan Philip on March 3rd.

This confusion culminated in the bishops of the Antiochian Archdiocese being invited to the Patriarchate to meet with Patriarch Ignatius himself in early June.  The bishops were able to speak openly to him about what was going on in the Archdiocese of North America.  Two weeks later such clarification was indeed issued.

Interpreting The June 17th Decision

The authentic June 17th decision might not have been as clear as it is - had the Metropolitan’s delegation, led by Fr Antony Gabriel, not attempted to get an fraudulent draft approved and then promulgated as the official ruling of the Holy Synod of Antioch.  By itself, the authentic June 17th decision makes three major points:

1) All bishops are bishops with one and the same episcopacy.

2) Bishops assist the Metropolitan in the governance of the Archdiocese.

3) No one but the Holy Synod can establish independent Archdioceses.

What does this mean?  Are the bishops “assistants” or “auxiliaries,” or are they “diocesans”?  Are they subject to the Metropolitan, or aren’t they?  The June 17th decision was broad enough that it could be spun in different ways if it weren’t for the fact that we know what the Holy Synod refused to approve. What it does not say is as important as what it does.

First and foremost, the fraudulent document faxed by Fr Antony Gabriel and posted by the Metropolitan as an official Holy Synod ruling tacked on the phrase “wa at-taa’keed `layhi”  (“and affirmation of it”) to the end of the first sentence, which was then rendered in the English translation of the spurious document as “and affirmation of the Synodal decision of February 24th.” 

What does this show us? 

- That the Metropolitan’s delegation attempted to have the Synod concretely state that it affirmed the February 24th decision; but the Synod would not do so. In its authentic decision, such “ affirmation” language was rejected.  In short, the Synod refused to explicitly confirm its decision (which had not been attended by a sufficient number of Metropolitans in the first place) applied to North America at all.  

Second, as Mark Stokoe has already pointed out, the Synod refused to use the word “musaa`idoon” (“auxiliary”) and instead used the related verb “yusaa`idoon” (“who assist”).  The Synod thus explicitly rejected labelling the bishops as “auxiliaries”. 

So what did the Synod state?  That all the bishops--who, it should be remembered, were never removed from their sees -- share the same episcopate.  They are all bishops with no one being more of a bishop than another.  Furthermore, the Synod reminded that none of these bishops can set up their own Archdioceses.

In short, the authentic June 17th decision restored canonical order in North America as enumerated in Antioch Canon IX:

It behooves the bishops in every province to acknowledge the bishop who presides in the metropolis, and who has to take thought for the whole province; because all men of business come together from every quarter to the metropolis.  Wherefore it is decreed that he have precedence in rank, and that the other bishops do nothing extraordinary without him, (according to the ancient canon which prevailed from [the times of] our Fathers) or such things only as pertain to their own particular parishes and the districts subject to them.  For each bishop has authority over his own parish, both to manage it with the piety which is incumbent on every one, and to make provision for the whole district which is dependent on his city; to ordain presbyters and deacons; and to settle everything with judgment.  But let him undertake nothing further without the bishop of the metropolis; neither the latter without the consent of the others.”

This canon makes two things clear.  A bishop has authority over his own bishopric to “manage it with piety,” to make “provision for it,” “to ordain presbyters and deacons,” and to “settle everything with judgment.”  But he is ultimately not to do anything else extraordinary without the consent of the Metropolitan.  Likewise, the Metropolitan should not do anything without the consent of his synod of bishops. 

The Holy Synod of Antioch’s June 17th decision makes clear that the Metropolitan is not “more of a bishop” than the diocesans, but neither can the diocesans operate as though they governed independent Archdioceses. 

The Holy Synod has spoken.  Is the Metropolitan ready to accept their decision?  Are the diocesans ready to defend it in the name of the Truth - and canonical order?  Let’s all hope and pray both do at the Convention.

Put an end to this madness.

- A Clergyman Who Still Cares About Canon Law


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