Questions Concerning the Current Situation in the Archdiocese
by Steve Knowlton, Seattle WA
Lately, the faithful of the Antiochian Orthodox Church have witnessed attempts by Metropolitan Philip to redefine the status of the North American Antiochian bishops. It is beyond the scope of this essay to fully document those attempts. More recently, Fr. George Aquaro has written an essay which sincerely attempts to explain the semantic difficulties involved with Arabic ecclesiastical terms, presenting the possibility that perhaps we are all the unfortunate victims of a misunderstanding. (Read that essay here.)
Before accepting Fr. Aquaro's thesis, we should review the events and announcements that surrounded the proclamation of Self-Rule. Disregarding the offical Statutes and so on, and what the Holy Synod in Damascus thought they were approving, there can be little question of how the Archdiocese itself published and understood the changes which came with "Self-Rule", for these explanations are still proudly documented on the various Antiochian websites.
For example, on the West Coast/LA diocesan site, in the section related to Bishop Joseph's biography, we can still read the following:
"The growth of the Diocese is indeed characteristic of the Archdiocese. In 2001, His Eminence, Metropolitan PHILIP and the General Assembly of the Antiochian Archdiocese petitioned the Patriarchate of Antioch for “Self-Rule” status. When this degree was awarded, the seven geographic regions became dioceses, each being provided with a ruling diocesan bishop. Naturally, His Grace, Bishop JOSEPH was chosen for the Diocese of Los Angeles and the West. His Grace was enthroned at St. Nicholas Cathedral on Sunday, September 12, 2004, at the hands of His Eminence, Metropolitan PHILIP, who served alongside His Grace, Bishop BASIL (Essey) of the Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America and His Grace, Bishop BENJAMIN (Peterson) of the Orthodox Church in America’s Diocese of San Francisco and the West. More than 1,500 faithful gathered for that glorious day.' [Read whole history at http://www.antiochianladiocese.org/diocese_history.html]
Recall that Bishop Joseph is a native Arabic speaker, educated at Balamand. One could hardly imagine a more impeccable example of a Syrian churchman. Consider his own words on the occasion of his enthronement:
"We have arrived at this holy and historic moment in the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America through the visionary leadership of His Eminence, Metropolitan PHILIP. I am humbled that God has brought me, through our Archbishop, to all of you, to serve as your Diocesan Bishop and represent you in the Local Holy Synod of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.
I have been seated on this throne to proclaim the Gospel and minister to the suffering in this Diocese through the love and mercy of the Holy Spirit. Today’s enthronement is accomplished by the economy of the Holy Spirit. The unction of the Spirit flows down from Christ over my human weakness, and over all the faithful of this newly established diocese. The Spirit dwells here and envelops this diocese with its perfume. We share in this grace, as we are One Body in Christ. Where the Spirit is, there the Diocese of Los Angeles and the West is."
and later in the same speech:
"But it is an immeasurable blessing to work diligently with the grace of the Spirit which the living God has bestowed upon us in this diocese. We were made to be a living diocese without blemish, beautiful, not adorned with gold or pearls but with the Spirit that is more precious than these. We are called today to go about carrying a living temple in which the fragrance of the Holy Spirit pours out in abundance. By doing so, this diocese will be filled with the aroma of life unto life, as you give yourselves up to God, an offering to God for a perfume of a sweet smell of holiness. This glorious incense drives away sinfulness and heals every wound. It brings us together, as one people, a holy nation. The Spirit of God brings unity and concord, things that the world does not comprehend." Read the whole speech at http://www.antiochianladiocese.org/news_090103_2.html]
At the banquet address, +Joseph made similar remarks:
"On this day, we celebrate the memory of one such man who saw the Heavenly Kingdom. He preached the word of God to the unbelievers, tore down the pagan temples and converted many to Jesus Christ. He built a great church. He ordained priests, established communities throughout Asia and taught the masses.
"His Eminence knows of whom I am speaking. This great apostle’s name is Saint Autonomos! I do not think this is any coincidence that we are celebrating the establishment of this diocese, which is the direct result of our new self-ruling status, on St. Autonomos’ feast. This saint is a model for our own work as an Archdiocese, to spread the Good News of the Orthodox Faith to North America. This diocese shall be committed to this work, the work of St. Autonomos, the work commanded by God for us to carry out." [Read whole speech at http://www.antiochianladiocese.org/news_090103_1.html]
Reading the remainder of this sermon, one is impressed, again, by the awesome importance that Bishop Joseph assigned to this day, something truly historic. It is difficult to understand why he would have gotten so excited about his region's elevation from a region to a... region, or his personal elevation from an auxiliary bishop to... an auxiliary bishop. Knowing Bishop Joseph personally, it is not reasonable to chalk this up to mere rhetorical flourishes.
The same sort of language is used in the History of the Diocese of Wichita:
"By a decision of the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate dated October 9, 2003, His Grace became a diocesan bishop and, since his enthronement on December 15, 2004, bears the title of Bishop of Wichita and the Diocese of Mid-America."
Bishop Basil, editor of the Liturgikon, also fluent in Arabic, was also clear about the meaning of his enthronement.
"Now, for reasons known only to Him, He has chosen my unworthiness to bear the title of and responsibility for a newly established Diocese. Some may think that one person – in this case me, Bishop Basil – is the reason for our gathering this evening. But they would be mistaken. That which we celebrate this evening is something much bigger and of greater importance than me or any one person. It is much bigger and of greater importance than this Cathedral or any one holy temple, this City of Wichita or any one town, this State of Kansas or any one state. That which is the cause of our great rejoicing and the reason for this festive celebration is the establishment, by the Will of God, of the Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America – a recognition that the πλ?ρωμα , the fullness, of the Church of Christ lives and breathes right here in America’s Heartland." [You can find the entire speech at http://www.antiochian.org/bishop-basil-enthronement-address
Very similar items can be read for the remaining Diocesan bishops.
In all of these accounts, that is,
- in the minds of the bishops involved,
- the breathless ("truly historic"), reporting in the Word Magazine,
- or in the consciousness of the laity,
one can witness very clearly that something vital was happening to the Archdiocese and each Diocese. Frankly, reading those speeches in their entirety, one wonders in retrospect what words a Bishop Joseph would need to resort to if the Diocese had became a real Diocese in the English sense of that word? What might he say if he had became a real bishop (and not merely an auxiliary with a region)?
The Word magazine gloried in the "Genius" of an Agreement which would allow Antiochian America to be administratively autonomous, but would retain spiritual bonds with the great Church of Antioch (see Word Magazine, Sept 2003, pages 3-4). (Knowing what we know now, one has to wonder if the Agreement itself was really more "ingenious" than "genius", or if the translator added his own "genius"?)
In announcing the upcoming Special Convention ("Pittsburgh"), the Word magazine then outlined the salient features of the Self-Rule:
"On Thursday, October 9, 2003, the Holy Synod of Antioch voted unanimously to grant self-rule status to the Archdiocese of North America. The highlights of the resolution that was adopted by the Holy Synod are:
• The recognition of the Auxiliary Bishops as Diocesan Bishops
• The formation of a Local Holy Synod of Diocesan Bishops under the leadership of the Metropolitan
• The nomination of candidates for Diocesan Bishop by the General Assembly of the Archdiocese
• The election of Diocesan Bishops by the Local Holy Synod of North America, with the participation of a number of Metropolitans named by the Patriarch of Antioch to represent the Holy Synod
• The consecration and enthronement of Diocesan Bishops in North America
•The requirement that the constitutions of the Archdiocese and the Patriarchate be amended to reflect these changes" (Emphasis mine, Word Magazine, April 2004, page 5)
We are now being asked to believe that the bishops have been "auxiliaries" all along, and, yet, "Self-Rule" is the same as before.
We are now being asked to believe that this is all an enormous misunderstanding, based on subtle differences in the Arabic for terms such as "bishop", "diocese," etc. And while it is perhaps true that the Arabic terms for diocese, bishop and such may not cleanly translate into English, can we just gloss over the enormous PR effort to promote"Self-Rule", including the enthronements of "Diocesan Bishops"?
Who is responsible for this "miscommunication"?
Spokesmen for the Archdiocese love to boast of their special gift of cross-cultural and multi-cultural sensitivity; but it scarcely needs to be mentioned that sensitivity to the subtleties of translation is the job of the translator, not the hearer.
Who allowed the enthronements to proceed, with the florid speeches and triumphant announcements of Dioceses, if they were all in error?
Or if all of this activity was consistent with the intentions of Damascus (assuming that the Patriarchate allows enthronements of auxiliaries), one can rightly ask why make such a big deal out of glorifying a region?
Indeed, recalling the material quoted above, can this even be called by such a benign term as "miscommunication"?
If Fr. Aquaro is correct, then it is only reasonable to assume that either Metropolitan Phillip himself was not aware of the distinctions (making him incompetent ), or rather was aware, of them but took advantage of the semantic ambiguities to force through his own unique vision of "Autonomy".
But then one must also ask: how is it that Arabic-speaking senior churchmen, most especially Bishop Joseph and Bishop Basil, but also a number of Archpriests involved in the negotiations, allowed this deception to proceed, and then continue for five years?
And how indeed could officials in the Patriarchate of Antioch be so unaware of what was happening in America to have not noticed these discrepancies until now?
And perhaps the biggest question: what exactly has transpired to cause Metropolitan Philip to want to unwind the previous notion of Self-Rule in such a short time?
Is it possible for the Metropolitan to now claim that although the status of the bishops has changed (or rather "has been normalized") - that all of the other highly publicized elements of the Self Rule (all of which are related to Diocesan bishops, see "Highlights" quoted above) can remain the same?
Rather, it seems obvious that the only elements of Self-Rule that remain might possibly be some sort of initiatives for American Antiochians to nominate their own candidates for the office of auxiliary bishop and Metropolitan. (Although, given the current climate, one must ask whether these are meaningful changes from what was in place prior to 2004?)
And couldn't the Synod of Antioch now "normalize" this too just as easily? Was the right to nominate a new bishop something to cause so much "historic" celebration?
Regardless of the answers, if there are answers. the reality of Self-Rule, as it is now explained, is a far cry from those glorious words used in the multiple enthronement speeches of 2004 to describe it.
Or is it possible that the Metropolitan and Bishops followed Self-Rule as originally presented, but that for the sake of consistency ("normalization"), the Holy Synod is now asking everyone to "un-wind" back to 2003?
Regardless of the explanations, it seems extraordinary that an experienced, mature, Old-World hierarchy would engage in such shoddy and confusing leadership. And in this case, it seems even more odd that Metropolitan Phillip wouldn't offer some resistance to such an attempt.
Ironically, all of the semantic controversies which have dogged the process of Self-Rule from the beginning ("self-rule" vs. "Autonomy"; "bishop" vs. "auxiliary bishop"; "diocese vs. region", etc.), the "bait and switch" aspect of the entire chapter of Self-Rule, the machinations of episcopal politics, etc. only serve to reinforce a point Metropolitan Philip himself made a long time ago. Pointing out the inappropriateness of having a distant synod of Syrian churchmen in Damascus administer the far-flung and diverse North American Archdiocese, Metropolitan Philip noted:
"For the past fifty years, our Archdiocese has championed the cause of Orthodox unity in North America. If you read my book entitled, And He Leads Them, which was published two years ago, you will find a prominent theme which runs through the whole book; this theme is Orthodox unity in North America. If we do not take practical steps to begin this journey to the promised land of Orthodox unity in this hemisphere, we will remain nothing but an insignificant footnote on the margin of history. Where is our spiritual impact on the life of this nation? Where is our impact on the moral life of this nation? Where is our impact on the social life of this nation? Where is our impact on the political life of this nation? I can still ask many, many questions, but unfortunately, the answer is simple: we have no impact whatsoever. Why? Because of our disunity and fragmentation; and we are becoming more and more fragmented because of blind leadership." [Word Magazine, Sept 2003, page 7]
These words are as true today as they were then, especially the presence of so many, many unanswered questions and leadership that seems to be not only blind, but selectively deaf as well.